There’s this trope in fiction called the Heroic Sacrifice. The idea is that a character gives himself up so another can live or succeed. When done right it can be an incredibly powerful writing tool.
Doesn’t have to be sacrificing your own life, though. At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman has just saved Commissioner Gordon’s son and the fallen Harvey Dent has tumbled to his death. There is blood on Dent’s hands; the man who came close to saving Gotham has come crashing down and his stellar reputation will follow. So Batman tells Gordon to pin every one of Dent’s crimes on him. Batman will take responsibility for what Dent did so that the late District Attorney’s work will not be undone. Gordon agrees reluctantly and Batman disappears into the night and we are left marveling at the self-sacrifice of the Dark Knight. Gotham has been saved, at the expense of Batman’s character.
Of course, the trope of sacrifice can be done wrong. In the terrible live-action adaption of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the interaction between two characters (Sokka and Princess Yue) is treated from the get-go as comic relief. It’s amusing to see them bumbling over themselves as their attraction grows. Then suddenly the plot necessitates a sacrifice and the only one who can do it is the Princess.
The relationship that we’ve only seen snippets of (and has thus far been used exclusively as comic relief) is suddenly thrust forward as drama. Before we get a chance to realize that it isn’t a joke, she’s dead and everyone forgets about her as the climax continues. It’s forgettable and fails to add any tension or poignancy. The general crappiness of the script, acting, and direction probably doesn’t help any.
(Do note: in the cartoon series the sacrifice had punch and weight and genuinely felt sad)
A far stronger example comes from the TV series Lost. Sawyer is never presented as a particularly ‘good’ character. As far as he’s concerned, he’s not someone worth liking and no one could possibly hate him more than he does.
The plot continues and Sawyer faces his demons and grows into a protector of the other castaways. As Season Four draws to a close a handful of the castaways are given the chance to get off the island. Sawyer is among them.
But the helicopter is too heavy; they need to lighten the load. So someone has to jump from the copter. Though Sawyer isn’t killed from his sacrifice, it serves as the climax to his arc. He’s gone from the selfish murderer when he arrived on the island to someone who would give up his spot for another. It’s a story of redemption and sacrifice.
Sometimes everything comes together to form a simply beautiful sequence. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek opens with the USS Kelvin being viciously attacked by an unknown enemy. George Kirk has only been captain for a few minutes and orders the evacuation of the entire crew; including his wife and about-to-be-born child. To buy time for the lifeboats he resorts to ramming his ship headlong into the enemy. Autopilot’s gone and only he is left to pilot it in.
The gravity of the moment is accentuated not only by Michael Giacchino’s beautiful score (see Up for further reference) but by the heartbreaking conversation he has with his wife. Within a few minutes we’re caught up in this valiant act that not only sets up the plot but gives his son a standing to aspire to. It’s a universal notion: the idea of giving up one’s own life for a loved one, one that draws us in and makes us feel.
The midnight release of The Dark Knight Rises was marred by the Aurora Shooting. Yet even in the most horrible circumstances, light can shine out. Three men, three unrelated individuals, had one instinct when the shooter opened fire: get their girlfriends out of harm’s way. Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn, and Alex Teves all died to save the ones they loved. There was no fanfare, no triumphant score as they fell to the ground. Just sacrificial love. Though the press will follow the shooter until he receives his judgement and beyond, it’s these stories, the actions of Blunk, McQuinn, and Teves that should be remembered. Because of what they did three young women still have life. Because of them we’re reminded that though some of us may be absolute bastards, some of us are still good.
I’ve written of heroes on this blog before. I’ve said that one of the reasons heroes inspire us is because we hope that we can be like them. We read and watch our fiction about brave heroes who will die to save the day. Then we see before us real people who willingly gave their lives. All of a sudden the notion of the heroic sacrifice ceases to be a trope in fiction and it becomes real.
And heroes ARE real. And Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn, and Alex Teves ARE heroes.