I don’t know about you, but I have a major thing for stories that include a hero’s self-sacrifice. In the stories that deeply move or affect me, heroic self-sacrifice is the consistent element. It’s also one that (no surprise) I keep writing about in my own books.
On its surface, this is a pretty basic idea. The hero puts himself out there and gives up something major and personal—often his own life—in order to achieve a goal or save someone else. Self-sacrifice is the ultimate expression of love—and so, of course, it’s an endlessly powerful story catalyst.
There is, however, a little nuance you can use to make your hero’s self-sacrifice even more poignant. All it involves is setting up a scene earlier in the story, in which the character reveals how desperately he wants something. Maybe he wants to reunite with his family, he wants to be granted amnesty for past crimes, he wants a pony—whatever. It doesn’t have to be something big; it can be something incredibly small. But whatever it is, he has to really, really want it.
That’s the setup, right? And that’s going to bring us right up to the payoff, which is your hero’s moment of sacrifice.
The idea here is that in committing to this sacrifice—to whatever degree, and it definitely doesn’t have to be a life-or-death situation to be effective—he’s going to be consciously and deliberately giving up the thing for which he revealed his desire earlier in the story.
If he wanted to be with his family, maybe he realizes the best he can do for them is leave.
If he wanted amnesty, maybe he realizes the best thing he can do is accept the mantle of blame.
If he wants a pony, maybe he realizes sacrificing his horse fund in order to help someone else is what he really needs to do.
The point is that he’s not just being nice, he’s not just doing something hard—he’s doing something that’s kicking him in the gut, and the reader knows it. That, right there, is the key to a heartrending hero’s sacrifice in any story.