In one of my online courses, I advise students that: 'The character must succeed or fail through his or her OWN efforts and, as a result of that effort, grow or change in a positive way.' One of my students contacted me recently to ask whether it is enough that the character changes. Does it have to be in a positive way, the student asked. Here's my response to the question.
I think the most important factor is how your main character changes. If you want an upbeat ending, the change will need to be a positive one. This could include an outcome that shows that something positive has been learned from a negative situation. However, you may decide to opt for an alternative (less positive) outcome for your story, depending on the genre.
Here are a couple of examples of stories that (on the face of it, at least) end negatively. In Gone With The Wind, the story ends with Rhett leaving Scarlett. His decision is as a direct result of Scarlett’s difficult behavior. Too late, Scarlett realises that she does love Rhett. At the end of the novel, she is left grief stricken and alone at Tara – a situation that is far from positive. However, Scarlett has changed by the end of the story and, despite being deserted by Rhett, she is still thinking of a way to win back his affections—so you could say that these realisations and changes are actually quite positive. In The Gift of the Magi, a short story by O Henry, Della sells her beautiful long hair to raise the money to buy a watch chain for Jim’s gold watch. Meanwhile, Jim sells his watch to buy Della some ornamental combs for her hair. This is a brilliant example of a twist story which, on the face of it, you could say ends negatively: Della has combs but her hair is too short to wear them; Jim has a watch chain but no watch. However, the positive outcome is that Jim and Della have expressed their love for each other by sacrificing their most treasured possessions.
In many stories, characters will face circumstances that are beyond their control and that impact negatively on their lives. How your character deals with those circumstances and the actions they choose to take will reveal the true nature of their personality – so showing how your character changes or how they deal with a situation is a great way to develop characterisation. Ultimately the stories (and endings) you create are your own. If you want to sell your story to a magazine, I’d recommend a positive outcome because many editors won’t consider stories with a downbeat ending. However, there are plenty of places to publish stories other than magazines, so feel free to try an alternative ending and see how it turns out.