One of the most common metrics people use when deciding the quality of a story is how it makes them feel. A story that makes one feel more is considered better than a story that makes one feel less. Interestingly, we even appreciate the stories that make us feel deeply negative emotions. A tale that ends in tragedy instantly seems to have an air of greater maturity and significance about it.
Obviously the most efficient way to bring great sadness to a story is through the death of a main character. This can give your readers quite the shock as well, because stories often reflect life the way we feel it is “supposed to be.” The two lovers come together, evil is defeated, and peace reigns supreme. So when a wrench gets thrown into this happy formula and a main character leaves their artificial world prematurely, we feel pretty shaken up.
When dealing with such powerful elements, though, authors need to exercise the utmost of care. Any craftsman can tell you that a very powerful tool can accomplish very powerful things, but only when it is used in the right way.
In my opinion our core emotions, such as fear, love, joy, and grief are powerful, sacred things. Because of their power it is easy for us to get addicted to them, and we may start looking for artificial ways to produce them. Authors should not be so profane as to take advantage of such readers.
Authors should instead take great care that they do not activate these core emotions without meaningful intent. It is fine for a story to evoke powerful feelings if it has a worthy point to communicate in the process, otherwise the story is disrespecting the sanctity of these feelings, likely to make a quick buck.
Meaningful Character Death)
Therefore it is important that if a character is to die that it feels appropriate. A big frustration of mine is when a tale shoehorns in a character death simply to try and give itself an importance that has not been earned.
The 1950 film Cheaper by the Dozen features the antics of a family with twelve children. That family is quirky, to say the least, and much of the drama is based around their simultaneous love and embarrassment of one another. It’s a charming film, sprinkled with little provincial wisdoms throughout. “No person with inner dignity is ever embarrassed.” And then, at the end, the father suddenly dies.
Nothing in the film has been leading to this moment and nothing significant is obtained by it. Really it just feels like the story didn’t know how to end and figured a gut-punch was as good an option as any. Rather than landing with the intended gravity it instead just gives the film a disjointed experience.
An important writing rule you should live by is to never pen a plot point for the sole purpose of eliciting a specific emotion. You should never kill a character only to make the reader sad. When a character dies it should happen because it is fitting, because it is right for their arc, because it brings a satisfying closure to the whole.
Of course, for every rule there is also an exception. Consider the most classic sad story of them all: Romeo and Juliet. This story doubles the ante on most tragic endings by closing with the death of not just one, but two main characters! When we look for the narrative meaning to their deaths, though, we come up short. Their deaths seem senseless, the result of a mistake, and devoid of any point. And that, ironically, is the point. These deaths should not have happened, and that is the great tragedy of the story. When hatred kills love there is no closure or satisfaction to be found. Thus we are sad, but we are sad meaningfully.
If there is any plot device that can elicit a more powerful reaction than a tragic death, it must be the death that is also a sacrifice for some greater good. Sacrifice affects us on a level so deep that it seems to be sacred. We are moved by it, even if we do not fully understand why.
Once again, though, with such potent power there also comes a great risk of horrible misuse. The absolute worst way to employ sacrifice is to dilute it with overuse and cheap manipulation. Consider the stories that repeatedly pretend they are going to sacrifice a character so that the audience feels sad, only to flip the script at the last moment so that now the audience feels relieved at the character’s survival. It’s tawdry and manipulative.
Sadly, there are many stories that do exactly this. You need not look any further than comic book plots or old cowboy serials to find a deluge of this trick. The hero “dies” for their cause and everyone feels very, very sad. Then, suddenly, the hero comes back, and they were never dead at all. They were too tough to die, or too wily, or maybe just too lucky. As I said in my last post, this gimmick is one of my greatest pet peeves in stories. You might be forgiven for trying this once or twice, but stories ceaselessly repeat this stunt in a way that insults the intelligence of their audience.
This isn’t to say that a doomed character cannot be saved in a way that doesn’t feel cheap. A week ago I mentioned the Disney animated film Hercules for its portrayal of a hero fighting an uphill battle. This also happens to be a story where the main character intends to sacrifice himself but is saved by divine intervention, all while still respecting its audience’s intelligence.
You see Hercules only survives because he is sacrificing himself. His great dream is to be reinstated as a god, but is told that he cannot until he achieves the status of a “true hero.” Unsure of what that means, he continues along his way and ultimately comes to love a woman who dies and is taken to the underworld. He makes a deal with Hades to exchange his life for hers, fully intending to carry through with the bargain. It is that act of sacrifice, one which carries on right to the moment that the fates cut his thread of life, that defines him as a true hero. He becomes a god in the very moment of his demise and survives his own death. Not because he is tough, or wily, or lucky, but because he was willing to give his all for what is right.
Perhaps one of the greatest tales of sacrifice though is the one story I’ve mentioned more than any other on this blog. In A Tale of Two Cities Sydney Carton is hardly the character one would expect to be a martyr, he is a drunk and a cynic, a man of great potential that has squandered it all in purchase of misery and regret.
In the last chapters, though, he sees his chance to trade his life for that of the man he envies most, the man he feels he could have been. By carrying through with this sacrifice and bearing that man’s death it as though he has also earned his life. He becomes calm, confident, and content, and wishes for no more. In return for paying the ultimate price he reclaims not one, but two lives that day.
That idea of reclamation is truly at the heart of sacrifice, and stories can provide a duality of emotions by it. If a martyr wins the hearts of others through their own death then there can be triumph through defeat, and happiness in the same moment as sadness. That makes for a very fascinating narrative experience, and I’m going to try and capture it with my next short story. This Thursday I will post the first part of that story. That first portion will not include the actual act of sacrifice, but it will introduce us to the character that has been consigned to die for the greater good.
I’ll see you then.