Personally, one thing that I often find most compelling (or most upsetting) about an ending is how it goes about addressing the changes its major (and minor) characters have experienced over the course of the story. This is true in every form of fiction, but especially in longer forms, like novel series or TV series, in which the characters have had a long time to learn and grow.
An example of what not to do can be found in one of the most popularly bemoaned finales of all time: CBS’s How I Met Your Mother.
Similarly to the fact that I only finally watched Star Trek: The Next Generation last summer, it took me until last year to finally watch HIMYM. I had been warned about the series finale, but still I soldiered on. But then I learned. (Obviously, spoilers ahead.)
Arguably, the most compelling character arc in the show is not Ted Mosby, the main character, but Barney Stinson, Ted’s playboy, manchild, wacky best friend played by Neil Patrick Harris. He starts the show as hilarious but completely immature, his entire goal in life to “score” with as many women as possible in ever more bizarre ways. It’s a funny subplot, but does not a sympathetic character make.
But over the course of the nine seasons of the show, Barney undergoes an impressive character arc, finally finding it within himself to really, deeply, committedly care about someone — Robin, played by Cobie Smulders. People had different opinions on their romance, but I loved it, and it felt like everything in Barney’s life was leading up to the moments of falling in love with her, proposing to her, and marrying her.
Until, that is, in order to make use of an ending they’d written over nine years before, the writers divorced Barney and Robin ten minutes into the episode following their marriage with little to no explanation. They had Barney backslide his way into acting exactly the way he had nine years before — not only before falling in love with Robin, but before anything in the show had happened. Then, they tried to redeem him by giving him a daughter and insisting that that love would change his life — but much of the audience, myself included, wasn’t about to let themselves be fooled again.
Character arc is vital. Watching a character develop is what provides so much of the resonance and buy-in that readers and audiences love. Endings that pretend that arc never happened feel like we as readers and audience members spent the last several hundred pages or episodes being tricked — it’s jarring, and it leaves us feeling burned.
When considering your own endings, take note of the characters your readers have spent time with and the ways in which they’ve changed. A really satisfying ending will show your characters living deeply into their new selves and will tie in as many of those character arcs as possible. Here are a few character arc endings you might emulate:
- 1984 (novel): In many ways, 1984‘s iconic last line is a character arc ending, but not in the way you’d expect. In spite of all of Winston’s strivings, in spite of the individuality he earns over the course of the plot, the real arc for him is losing himself completely to the totalitarian state. Thus, the ultimate, succinct summation of his arc: “He loved Big Brother.”
- Star Trek: The Next Generation (TV series): I’ll continue the Star Trek love, because TNG does two great things for Captain Picard’s arc. First, it demonstrates that he’s gone from someone who requires control and regulation at all times, and thus can’t handle trickster Q and his breaking of the laws of physics, to someone who has become creative and adventurous enough to solve Q’s puzzle and understand Q’s quest to help humanity. Second, it shows that he has finally acknowledged the importance of his personal, not only professional, relationship with the crew, as he sits down to play his first-ever game of poker with them.
- The Hunger Games (novel series): It doesn’t always have to be a positive arc. I have my issues with the ending of this series, which I’ll get into in a later post, but it does have a very clear indicator of the arcs of its major characters. Katniss and Peeta are broken, scarred characters after everything they’ve endured, and rightfully so. The ending of the series spends its time showing the two of them working through this brokenness together, in a move that is much more realistic than the way young adult fiction usually portrays survivors of trauma.
- Gone Girl (novel): This is a good example of the arc that isn’t an arc at all. Gone Girl involves a lot of betrayal, lies, and serious double-crossing between the main two characters. It is the most dysfunctional of all dysfunctional marriages, and they can no longer deny it. But, supposedly because of their unborn child, the two decide to stay married in the end. Everything between them has changed, and yet, nothing has. It’s a haunting ending for the twist-filled thriller.
Sometimes, writers make the mistake of forgetting to get the character arc out of their heads and onto the page — they know how much their characters have grown, so they think their readers do, too. Let your characters prove it in your ending. This will also ensure that your characters have an active role in the ending and that it doesn’t just happen to them.
What are your favorite, and least favorite, character endings? How do you handle endings for your own characters?
This is the second in a series on writing good endings. Check out the first one here, and keep an eye out for more installments!