Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Happy endings ... or not

I've been thinking about the issue of happy endings. I have nothing against happy endings -- in fact I'm a sucker for a happy ending. Look at my list of favorite movies and there's nary an ambiguous ending in the lot. (The list includes Tootsie -- I love Jessica Lange asking Dustin Hoffman if she can wear his little yellow outfit ; While You Were Sleeping -- my goodness she's wearing a wedding dress at the end!; The Goodbye Girl -- nothing pluckier than Marsha Mason hugging a guitar in the rain; and About a Boy -- that whole island chains bit gets me every time.)

But I'm comfortable with a fair degree of ambiguity -- especially when it comes to fiction. One of my favorite novels is The Left Hand of Darkness, which has a most bittersweet ending. But it's satisfying all the same. In The Lord of the Rings victory is won, but at a price. The joy at the end is mingled with tears.

Sometimes the stories I write have happy endings. But not all of them. I've written a story recently (it's called April Showers) that has the most downer of an ending I've ever done. It's dark enough that my mother was disappointed in it; my critique buddies have mostly been silent on the subject, which tends to worry me (though, to be fair, it's long enough that they probably haven't had time to mess with it yet). I don't know if it's any good or just a bunch of derivative, depressing dreck.

And if it's really no good, I can deal with that. I know it needs work, which I'm willing to do. I wanted to write a story where everything wasn't wrapped up all pretty at the end. I wanted to let my main character live with the consequences of his actions. I didn't give him an easy out, no miracles or life-changing epiphanies. Maybe I should have left the door open a little wider for hope to shine in. But he doesn't really believe in hope yet, so I don't know where it would have come from. So maybe I accomplished what I set out to do.

When I was a kid in Sunday School, I always knew the answer. And I know the answer now -- at least the ultimate answer. But if I write a character who doesn't yet understand that the answer to the questions he's asking -- can I be forgiven? is there redemption? -- is Jesus, how can I jump in and force the answer into the story? This is a guy who won't be preached to. There has to be some internal consistency; I don't agree with everything he does, but he is who he is and I'm trying to keep my manipulative paws off him.

People (who don't write much) say you can make your characters do what you want them to do, but that's not entirely true. I have these characters I've thought of and I've given them a setting and a certain amount of personal history. Then I turn them loose to interact with each other and respond to incidents and crimes. They have to be consistent with themselves. There's a certain amount of me in there, but hopefully I'm far below the surface and out of sight. So I can't manipulate the story to wrap up in a tidier way.

I intend to write more stories about this character, to give him a chance at redemption. (I'm really not a nihilist. Maybe I'm a little warped, but I'm a pretty nice person overall.) But it has to be at the right time, under the right circumstances so it's believable. It can't be because I've just gotten too uncomfortable with messy endings.

I guess the point I'm meandering around to is that this world is imperfect. If I want to write honest stories, that imperfect world is going to show up. There is hope -- but we live in a state of "already, but not yet." The Word has been spoken, but not all hear it. I believe that the light of God's grace will shine brightly in the darkness, but that means I have to show both dark and light in my stories. I don't do it very well yet.

No comments: