There’s something inherently satisfying to us about watching people get what they deserve. When the movie bad guy gets skewered by the hero and falls screaming over a cliff to his death, we cheer, even if we aren’t violent people in our ordinary lives. In fact, in our heads, the bad guy might stand in for some slight, real or imagined, and to shout and clap at his demise is cathartic.
Simplified, the concept of karma is better known to us as what goes around, comes around. In stories, especially on television, the cops solve crimes in record time. They always find the perp, he gets the maximum sentence and the victim has closure. People do the right thing and their actions are rewarded. Those who do wrong receive retribution.
Real-life cops and victims know this hardly ever happens. Sounds like great material for a story, huh?
If your readers are accustomed to everything working out in CSI-perfect fashion, a messy or incomplete real-life ending could turn them off. Does it serve your story? If it does, go right ahead. Readers are important, yet you have to consider your writer’s karma and satisfy your soul.
“But,” you may cry, “the rules of my genre say I have to have a happy ending!” Okay, maybe they do. Read books in your genre. Do all of them have happy endings? I bet not. The point is, there are times when rules can be broken, if the protagonist can satisfy his goal.
So your hero, with his last dying breath, delivers the medicine to the Native Americans on the other side of the hills and saves the tribe, who then rally together and ride forth to help the settlers fight the corrupt army general and his troops who want their gold. Maybe the readers have grown to love the hero but it’s not important whether he lives; what’s important is the rescue of the settlers, because that’s what’s important to the hero.
Make the story end so that the beautiful chief’s daughter, apprentice to the shaman, heals the hero and he can lead the charge to save the settlers, and it won’t necessarily suck. That would be a Hollywood ending. The hero’s death, however, would lend your story a poignancy that makes the settlers’ victory all the more bittersweet. It would have emotional resonance.
If it makes sense, both you and the readers will likely be satisfied.
I’ll use a couple of cinematic examples, because they are relatively rare in homogenized Hollywood, and because they were beautifully written, especially the second.
The Good Son is a typical thriller where the protagonist learns a terrible secret and no one believes him. The film ends with the mother hanging over a cliff, clutching both her nephew (the protagonist and good kid) and her own son (a psychopathic monster whom she has just realized killed his baby brother). She can’t save both. What to do? A compromised ending would have had someone come running up from out of nowhere, grab the mother’s legs and haul everybody back over the cliff to safety. The psycho kid would go to a shrink and all would be well.
Nope. Mom makes a choice. She drops her own son. When she did that, my movie buddy and I actually cheered. We were so happy we didn’t care that we were in the middle of a crowded theater. FINALLY, a movie that ended as it should have, without a cheat!
Another example is District 9, a sci-fi thriller about space aliens living in a shantytown in Johannesburg, South Africa. The aliens are treated terribly: heavily regulated, confined to their area and derided cruelly. Our protagonist is Wikus, a bureaucrat sent to evacuate the aliens to another area that has been prepared for them.
When we first see Wikus, he’s a jerk. He teases the aliens and throws his weight around. After an accident turns the tables on him, he becomes more sympathetic. His new alien friend promises to help him if he can only get him to the ship stranded high above the area and back to his own planet to seek help for his fellow aliens. As the movie ends, we see the transformed (literally) Wikus waiting as patiently as he can for help that may come in three years, or not at all.
What happens to Wikus is deserved, brought on by his own boorish actions. It is decidedly not a happy ending, especially since he does learn his lesson. But it fits the story, it makes sense and it accomplishes the protagonist’s goal. If he helps his friend, his accidental transformation could be reversed and he can go home.
Characters get what they deserve, mostly. Fiction likes tidy endings unless you’re planning a follow-up. Readers might like the Hollywood cheat. They might want the dying hero to be saved at the last minute. If he isn’t, there had better be a reason, and it had better be good.
The cheat dumbs down the story and compromises credibility. It’s not good karma for the writer. When a writer has to kill off a popular character or leave an ending ambiguous, it’s mostly done to serve the story, as it should be, because the story comes first.