“Every book I’ve ever written ends with someone dying; every one. Really nice people too. Like the book about Helen, the school teacher. I killed her the day before summer vacation. How cruel is that?”
– Karen Eiffel, Stranger Than Fiction
“I’d really like to see him,” he added. “Dustfinger, I mean. Naturally I’m sorry now that I thought up such an unhappy ending for the poor fellow, but it somehow seemed right for him.”
– Fenoglio in Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke
Admit it. You love writing in the sad bits, the death scenes, the broken hearts. I know, because I do, too. But why? Why do we so enjoy torturing characters we’ve come to love? I mean, we wouldn’t do that in real life. We’re all pretty good people, right?
But if the author is good, how come bad things happen to good characters?
Because that’s the Way Things Are. It wouldn’t be realistic if I wrote it otherwise.
Then why are you writing it, doofus? Save yourself the trouble of making up sad stories and just stick with true ones.
Maybe I just like the control. We all like to play God.
Baloney sandwiches. You know perfectly well that after you have created your characters, you lose control of them completely.
Fine. Then I guess because…it’s beautiful, somehow.
Beautiful? What kind of a sick person are you? You think it’s beautiful for a person to have their heart ripped in two?
I don’t know. Something about it is.
My theory is this. We sense beauty in these situations and misinterpret it, thinking darkness is beautiful. But really, pain is beautiful only because it is evidence of something good. We love to write about the grieving widower because it illustrates how much he loved his wife. We love writing about the child dying of cancer because it illustrates how precious life is. It’s that love, that preciousness, that is beautiful. We have trouble seeing goodness if all is well, but when we take something away from a character, or threaten to take it, we prove the worth of that thing by the character’s reaction.
Say you have the chance to meet your protagonist (as did the authors in the quotes above) – to enter your story at its darkest moment. You kneel beside your hero as he coughs up blood, look into his slightly glassy eyes, and tell him everything is going to be okay. You wouldn’t give him any details, of course – that he’ll overcome the villain at the last moment – that would ruin the ending. You wouldn’t even want him to believe the part about everything being okay, not really. You’d just want to give him the tiniest glimmer of hope. Not enough to banish his fear, not enough to lift the deepening despair; just enough to keep him fighting. To push himself off the floor and pick up his sword.
And even if you prefer sad endings, and he does die, the point remains – that he picked up his sword. He didn’t give up, because there was something worth fighting for.
And that is beautiful.