“literature loves difficulty, thrives on conflict”

Should your fiction characters be happy? Really happy?

I was captivated by this incredible video by Ian McEwan on having romantic happiness portrayed realistically in fiction. Ian McEwan, six-time Man Booker Prize nominee and prolific, brilliant writer, shares his ridiculously well-articulated thoughts on traditional novels’ approach to crushing the dreams of happy characters and the rare ability to convince readers that characters really are happy.

Sadly, we as humans salivate over darkness and despair in literature. This truth was present even in the realm of journalism, my major from college. Readers are drawn to articles on tragedy more so than copacetic stories of success and joy.

pollyanna coverI want my characters to be happy (ultimately), even if they have to go through a war to get there. I think some people would argue that happy characters are forgettable, but that’s not always true. To me, one of the most memorable characters from my childhood books is Pollyanna. The reason she was memorable was her optimism, positivity and exuberance in the face of abandonment, disappointment and hard times. In Christian fiction, we want to show that the joy of knowing God and His love pervades all, including the worst of times.

I get called “Pollyanna” by people sometimes, and I hear “you’re just too happy.” I know that this comes from knowing the Lord, enjoying time with Him, and having the peaceful assurance of knowing He’s got this crazy life all figured out already and gives good gifts to us out of love.

They say books reflect the author (how could they not?), so if I had to guess, I’d say the books I write are going to feature characters who do know happiness and joy. But then again, we inject disaster and disappointment into their lives, so the characters grow and learn, or break and transform.



The BIG Question

This mixed stew of thoughts brings up a pivotal question for me as a writer. Should I choose to give my characters happiness (a happy ending, to appease the commercial, mainstream reader and myself), or a sad, non triumphant resolution to their troubles to speak to the way life really is? Should books imitate the way life really is, or should they draw a picture of the way life could be, given the right attitude? Is my role as a novelist to reflect life as accurately as possible, as a nature photographer captures the world, or to help readers imagine a better world or living better in this world?


Write Right Now

McEwan’s video also spurred me on that NOW, despite all of the other happy chaos in my life, is the right time to write. Here’s another powerfully motivating quote from Ian McEwan for writing NOW:

“They [aging writers] accumulate more life, more love, more of everything. What they lose is the fabulous energy of one’s late twenties and early thirties. And the thought richness perhaps declines.”


I’m going to keep feeding my writer’s mind through Aerogramme Studio and encourage you to check it out, too. They are a vast and insightful source for reaching the wisdom of successful, talented writers! They have an RSS feed that’s really handy – brings the heady genius of these folks right to your email doorstep.


One thought on ““literature loves difficulty, thrives on conflict”

  1. tanaramccauley says:

    You opened a big can of literary worms with your big question :-). It’s one that really holds a sore spot for me right now as a reader because I just finished a book where the ending was quite unnecessarily unhappy, and if I’d had the actual book and not the iBooks version, I’d have taken it outside and backed over it with my car. Realism is great in books, but only to a point. Fiction has to be something the reader can relate to, but also possibly something they can learn from, be entertained by, enjoy, and live in for a time. In real life the main character in the story can make all these big plans and be in the throes of deciding if they’re going to marry that person or take that job or sell everything and start that company, only to get hit by a car and die on their way to the gas station. Such a plot won’t fly on the pages of a book (unless it’s flying at the person who wrote it, thrown by the person who read it). Messy characters with messy lives who eventually find their happily ever after are great. Or even if they don’t, if it’s done well, it’s still great – A Tale of Two Cities for example (I think I’ll mourn Darnay yet again now that I’ve conjured him up). But unhappy endings just for the sake of realism, or to throw a curve ball, or to be that author who refuses to be contained, one might get the wrong kind of success: successfully ticking readers off. That’s my biased, recently-agitated-reader two cents :-). Thank you for asking the question. I really needed to vent ;-).


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