The morning my post I Read Shadow Scale and I Was Disappointed went live, I was thinking about what is it that makes me “approve” of a hero’s arc, because really, that is what makes or breaks an ending for me. Do I feel the hero’s journey changed them, was worthwhile, helped them grow? I discussed this briefly in my post Plot Vs. Character?, but wanted to go more in depth with the idea of a character’s arc.
If you’ve ever read any of my book reviews on the blog, you’ve probably seen me character arc. If you’ve seen me fangirl about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, you’ve probably noticed the character arcs were a big part of that show for me. I just love to see characters go through a significant change. I may be adverse to change in my own personal life, but that’s a different story. 😉
It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
I haven’t even read The Two Towers, but thanks to the movie I became familiar with this monologue from Sam and it’s my favorite passage from a fictional book. It so perfectly encompasses what we expect from great story telling. We want the character to overcome trials. In the end, we want them to come out stronger, that’s what makes the story worthwhile.
In Star Wars, we see Luke overcome the power of the Dark Side, even though it means opposition against his father. In Harry Potter, we see Harry defeat Voldemort and usher a new era for wizards through sacrifice. In Lord of the Rings, we see Sauron defeated through two little hobbits’ tumultuous journey. These are stories I think most all of us agree are powerful.
Not every story that is told is going to be on the same epic levels as the aforementioned examples, nor do they need to be. The resolution of a story doesn’t even have to be tied up neatly where everyone and everything is happy for it to be satisfying. I just need to glean emotional satisfaction from the main character’s journey, that they are changed in the end, hopefully for the better. If not for the better, I need to feel satisfied with the reasoning of why, of what the journey was about then, instead.
I think one reason I enjoyed Jane Austen’s Emma so much is that, though the story is about romance, it’s also largely about Emma making mistakes, learning from them, and becoming a better person. It may not be a sweeping epic journey, Emma lived a pretty normal life in regency England, but she grew in the story, and there’s more to it than just her happily-ever-after.
In the movie Inception, Dom’s one goal is to get back to his family, but there are complications caused by his inability to let go of his deceased wife and what caused her tragic death. While the last image of the ending is left somewhat ambiguous (which is appropriate given the theme of dreams vs. reality), Dom has let go of his wife and is home with his children, thus completing his journey emotionally at the very least.
We get frustrated with TV series finales at times because we don’t like where the character ends up, what their absolute resolution is. I’ve discussed before how the TV show finales for Chuck and Star Trek: Enterprise really left the characters worse off than before for reasons that seemed senseless and meaningless, whereas the show Fringe resolved all the emotional aspects of the character’s journey and, even if it was logically confounding, put them back in a place where we wanted them to be and made it overall satisfying.
What about you? What makes a story’s ending satisfying, the character’s journey worth it to you?
Also check out this recent post on Publishing Crawl about writing about change.