Marsha’s recent post made me think some more about my reputation for unhappy endings. Am I like her, realistically and maturely aware that life is untidy and doesn’t have chapter endings the way stories do? Or do I have a cynicism about life that means everything leads at best in circles, and more often nowhere? When I sat down and thought about the endings for the books that are most personal to me – the sixteen Warriors manuscripts I have worked on and the four historical horse stories – every ending seems to involve some sort of loss or promise of further doom. The possible exception comes in Warriors Book Six: The Darkest Hour, when Firestar vanquishes a great enemy and seals his leadership of ThunderClan for good. But this comes after a vicious battle involving all the feline Clans with much blood spilled and the loss of some major beloved characters, so it could be described as something of a pyrrhic HEA. As I mentioned in my last post, for my most recent historical novel I had to be coaxed away from killing off my heroine’s entire family and leaving her standing, literally, in the ashes of her burnt-out home. Okay, maybe I was having a particularly bad day when I conjured up that scene, but all my other endings seem to revolve around the knowledge that this is only a pause, not The End. My hypersensitivity to loss could be due to personal experience – my family doesn’t breed old bones and an awful lot of people close to me have died a long way before their time – but I don’t wallow in doom and gloom on a daily basis. In fact, I have a startlingly black sense of humour and frequently shock people by laughing at things with no obvious comic element. I also have a terror of writing anything remotely autobiographical, but I’m saving that for another post. So where does it come from, and why am I so happy to kill off my central characters?
Part of the answer might lie in contemporary children’s fiction. Is it just me, or are children incredibly morbid these days? Harry Potter, inevitably, is the obvious example; curses, fateful destiny and disasters abound, and the question on everyone’s lips at the moment is surely Who dies in Book Seven? The phenomenal success of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events is another testament to young readers’ willingness to take the rough with the smooth – or even the rough instead of the smooth. That series is built on the promise that nothing good will ever happen to the heroes; right from the start, we are told by a dispassionate narrator that some people never get their HEA, no matter how unfair that seems. I don’t think I can say that these examples explicitly influenced me to veer away from joyful endings for my own books, but they have certainly made it more acceptable to leave the central characters in a less than comfortable situation.
I have tried to figure out why children relish doom to such an extent. Is it because their lives are relatively protected and happy, so for them a vicarious experience of disaster is a safe exploration of unfamiliar feelings? That seems a rather naïve view of twenty-first century childhood. Could it be that they witness so many terrible things on TV, via both news and drama, that they are immune to tragedy, and can enjoy it with the same detachment an adult might view a horror movie – as an exercise in powerful emotion, even revulsion, but nothing more impactful than that?
As I write, I can’t stop thinking about all the children’s literature that does require a happy ending – school-based and coming-of-age fiction, animal stories (heaven forfend I should ever let the title animal perish in an Animal Ark, not that I haven’t been tempted many times), adventure series where crime-busting kids take on grown-up villains and win. Maybe my unhappy endings have simply manoeuvred me away from these genres to join the likes of Lemony Snicket and Ms Rowling who appeal to a particular type of reader who tolerates ongoing misery. Yup, those Harry Potter books are definitely written for a niche market…
Of course, one of the most challenging and delicious things about Warriors is that it is a series, so each story leads on from the one previously. While this frequently gives me a headache in terms of continuity and planning an entire six book story arc before starting on the first line of Book One, it means that I absolutely have to leave some loose ends, or create some sort of cliffhanger, at the end of each story in order to make the readers breathless with impatience for the next one. I love thinking of the most dramatic, unsettling ways to end a book; my favourites are probably Forest of Secrets in which Graystripe shockingly leaves ThunderClan to be with his half-Clan kits, and A Dangerous Path in which Tigerstar turns up in the very last page to declare that he is the new leader of ShadowClan. If I ever get the chance to leave a cute little kit dangling by one claw from a perilous cliff, rest assured that I shall seize it. Cue evil laughter…
Which brings us back to my original question: is it me? Like a raven, am I a harbinger of doom, intent on leaving all my readers in a state of despair, blighted by my cynicism about love, life and the universe? Actually, no. I haven’t found an HEA in my personal life, but I’ve met one or two people who seemed to promise it, for a while at least. And just because they’ve moved out of my life doesn’t mean I’ve given up hope of finding it somewhere along the line. Okay, real life HEAs might not be as tidy as some novels would lead us to believe, but wishes come true more often than we realize. My heroes are not left in a state of despair and certain knowledge that things will never get better; sure, things may be tough, they may still have hidden enemies or not be with the person/cat they most want to be with, but you can be sure that recent events will have changed their character in some way to leave them better equipped for the next catastrophe. At the end of The Darkest Hour, Firestar has lost some of his most important ThunderClan warriors, but he has also learned a lot about leadership, and he has confidence in his ability to rebuild his Clan for a better future. In my horse stories, the heroines don’t end up with exactly what they want as far as boys and horses are concerned, but their lives have been enriched and circumstances have changed each of them in some subtle way that will make the next obstacle a little easier to cope with. In fiction as well as real life, it’s all about character, and if we are willing to learn from our experiences there isn’t a single challenge we can’t face. My feral cats, my horse-mad heroines, all have to learn to accept change, and then the future doesn’t seem quite so scary.
So not a Happy Ever After, but definitely a Hopeful Ever After. And that’s an HEA I’m very happy to put at the end of my stories.