How to give a tragic protagonist a decent ending
July 29, 2022 11:03 AM   Subscribe

I've been writing a book for a few years. My protagonist has slowly turned into a tragic figure as the plot has gotten bleaker, and now the good-ish ending I had planned for her feels hard to realistically justify, even though I still want to write it. Is there any way I can salvage her mostly-decent ending, or should I rethink it?

CW: mentions of the concept of suicide, and discussions around trauma and hopelessness.

I know that, ultimately, this is a decision I have to make on my own, and that there is no "right" answer. Still, I'm feeling very stuck here, so I wanted to ask for other people's thoughts on this, which might help spark something.

Essentially, I'm worried I've written myself into a corner. This book is sci-fi and handles galactic catastrophe and war. When I set out to write it my intention was to create a character who got put through hell by the galaxy, but was able to survive it and eventually rebuild her life in a way that made some sort of sense. Her ending was going to be muted and sad yet hopeful, with a focus on survival, community, and finding a sense of meaning and tempered joy, even while having to forever live with the trauma and manage what happened to her. I'm a trauma survivor myself, so writing an ending infused with sadness but also with glimmers of hope + love felt important to me.

So, the theme has always been survival and hope while living with heartbreaking circumstances. The issue is, as I've developed the plot and her character, more and more awful situations have piled up. She's lost friends, been forced into terrible moral decisions to survive, and has faced immense, unthinkable violence and psychological breakdown. I'm not throwing these horrors at her just because I can or because I want to revel in her suffering, though.

I've chosen each plotpoint carefully and I've tried to treat them as non-gratuitously and non-melodramatically as possible. I've written whole outlines taking some of the bad things out to see if it helped, but the same thing keeps happening when I do that—I cannot remove these plotpoints without removing the heart of the story, which would make it lose so much personal meaning for me. So I've kept most of them in.

But now the whole thing is dark as hell. And I keep running into the idea—both in my own head and from other authors—that some characters are fundamentally too broken by the plot, too unsalvageable to ever lead a somewhat fulfilling life, and that it would be a mercy and the inevitable conclusion for them to die or slip into a hollow shell at the end of the book. Don't get me wrong: there is value in these types of tragic stories. It can send a poignant message about the heavy tolls of violence, our heartbreaking reactions to it, and the gutwrenching realities of atrocity.

My protagonist is the perfect blueprint for that type of ending. Except... I don't want that for her. Even though she's been through unbearable suffering, I flinch at the idea that her sad life has to end sadly, too. That never-changing suffering or her suicide is inevitable, unpreventable, the only available outcome to someone so, so hurt. It's very much the opposite of the theme I wanted to explore, that of survival and building an okay life within wreckage. I wrote a tragic character but don't want to give her a tragic ending.

What's next, then? I don't want to gloss over the impact of catastrophic loss, trauma and violence, because that would feel off. I'd hate to fall into the trap of giving my character a big, cleansing ending where all her wounds are washed away and nothing hurts, because I know trauma survival/coping does not usually work like that, and it's a pet peeve of mine when media portrays it that way. I don't want a tragic ending, yet I don't want a saccharine one, either. But I'm struggling to picture what an ending in the middle ground would look like.

My question here is: does anyone have any ideas or external resources/examples I could read on how to give a broken down, tragic character a survivable (maybe even bittersweet yet hopeful) ending that doesn't feel jarring or unrealistic? This is an incredibly broad question, I know, and people have wildly varying tastes and experiences with this type of thing, but I'd appreciate any and all thoughts. I'm keeping details of the actual plot vague for privacy reasons, but I don't mind sharing in MeMail if that'd make things clearer. Thank you so much!
posted by runnerfive to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The end of the Hunger Games trilogy has a badly traumatized Katniss staying alive, struggling with PTSD and the grief of her losses, but surviving to have a life with some joy in it as well (as I recall.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:10 AM on July 29 [6 favorites]

Commonly such a character ends the journey by entering a reclusive spiritual retreat (think Buddhist monastery or nunnery), broken but with the idea that a long process of peace and spiritual healing awaits them.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:17 AM on July 29 [2 favorites]

It ain't over until it's over. She could hear the motif of a familiar song and be reenergized. She could find an alien-space-snail and see the world as a good place as long as she makes it a good place for one small other being. Some characters go on simply because it is the habit they have chosen. Life may bet against them, but they won't bet against themselves. There are plenty of characters who stagger into the future without capitulating. Often jaded, used up, bitter characters can only die once they connect in some way with a version of their younger self (as in, a new character kinda like the space-snail). To stay true to your plot points and your character you may have to have her plan or start to take her life, but you, as god-authoress, have the power to make anything happen.

Lt. Ripley seems like a good model (as always).
posted by cocoagirl at 11:23 AM on July 29 [3 favorites]

The biggest thing you can do is to give your protagonist time. If she can land in a situation that is stable but not perfect, let her rest there for a couple years, and revisit her state of mind.
posted by itesser at 11:36 AM on July 29 [3 favorites]

If you haven't read The Parable of the Sower, I think it's a good example of a bleak journey for a protagonist that still has an ending that leaves hope for the future.

What drives your character? What could still be motivating to her, even after all she's been through? She doesn't necessarily have to be at a great place at the end of your story; if she's still striving for something, she still has a chance at a better future.
posted by the primroses were over at 11:39 AM on July 29 [6 favorites]

How about this: All along her life, even while these terrible things are happening to her, she's put a little time and thought, here and there, into building something over the long term. Maybe she encounters an idea in a book or a TV show that leads to her being able to put things in perspective or to her studying another language so she can eventually work, travel, or enjoy art in a context totally removed from the bad things or people in her life. Maybe she wanders through grubby obscure art shows at a homeless shelter or cafe and buys a piece that speaks to her once per year. Maybe she dutifully writes letters to ... someone, or through a pen pal program. Maybe she joins a church or other random organization and slowly becomes central to it and a confidante to one or two young people.

All of these things let you build something in yourself, and maybe in the world, slowly over time.
posted by amtho at 11:48 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]

I mean, some people survived the Holocaust and went on to live their lives after that. Not that anybody would be unmarked by the experience, obviously, but not everybody commits suicide or goes into a catatonic state or whatever.
posted by number9dream at 11:50 AM on July 29 [11 favorites]

Freedom’s just another word for ‘nothing left to lose.’
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:51 AM on July 29 [3 favorites]

I am very glad to read this question because I’ve read hundreds of fantasies over the last few years, and my perennial complaint has been that the forces of evil are so overwhelmingly powerful that the ultimate 'triumph' by the main characters is less credible than even the most extravagantly fantastic elements of the plot, and leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth and a reluctance to risk reading anything else by that author.

This has been a problem of fantasy since at least Milton (he "of the Devil's Party without knowing it", in Blake's phrase), and it's a hard one.

The novelist I think did the best job of solving it — and in fact turns it inside out into a source of enormous narrative force and emotional satisfaction — is Naomi Novik in Uprooted. I can’t presume to summarize how she accomplished that, but even if reading it turns out not to be enough to disclose it, I doubt you'd regret making the effort.
posted by jamjam at 12:00 PM on July 29 [8 favorites]

The examples I'm thinking of revolve around the theme of "move far away to heal/start over even though life will never be the same" (examples: Frodo Baggins; Mahit Djmare). Maybe all she wants is to "go home", but she knows that both she and home are so changed that it's not possible, so maybe she could do something like volunteer for a long trip to a new colony world (either long-term cryosleep or a relativistic ship, the idea being that when she arrives, a few lifetimes will have passed in the outside world).
posted by heatherlogan at 12:57 PM on July 29

Even though she's been through unbearable suffering, I flinch at the idea that her sad life has to end sadly, too. That never-changing suffering or her suicide is inevitable, unpreventable, the only available outcome to someone so, so hurt.

A saccharine ending would be unrealistic, yes, but inevitable suffering seems equally unrealistic. The world is bound up in human suffering; millions upon millions of us have lived through shocking amounts of trauma and harm. And yet, is suicide the most common outcome for a survivor of war, genocide, and other extreme conglomerate events? No, it is not. Is never-changing suffering an inevitable outcome? Well, in the sense that there are deep traumas that can't ever be undone, sure. But most people who have lived through the unimaginable are not walking around in misery all the time. The human mind has a tremendous capacity for compartmentalizing trauma, and many who have suffered immensely find ways to live a life with true meaning and joy afterward, even if the trauma continues to affect their experience/behavior in deleterious ways they may not ever deal with (or that it's simply not possible to deal with).

The meaning and joy may come from traditional sources, such as finding love among friends, partners, or family; embarking on a career or mission that feels meaningful; or developing a spiritual life.

Even if someone loses everything in the world, and can retrieve almost nothing, they may find peace in subtler ways, such as becoming intensely dedicated to growing a garden, playing an instrument, tending someone's grave, etc.

It's also possible to decide you just don't know what ultimately happens to this character. Maybe she does succumb to despair, maybe life shakes out another way...but you don't HAVE to define her future path just because you've told her story. You can always offer a final spot of hope amid the bitterness, without making any promises, which some people will cling to, and others will read as illusory. And who's really to say which reader is "right"? In some ways, the character is not yours; she belongs to the novel, and (eventually) to its readers. It's okay to relinquish control over this person, and decline to fully answer what becomes of her. Your responsibility is to find a natural endpoint, not chase her to the absolute end.

Anyway, if you haven't read it, maybe this is a good time to give Wuthering Heights a spin. It's thought of as a tragic book, but the ending provides an emotional resolution that I can't define as tragic, and offers some hope for the future.
posted by desert outpost at 12:58 PM on July 29 [5 favorites]

The fact that it's sci-fi gives you more options. You can invent ways to deal with trauma that don't currently exist on our world - mind-altering drugs or surgery or brain implants, maybe a brain upload into a computer that can then make modifications. Maybe the protagonist can be cloned and a new version of herself can grow up without the traumas she endured.

I doubt you want the ending to be "and then she took a pill and suddenly everything felt all right." But maybe the treatment could be shown as yet another loss for her. She has to lose good memories along with bad ones, or lose some of what makes her who she is in order to become someone who can bear to keep living, or lose her body and become a program running on a computer. Maybe what happens in her brain that makes life bearable happens as a result of a failed suicide attempt or a brutal attack by an enemy or self-medication with something harmful.

Maybe you can make whatever helps her survive be something she earned or something that comes from her being part of a caring community. She saves someone's life and that person then works to invent a new brain therapy to treat her. Or the people who love her all make huge personal sacrifices to get her access to some treatment that isn't available to most people. Or one of her earlier decisions leads to the survival of a marginalized group that has a powerful but little known drug or meditation technique that can help heal trauma.
posted by Redstart at 12:59 PM on July 29 [3 favorites]

I'm a trauma survivor myself, so writing an ending infused with sadness but also with glimmers of hope + love felt important to me.
Interrogate your own experience of trauma. Think about a time when you realized you were healing. That might be a good inspiration.

Consider ending on a trajectory instead of a place. For example, the end of Breaking Bad leaves one sympathetic character with a huge short-term triumph but in profound long-term jeopardy. The Fanfare post for that episode was full of conflicting interpretations about whether our protag would be roadkill a second after the credits rolled, or if he was going to roll that short-term triumph into long-term safety.

Your reader's brain is powerful; they will extrapolate from what you show them, and they will extrapolate along their own preferences.
posted by Sauce Trough at 1:22 PM on July 29 [2 favorites]

She could hear the motif of a familiar song and be reenergized.
I think cocoa_girl is onto something there! Establish a motif in your work that represents happiness, stability, something your protag lacks. Repeat it a few times to drill it in and them repeat it at the ending to put some warm fuzzy punctuation on the plot.
posted by Sauce Trough at 1:26 PM on July 29

Also, Beloved, which is extremely tragic and yet reintegrates Sethe into her community, and presents an opportunity for her healing. (The novel's defining exchange, which I don't think "spoils" anything: "You your best thing, Sethe." "Me? Me?" To me this reads as very tentative hope.)

And perhaps this is obvious, but Lord of the Rings provides a quintessential example of the protagonist who is too physically and spiritually wounded to carry on in the normal world, without treating this darkly.
posted by desert outpost at 1:54 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]

I am reminded of when Forrest Gump took up running.
posted by aniola at 1:56 PM on July 29

Oh god sorry for the triple post but I forgot to say good luck!! This sounds like a fascinating project, and I think anyone who gives this much delicate thought to trauma and endings will certainly find a way to stick the landing.
posted by desert outpost at 2:06 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]

Is it the Lorax that ends with a sprout? I think you can give her a sprout. Not literally, unless that makes sense for the plot. A sprout could be when someone else who has survived terrible things reaches out to her and they share a moment of connection. I don't even mean a romantic connection, but an indication of shared experiences and a tiny glimmer of hope might be compelling and let folks write her a happy ending.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:15 PM on July 29 [2 favorites]

The best model is yourself. You know trauma, but here you are writing and living. However you did that, your character can too.

Another model might be the noir mystery. The protagonist gets beat up, shot at, discovers horrible and ineradicable corruption, finds that their love interest it a scoundrel... but they win one victory at the end of the book and let that be enough.

What your character probably needs is ten years in the same spot. Narratively, that's hard to fit in after 300 pages of pulse-pounding action sequences, but you can provide the beginnings. She gets caught in a place without a working portal, she escapes to a remote planet, she shape-shifts and starts a xenosushi restaurant, whatever. The sequel can tell us how that went (and by not resolving all the problems, you've left her plenty to do).
posted by zompist at 2:45 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]

The story arc you’re describing reminds me somewhat of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, also science fiction. Without spoiling anything, the author employs a frame device of showing the beginning of the protagonist’s healing journey after the main traumatic events of the novel, with the narrative jumping forward and back in time. One idea to consider.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 3:31 PM on July 29 [3 favorites]

1) I always tell people, for me, hope doesn’t preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger or any other emotion that makes total sense. Hope isn’t an emotion, you know? Hope is not optimism. [...] That speaks to me as a philosophy of living, that hope is a discipline and that we have to practice it every single day. -- Activist, writer, and educator Mariame Kaba [the interview transcript is worth your time]

Your protagonist has been through hell; what have your other characters been up to? Who has your main character talked (sympathized, fought, and compared herself) with during these trials? Who's earned her pity, or her admiration, or both? When "taking some of the bad things out" makes the story ring hollow, add good stuff for a better balance. (Resurrect a friend or two if it helps.) Feeling like you've written yourself into a corner is an invitation to open up your story more.

2) I keep running into the idea [that] some characters are fundamentally too broken by the plot [...] My protagonist is the perfect blueprint for that type of ending

No, she's not. She's hardly a villain because of trauma. (Neither are you, and neither am I.) Please, don't kill your fighter off! Gift her with the same grace you've given yourself: a hopeful, engaging, creative pursuit that lets her process what's happened, and helps other people, too. (Here's a brief list of links, resource ideas. Maybe your character becomes a memoirist, a healer, or some kind of anti-violence advocate.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:51 PM on July 29 [3 favorites]

My first thought is maybe she dies as part of making a sacrifice that significantly advances some cause she believes in. If we get some sense that the sacrifice was not in vain and that someone else could not have made the same sacrifice in her stead then I wouldn't classify that as wholly tragic.
posted by juv3nal at 7:37 PM on July 29

Have you read the Broken Earth trilogy? I thought of that immediately.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 7:54 PM on July 29 [2 favorites]

It might help to think of it like--she's not so broken that she can't have a happy ending, but she has CHANGED enough that a life she might previously have wanted wouldn't work for the person she is now. So first she has to come to terms with losing that happy ending she originally wanted, since she isn't her old self anymore; then she has to figure out what happiness looks like for the person she is now. It's a bittersweet process.
posted by cheesegrater at 9:37 PM on July 29 [4 favorites]

I'll add to my comment above that if you invent some sci-fi way for her to heal from trauma, you get to decide how big an effect it has. Probably you wouldn't make it a complete cure, just a plausible way for her to recover to the point where she's able to have the kind of ending you originally envisioned.
posted by Redstart at 9:53 PM on July 29

Approaching this as a writing problem more than a philosophical one, it sounds as if your drafts thus far have focused on creating a compelling experience of trauma. Maybe it's time to point future drafts at creating a framework of recovery. Consider enriching the character with details from the very beginning by allowing her to interact with thing(s) she can care deeply about and which may, in turn, offer healing later. Maybe this is a "found family" she encounters as part of the actions of the book. Maybe it's something as simple as the peace found in tending plants. Whatever makes sense for your character. This aspect of her can become a touchstone that is revisited in some way throughout the challenges of the book, and in the end it may offer respite and meaning.

Consider the real ways you have moved through, and been changed by, your own experiences. Sure, you could write about a magical pill that would take the hurt away, but I believe speculative fiction speaks more powerfully when its characters must struggle with the same timeless challenges we face.
posted by itstheclamsname at 4:34 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]

The character could meet another person/entity that is experiencing one of the situations she previously made it through. She could use her experience to guide the person/entity to a successful conclusion.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 5:31 AM on July 30

This definitely sounds like a writing problem and not a trauma thing. Which is awesome. It's also awesome you've got this whole draft!

I have some suggested exercises. There's something that I think is in Wonderbook called...I may be mangling this...inconsistent consistency. I think you may to get to some details about/around your character and they will show you the way forward. Here are a few suggestions -

- look at the spots in your book you've written that are not the traumatic moments but the relief (in the same of painting, like the quiet moments that make the worse moments pop) and see what the texture is there. You might need to do some exercise-type writing of those scenes from other viewpoints to see but...what was your character doing/thinking/feeling/handling before the traumas. What weird things did she have in her bedside table before the action of the story began? What were her ambitions when she was 5? Favourite pet? Beloved hobby? Maybe she was fascinated by the vorpal bunnies before they ate her horse and she will open a vorpal bunny rescue named after her horse.

- try writing what she would be doing if the same traumatic historical events had happened to her friend, like what would she be doing in the devastation if she weren't personally implicated?

- write her dead! Don't worry, you can undo it. What does that look like. Maybe it is right for her to get an honourable burial and a monument. What would people at her funeral wish that she were doing right then? What would she miss by being dead?

(BTW, you can always skip the scenes where she contemplates suicide and lies in bed for 2 months and skip ahead, no rule against that.)

- maybe your book is ending a bit too early or really, a bit too late. Do you have to show her hitting bottom after all the trauma, or can you just end it earlier and let the reader decide from there? Alternatively, what happens next? Does someone come in and metaphorically borrow a cup of sugar? Is she the kind of person who would answer the door even if it meant setting aside her suicide for a few minutes?

I haven't read your book so I'm saying this from my own sort of weaknesses but when you say this: My protagonist is the perfect blueprint for that type of ending, for me that is a red flag (a lovely red flag, the revision kind of red flag.) Whenever my characters are behaving "to blueprint" it means that I'm writing from a stereotype or a trope. I can totally keep writing along (colour within) those lines! But sometimes it means I need to reach deeper into details, get more weird, really sit and let the thing breathe.

Because as you probably know, if you traumatize 10 people you will probably get 15 responses. Not only will 10 people not react the same, but they won't even react the same on different days. So feel free to write through all kinds of scenarios and see where you get to.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:00 AM on July 30 [4 favorites]

Also thinking of the Broken Earth trilogy and several other fantasies I've read... fantasy/sci-fi has plenty of protagonists who go through lots and lots of trauma and survive. If your question is whether the reader will believe that your protagonist can survive--yes, they will.
posted by kingdead at 6:04 AM on July 30

This might be an unpopular idea, but I love novels with ambiguous endings, where I can turn the details over and over to try to decide what happened after the last page.
posted by slidell at 9:33 PM on July 30

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