Allow me to elaborate on that title: When you are writing, you do NOT have to make a cliche happy ending. Personally, I’d settle for at least a somewhat satisfactory ending, but it doesn’t have to be entirely strawberries and cream. Depending on your writing style and what your story is, it could be a real tearjerker. The trick is, you need to make it meaningful to YOU, and convey that meaning to your readers. You don’t always have to have a “moral of the story” at the end, but often there’s a subtle little lesson or theme.
For instance, in The Awakening by Kate Chopin, the main character, Edna, is frustrated with her life, and just wants to be a free, independent woman– a highly difficult feat to accomplish in that specific era. Throughout the novel, Chopin cleverly weaves the themes of birds and water (more specifically, the ocean) into her novella, symbolizing luxurious freedom. However, we get a glimpse at the end that Edna has perhaps bitten a bit more off than she could chew, as clearly demonstrated by a bird nearby with a broken wing, that skydives down into the ocean and drowns; Edna too swims off too far, and it is implied that she will not be able to make it back to shore.
This is not to say you should kill off your main character; few authors actually do this successfully and with little upsetting reactions from their readers, but if it’s relevant to YOUR story, think it all ties together nicely that way, then go for it. Few fellow readers will agree with me on this, I fear, but I must say Veronica Roth herself actually pulled this off pretty well, in my humble opinion. I normally don’t like it when main characters (especially protags) are killed off, unless there is an EXTREMELY good reason for it. Many readers, after reading Allegiant, swore off the series simply because Tris died, forgetting she died for a very good CAUSE– to save MILLIONS of others’ lives in dying, herself. It was the ULTIMATE act of Love, a Sacrificial Love kind of death (that totally does NOT forecast Roth’s faith as a believer in ANY way, shape, or form. ). It was true, it was pure, it was “hauntingly beautiful” as one Facebook commentator once put it. I think it was a satisfyingly good ending. The same goes for Roald Dahl’s children story, The Witches (major spoilers ahead, if you haven’t read it!). No one but the villains are killed, but the ending may have been less than satisfying for some, who might have wanted the protagonist to change back into a boy, as he did in the movie (that was, by the way, the primary reason Dahl totally disowned that film); instead, the boy remains a mouse-boy, who has a shortened life span but has easily adapted to his new life very well, and excitedly plots with his also aging grandmother about how to sneak into witches’ secret lairs and “get them” before they do away with all the children of the world, before their time is up, and they pass away peacefully together, with their mission accomplished. It gave me the utmost feeling of satisfaction, the same feeling I believe Dahl must have felt upon completing that wonderful work. But the readers who wanted to change the boy back, and filmmakers who agreed, forgot to take into account one thing that Dahl had already thought of: If the boy had been turned back, and his grandmother died, he would literally have no one to take care of him, since he was essentially an orphan otherwise.
That being said, make sure your ending with the characters makes logical sense, too. Sometimes, we let our own feelings and affections bias us to certain characters, and it prevents us from letting them do what they need to do– like overprotective parents, we cushion our favorites, rather than shoving them out of the nest so they can fly. Don’t forget to give your characters flying lessons, of course, but let them SOAR. Soar off into a wonderful, and perhaps very meaningful, ending that neither you nor your readers will be inclined to forget. You won’t regret it, I promise.