(Un)Happy Endings?

hulsebus-unhappy-ending-thumb-250x386-33965I’m a bit stumped. I admit it…and so I’m reaching out to any of you in the blogosphere who might want to comment, to get your opinion on this.

Here’s the short version of what caused the controversy that has erupted in my mind:

I had a conversation with a colleague today. She is someone who loves books and is well-read. We were discussing my upcoming Moose Tracks on the Road to Heaven, and I was telling her about how it was a different genre from what I’d written before – Women’s/General Fiction rather than Historical Romance – and that is would therefore be appropriate for most age groups, as it has no explicit content, unlike my historical romances.

Here’s where the turn of the conversation kind of made my mind bend.

She says (and I’m paraphrasing, but it’s pretty close): “Oh, I read your first two books. I like historical fiction, so I liked the history in them.”

I think I see where she’s going here, and so I interject, admitting, “I know the love scenes aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.”

But she shakes her head, adding, “No, I didn’t mind the romance – I can skip over some of those parts if I want.” She looks vaguely uncomfortable. “It’s just…the happy endings! You know, at the end, everyone goes off happy…” She makes a wry face. “I read historical fiction.” (which I’m surmising she added to try to make it clear that historical fiction books DON’T have happy endings and therefore are her preference).

I was floored, I admit it.

I’ve had people tell me they don’t like historical romances because they’re not “historical enough”.

I’ve had people tell me they don’t like historical romances because of the focus on the romantic relationship, which often includes some explicit love scenes between the hero and heroine (who BTW are monogamous, according to the traditions of the genre).

I’ve had people tell me they don’t read “those” kinds of books (which basically means they won’t read romances because of the stigma attached to romance, as books that are somehow less worthy/well-written/complex/”real”…you can supply your own negative adjective).

But this is the first time anyone has ever said to me that they basically objected to/disliked historical romances because they ended happily.

So…what’s your take on happy endings? Please enlighten me, as I really, really want to hear from everyone, regardless of your perspective. Of course I’m a reader before I’m a writer, and I have my own opinions, but I’m interested in hearing about this issue from other readers’ point of view.  So please, chime in! 🙂

16 thoughts on “(Un)Happy Endings?

  1. Sandi Christman says:

    Mary, I love reading historical fiction and historical romances. When I read this post on “happy endings” it brought back to mind a book that upset me more than any other book ever has. It was “The Aztec”, a very long book that I thoroughly enjoyed. I read to where I thought was the end and was happy. I turned the page to the epilogue, read 4 or 5 pages, and threw the book across the room. I sat and cried. It was NOT the ending that I wanted. I guess what I am saying is that I look for happy ever after endings when a book can comfortably wind up that way. Yes, I know that life doesn’t always allow this to happen, but maybe one part of life should make us feel good. We are bombarded with enough bad endings in the real world!

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  2. kris fletcher says:

    That astounds me. But then, I won;t read something that I know has a heartbreaking ending, so I guess this is just the other side of the coin. I know there are folks who say that’s the problem with romance and much genre fiction, that it’s always happy-happy and you KNOW that it will turn out okay, but I’m with Sandi. Life has a lot of joy, but it also has a lot of challenges and sorrow. If I’m going to invest some of my precious unscheduled time in reading, I want to know I’ll come away feeling uplifted and hopeful.

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    • In a mystery you know it’s going to be solved, and in a horror you know the “thing” that is causing the horror will be defeated (at least temporarily) – genres are built upon expectation. Why anyone would strive for unhappiness as being more “real” for an ending to a story, I don’t understand. Yes, those kinds of unhappy situations and endings DO happen in real life – but the happy ones happen as well, so why not highlight them just as much? 🙂

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  3. If romance is a significant component of the story, I always want it to end good. If it is in the background until the end, then gets spotlighted in the last chapter, it doesn’t mean much to me. It’s not a like or dislike, It’s me feeling like the things I cared about all the way through all of a sudden became less important.

    Happy endings in general, I love them as long as the journey to get there was hard earned.

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    • Yes…if it’s too easy it’s not satisfying. The challenge is the balance between overcoming obstacles and having those obstacles be too large to surmount realistically. However, I’ve always been a fan of rather expansive, emotional, and sometimes “splashy” denouements in my romances. I love the grand gesture and the idea of risking all for the sake of a loved one. ❤ Maybe that makes me and my reading tastes corny.

      Of course I like other types of stories/endings as well, and not all genres work with happy endings (my current book isn't the same kind of "happy ending" as my romances, that's for sure) but I do favor a fitting and hopefully positive/uplifting ending to all stories I'm going to invest time in reading.

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  4. I don’t particularly dislike happy endings (says the person who’s still complaining that Harry Potter didn’t die), but I think they need to be really well done for me not to feel like they’re either forced or cheesy. The end of the Harry Potter series for instance I felt was both, but let’s not get me started on that.

    It depends on the tone of the book also. If everything seems beyond hopeless and then all of a sudden good guy and good girl find a way to live happily ever after… I’m calling bs. If the book is setting up a happy ‘good triumphs over evil’ ending and suddenly the good guy gets a sword to the face, I’m going to curse the author and all of their descendants.

    I’m not expecting George R. R. Martin to give me a happily ever after, nor was I surprised that the ‘everybody gets killed’ ending of the Twilight saga was just a vision (although I hated it just the same), is what I’m saying.

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    • LOL about Harry Potter. Yes – sometimes what is fitting is not always what is “happiest” – but works better nonetheless.

      The romance genre, however, is built upon the assurance of it all working out (without one of the two protagonists dying) – the same way that the mystery genre is built on the fact that the mystery will be solved by the end. It’s just part of the genre and a firm expectation among readers. So I imagine those who don’t like happy endings in general don’t like romance.

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      • That’s true. I tend to not read in the romance genre. I like books with romance in the mix, but books categorized as romance tend to be a little too much for my tastes. Not always, but more often than not.

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  5. I agree that genre writing (particularly romance) comes with certain expectations from readers. I think “happy endings” are expected in the romance genre, especially, and therefore should not be surprising or treated with disgust.

    That’s not to say your colleague is necessarily “wrong.” Most of history is filled with tragedy, treachery, and hardship — especially the medieval period. Alleged witches and other feisty women were burned at the stake, relatives poisoned and assassinated one another to further their own power agendas, and chivalry was about war and not romance (http://www.usna.edu/Users/history/abels/hh315/Chivalry.htm).

    There is the question as to why your colleague just didn’t pick up a history book. There are plenty of interesting ones out there (I’d recommend The Secret History of Wonder Woman). Historical romance is something entirely different than the Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela or Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. Your colleague even admitted that she skipped over romance sections, so why read a romance?

    I think what most people struggle with is the idea of the “happy ending” itself. Yes, of course, it is ideal. However, it is not a reality for most people, even in the modern age. The problem is the clash between reality and fiction. However I would argue that because the book IS fictional, the writer has creative licensee to do as he or she pleases. That being said, those who have known tragedy or strife or even the most common of annoyances may be irritated by two people frolicking off hand-in-hand into the sunset. It begs the question, “what about ‘after’ makes it happy?”

    When my parents got married they didn’t have a “happily ever after.” They were in college together, working multiple part-time jobs just so they could afford the cheapest of food to eat. They got sick together. Dad struggled with anger. Mom struggled with anxiety. But they loved each other through it. They loved each other through having kids and raising them — because we weren’t butterflies and rainbows, we were tornado terrors. They got close to giving up, but they didn’t. And through that strife and anguish comes the beautiful side of this: perseverance, endurance, faith, trust, new discoveries, endearing habits, unexpected surprises and blessings, and the fact that love conquers all. But that is just my experience and my parents experience.

    For some people the problem is, can they relate? That, really, is not your responsibility because we all have different experiences. A woman/man who has had nothing but bad experiences with the opposite sex might scoff at the idea of such an ideal romance. Or a person who sees no point in a monogamous commitment might find the relationship between the main characters stifling and entrapping. Others might see the romantic aspects as unrealistic because they cannot find a man that fits these standards (which, admittedly, are usually pretty high). Others might find the romance to be oppressive. Why does a man need to protect a woman? Why does a man need to be the one in control? Why does a woman need to be “tamed?”

    On the flip side of this is the people who enjoy the romance. Maybe the point is it isn’t “real” to most and that is okay. Maybe this happiness is what we long for, and we find satisfaction in the pages of a book. Personally, I think this form of escapism is great for your mental health and can relieve stress. Also, maybe the “happily ever after” is something that is a reality for you and you like seeing that happen to other people — fictional or not. That’s great and those people possess a gem of a relationship that is rare and valuable in any time.

    There is no wrong answer. Really it comes down to expectations. If you expect to read a historical romance where the main characters divorce at the end — well, you’re probably going into the book with the wrong expectations. Try a biography of Henry VIII. If you want something sweet and uplifting, then maybe historical romance is your cup of tea.

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    • Thank you for your wonderful and well-thought out response, L.N. IMHO, your parents story DOES sound like the kind of “happy ending” I often see in romance fiction…a couple who manages to make it work through struggle, darkness, and trial. The idea of it being “pretty” isn’t necessary…in fact I think it’s better to have a “tortured” hero/heroine who struggle and see each other’s flaws and downfalls full-force…and continue love each other anyway. It makes for a much more satisfying and well-earned happy ending, where they choose to sacrifice a great deal of their own personal desires to make the relationship and the connection work. At its heart, romance is about empowerment – female and male. It’s about exalting the best instincts in us to be loyal, persevere, and prevail for something greater than our individual selves.

      I also want to speak to the idea of much of history being filled with treachery, tragedy and hardship. It is most definitely, and every medieval romance I’ve ever read (or written), includes some of that or even centers on that – but the focus shifts by the end to the possibility of overcoming and finding happiness and joy nonetheless (i.e. my debut romance is about a woman who has been beaten and mistreated her entire life, thanks to the precepts of her society…treachery and hardship abounds – but in the end right prevails over darkness – not without loss of life and sadness/pain, but with the hopeful ending the two main characters have earned). Yes, it’s true that tragedy or treachery could lead to nothing more than more of the same…but it didn’t ALWAYS. That’s where historical romance expectations fit; they look at those positive outcomes in times and through lives that could be very dark and painful indeed.

      The specifics of romance you mentioned that many might find unrealistic or off-putting (i.e. a man protecting a woman, a man in control, a woman being tamed etc) – are pretty much old school, IMHO. These *might* be part of a romance today, but by no means are such constructs an expectation any more. If it does occur, it’s usually in historical romance, and then only because the historical context may demand such (at least on the surface; most authors find ways to circumvent the limitations of history’s dismal social constructs). IOW, such clichés may have been true of the romance novels of the 1970’s, but romance today is far more diverse – sometimes so much so that it is criticized for taking too large of a literary license with historical settings/social structures.

      Here’s a case in point: my second historical romance (published in 2002 originally) is set in the 1190s; it features a Welsh female warrior who is believed to be King Arthur “reborn”. In the course of the story, she saves the hero, not the other way around. I based it on historical research of Welsh women warriors from only a bit earlier than the novel’s setting, combining it with the actual historical conflict that took place in 1189 when King Henry II became so frustrated with the constant attacks by Welsh warrior in claiming to have found their “reborn” King Arthur, that he engineered the “discovery” of Arthur’s bones at Glastonbury Abbey to quell the attacks. Readers of historical fiction won’t touch The Maiden Warrior with a ten-foot pole, even though it’s centered in actual history, because they don’t believe it’s “realistic”, not only in the woman warrior aspect, but also because the warrior finds love and acceptance rather than death by the end.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that much in historical romance today is complex, examines societal structures and norms and sometimes pushes the boundaries of such, and leads characters (and readers) through challenges, obstacles, and difficulties to an ultimate happy ending. I know all of my books have centered on social issues (abuse of women, prostitution, the gender “norms”, and political corruption/how it can destroy…i.e. my Templar Knights trilogy).

      There are some who simply don’t like happy endings in their fiction – perhaps because, as you mentioned, it doesn’t ring true to them since their endings aren’t as happy or their lives have been filled with tragedy. That’s completely understandable and fine. Others, I think, have been swayed by the literary establishment to believe that happy endings are “trite” and not as meaningful or real as conflicted or tragic endings. I’ll go a step farther to say that I think western culture pays an inordinate amount of attention to darkness, death, and tragedy in our literature, news stories, and focus in general, and to praise platforms that exalt that side of life (whether books, film, etc). And that’s all well and good, because it IS a facet of life and it can be real, and true, and meaningful.

      But so is the idea of things working out sometimes and of people being selfless and loving. And I guess it just boggles my mind to think that there are those who perceive that outcome as any less real. It may not speak to someone’s taste. That I accept fully. But it’s a huge disservice to refute an entire genre because it doesn’t fit into one’s personal preference, experience, or outlook. So many readers denigrate romance’s happy endings, treating the books and the genre with disdain, and that’s the part that bends my mind a little.

      Anyway, I appreciate your take on it. I agree with much of what you said. I do think many misconceptions are still out there about the romance genre, but even more troubling for me is the idea that happy endings can’t be just as real as tragic ones…I don’t know why we must have only one or the other. Real life is a blend of both. Why can’t fiction with both kinds of endings be considered “real” and valuable/meritorious?

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      • I agree with you and want you to know what I am saying I say as objectively as possible and as an observer. I never will advocate that a certain type of literature is more meaningful and powerful than another type because that is untrue. I think happy endings have just as much merit as unhappy. Like I said, though, I think the ending we will enjoy is based in our personal preferences. Personally, I am happy to immerse myself in any story and try to understand new and sometimes challenging perspectives. This helps me grow and have a better understanding of the world.

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  6. Kay says:

    If I’m reading romance books, I expect a happy ending. I was startled once when I loaded some of my romances to my daughter-in-law. They were some of my best ones. After the first couple she returned the rest to me because “they all have happy endings.” She likes the mystery genre because “they’re all different.” Well, La-di-da, La-di-da, and excussse me.

    Give me a happy ending all the time. By the way I’m rereading your Templar series…very excited!

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