It’s Good Friday. The day we commemorate the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ whose shed blood covers our sins and provides salvation. Sacrifice is one of the theme archetypes in fantasy. Characters sacrifice comfort, home, family, friends, and sometimes themselves in order to achieve the quest and (more often than not) save the world. But is that sacrifice worthwhile?
In fantasy, the theme of sacrifice is very common, almost to the point of becoming a cliché. But it is also relatable. “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13 NKJV). I have had a character who sacrificed himself because it was part of his character arc and I’ve seen some extremely well-written sacrifice arcs that cover everything from comfort and home to oneself. Because, let’s be honest, how boring would the Hobbit have been if Bilbo Baggins didn’t sacrifice comfort in order to go on an adventure? Or how differently would the Lord of the Rings have been if (Spoilers ahead!) Gandalf hadn’t sacrificed himself to provide the escape from the Balrog or Frodo sacrificing everything to carry the ring to Mordor or Boromir sacrificing himself in his final redemption as he tried to protect Merry and Pippin? And how much more do we love the characters who are willing and ready to lay down their lives for their faith or to protect another character?
But, what we authors need to be mindful of is whether the sacrifice truly fits into the character’s growth (this goes double for if he or she is a main character)? I won’t name any of the books or movies I felt had a contrived sacrifice because we all know that reader opinions vary when it comes to whether a sacrifice was fitting/moving or contrived. But, when considering having your hero or heroine make the ultimate sacrifice take into account whether or not they have to die or only be willing to die. Sacrifice does not always mean that the character making it must die. Willingness to die can be just as poignant. Or perhaps the ultimate sacrifice does not need to be made by your hero or heroine but by someone else. The plucky sidekick who has been the light, joyful reminder of all the good in the world. Or the previous traitor (willing or unwilling) who wants so badly to make amends and maybe protect his/her family or friends. When I try to decide whether a character makes the ultimate sacrifice, I look at his/her growth over the course of the story and whether a sacrificial death will (a) complete the character’s natural redemption/growth arc or (b) is just a way for me to make sure everyone in the world can see how sacrificial and great this character is even though I have other options for both sacrifice participant and type of sacrifice/plot resolution or (c) I have run out of ideas for this character and I’m not even going to consider the other options because they must die. Obviously, option a is the preferred one and leaves more satisfied (if emotionally crushed) readers.
I think part of the reason sacrifice is such a popular theme, in fantasy and especially in fantasy written by Christians is tied to Jesus Christ and His death on the cross. It is a vital part of our beliefs that Jesus Himself carried out the greatest sacrifice once for all the sins of every person in the world, past, present, and future. And our beliefs impact our writing. Look at Tolkien, he did not set out to write the Lord of the Rings as an allegory but his Christian beliefs left an imprint on his characters and their story arcs. And many Christians feel that their fantasy should be allegorical at least to the extent of having a character mirror Christ’s sacrificial death even if it comes across as forced to readers. To each his own.
Another reason I think sacrifice is a popular theme is because authors can relate to it . . . a lot. Authors sacrifice many things ranging from spending all their free time off work working on their writing to cutting back extra pleasures such as going out to eat to save up for a professional editor or even choosing to turn down a high-grade contract due to the publisher wanting content that the author’s Christian conscience cannot agree to writing. Writing is not the career path to take if a person only wants to get rich quick and it will take a while (unless you happen to become an overnight sensation) before you build a big enough fan base and have enough books out to break even and even longer before you earn a profit. But these sacrifices are made because authors love to write.
What we need to remember and what Good Friday and Easter remind us of is the fact that the truest and best sacrifices are motivated out of love. Not the drive to be the best saintly character ever. Not for fame or impressive contracts. True sacrifice is made out of love, it is an expression of love. And the best sacrificial arcs in fantasy and in any fiction are those motivated by love, the truest and purest of love whether it is romantic, familial, philia, or agape.
*Note: Due to it being Easter weekend, which is a time for family, the next episode of The Stolen Jewel will be posted on the 12th.