On HEAs (Happily Ever Afters)

Ah yes… the beloved trope. Trope, by the way, is one of those words you shall not speak of except in hushed whispers in serious creative writing programs. It is shoved in a box with other words like “cliches” and “allegory” and “fable”. If your work is ever tagged with one of these labels you have done something shameful and should pay penance to the muses immediately.

So, as you might imagine, after four years of being trained to write serious fiction, I was well out of the genre fiction loop by the time The Wheel Mages entered my head and was shocked to learn that a trope was considered by many authors as not only okay but necessary. Can you imagine? A TROPE.

I remember the exact moment I was listening to one of Joanna Penn’s interviews with romance writer J.A. Huss and Julie said, “In romance, you have to have an HEA, which is ‘happily ever after,’ and there is really no way around it.” I about fell out of my chair. I sputtered obscenities at the computer screen. “Real life does not work that way!” I screamed. Then I thought about it, and I realized the trope does make sense for romance. People read romance for… well… romance. And it’s not very romantic if the characters don’t end up together at the end. “Okay, fine.” I settled back in my chair and listened on. “Romance, you can have your HEAs.”

But I write fantasy. Fantasy is different. Good fantasy is a way to examine real world problems through a less intimidating lens. It’s a way to express frustrations with big picture ideas without screaming on YouTube. Also, there’s magic. I mean… who doesn’t love magic, right? Fantasy may be set in another world or some other plane of this world but it’s grounded in reality. Reality isn’t neat. Real issues can’t be tied up with a bow. Fantasy therefore doesn’t require an HEA.

Or does it?

As I pondered, I realized that a vast majority of the most popular fantasy I’ve read does in fact contain an HEA. Harry defeats the bad guy and marries his best friend’s sister. Alanna achieves her dream and settles down (as much as you can use that phrase with her character) with the man who’s been in love with her since book one. Katiniss survives the games and reunites the people. Clary saves the world and ends up with the love of her life. Bella… well you all know about Bella.

Even epic fantasy has its HEA. Bilbo defeats the dragon. Frodo destroys the ring. Rand… doesn’t die. Daenerys… oh wait. Well, if anyone is going to break the mold, George R.R. Martin will be the one to do it.

My point is, an HEA is not the exception in fantasy—it’s the rule. That got me to thinking… why? The best guess I have is that readers want HEAs. They’ve dedicated a lot of time and emotion to their favorite characters. They want them to beat the bad guy, and find themselves, and fall in love, and change the world. They want them to succeed. Because they want to succeed. They want all those things. want all those things. I think it’s a human response.

It’s not how real life works, though. It’s not precisely truth. And I know it might sound kind of odd to discuss truth when discussing fiction, even more so when discussing fantasy, but I believe it’s fundamental to creation. “Write what you know,” is the mantra of so many writers. But what we know often contains so much suffering. What we know also doesn’t hold an ending. Maybe that’s why the HEA has such a prevalent role in fiction, especially genre fiction which is written as a means of escape. We don’t know our own endings, so we can only hope, and we all hope for a happily ever after, too.

Does that take a work containing an HEA further from the truth writers strive to create? Does that make it somehow less? For that matter, does any kind of ending devalue the work in some way?

To be honest, I’m not sure. My ideas are still evolving, as they hopefully always will. What I do know, however, is that it’s something worth thinking about.

Sound off in the comments, I’m excited to hear what you think!

And as always, happy writing!

❤ Aimee

5 thoughts on “On HEAs (Happily Ever Afters)

  1. I understand what you mean, HEA isn’t reality. Reality is harsh and sometimes brutal. It’s usually the books that don’t end on HEA that make me think and evaluate them after I’ve read them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true! This is the conversation I was having on Facebook as well. When things don’t end neatly, you have to think about them more. They’re the stories that stick with you. I also think they stick because they’re not as common. That said, I do love a happily ever after. It’s a weird thing, having to decide between truth and escapism.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Really interesting post. I hadn’t considered the need for a HEA in fantasy but you’re right, it needs them. (Mr. Martin clearly hasn’t received the memo on this and seems to delight in killing off any character I get attached to.) Fantasy requires a far greater investment from the reader than other genres (except maybe Sci-Fi) as there is a whole world to learn about, and a lot of unfamiliar names, languages and cultures. After all that hard work, if things don’t work out it seems a shame.

    I think in most books I read, regardless of genre, I want a HEA of some kind, otherwise I’m left feeling a kind of grief for the fictional lives that won’t work out. I should probably work on not getting over-attached to things that aren’t real…

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    1. I certainly would not want to live in a universe controlled by George Martin 🙂 But I do think his unique and brutal take on his universe is certainly something that helps with his appeal. We humans are such masochistic creatures sometimes!

      I also totally agree with you about the amount of effort that has to go into the book on the part of the fantasy reader. It’s really amazing what our brains can do, tbh. One of my readers reminded me on Facebook not all of my favorites have traditional HEAs. The biggest omission on my part was Pullman’s His Dark Materials (how could I forget, that ending tore my heart to shreds)! I do tend to agree with you though that I would prefer a happy ending (so long as it makes sense, there are some I’m iffy on and feel a bit too forced for me). I also get super attached to characters (I don’t think that’s a bad thing, as an author that’s a huge compliment) and I want to see them happy at the end, but if it feels too strained or forced, then I think that’s when the “trope” really does become a bad thing.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re right, forcing a happy ending is worse than unhappy ever after. In fact there’s quite a lot at stake in the ending with getting it ‘right’, its amazing authors manage to finish their stories at all. So much pressure!

        Liked by 1 person

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