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This Writing Life: Resolution in Character Arcs – and Character Deaths

23 January, 2012

As I approach the end of the edits on my novel, I’ve been thinking about the ending itself and whether it does everything I want it to. An ending needs to do a number of important things, after all: it needs to resolve the plot and the remaining questions or mysteries (or perhaps leave one or two dangling for sequels); it needs to keep the reader’s attention, perhaps even more strongly than earlier parts of the book; and, most importantly of all I think, it needs to resolve the characters’ stories – their arcs.

I think – or at least I hope – I’ve achieved that for the characters in my novel, particularly the two from whose point-of-view the story is told. They’ve both changed during the course of the novel, and I’ve tried to reflect that at the end. It’s this sort of resolution – even more than the defeat of the villain – that I find most satisfying in stories, which is why I’ve tried so hard to achieve it.

In thinking about character arcs, I’m also reminded of examples that did exactly the opposite of what I’ve tried to do – with frustrating results. Just a few months ago, the BBC aired the very last series of Spooks, a drama that had been running for years. I watched the last series, as I’d watched all the others, and enjoyed it. Right up until the end of the very last episode, that is. [Major spoilers ahead, in case you hadn’t guessed. If you haven’t watched the end of Spooks and want it to remain a mystery, stop reading now.]

You see, there were two major characters in the series – Harry and Ruth – who had been having an on-off almost-relationship for years (literally years, if you’d watched the multiple series when they were first shown on TV). As the last series came to an end, and secret after secret was uncovered, there seemed to me three ways in which the Ruth-Harry relationship could be resolved.

The first was for them to end up together, and do the equivalent of riding off into the sunset. Whilst it wouldn’t be quite that simple – both had been deeply scarred by their work for MI5 – I was certain that wouldn’t be the way the series ended. Spooks had always been ruthless with its characters, and shown no qualms about killing them off. I didn’t really expect that to change.

So, that left two more options. I was hoping they would go with the following: Harry would be killed, whilst Ruth – who had been preparing to retire to the seaside and start a new life – would do just that. Here, I thought, would be resolution. Harry, whose secrets were all finally revealed in the last episode, would at least find more peace than he’d ever had in his working life. Ruth would finally get the fresh start she’d been craving. It wouldn’t be a happy ending, but it would resolve both character arcs in what I would consider a satisfying manner.

Instead, we got just the opposite. It was Ruth who was killed, and Harry who lived, effectively providing no resolution to their character arcs at all. Everything Ruth had been hoping and planning for was wiped out by her death. Harry, now even more broken than before, didn’t even leave MI5 – he briefly mourned Ruth, then just went back to work.

I was deeply frustrated with this ending to a series I had been watching for years. I felt like all my hopes for the characters were completely obliterated, and their arcs were incomplete; Harry’s in particular was left in a kind of depressing limbo. I almost wished I hadn’t watched the final series at all, as everything that had happened previously was made completely in vain by the choice of ending.

Clearly, not all stories have to have a happy ending. Many are better without one. However, if your novel leaves your character arcs as unravelled as Spooks did, there’s a big risk that your reader will end up feeling alienated and frustrated. In the case of Spooks, that was no problem for the BBC, but if you’re trying to build a fanbase as a writer, that could be disastrous. Why pick up another of an author’s books if you fear their characters are going to be left abandoned at the end? It’s when characters don’t feel to have gone through a story in vain, whether they live or die at the end, that I’m more tempted to read the next book in the series.

So, what endings have you read or watched that have been either deeply satisfying, or deeply frustrating – and why?

  1. 24 January, 2012 6:03 am

    I haven’t seen the show you’re referring to, but I know what you mean about frustrating endings. I’m a sucker for happy endings myself, but I also think that you can achieve this character arc with a sad ending. I think the master of character arc and growth is Jane Austen. I’m having trouble thinking of another more modern and specific example right now, but I’m going to think on it and get back to you!

    • 24 January, 2012 12:36 pm

      Yes, Jane Austen endings are always good! And, of course, they’re so excellent because her character arcs are beautifully put together and so satisfying. Ah, now I really want to read Pride and Prejudice again…

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