Although tragic and depressing things sometimes happen in my stories, I try to always find a thread of plausible hope.
However, I sometimes wonder if this conscious effort to work hope into my works of fiction is less than honest. After all, there are many real-life situations that crush hope completely and scatter its ashes to the winds.
Some brilliant writers like Dostoyevsky in The Idiot have written some hope-crushing stories, with main characters dying, being decapitated, or going insane at the end. When I was in high school I tried writing some stories like this myself; it made me feel edgy. It was as if I were saying, “Look, the world is not a rosy place, and I am honest and courageous enough to say it.” Or, “Look at how the hypocrisy of those in power are destroying the world; people are innately evil!”
However, I now view these early efforts as a kind of immaturity. Writing stories that end with utter despair is easy. The news gives them to us every day, no imagination required. Real life routinely dispenses tragic stories without resolutions or clear explanations.
To me one of the most interesting questions of fiction is, “Despite suffering, despite the knowledge of death, despite the fact that the universe cares nothing for our deepest wishes and aspirations, how to we go on? How do we make the best of what life has to offer?” Every time I write a story, that question is always lingering at the back of my mind.
It is not that I want to paint an artificially rosy picture of the world. I am acutely aware of the dangers of fabricating a fake happy ending in which every underdog comes out on top, every bully changes his ways, and every romantic relationship has a fairy tale ending. The problem with fake happy endings is that they end up being depressing to any thinking person.
While I have enjoyed many stories that end happily like The Harry Potter series, the happy ending must never seem forced or contrived.
A reader with any insight knows that the world does not grant every wish, no matter how high-minded and noble that wish may be, that hard effort does not always pay, that cruel people often get away with cruelty, that bullies do not change their ways overnight, and that kind people are not always treated kindly.
When I write I search for hope that is realistic, which sometimes means that characters win something they long for but lose something else. However, for some reason the word “realism” is associated with only the negative aspects of life as if hope were as fanciful as unicorns frolicking on pink cotton candy clouds.
To present only darkness without its brighter flip side is no more true-to-life than a belief that life is all glitter and marshmallows. My favorite fiction celebrates the dual nature of reality, the darkness and the light. Some may veer more toward darkness like my last novel Paw, and others more toward light, yet either one of them, alone, offers an incomplete picture of the world that I try to reflect back in my fiction.
But what if I am wrong? Maybe there is some therapeutic value in painting totally hopeless scenarios in which death and disease march to triumph, in which villains thoroughly trample the innocent. There is no doubt that such scenarios occur in real life, and have occurred frequently throughout history.
My avoidance of ending my stories with purely hopeless scenarios is a personal preference. I write stories with hope because I cannot live without hope. Even when I have been at my most depressed, there has was always been something, however small, that I hoped for. I hoped my cat would not shred the couch cushions. I hoped could enjoy breakfast, I hoped to play a fun video game, I hoped I could get through the day.
I ultimately write for myself, and I can personally find no meaning, satisfaction, or purpose in writing stories that end on a note of pure, uncompromising, unmitigated despair.
That being said, some of my favorite novels are thematically depressing – A Separate Peace for one. Taking place during World War II America, a teenage boy pushes his best friend off a tree branch in an impulsive moment of jealousy; ultimately his friend dies, and the narrator is left to confront the horror and sadness of what he has done.
However, the narrator expands his personal story to comment on the demented nature of war, concluding that war is the product of something broken inside the human heart. The main character, wiser and forever changed, still manages to move on despite a wound that is likely to never heal. His understanding, the catharsis of being able to tell his story, and his ability to move forward comprise the grain of hope that levitates the story from merely depressing to something more.
However, I know that many different ways of writing stories can work. No artistic purpose should be proscribed as “wrong.” However, one of my obsessions as a fiction writer, for now, is clear: to find hope where it is not readily apparent, to search the shadowy places for glimpses of light, as my personal and artistic obsessions align.
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