How to Make Your Hero’s Self-Sacrifice Even More Heartbreaking

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.

Supernatural Sam Dean John Winchester

If he wanted amnesty, maybe he realizes the best thing he can do is accept the mantle of blame.

Dark Knight Last Scene

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.

Summer of Monkeys last scene

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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you included a hero’s self-sacrifice in your story? What can you do to make it even more gut-wrenching? Tell me in the comments!

How to Make Your Hero’s Self-Sacrifice Even More Heartbreaking

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Now that I think of it, I don’t think any of my more recent heroes and heroines have had a heart-breaking self-sacrifice. Typically something bad happens to them and they have to react to that. 😛 But they’ve never had a moment of self-sacrifice.

    On another note, this post makes me think of the show Once Upon A Time. Just a couple of episodes back, the protagonist Emma took on the darkness that was threatening to take over Regina, the former evil queen, resulting in Emma becoming the Dark One after being the savior for the past four seasons.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve only watched the first two seasons, but I saw the promo for that twist and it looked interesting! Yay for consequences!

      • It’s been fun so far seeing where they’re going with it; it certainly separates this season from the previous ones, and in a good way.

  2. I love this post! This is why I’m using your outlining your novel workbook right now. I have an idea of what my heroine wants (not what she needs) and I’m using that to guide my brainstorming on what should happen at the climax; what she should offer to give up to keep the thing she really needs. I’ve watched countless potential wrong turns go by me as I plot and I know nano will go better next month as a result. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s awesome! That’s my favorite thing about outlining: quickly figuring out story problems and avoiding dead ends that would have taken me ten times as long to explore in the first draft.

  3. Kinza Sheikh says:

    Actually that’s exactly what my NaNo project is all about. Of course I also have a soft corner for those characters, and it was only natural that I wrote about it.
    But my protag will be another character. It’s kind of a story which revolves around my protag but other characters matter more. I don’t know how will that happen.
    As a matter of fact, the character mentioned above is my personal fav in this story, so I am having. He evolved himself out of nowhere. Now he is the actual reason I am pursuing this story. But I am scared that what if he makes the actual protag’s arc seem dull. It looks to me that way :/

  4. I love self-sacrifice as a theme. And reading it in a story shows how beautiful it is, which helps strengthen the heart for those real-life situations that don’t necessarily feel beautiful on the inside.

    Do you have any thoughts on whether it’s more powerful for the hero to give up something he wants but doesn’t yet have, versus something he has and cherishes? I like both, but find myself more often making up stories involving the latter.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Both are definitely good. I’m going to say the most powerful option is when a character has *striven* to gain something over the course of the story–and then, just as he finally gains it, he must give it up. After the reader has witnessed all the character has suffered to gain that thing, it’s especially poignant to watch him voluntarily give it up. But that could be more a personal opinion than anything.

  5. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Always a good thing!

  6. I love this! I did something like this in my story, without even realizing it (my hero self-scarified all the money she had saved up from something she previously wanted, and used it to save the day). Now that I know about it, I can think of a better way to use it in my next story. Thanks for all your little tidbits. I love them!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great example! And that brings to mind another point, which I didn’t emphasize in the post, and that is that the consequences of the character’s sacrifice should be emphasized *afterwards.* Sometimes the consequences are totally obvious (e.g., the character is dead), but even in the face of a victory, we still need to know how much it will hurt the protagonist to live without whatever he gave up.

  7. My protagonist has striven and fought and shed tears all through the book in order to get what he wants. But as I read this post, I realized I didn’t have him explicitly say what he wants. Is that okay? Would it destroy the subtext if I made him mention it out loud or would it be a change for the better, highlighting the thing he wants more effectively?

    Amazing post as always.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Depends. Subtext is never a bad thing. As long it’s perfectly clear what he’s after, you probably don’t need to come out and say it. That said, however, there *are* definitively times when being explicit about something like this that totally up that ante in the end.

  8. Sam Taylor says:

    LOVE this post! This is totally where the Antman movie failed for me. (Okay, it was far from my only grievance with the movie, but it sealed the deal.) It was set up so Scott would have to make this beautiful sacrifice at the end for his daughter, after he’s spent the entire movie trying to clean up his life so he can be with her again … and then they had an easy out for him. Drove me nuts. Argh. Writers, don’t be afraid to demand a lot from your characters. It can really make a meaningful impact upon readers in those crucial closing moments.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I hear you, although honestly I wasn’t surprised at all when he came right back. Sequels and all. 😉 That’s one thing I appreciated about the gap between the Captain America movies: that there were definitive consequences to Steve’s sacrifice at the end of the first one, even though he did get to come back. Hopefully, there will be some juicy consequences to Scott’s actions in his sequel.

  9. Peter Parker gives up MJ

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! I love that scene. “Sometimes we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most.”

  10. Sally Treanor says:

    I’m reading “Outlining Your Novel” right now, exactly at the character arc section, and this idea of heartbreak just slides right in there. I both love and hate these moments in stories. After rooting for the character all the way through they book, only for them to lose their heart’s desire, tears me up. I want the happy ever after! For instance, all Frodo wants in LotR is to go home to the Shire. In the end, he leaves the Shire behind forever because of all he’s been through to save it and do what is right. It makes for a more compelling read, but my nature is such that it ticks me off! I’m doomed to writing happy endings.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The great thing about this method is that you *can* still write happy endings. Sometimes they’re all the happier for putting your characters through the wringer first.

    • Kinza Sheikh says:

      I have found that in series, it’s more fun for the character to choose what he want then sacrificing for greater good. Resulting a bigger disaster for the next installation.
      For example, I was recently watching a game The Last of Us (yes I am one of the rare breed who love watching games but never play). It was about a father who lost his daughter in apocalypse. Then after twenty years of hard core surviving, he is given a mission to smuggle a girl to certain point. Not only is she around the age of his dead daughter, she has the same nature and looks. Until the end, he try to push her away from him emotionally but then do get attached to her.
      But as it turns out, where he brought that girl is a laboratory and they want to sacrifice her to find a cure for humanity.
      He gets reckless and kill everyone in order to save that girl.
      A sacrifice could had made it a bitter but nice end, but a breaking bad-isque cliffhanger made it way more compelling and I know I am dying to watch the next installment.
      There are always rules that make story compelling, but there are variation that make it more compelling.
      The key is to learn every rule and see how it fit your story, and if not, why? What is making this story not accept that certain rule?
      Answering that question is bound to make story way more compelling, and happy to if that is what you are looking for. 🙂

  11. Jim Arnold says:

    In My Angels of Angels, Manuel get the snot knocked out of him and lands in the hospital. He goes through a lot to protect his Angelica. But, I have to admit, I missed it in regards of showing how badly he really wants his angel (Angelica).

    Once again, Katie, I have to go back and do another re-write showing how badly Jack wants to win over the nation form the criminal government that leads it now. But, I appreciate it. Thank you.

  12. This was a very helpful reminder to make sure the setup is there for the later payoff.

    There is a wonderful movie called Wadjda that explores female issues for women in Islam. The story explores a tomboyish girl who wants to own and ride a bicycle like the boys do but is not allowed for religious reasons.

    SPOILER ALERT
    At the end of the story, a supporting character makes the sacrifice to help the main character realize the goal but the sacrifice of the supporting character works at a high level because the interests/theme/arc of the main character (a girl) and the supporting character (a woman) are the same: female empowerment. In that sense, the setup and struggles/arc between the two characters were established early on so that when the payoff comes at the end, the sacrifice becomes a realized emotional experience between the two women: this is what it is going to take for a female to be empowered.

    I don’t think this ending would have worked as well unless the two characters struggles were the same, and in that sense as an audience member the identification and struggles of the supporting character was transferred to the main character. It worked for me.

  13. I agree, sacrifice can play a huge role in bringing me closer to a character. I particularly enjoy it when an non-conformist hero does the sacrificing (not necessarily an anti-hero, but something close) as long as its written believably and not like Jafar giving up his life for Iago or something. Haha.

    Jonathan

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree, although one thing I *do* get tired of is when the antihero redeems himself through sacrifice–and then has to die just on principle because his previous misdeeds were too bad not to punish. I adore the movie Pitch Black because it completely turns this stereotype on its head: the antihero Riddick is redeemed not through his own sacrifice but through someone else’s sacrifice *for* him.

      • Redemption through death is overdone these days. I think part of it is the fact that it would be supremely difficult to write a character after a large-level sacrifice. Perhaps, though, that’s just me. I’m of the opinion that people don’t change through instances, but rather as a result of moments in time stitched together.

        P.S. Nice movie reference. Pitch Black was the first one, no? I think that was my favorite of the trilogy.

        Jonathan

  14. In my book Archomai, the main character, Jeremiah is totally handicapped in our world. In the kingdom of Archomai, he is a great warrior, and hero. His goodness sets him apart from the crowd. He is the counterpart to the Royal Prince of Archomai, because of this his time in the kingdom is limited. However, Jeremiah must return to his world and his life. He chooses to come back not because of the prince, but because he loves and is loved so much by his family. Jeremiah’s goodness shines in both worlds. Anyone that takes the time to know him is forever changed for the better.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s great! We often think of the ultimate sacrifice being death, but sometimes the ones where the character has to *live* with his sacrifice, day in and day out, are the more powerful.

  15. Oh, how timely. I have characters making sacrifices, both large and small. The first one sacrifices herself to save the others, but it’s more tragic because she was desperate to be reunited with her lost child. I realized I hadn’t made it clear that she was still hoping for a reunion, then I went back and added a few scenes that will hopefully make her choice more poignant.

    Another character had a dream to become a playwright, particularly since there were no playwrights from her [fictitious] nation, which has a reputation as being populated with backwards barbarians. She gets the chance to write and stage a play, but she has to hide her identity and pretend to be from somewhere else, again for the greater good.

    I’m running with this theme, because I need a villainous character to redeem herself (she’s on a negative/disillusionment arc), and I am using a twist on the death = redemption theme. It’s a fantasy; imagine Persephone *choosing* to stay with Hades as a penance for her crimes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      They all sound great! The first one will definitely be stronger for adding those earlier scenes emphasizing the character’s desire.

  16. Okay, I loved the Supernatural reference. I didn’t even need the picture for Winchester men to pop into my mind. And this has also given me an awesome idea for the climax/ending of the project I’m working on. I’ve been stuck trying to figure out where to go while I’ve been plotting it, but now I think I know. Thanks so much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. I’m just now finishing up the first season. It’s really not my kind of show, but I’m loving the character development.

  17. I’m planning to write a piece of fanfiction, (don’t judge me) but want to get the majority of the plot line worked out first. My intention is to tell the back story of Mother Gothel from Tangled, who is a famous Disney villain, but to create sympathy from the reader and to make the actual Disney protagonists appear to be the villains of the story. It’s similar to Tiger Lily, a book in which the author tells the story of Peter Pan from Tinker Bell and Tiger Lily’s perspective, and causes the reader to despise both Peter Pan and Wendy. Do you have any tips to help me create sympathy with the villain (now protagonist)?

  18. I know I’m late to the party, but I wanted to toss out a reference. It is not self-sacrifice, but pertains more to having that conversation that demonstrates how bad the character wants something. When I read that, all I could think about was Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean and his intense desire to eat an apple. That little tidbit actually made me feel bad for him when he died despite being a villain.

  19. This really got me thinking about my own protag’s ‘sacrifices.’ For most of the story she is trying to get out her responsibilities and a lot of what seem like ‘noble sacrifices’ only help her towards this goal and so are actually self-serving to a certain degree. That’s when I realized her true sacrifice was when she choose to shoulder those responsibilities voluntarily at the end because others needed her to.

    Now that I recognize where the true self-sacrifice is I can play it up! Great article! Thanks for getting me thinking about this 🙂

  20. after 7 years of being undercover, a female spy misses her plane trip back home, to search for the remains of the hero, who she thinks perished in the bombing. The hero looks for her at the airstrip and can’t find her on the last plane home. He wanders away from the airstrip and sees her searching through the corpses and thinks “could she be looking for me?”

  21. I am writing a book as well, in it the enemy is immortal and it isn’t possible to kill it, you see, it’s not quite human. The main character makes a deal with a higher power, a being that’s dying and cannot fight the enemy anymore, it bestows him with immortality. He banishes the enemy and himself to another dimension, (it’s a fantasy with multiple dimensions created by magic) where they fight eachother for all of time, so that the enemy does not destroy all of existence. In the end, the main character uses his life force to rip a whole in the dimension and trap the enemy in the fabric of space, destroying himself in the process. His best friend, who payed a price to stay alive, just to find the main character, finally reached the dimension, and finds Him dead.

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