You know how a good story usually has a character having to sacrifice something and then changes because of it? I'm having trouble trying to find a sacrifice and change that fits with my story. I am mostly unsure of the magnitude needed. I watched 12 angry men recently and learned that a change/sacrifice can be as small as an opinion, but I'm still lost. Do you have any insights/links that could help guide me? Thank you!
Not all good stories have sacrifices and you shouldn’t add one just because you think it’ll make your story better. There’s no guarantee of that. When we try to force certain elements into our stories, we’re at risk of hurting them.
In order for sacrifices to work, they have to be deeply personal. I can give you a few general ideas for sacrifices, but not all will be applicable to your character.
First, there are two types of sacrifices.
A selfish sacrifice occurs when a character makes a sacrifice that will benefit themselves. These characters often end up losing a lot anyway, but they lose things they already had, such as friends. The key thing to remember about this type of sacrifice is that there is some kind of benefit for the person who makes the sacrifice. Also, this doesn’t mean that your character is selfish.
A selfless sacrifice occurs when a character makes a sacrifice that is supposed to benefit others. Sometimes these characters give up something that could have been and sometimes they give up something they already have.
When you write a sacrifice, they shouldn’t need explanations for the audience to understand them fully. By this I mean show, don’t tell. When your character makes their sacrifice, whether through dialogue or action, the audience should understand that your character has just made a sacrifice. Sometimes the realization comes a little bit later because another action or bit of dialogue is needed for clarification, but don’t outright say your character has just made a sacrifice.
Types of Sacrifices: (there are some spoilers in the examples)
- Two Motives: This is one of the bigger sacrifices and how well it works depends on how you write it. Give your character two motives. At the end, they end up giving up one motive to achieve the other. Alternatively, one character can give up their motive so that another character can achieve theirs. Example: Dr. Horrible achieves his motive of joining the Evil League of Evil at the cost of accidentally killing Penny and thus losing his other motive of being with her (Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog).
- For the Greater Good: This is one of the more common sacrifices and it’s so common that it doesn’t create as large of an emotional response as it used to. Therefore, it has to be personal and heart wrenching for it to work. This is when a character gives up their life, their power, their money, their reputation, etc. for a better/larger cause. Example: Spock saves the ship, but exposes himself to radiation poisoning and dies (The Wrath of Khan).
- All For Nothing: This is when the character makes a sacrifice of some kind, only for it to be for nothing. Example: Katniss volunteers to save Prim’s life, but Prim dies anyway and the Hunger Games continue (The Hunger Games).
- The Savior: This is also a common sacrifice and, again, it’s hard to make it good because of that. This is when a character makes an impromptu decision to save someone from harm, such as taking a bullet for them. This sacrifice often results in death or injury that just happens to stop this character from reaching a motive/doing something they love. Sometimes this is premeditated. Example: When Gandalf faces the Balrog and exclaims, “You shall not pass!” (The Lord of the Rings).
- Taking the Blame: This is when a character confesses to something they did not do in order to save others. For this to be a sacrifice, this character has to be giving up something by doing this. Example: Every sitcom ever when they have that one episode about cigarettes or cheating or something so one character steps forward and takes the blame.
- Redemption: Sometimes a person is not losing anything through a sacrifice because they have already lost a lot. Their sacrifice is a way of redeeming themselves. Death is not always the sacrifice for these characters. They may pledge loyalty to someone, give up their freedom, give up their ability to do something, work for the person they wronged, etc. Example: I’m honestly drawing a blank right now.
- Opposite: Use the opposite of a sacrifice. A character might be expected to make a sacrifice of some kind, only to not follow through. Example: BoJack Horseman and his decision to leave/stay on his TV show after his friend got fired (BoJack Horseman).