In today’s post, I’ll look into one of the most powerful storytelling tools: sacrifice. Since some parts are well-known and working, I’ll try to look some other aspects as well.
The base form of sacrifice in storytelling is very simple: a character, usually one of the wider set of protagonists, gives up his/her life for their cause. The specific reasons might wary: the situation might disallow any other options or force such a move in some form. Often, the impact is a significant blow to the enemy’s numbers and/or morale while urging the others to fight on, for the character’s death to not be in vain.
Beliefs and culture
As with any other part of writing, the setting is important factor. Beliefs of the character and/or the society the character comes from are a significant factor: if the character comes from a culture that fears and shuns death, these beliefs might make it less likely for a character to make such a move. On the other hands, in Nordic-inspired cultures, where sacrifice is seen as an act of ultimate valor and bravery – and a direct ticket to Valhalla – the character might be more inclined to give his/her life for the cause.
This also affects how the character’s sacrifice – and eventually, burial – will be approached. In the first case, they might be seen as someone disrepsecting their life and shunned even after death, regardless of what the sacrifice achieved. In the second case, the act will likely be (almost) celebrated as a feat of bravery and selflessness and the character revered after death, an example to follow.
The willingness for sacrifice will be significantly affected by the character’s relationship with others. Someone enjoying all the good parts of life will not be willing to part with them, whether the reason is a new love interest or the birth of a child. Likewise, the more friends and relatives a character has, the more he/she will consider all the other (non-lethal) options. This, again, is affected by the culture and settings – if they believe they can watch over them from the afterlife, the decision will be affected by it.
While in the most cases sacrifice equals death, it’s not the only way. It might be possible for a character to use all his power to achieve something – to the point they become an ‘ordinary’ character without special powers. This brings new challenges and options for character development – living without powers the character was used to and how it impacts their further life. In a twist, a character might welcome the chance to get rid of a power he/she does not understand or does not want, for different reasons: the power being shunned, desire to be ‘normal’, fear of responsibility…
I’ve explored one such way in my writing: a character wields an artifact of immense power. In a dire situation, he spends all the power harnessed in said artifact to decimate a demonic army, buying himself and his fellows the time to regroup and destroying the demon commander’s plan for the battle. It’s not as large blow as a complete loss of a (super)power is but said character needed to find and then master the artifact before being able to use it in such an impactful way – and losing it might feel like losing all the time dedicated to searching for it and learning to wield it.
A few times, a character sacrifices a part of him/herself, such as an arm or a leg, to escape captivity or even torture at the hands of the antagonist’s cruel minions. Willingness to such a move is usually affected by two things: the situation he avoids by escaping (such as the abovementioned torture) and the possibility of ‘repairing’ the damage. The latter is more likely in Sci-Fi where hi-tech artificial limbs are likely to exist but not limited to the genre.
So, these are my thoughts on the various aspects of sacrifice – not limited to death, as you can see. I’ll welcome your comments on this matter. In the next episode, I’ll bring this series to an end with my thoughts about avoiding or cheating death.
Death in writing mini-series:
Intriduction (7.7.) – Impact on story (14.7.) – Emotions (21.7.) – Death sentence (28.7.) – Last rites (4.8.) – Sacrifice (11.8.) – Cheating death (18.8.)