As a writer, I feel I have a duty to provide a complete story that leaves my readers satisfied. Equally, and maybe slightly bizarrely, I feel a duty to my characters – imaginary though they may be – to be true to them. And sometimes this has been a bone of contention with my readers.
Obviously I can’t talk in detail about the end of each of my books without giving away far too much, so I will have to write in general terms.
The controversy all started with Only the Innocent. Sometimes good people are forced to do bad things, and in this story a woman murders a man. That’s giving nothing away – it’s in the blurb, and it’s very clear from the prologue that the murderer is a woman (or a man in very elaborate drag!). I wanted to create a set of circumstances in which this woman – whichever character she might be in my story – has no option but to murder a man. I didn’t particularly care if my readers guessed who the killer was – because it wasn’t about the who – it was about the why?
But the question is, should she be caught and arrested for the murder she committed? Or should the story end happily, with her getting away with the crime and finding love? Or was there a middle road that was true to my view of what she did, but was also true to my characters?
I won’t divulge the ending, but there were readers in all camps, and even though – to me – the ending was realistic and perfect because I knew and understood the characters, there were people who objected to the decision I had made. And they were polar opposites in their views, with two distinct camps forming. Some were surprisingly harsh in their condemnation of this poor woman’s actions. Some were unrealistically romantic – as if anything so horrific as this murder and all that surrounded it could ever be put behind my protagonist as she sailed off into the sunset.
The whole discussion was fascinating. To me, this divergence of views is a good thing. I like the fact that people will talk about the ending – even if it’s with horror that it wasn’t the ending they hoped for or believed to be right. Of course, when the ending affects the reviews it’s a bit of a shame, but I would rather it be controversial than predictable.
The same issue occurred in Stranger Child but maybe even more strongly felt. People actually believe that because the book didn’t end with all the loose threads tied neatly together, it must be the forerunner to a new book. They believe they are going to get Stranger Child 2 coming shortly.
That was never my intention. In life, things don’t always end tidily, and in this book I dealt with some difficult issues of a young girl who had been brought up in very poor circumstances. As the book unfolds, we learn more of her life and her feeling that she isn’t loved or wanted by anybody. We discover some horrific acts of callous treatment and betrayal, and yet some readers believe or hope that at the end of the book it would suddenly – from being tense, dark and threatening – become sunny and perfect with hugs and kisses all round.
It’s just not real. If you’ve read Stranger Child and you are in the camp that was looking for a neat ending with all the loose ends tied up and everybody having a jolly party, try for a moment to get inside the head of the young girl and think like she thinks. What would she do? Who would she trust?
As a writer, that’s what I have to do. I have to think like each of my characters, know how they are feeling and anticipate their every action.
We’re all suckers for a happy ending, and I was thrilled that people felt so strongly that they sent me messages saying that it shouldn’t have ended the way that it does. It makes me smile, because when I started to write the ending of Stranger Child, I had a completely different outcome in mind. But as soon as my fingers touched my keyboard, my brain was with the girl – thinking her thoughts, feeling her pain.
And there was no other ending possible.
How do you feel about happy endings?