October 11th 2008
There’s Nothing Wrong With Happily Ever After
Nor, for that matter, is there anything inherently wrong with “they all died tragically.” One of the bedrock problems that you run into in any discussion of fiction is the idea that there is some objective way of determining if a story is good.* I don’t believe that there is, in part because fiction isn’t one thing, nor does it have one purpose. I don’t know about anyone else, but for me the purposes of fiction vary depending on my moods, whether I’m writing or reading it, and where I’ve been at in my life when I encountered something.
That’s why I always bristle when someone says something like, fiction must be true, or fiction must be honest, or fiction must shock, or fiction must uplift. I can make a case for any of those as important values for certain types of fiction. I can also make a case for every one of them being a bad idea for other types of fiction. Today I want to make the case for happily ever after
I personally like to read stories that end happily ever after, though when I’m writing I usually saw off the ever after part. I will go so far as to say that sometimes in my life I’ve needed stories that end in happily ever after. I do not engage fiction primarily to reach for truth.** I am looking for myth.
In part that is because in my experience truth all to often seems to mean that someone wants to show you something really ugly. When I want ugly, I can and do find that without ever leaving the world we live in. I read a ton of non-fiction and the history, politics, and sociology more than supply my needs for being exposed to the nastier side of human nature. For that matter, I have seen a fair amount of ugly in an up close and personal sort of way.
Now, it’s important that we are aware of those things, and some will prefer to find and show them in fiction. I don’t begrudge them that. What irritates me is how often I see people insist that fiction that doesn’t aim for that target is bad. That somehow, happily ever after is a lie that should never be written. Or that is sets up false expectations for people. I suppose that it can, if you assume that modeling reality is what fiction is for.
If not, well one human being’s lie is another’s necessary myth. Sometimes you’re in a place in your life where you need look no further than tomorrow to see how ugly the world can be and then that lie of happily ever after can be the myth that keeps hope alive long enough for freedom or healing or happiness to become truth. I think this can be especially important for the abused or neglected child or young adult who has to wait for an arbitrary age line to give them freedom of choice in how they will live their lives, though it can also apply to a lot of adult situations. Sometimes in life, you’re in a dungeon.
Sometimes a myth is all that keeps you alive, a myth in the shape of a story or book. You can’t leave the dungeon. If you could, it wouldn’t be a dungeon. But stories are day passes that let you out for a time, myths that let you believe for a little while that there’s another kind of place, one where happily ever after really happens and that a moment of magic or insight can make the pain stop. When you’re in the dungeon you don’t need someone to tell you that those moments aren’t true, that pain doesn’t just go away, or that the magic moment is never going to happen. You know that.
Then, what you need is very different from what you know. What you need is that day pass, that myth that allows you to believe that somewhere the reality of the dungeon is the myth, and the idea that it can all be made better is the truth. It’s the myth that keeps you sane, the myth that allows you to keep breathing every day, to hang on a little bit longer.
Sometimes you need a little Happily Ever After.
*Or bad, though my experience with slush suggests that while there may be a great deal of dispute over certain types of bad, there is also a set of work that everyone but the writer will agree is bad.
**Truth is word I’m very wary of since it means substantially different things to different people. If I am talking about things that are not false, I much prefer fact since it tends to remove a good deal of the subjectivity from the conversation
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Kelly McCullough is a fantasy and science fiction author. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series—Penguin/ACE. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Writers of the Future and Weird Tales. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star—part of an NSF-funded science curriculum—and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited—funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Visit site.
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