Thursday, February 5, 2009
“Fly, you fools!” -- Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring
The sacrifice of a likeable character is a great way to twist the reader’s heartstrings. When I first watched Operation Daybreak, a film about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, I kept hoping and hoping that the Czech paratroopers would somehow escape from the Nazis closing in on them. When I realized that they had given their lives for their mission, it brought tears to my eyes.
Readers expect happy endings, but to a certain extent they also expect realism. Sacrificing a heroic and admirable character is a great way to set them up for the one, but give them the other instead. Provided it’s done well.
So when does this not work?
1. The character is undeveloped.
I once watched a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode called “Sacrifice of Angels”. I was looking forward to it, since it was the climax of a seven-episode arc and would feature a fierce battle. The title also suggested that someone would die, and I was hoping for something along the lines of Spock’s climactic sacrifice in The Wrath of Khan.
Instead, a minor character was killed while she was talking to her father. And personality-wise, she was nice, loyal and good at art, without any unusual quirks or flaws that might have made her memorable.
The whole point of a sacrifice is to make the readers care about the character stepping up to the scaffold. Even a death has no impact if the readers haven’t formed a connection of some sort to the character.
2. The character has options other than sacrificing themselves.
If the character can solve the problem by doing something other than dying, the readers will expect them to try the other option first (provided the character is a reasonable and non-suicidal person).
That’s one reason I love the “Gethsemane” scene in Jesus Christ Superstar. When Jesus insists on knowing why it’s so necessary for him to die, he receives a vision showing the impact of his sacrifice. After that, he’s more or less reconciled to it, because he realizes that it's the only way for him to achieve God’s aims.
3. The sacrifice wasn’t really a sacrifice.
This is when the character comes back to life afterwards. Some stories which do this disguise it by the character coming back in another form – reincarnation, for instance, or being put into an animal’s body – but it still weakens the sacrifice. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe gets away with this, but that’s partly because it’s written for children and partly because it’s a Christian allegory.
4. The character fails.
The only circumstances under which I’d accept the characters failing in what they set out to do, as well as dying, would be if that’s the way it happened in real life – for instance, Scott’s attempt to be the first man to reach the South Pole.
Otherwise, readers want some vindication. Even if the character doesn’t know it, and dies without ever being aware of whether they’ve succeeded, the readers need to know it. Nothing’s more depressing than reading a story that takes a turn for the nihilistic and says that the character’s sacrifice was useless.
However, there’s no reason to have the character – moments before their execution – experience a vision or see an event which shows them everything’s going to be fine. This can come off as either too much of a coincidence or as the author taking pity on the character.
Sacrifice, like porcelain, needs to be handled with care for best effect.