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.


Maria Zannini said...

Marian, you write the BEST posts.

I love reading your blog. I should pop in more often to comment, but I wanted you to know that I read you religiously.

Anonymous said...

Very good points, Marian.

I'll add my own pet peeve.

Death in romances. A love triangle? An affair? Someone shall die! (Casablanca being a great exception). Really, I hate it. Instead of forcing the characters to make hard, painful choices, they oh-so-conveniently die. Roll credits as Rachmaninov-ish music plays.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Points 2 and 3, as well as gypsyscarlett's one are probably my top 3 hates :) Death can really be overused... It seems many author's use it as a quickie way to tug at the reader's heartstrings, but I have often found my self sitting there thinking, "What the ...?"

Barbara Martin said...

I agree with all your points, and Gandalf came back as an improved wizard, one to be reckoned with as he was meant to be. The divine works in mysterious ways.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks, Maria. Glad you enjoy the blog. :)

Gypsy and Joy: you've inspired me with an idea for a new post. "When a character's death doesn't work" (often, when it's evident the author has killed him or her).

And Barbara, that's a good point. With Gandalf, Tolkien didn't press a reset button and return Gandalf just as he was before. He was changed by the experience.

Thank you for the feedback, everyone!

Anonymous said...


Good idea regarding the, "when death doesn't work" post. Looking forward to reading it. :)

JH said...

One thing I always did in my early stories was have characters either get screwed over and killed, or suicide. I don't have any idea why, anymore, at the time I was a teenager and I guess I just thought it was "deep."

Marian Perera said...

Well, that does happen all the time in Shakespeare's tragedies. All in the handling, of course.

Thing with that kind of deep is, you really need to do it well. Whereas a happy ending puts much less pressure on the writer. That's just my take on it, though.