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Obviously, the decision on how to write the ending is driven by the overall plot. That said, there seems to be a pattern on which protagonists get happy endings*. I'm not able to put my finger on it, but I get a sense that just from knowing the protagonist's characteristics, I can predict whether or not they will get a happy ending. Harry Potter gets a happy ending, but Sherlock Holmes does not. Captain America does, but Iron Man doesn't. What's the pattern here?

*By happy ending here, I mean for the protagonist themselves - one where they "settle down" or enjoy life. There's obviously some gray area, but I'd generally classify death, exile (self-imposed or not), and never-ending fight as unhappy, and falling in love, having a family, or retiring to do a hobby as happy.

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    But "retiring to do a hobby" is exactly what happens to Sherlock Holmes in the later Conan Doyle stories. He gives up his consulting detective practice and takes up bee-keeping, with an occasional "one last case". Jun 11, 2022 at 3:44

6 Answers 6

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It Largely Comes Down to Genre

It’s rare for protagonists not to get some kind of happy ending, and a modern development to take a broader view of what kind of ending is a happy one, especially for a woman.

There are, however, some kinds of stories that usually are exceptions.

  • Social parables often end in tragedy, to motivate the audience to go out and fight the injustice.
  • Historical dramas set during an awful period in history always create characters to represent those who died.
  • This is a defining feature of the classical tragedy, where the main character is sympathetic but deserves what he gets and gets what he deserves.
  • Villain protagonists whose creators don’t want them to be admired or idolized always fail and die unhappy. Stories like The Godfather and The Sopranos straddle the line between this and the previous.
  • Some characters get a heroic self-sacrifice instead, especially if they need to be redeemed after murdering someone or are the obstacle in a love triangle. (Joss Whedon especially likes to subvert this by having supporting characters set this up, then blurt out that it was supposed to be them who sacrificed themself, not the more major character who does.)
  • Moral paragons often die in a parallel to Jesus, or because life requires compromises.
  • Some characters can’t really either go away or stick around. This is a cliché for love interests, because otherwise the main character would either have to marry them and settle down or break up with them.
  • Some characters represent a form of innocence or purity that is impossible for an adult living in the real world to maintain, but dying once they achieve it preserves it forever. We might call these, virgin martyrs.
  • A few characters get killed off in an especially petty way because of a beef between the actor who played them and their boss.
  • Some stories are almost totally episodic and the characters never really grow, so there is no real ending. Sherlock Holmes is like this. (And was also definitively established as having no romantic interest in women.)
  • Some stories are specifically about coming of age and learning to accept death. (Even Star Trek II, in which Captain James T. Kirk has managed to successfully cheat death every time and avoid this into his middle age, but no longer.) A very specific character archetype needs to die to drive this point home.
  • Prequels need to leave things as they were at the start of the original story, in which some of the characters might no longer be around.
  • A few stories, notably Avengers: Endgame, try to wrap up the stories of many different protagonists at once, without repeating themselves. I honestly think that, of the characters who had to definitively come to a permanent end, the movie could have changed things around. Thor is a character who might’ve been happy settling down with those he loves in the world where he really belongs, and Captain America is a character who could have given his life to save the universe or died to deliver a message about what he symbolizes. Tony Stark, admittedly, would have needed a lot of development in a new direction before we’d believe he’d ever give it all up, permanently disappear somewhere so far away we’d never see Robert Downey Jr. on screen again, and really be happy.
  • Stories written for children often are not allowed to show death, let any villain go unpunished, or have too unhappy an ending. Harry Potter was considered a children’s book, so it had to meet some expectations.
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  • I guess one afterthought: many of your examples are from serial fiction, and popular characters from serial fiction often have a “classic” era. When an author tries to take them too far out of that era, they feel it was a mistake and snap everything back. Sherlock Holmes is one of these: Arthur Conan Doyle allowed some character development, but every major change to his formula got reverted, and finally he just went back and set his new stories in the good old days, when Holmes and Watson were living together in 221b Baker Street and solving murders.
    – Davislor
    Jun 14, 2022 at 17:20
  • Your other examples are superheroes. Spider-Man is maybe the clearest example. The writers have married him off before, with kids, had him retire from heroing and get a job as a public-school teacher, and and otherwise grow up. But they always decide that was a mistake, and Spider-Man should be a teenager. He’s famous for having his happy ending taken away from him to keep him more relatable to kids than their parents.
    – Davislor
    Jun 14, 2022 at 17:31
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Happy endings tend to work for more relatable protagonists that feel like normal people. We expect Spiderman to have a happy ending; because people love Peter Parker, his awkward romance, his failures (Spiderman loses in 48% of his comic book stories).

We like heroes that have good hearts but screw up, they know failure like us, they have regrets like us, they aren't king of the mountain. They may have super powers, but those don't make their life anywhere close to perfect.

So we are rooting for them, knowing they might lose. It makes a big difference if your hero might actually be killed but has the courage to do the right thing anyway.

And then we are happy when they at least survive, having done their best to do the right thing. And we feel like they deserve the happy ending.

Giving your characters real vulnerability, showing them get hurt (physically and emotionally), showing them screw up, is all to gain the audience's sympathy. When we can identify with the hero as a person with flaws, that isn't infallibly right, then we care more about them. And we feel like they deserve their happy ending, they earned it.

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  • So far, this theory does the best job of explaining it. I wonder if there's another component too, because it's easier for me to picture superman ending happy than sherlock, even though sherlock is clearly a more flawed character. Jun 10, 2022 at 18:17
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    @KalevMaricq Original Superman has vulnerability. Kryptonite. Also, social isolation; he playacts as Clark, and has near zero friends and no love life as Superman, but pines for Lois. More recent versions have piled on the normalcy, for more sympathy. Sherlock is flawed but purposely portrayed as alienated and distant from all others. In all his incarnations, his only friend is always Watson. He has no social life. He is virtually never defeated (after a dramatic false start or two). Sherlock is intentionally not normal, by far, and that makes it hard for normal people to sympathize with him.
    – Amadeus
    Jun 10, 2022 at 19:52
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    Isn't Spiderman an example of a relatable protagonist who we don't expect to have a happy ending? A lot of his movies end on a tragic (or at least bittersweet) note where he pays a heavy price for the sake of being a hero. Jun 11, 2022 at 5:13
  • @user3153372: That's the "coming of age" trope, the idea that children (and teens) magically turn into adults when bad things happen to them.
    – Kevin
    Jun 11, 2022 at 5:34
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    @user3153372 I haven't watched many Spiderman movies; I was referring to the comic book Spiderman; who has mixed success (the original authors intentionally made it just slightly better than 50/50). In the comics, he gets his ass kicked, but seldom pays a heavy price.
    – Amadeus
    Jun 11, 2022 at 8:18
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In many cases, it depends on the change arc of the character.

A character that follows a positive change arc almost demands a happy ending. It's not really that positive if it doesn't end with some kind of reward.

The exception would be a bitter-sweet ending, e.g. a positive change arc that ends in the win for the Truth but the death of the protagonist (think "Léon").

The same goes for characters that follow a negative change arc. If the ending is not bad, then it's hard to see it as a negative change arc.

Characters that follows a flat/testing arc may get a good ending unless they are called upon to sacrifice their lives for their Truth in their lie-ridden world.

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It's Happy If It's What The Character Ultimately Needs

Give the character what they need the most.

Let's compare two endings.

Character A is a brave adventurer who wants nothing more than to explore the world and take on monsters for the rest of his life. The author, though, decided to rope him into a relationship. Now the adventurer has a husband and he's forced to take care of three kids, abandoning his life of adventure forever. Is that a happy ending?

Character B is a shy librarian who wants nothing more than to get a husband and three kids. Instead, she is forced to be a famous adventurer, wandering the world and fighting monsters for the rest of her days. Is that a happy ending?

Well, it's a matter of perspective. Did the characters get what they wanted at the end of the day? Heck no, both of them are living the life the other one wishes they would have.

Here's the more important question, though. Did the character get what they needed? Is this a satisfying conclusion to their character arc, one that shows their growth and truly gave the best possible outcome for both characters? It could be.

Character A thought he wanted to be an adventurer, but now that he's seen how dangerous it is, and now that he's had a taste of the simple life, he realizes he doesn't want to go back. He loves his kids, loves his husband, and he's never been happier. His arc is that he went from a fighter to a father.

Character B thought she wanted a simple life, but, guess what? Now that she's had a taste of adventure, she's absolutely hooked. Who needs a domestic life when you can fight dragons and tame manticores? Her arc is going from a shy nerd to a fearless adventurer.

A happy ending is not fulfilling what the character wants or what they desire. It's about what they need to make themselves the best they can be by the end.

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  • Case in point: Louisa May Alcott being so miffed that her readers wanted her heroine Jo to marry a rich man—when she knew, first hand, that was the last thing that would fulfill her—that the author gave them their wish.
    – Davislor
    Jun 11, 2022 at 3:39
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First of all, any kind of character can get happy ending. Second, the likelihood of such ending indeed depends on protagonist's type. Sometimes we can see "tragedy" written right between the lines of protagonist's desription, and sometimes we can have a feeling that protagonist is destined for success.

If we consider 12 Common Character Archetypes, then I would say the reader normally expects "The Child" to have a happy ending, while "The Ruler" might see a likely downfall.

But this is by no mean a firm rule. "The Child" may die, and that will make our work a big tragedy. "The Ruler" may overcome his or her negative traits, and this will make this story a story of personal growth and redemption.

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    Interesting. Reading through the character archetypes, I have the intuition that the orphan, caregiver, and lover will also have happy ends, while the creater, magician, and seductress will not. I'm more conflicted about warrior or rebel, but given a specific character, I'll often have an intuition. What do you think the thread is that ties together 'happy' types? Jun 10, 2022 at 18:13
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Thanks for the great question which made me reflect anew on what I know about stories and story structures.

You've had some great answers already. However, the focus on happy or unhappy/tragic endings to characters' story lines which is assumed in the question and in all of the answers I've read so far has obscured a third option.

There are two open-ended story structures I've identified in my own research into story and story structures.

The first is the Perpetual Motion structure. It's a structure that seems to be linked to perennial cyclic themes of life/death - the form seems to lend itself to the introduction and confirmation of substance (Yon Yonson) the cycle of life and death (Where Have all the Flowers Gone?) or the futility of experiencing a cycle of living death (There’s a Hole in my Bucket; Michael Finnegan).

The Perpetual Motion structure highlights the rhythm behind the ups and downs of life. In Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy, he pits these experiences (which he maps onto the turning wheel of fortune, which has the potential to elevate beggars into kings, then reduce them to ashes) against the constancy which is afforded by providence - and a life lived in harmony. It's a process, not a product, linked to the philosophical question of what makes for 'a good life'.

I call the second open-ended structure that I've identified the Creation Myth structure. Think of the quality of the sequence of events outlined in the first chapter of Genesis. No problems feature there. God, the protagonist pronounces; that which God pronounces appears; that which appears is named and either judged to be good or the judgment is left unstated. Creation just flows. If we link that to our own experience, the Creation Myth structure is the story structure our story lines follow when we're in a state of flow. The Creation Myth structure is the structure I think we're called to align to - and every other story structure that is based on a search for balance either vertically through conflict or horizontally through community simply amplifies our need to find flow and balance, both of which are essential features of space-time, and our experience of that.

Without balance, without flow, without characters who find themselves, as we do, at a particular point in space and time, in a particular condition in relation to balance, there can be no story.

Perhaps the ultimate final state is that afforded by the Koan structure - which is designed to blast you from a state of being to a state of non-being. The trouble with that is sustaining it - and we're back in the dualistic domain of the kinds of conflict which drive story and the search to follow the Creation Myth structure - and just flow.

There's more to say about why story emerges in the first place, which I believe is a response which seeks to provide a means of restoring balance and harmony which arises from a perceived state of imbalance or excess, but I'll leave it at that for now.

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