I think, nowadays, media has forgotten the appeal of a happy ending.
There’s a certain clamor nowadays for gritty realism in fiction. For violence, for heartbreak, for bittersweet endings.
It’s not exactly a earth-shattering revelation to say that this clamor comes from our own often dark, violent, bittersweet world. But I feel in the same vein, stories that aren’t like that often get cut down for being too unrealistic. We live in a world where optimistic media is seen as unrealistic and avoided as such.
Isn’t that depressing? It is to me.
I think it’s easy to forget in the wash of gritty realism and horror and dark reimaginings that the very heart of media is to provide escape from the gritty, dark horrors of real life. While I do acknowledge that one form of escapism is to focus on the struggles of a fictional world with fictional characters as opposed to our own very real struggles, it still becomes a little disheartening to see how often we forget the simple escapism of a happy ending.
I make this post in defense of happy endings because I feel like too often they’re seen as cop-outs. I’ve seen series like Game of Thrones, for example, touted as good because the author has the “vision” and “gall” to allow his characters to die.
And yeah, okay, there’s merit in that. But I want to argue that authors who let their characters live happy lives can be just as meaningful, just as intriguing.
Take, for example, the incredible finale episode of “The Adventure Zone.”
I’ve talked at length about “The Adventure Zone,” or TAZ, in an earlier post as well as its creators in yet another post, but the finale was good enough for me to want to come back to these boys and their incredible Dungeons and Dragons podcast once again.
(I’m going to try to keep spoilers light in this post for those who haven’t gotten the chance to listen to this podcast, but considering the nature of this post, I imagine I will still spoil some things. Take this opportunity to go listen to it. Really. Do it. I know I’ve said this before, but just do it, you won’t regret it.)
TAZ is, at its heart, an optimistic story. It’s a goofy, lighthearted adventure with an ending that, after the big bombastic boss battle, is a joyous wedding between two side characters and the peaceful resolution of all three of the main character’s arcs.
But this is not an ending that comes after episodes of happy nothingness. No, on the contrary, TAZ is the story of an unstoppable force slowly consuming the world. It is a story of how power can corrupt. It is a story of how even those with the best of intentions make mistakes.
TAZ very well could have ended with a negative tone. Or, it could have even gone along with many similar stories and ended on a bittersweet note. But no, Griffin McElroy chose to end his tale in the most unabashedly, steadfastly happy way possible.
And honestly? It was more powerful for it.
What made its unabashedly happy ending satisfying? What made the joy feel so absolutely earned, so gorgeously meaningful?
Well, even from the beginning, despite the struggles the characters face, it was pretty clear from early on that TAZ was going to be a story of people banding together in the face of evil. Even as the villain seemed to be an unstoppable, all-consuming force of destruction, instead of taking the easy route and creating drama via lots of failure, Griffin McElroy focuses on how his characters struggle and succeed instead.
That, I think, is an incredible microcosm of what makes happy endings so meaningful in my eyes.
It’s easy to create intrigue by allowing characters to ultimately fail. Sad stories with bittersweet endings can be memorable for the emotions they cause. But I think it’s more difficult but ultimately more rewarding to convincingly allow characters to win. That’s why TAZ worked so well. I often asked myself throughout the course of the podcast just how the characters could possibly triumph over their enemies. Knowing the optimistic tone of the story, I knew they probably would, but just how they would manage it kept me intrigued through all 69 episodes of the podcast.
I feel like stories with sad tones and sad endings don’t allow this kind of intrigue to exist. If you know from the start the characters will fail, there’s no reason to root for them. And sure, this can be an interesting dynamic in some stories, but I don’t think it’s the only or even the better way to build drama.
Plus, there’s a definite need for happy endings in the sad world we live in. Maybe “realism” is good in small doses, but I don’t think there’s any reason why optimism in media is a bad or “unrealistic” thing. And even if it is unrealistic, it’s fiction! Why can’t we have a little fun in our media now and again?
So there’s a good reason to allow your characters to live happily ever after. It builds drama through struggle and serves as a bit of light in an often dark world.