Only the Leads Get a Happy Ending
This is where a story ends on a happy, upbeat note, with all the problems resolved and everyone getting back to leading happy, fulfilling lives ... but only if they're main characters. Basically, the characters the audience know and care about get their happy ending, but it comes at the expense of minor characters who get stuck with a Downer Ending.
Note that in this case, it should go without saying that the term " minor characters" does not include villains, even of the Mook variety, since we expect them to wind up worse off in the end.
Related to Protagonist-Centered Morality, Inferred Holocaust, Esoteric Happy Ending, Everybody's Dead, Dave, and Dwindling Party. If an Adam and Eve Plot is both apocalyptic and presented as having an upbeat ending, it's also this.
See also: What Happened to the Mouse?, where minor characters are forgotten about entirely.
Anime and Manga
- GoLion, with all the death and destruction, and Princess Amue losing her love in a Senseless Sacrifice.
- Arguably Sailor Moon, mainly in the manga.
- Argument: Usagi and Mamoru get to get married and have a child and rule the world together in bliss, aside from the occasional alien attack. The other Senshi get to spend their lives in servitude to them and cannot have relationships of their own. And that's not even mentioning the billions of people who will die before civilization is rebuilt as Crystal Tokyo.
- Counter-Argument: The Senshi choose to live lives of chastity, protecting the queen and king of Crystal Tokyo, and they all seem happy with their decision.
- Inverted in Code Geass, where Lelouch dies and Suzaku fakes his death and forever takes on the identity of Zero, while the surviving main characters move on with their lives and attend Ohgi and Villetta's wedding.
- Fushigi Yuugi. Yeah, Miaka and Tamahome get their happy ending... Too bad the other Guardians of Suzaku are either trapped in a book or dead (and Miaka, at one point of the story, actually had the power to bring every one of them back to life and/or in the real world. But she resurrected only the guy she loves).
- In Wolf's Rain, the only characters shown in the Bittersweet Ending are the wolves and Cheza. The implication is that human characters do not get to be reincarnated in the future.
- In some Jack Chick tracts, the main Christian will talk to one non-believer, who gets more focus than the rest of the cast and goes to heaven in the end, while the other non-Christians are implied to go to Hell. One example is "The Trial"; the twist is that the plaintiff's daughter accepted Jesus when her friend, the defendant, told her, and the girl's mother and the witnesses called in to testify (authorities from other religions) go to Hell. Then again, it's just as common to invert this, as in "Busted" the main prosecutor goes to hell while his secretary gets converted (however, we don't hear whether the suspect at the beginning was convicted, much less whether he deserved the outcome).
- Saturday Night Fever: Tony heads to the big city to dance on Broadway! He gets the girl! Well... the girl who wasn't treated like dirt, raped, and then forgotten about, that is. And let's just forget Tony's friend Bobby C, who falls off the Verrazanno-Narrows Bridge during an act of depressed recklessness.
- The most recent[when?] movie version of Les Misérables ended the story before Jean Valjean dies, making it a happy ending as long as you're Jean Valjean, Marius, or Cosette and not any of the rest of the revolutionaries, who all died on the barricades.
- The Ring: Rachel and Aiden make a copy of the cursed videotape, thus passing on the evil. Someone else will certainly watch the video and die, but it's OK because the main characters are safe! Then again, it's a horror movie. The only way to survive is to doom other people, and the only way to get out of the movie alive is to harden yourself to that. (Note that in the original, the person being set up to die is the lead's father.)
- The end of Birth of a Nation, with the main characters happily married and the Klan firmly in control of the South, is kind of like that. Or maybe that's just Values Dissonance.
- At the end of Saving Private Ryan, James Ryan gets to go home to be with his Mom. Rieben and Upham get to grieve their six dead squad mates.
- What about his three dead brothers? It's not even a true happy ending for Ryan, either.
- In Hellboy II: The Golden Army the movie ends with Liz and Hellboy planning on their future together with their children. Abe Sapien, on the other hand, gets to mourn the death of his lost love, Princess Nuala, who killed herself to stop her brother from destroying the human world.
- Well, Hellboy himself is still prophesized to bring destruction to the world... and to hurt Liz most of all. One would imagine that she'd be more conflicted than outright happy.
- Avatar: Jake Sully and his alien catgirlfriend Neytiri get to live happily ever after. The last two humans on the planet (both friends of Jake's, remember) are likely going to starve or suffocate soon, and there's the fact that thousands of Na'vi are now dead (including Neytiri's father and former boyfriend), but at least the love-birds are together, right?
- Signs: Millions or billions of people have been killed or enslaved by the alien invasion, but God smiled on this one family and saved them so yay!
- Unlikely. It wouldn't be hard for the rest of humanity to come across the aliens' Weaksauce Weakness.
- In Memoirs of a Geisha, Chiyo manages to unite with her beloved Chairman. Pumpkin is never heard from again, Mameha lives alone and without her beloved Baron, and General Nobu just stays away because "he can't forgive [Chiyo/Sayuri]".
- Red Riding Hood: The village continues to live in fear even though the Wolf never returned. Valerie's mother has no one left, except Valerie who now lives in her dead grandmother's house and it's unknown if they see each other. Peter, after being bitten by the Wolf on a Blood Moon and thus becoming one every full moon returns to Valerie at the end of the movie after running away for some time to learn to control his werewolf power and the end credits show them being happy together.
- 2012 takes this to a truly ruthless degree. The main characters and several thousand others survive - the entire rest of the world (except, it's revealed, Africa) drowned.
- The nuns in The Sound of Music. The Nazis are certain to figure out that it was the nuns who sabotaged their car and enabled the Von Trapp family to escape. Things might get pretty unpleasant for Uncle Max, too.
- Subverted and lampshaded in Red Dragon. A family called the Leads is murdered, and Will definitely doesn't get a happy ending.
- In Pride and Prejudice And Zombies. Elizabeth marries Darcy. Nothing happens to stop the zombie apocalypse, though...
- Alexander McCall Smith's book The Careful Use of Compliments ends with the independently wealthy Isabel using her money to buy the journal she edits, firing the editorial board, and replacing it with her friends, all so she won't lose her editing job. Good for her, but sucky for the editorial board, the guy who was going to be the new editor, and all the journal's readers, since the journal will undoubtedly suffer a precipitous decline in quality.
- Harry Potter. Sure, the main characters go on to lead happy lives with kids and jobs and a future. Most of the secondary characters die. Fred, Lupin, Tonks, Moody, even Colin Creevey.
- That is only a small part of the secondary characters. There are dozens more that also have happy/bittersweet endings.
- I think it's emphasized more in the film version, where you see Harry, Hermione and Ron cheering each other for beating Voldemort while strolling through a landscape littered with wreckage and bodies.
- Dean Koontz's The Bad Place.
- Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest. The sorceress is defeated. Sorcha and Red finally get together, are completely content with their lives and get a Babies Ever After ending, but Simon is left out in the cold, Margary is left alone with a baby, Liam's one true love is dead, Colum has lost his self-confidence and Finbar is stuck with a swan's wing. Quite a Downer Ending for most of the cast.
- In Shadowleague All the main characters are pictured as looking at a bright future that they'll build together with everyone they met during the story, so everything must be going good... unless you're one of the many who died of the invading vampire-creatures, the plague or various other causes throught the upheaval up until the main characters fix most of it.
- Maggie Furey seems to have a thing for pulling this off quite well, at the end of her Artefacts of Power series, if you're not a friend of Aurian, you're looking at a bleak life... and even then, two of her friends are stuck ruling a province for someone they don't like ruling under, too many people simply die, the Nightrunners don't really have a home anymore, (and if Faerie rule has a bad effect on trade they might not have of a living either), and the three Xandim protagonists are outcasts of the to-be-brought-back-in-chains variant. Let's just say it's reasonable that Aurian wants to take some time off with her child, lover, and a couple of big black cats.
- In Breaking Dawn, the main characters all get happy endings. Meanwhile, every other secondary character goes back to a nomadic life, presumably on the Volturi's target list.
- The epilogue of Lois McMaster Bujold's Shards of Honor starkly emphasizes that the leads may have gotten their happy ending, but a lot of innocent people died along the way.
- Discussed in Witches Abroad, where a voodoo priestess fights a fairy godmother who's manipulating the Theory of Narrative Causality for her own ends; the priestess thinks to herself at one point that she's fighting for all the exploited and down-trodden everyday people who "never got a happy ending" because they're just extras and side characters.
- This sort-of happens in Robin Hood. Both Robin Hood and Marian end up dead, but they are given a Together in Death scene that suggests that they have an eternity in Heaven to share. Everyone else? Shot, stabbed, dead, buried, abandoned, forgotten, or stuck with Kate.
- Similar to the Family Guy example below, at the end of the second season premiere of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Frank very conspicuously says "the important thing is that nobody important got seriously hurt" after the gang got in a car accident. The camera then pans over to an unnamed character who was with the group at the time lying in a full body cast in a hospital bed calling them jerks.
- The play Life Is A Dream by Pedro Calderon de la Barca ends with the main couple having a beautiful wedding! Never mind the pointless war the protagonist and his father were having.
- Older Than Steam Shakespearean examples:
- Henry V ends with the wedding of the eponymous King and Princess Katherine of France after Henry fights a bloody war of conquest against his soon-to-be father-in-law. However, Shakespeare lampshades the trope by pointing out in the epilogue that Henry's conquests will be short-lived and his premature death will lead to a bloody civil war.
- In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Demetrius is given the love-in-idleness, thus forcing him to fall in love with Helena. While this is definitely good for Helena, it's not really a happy ending for Demetrius, given that he doesn't have a choice in the matter. He doesn't even seem to be aware that anything's out of the ordinary, making this a subversion.
- Fable II. The Needs Of the One ending.
- The ending of Fire Emblem: Mystery of the Emblem is bad for practically everyone except Marth, Caeda, and a few others.
- In The Secret of Monkey Island, if you sink your ship with the catapultic rock thing, Herman Toothrot will take you back to Melee island instead of them, and in the ending you'll get a nice sequence about how they're trapped in the cannibal hut. Escape from Monkey Island also treats this as canon and plays the trauma for laughs.
- Star Ocean and Star Ocean the Second Story both have Multiple Endings based on hidden relationship meters between the characters, the Main Characters of course get their happy ending no matter what, but.. for those who have bad scores the endings can edge on Tear Jerkers.
- Inverted in Dragon Age for a female Warden who was in a relationship with Alistair and didn't harden him, or for a male Warden who was in a relationship with Morrigan. Everyone but the leads (in your party anyway) gets a happy ending.
- Appears in Dragon Age 2, where Kirkwall has been devastated, Thedas is rapidly approaching its first world war, and the entire band of heroes has been split up...except for Hawke and his/her Love Interest.
- Only in the ending where you side with the Templars (you become ruler of Kirkwall). If you side with the mages you end up fleeing your home. Again.
- Subverted in Fallout: New Vegas. Depending on whether or not you do the side and the companion quests and depending on who you sided with (or not) the outcome for everyone (except the courier) can be different come endgame.
- The best ending of Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume has Wylfred finally find peace, his mother regain her sanity, and Tilte learning about Ancel's death and being able to grieve him properly instead of just sensing that something's plain wrong. The rest of the cast, however, don't get featured at all in the ending and most of the characters that don't you meet but don't recruit get rather depressing ends. It doesn't help that the two other endings are Downer Endings.
- Somewhat averted in Knights of the Old Republic 2. The Exile's team goes off to found the new Jedi Order, fix the damaged Republic, and shut down the HK-50's while she is condemned to flying off to die at the hands of the True Sith. It's implied in The Old Republic MMO that she did manage to do enough to set back the invasion for almost 300 years, but she still misses out on the oppurtunity to see all of her actions come to fruition or pursue a relationship with Atton or the Disciple.
- Split fifty-fifty for the main characters in Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning and Snow get Serah back (though the sequel takes Lighting away from Serah immediately thereafter), Sazh has his son back, but Hope's mother is dead and Fang and Vanille are turned into crystals for all eternity.
- Also split fifty-fifty for the rest of humanity (or rather, the handful survivors). They lost their homes and are forced to live under the harsh conditions of Gran Pulse and are no longer protected by the fal'Cie. Then again the Fal'cie were the villains are trying to kill all of them. The main characters's final act Plan was to stop the Fal'cie and, failing at that, to mitigate the damage.
- In Family Guy, Lois is targeted for assassination by the Mafia by putting a bomb in her car. But Peter convinces the kingpin to spare her life; and the episode ends with Peter saying "all that matters is that nobody important got hurt." (As the parking-valet's clothes come floating down from the sky in little pieces.)
- This, however, depends on your interpretation of the whole love spell thing. A common interpretation now is to see it as incredibly squicky mind control quasi-rape, but a number of older works seem to view magically induced love as being just as valid as naturally occurring love. This is particularly prominent once you get back to Classical Mythology, where all love is the result of the gods going, "Okay, you hook up with that person, and you hook up with that person, and ... oh, how about we give that guy a donkey fetish?"