Do stories need to have a happy ending? Do they need to end in a victory for your hero?
Growing up, I always thought so. Probably because as kids we read stories that always end in an ideal ending. "And they lived happily ever after." That was what we, as kids, wanted to read. It was just as important as reading "The End."
But as we matured readers eventually found out that life doesn't not always end up happily ever after. In fact, no lives are perfect. Everybody has their problems in life and that is where the concept of theme comes in.
Themes deal with these problems. And sometimes these themes do not lead to a happy ending. For instance, George Orwell's vision of his future in 1984 is terrifying. There are powerful themes of censorship, surveillance, and limitless government control that makes this a fascinating story. Does it end in a happy ending? Does Winston emerge victorious? Not at all. But it is still one of the best and powerful writings. Ever.
Don't get me wrong, a good theme does not have to end up without a victory. Look at Harry Potter. That has very strong themes but ultimately it does have a happy ending despite the fact that a lot of sad sacrifices are made in order to get there.
I seem to differ from the common consensus of the Inheritance Cycle (aka Eragon). A lot of people were upset that it did not end with a happy ending. My brother being one of them and we have had much discussion and debate regarding this subject. He hated the ending while I loved it. Could Paolini done anything to make us both happy? To have a happy ending while sticking true to the themes and characters of the book?
Well, that is my opinion. What is yours? How important is it to have a happy ending? Does a good story need to end with a perfect victory and a "happily ever after"?