JK Rowling taught me a valuable lesson: in an ongoing series, don’t get too attached to any one character. The author might kill them off. The jolt I got after reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was palpable. I felt it in my gut. In my heart. Right then and there, I resolved to never fall in love with a fictional character again.
Of course, that didn’t really stick. But it did teach me that in anyone else’s fictional world, the ending is out of my control. I remember watching the finales of a few memorable TV series: Lost, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy. These days I watch even less television than I did in the past. Part of that is because I have less trust in the writers to give me an ending that satisfies. Part of that is because there’s too much to choose from. Another part of that is my excuses: I should be writing my own stuff. I should be doing this or that. I should get away from a screen, any kind of screen, and interact with other humans face to face.
The latest show I watched in its entirety was HBO’s Game of Thrones. I know a lot of people who are extremely disappointed in the ending. Without getting into specifics about the show, the writers, and the expense involved in such a production, I will say that by last Sunday night, I finally felt I’d truly learned that lesson from back in my Harry Potter days. I had let go of any personal investment in the ending, and sat back and watched simply as a spectator to the story. Without caring overmuch about the fate of any of the characters, I watched. Looked for nuances. Saw various storylines neatly tied up while others were left dangling or largely unresolved.
I thought back to the other shows I mentioned above. I might be in the minority but I did love the ending to three of those shows (Lost, you lose, your last two seasons were so poorly executed). The final scene of Breaking Bad was a reference to Lost as well as a genuinely complete wrap-up for that series; The Sopranos had an ending that left a great many people highly unsatisfied, although I thought it was brilliant. We still have discussions about that in my home every now and then, and it’s been years since that aired. Sons of Anarchy was a Hamlet retelling, so its ending was inevitable. And while I am curious about whether or not George R.R. Martin is ever going to finish the series that spawned Game of Thrones and I would like to see his take on the end to his sprawling saga, I’m actually sort of relieved that the TV series is over.
Even though it didn’t stick the ending, the ending was someone’s version of fanservice at its most encompassing (and so was Endgame, if we want to bring movies into the discussion). There’s really nothing wrong with fanservice, but fans are a special breed with very distinct notions of what their story’s end should and should not be.
I watch all of this with rapt attention. Most of my friends who hated the ending to Game of Thrones are avid readers of the books. Then there were others who never read any of the novels and didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. It was just TV, right?
For me, as a writer, having a good ending is something of a moral imperative. I would hate to lead my readers along for hundreds of pages only to have an ending where the characters weren’t true to themselves, or the story didn’t wrap convincingly or successfully. I nearly always go into writing a book with the visuals for the final scene set in my mind, or at least the emotional requirements of that scene firmly established. I would hate to write the kind of book where someone said “oh, now I have to write fanfiction to fix that!”
To bring the lesson JK Rowling taught me home to roost, though… the fifth book in the Harry Potter series might have devasted me because of my attachment to her fictional people, but everyone still acted in character. I might not have liked what happened, but it all made sense with the progression of the story. In Breaking Bad I might not have liked who Walter White became, but it made sense. In Sons of Anarchy I might not have appreciated Jax Teller’s desperation, but it made sense given all the other occurrences. And in The Sopranos, I learned that what I wanted to have happened didn’t need to have happened. In fact, I don’t know what happened, and that was okay. The ending made sense given the rest of the story.
I won’t talk about Lost. That was disappointing, especially from a characterization perspective.
But without all of these examples, including the Game of Thrones adaptation, I would have less material to draw on when coming to terms with how I want to end my own series. I want the characters to remain in character. I want the arcs to be complete. I want the resolution to incorporate what came before, without introducing something new or having some Deus Ex Machina nonsense. Mostly, I want the ending to satisfy. I don’t ever want any of my readers to finish only because they feel they have to pick it apart, or to be thinking “wow, what a waste of time.”