Fantasy and Optimism: What’s the Use of a Happy Ending?

For me, happy endings have always been one of the biggest draw cards of fantasy fiction. However, I didn’t really place any significance on them till I was listening to a TED talk about gaming.

In this TED talk, game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal discusses the countless hours that are invested by humanity worldwide in playing video games every week. She is interested in how all that time and energy might be harnessed to create positive change in the real world.

Regardless of the merits of her idea, it was one comment in particular she made that stuck with me. She said that video games make people feel things are possible. Game after game, they reaffirm the idea that if you try hard enough and long enough you can succeed, defeat villains, and get your happy ending.

In a real world where success often seems unattainable, or barriers to progress too hard (particularly when tackling large issues like global warming), McGonigal felt this positive, video game mentality could be a good thing.

Fantasy Fiction and Happy Endings

While the TED talk focussed only on video games, I saw that the same ideas could be applied to Fantasy Fiction. Fantasy novels and films, like video games, constantly reaffirm an ultimately positive world view.

Nearly every single fantasy story you encounter will have a happy ending. Yes, bad things often happen to the characters, and there are sometimes terrible sacrifices… but usually you can struggle through it all with the reassurance that somehow, things will be alright in the end. Good will triumph over evil. Heroes will succeed in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Of course, there are exceptions, but those are few and far between.

Other genres such as crime and romance also regularly employ happy endings. However, fantasy does so extensively and often on an epic scale, where forces of good and evil battle to decide the fate of whole worlds and races.

Lord of the Rings is a classic example of this, but almost every other popular fantasy series you name offers something similar. Think Mistborn, The Old Kingdom, The Black Jewels, The Graceling Realm and even Harry Potter.

Being an Optimist

When considering how the positive reaffirmation of fantasy novels might relate to the real world, I started to reflect on my own enjoyment of fantasy and its happy endings.

I am undeniably an optimist at heart. Regardless of all the bad things that I see happening in the world, I am convinced that the good things outweigh them, and that ultimately life for humanity on earth will get better – that we are making progress. I don’t believe there will be a World War III. I believe societies still plagued by hardship and war will all eventually be free of them. Many people would call that unrealistic, and maybe it is, but it doesn’t change my mind. And I’ve talked to enough other people to know not everyone shares my opinion.

All this considered, I wonder if one of the (many) reasons I love fantasy fiction is because it reaffirms my naturally optimistic perspective. I wonder if the reason I shy away from bleak and depressing stories is because they don’t reaffirm it. I even wonder if all this reading of fantasy novels in my life has in some way created, or at least strengthened, my innately positive attitude to real world issues.

There’s no way I can really know the answers to these questions, but I think there is definitely a link between the two things.

Do Happy Endings Serve a Purpose?

All this begs the question: if there is a link between optimism in the fictional world, and optimism in the real world, is it a useful one?

There’s no doubt that happy endings make me, and presumably a lot of other people, feel good. But do they serve any practical purpose beyond that? Do they create an optimism that is helpful?

Many people would argue that the constant happy endings of fantasy fiction, as well as many films, books and stories in general, give us a false sense of security. They are unrealistic and don’t prepare us for the harsh realities of life. They make us complacent in our belief that heroes will swoop in and make things right in the end, when in truth things won’t be so easy or positive.

But others, including Jane McGonigal, would argue that happy endings instil the idea we can ultimately succeed. They encourage us to fight, to not give up hope, and to not resign ourselves to a bleak fate. They reinforce the idea that one person can make a difference. And perhaps, when facing the challenges of the magnitude that our real world is throwing at us, they support an attitude that is useful and helps us triumph in the face of adversity.

So are happy endings blinding us with false hope, or instilling us with the drive we need to succeed?

As an optimist, I’d of course rather believe the latter. Not just because it’s what I innately feel is true, and because I like to find value in fantasy fiction… but because if our world were truly headed for apocalypses and doom and gloom, I’d rather I was armed with a little bit of hope.

3 thoughts on “Fantasy and Optimism: What’s the Use of a Happy Ending?

  1. This is something I think about in the context of reviewing stories online. I definitely lower my star rating for endings that are weird, yucky, or just plain downers.

    In most genres, readers want positive endings. Even in horror stories, the monster is usually defeated. My conclusion is that storytelling is a way to process things in the world. The present may be frustrating or frightening, but the future always contains hope.

    I see nothing wrong with that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with debyfredericks. “Storytelling is a way to process things in the world.”

    Readers DON’T want happy endings where everything is solved too quickly and easily. We want to see the struggle. So that makes it hard to say that happy endings are pure escapism. I think the reason we need them in stories is that having a resolution of some kind affirms that we have individual sovereignty, agency, free will. We may not be able to control everything (or even most things) in our environment, but we can make choices and take actions, and these choices and actions can actually influence things in the world. That’s what a happy ending does. It shows that the protagonists’ actions *matter.*

    People need to believe that their actions matter for good or for evil if they are ever going to take any action at all.

    In the best stories, the happy ending comes at a cost. Frodo, for example, was forever broken by having carried the Ring. He had to “lose the Shire so that everyone else could keep it.” Harry Potter, obviously, also had to suffer and sacrifice a lot, and many other characters gave up their lives to defeat Voldemort. So this is a long way away from a pie-in-the-sky, everything will be all right kind of ignoring of reality. Instead, it dives in to reality by telling us that in order to fight evil, we are going to have to sacrifice a lot … maybe everything.

    I believe that when an author introduces a problem, he or she is implicitly promising that the story is going to contain at least some movement toward fixing it. Even if it doesn’t get fixed at the end. For example, in 1984 Winston ends up fully brainwashed at the end … but he spends most of the book trying to resist the Party, and we are rooting for him. If he just stayed brainwashed all throughout, the book would not be as devastating as it is. It would just be boring, and most readers wouldn’t finish it.

    Liked by 1 person

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