Sacrifice. For such a simple word, it carries a lot of power. And that’s what your own character’s sacrifice should do—be powerful, even if it’s simple; be memorable and resonate with readers long after they’ve closed the book.
But how do you do that?
A question you could ask yourself, while developing your novel, is: What is the character’s goal? Basically, what does she pride herself most in? What does he want most in the world?
A characters goal could be as simple as wanting a specific Christmas gift—like the protagonist of the classic movie A Christmas Story (1983) who, despite his family and his teacher’s claims that he’d shoot his eye out, wants a Red Ryder BB gun. Or the character’s goal could be as difficult and complex as destroying an object to save the entire world from destruction—such as Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring in J R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Once you’ve found your character’s goal, define what stands in their way. What obstacles deter her from her path? What delays him from reaching his goal? This is where the antagonist comes in. Now, the antagonist in this case could also be an object or event—not just the main villain in your novel. In a scene, the antagonist could be your car not starting on an important day, a bad snowstorm, or when a monster appears.
Now, it’s important to have the main villain cause most of the trouble but, sometimes, the hero and villain have to be apart for some time—whether it’s because they are in different areas of the world, have different hobbies, or it wouldn’t work in the novel for the hero and villain to be in the scene together. Whatever the reason, the hero and the villain must deter each other and make things worse for each other—thus making things worse for them both. Which can play a big part in raising the stakes.
You’re probably asking yourself what do stakes have to do with character sacrifice? A lot. Good questions to ask while figuring out your stakes are: How can this get worse? Or, what if?
To raise the stakes for your character, the character must make choices and those choices must have consequences. What if her marriage ended and he got custody of the kids? What if the bomb went off and killed innocent people? To continue raising the stakes, making your character’s story stronger, beliefs must be put into question—and the character has to act against those beliefs. What if your character believes war is wrong and yet must incite rebellion to stop the enemy? What if your character must lie to save someone yet thinks lying is wrong?
To continue raising the stakes in your novel, the character’s internal conflict must be at odds with the external conflict. The internal conflict refers to to personal, mental, or psychological conflict, whereas external conflict deals with the surrounding world—such as a storm or a war. Success in one conflict may mean failure in the other.
Raising the stakes—making things worse and more difficult for your characters—makes the hero stand out. What your hero must do, what he has to risk, to reach his goal, makes your normal main character worthy of the title “hero.” So, another question you could ask for your character’s development, is: What must my character do—what must he risk—to reach his goal, to get what he wants?
There’s a reason the most powerful kind of sacrifice is self-sacrifice. Everyone, at some point, is afraid of death or not reaching their goals and, when someone gives up everything—even their goals, it speaks volumes. To create a powerful sacrifice for your main hero, create anything significant for the character, a source of support or happiness—family, friends, a cause, or an attribute. Then let them make a choice: What is most important? What is worth dying for? Put them in a situation where they must give up everything, or at least give up their goal, for their cause or to save those most important. Even if they don’t die, the hero will be changed forever from this act, their sacrifices will be powerful, and thus the book will be—to your readers—memorable.
Thanks for reading!