A character sacrifice is a difficult moment to get right. Audiences today are incredibly cine-literate. They’ve seen it all before, and can tell when a film or TV show has used storytelling shortcuts.
When It Works
Still, like any common trope handled well, a character choosing to die can still be very effective and moving.
What was I supposed to do? Just let them die?
On a basic level, a character sacrifice has to clearly change something. There needs to be a meaningful difference between before and after the sacrifice is made, even if the sacrifice is unsuccessful or there are unintended consequences.
Otherwise, the moment can all too easily tip over into comedy.
For example, in MAN OF STEEL, the Kents are trapped in a tornado while driving. While Clark, who will become Superman, could easily save him, Pa Kent signals that Clark should let him die.
In theory, Jonathan Kent sacrifices himself to preserve Clark’s secret. This allows Clark Kent to have a chance at a normal life. This should be a powerfully dramatic moment. It’s a major part of Clark’s internal conflict that runs throughout the story.
However, the stakes of this moment are unclear. After seeing several trapped people to safety, Jonathan Kent walks back towards a tornado in order to save the family dog. Even the most ardent dog lovers would agree that his life is worth more than a dog.
Additionally, people in Smallville already suspect Clark’s secret after he saved a school bus of children from drowning.
What does this character sacrifice achieve? In practical terms, he saves a dog’s life. Thematically, the senselessness of Jonathan Kent’s death seems to reveal his worldview as misguided and harmful. Clark Kent shouldn’t have to wait before starting to help people.
The moment ends up feeling forced. It’s been reverse engineered because the story required the character to die at this point.
We’re soldiers, we do the dirty work so that families back home don’t suffer.
In KONG: SKULL ISLAND, one character nobly sacrifices himself, holding up a pair of grenades at an approaching Skull Crawler monster. However, the monster flicks him away and he swiftly dies.
His character sacrifice makes no difference to the survival of the others.
It’s a great example of a completely pointless character sacrifice.
However, the film is an homage to monster and Vietnam movies and as such strikes a strange tone. It’s likely that this is intentionally comedic. It satirises gung-ho army characters in pop culture and their tendency to make one last stand.
There’s only minutes left, so you’re gonna have to play my little game if you wanna save one of them.
Paradoxically, characters who sacrifice themselves can’t have too much or too little choice. Too much choice and the character sacrifice is meaningless, as they could have achieved their aim through other methods.
Too little and it’s not a choice at all. The character becomes collateral damage, which can be sad but isn’t heroic in the same way.
One simple but dramatic way of limiting a character’s choices is to introduce a ticking clock, a dramatic deadline. This creates consequences for the characters not taking action quickly.
However, importantly, once established a ticking clock needs to be respected. A character sacrificing themselves for the greater good at the last minute can’t suddenly find time for a long, tearful farewell.
I’ll never let go, Jack. I promise.
In James Cameron’s TITANIC, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) subjects himself to the icy water in order to save Rose (Kate Winslet). It’s a fittingly tragic end to their star-crossed romance.
However, some viewers argue that both of them could have fit on the wooden panel and survived. Both characters have just fought so hard for their relationship and to survive. If the audience think they’ve given up and accepted that one of them will have to die, it’s dissatisfying.
While Jack’s sacrifice is necessary for the story and works emotionally, the practical details are potentially slightly off.
Whether they could both have fit on the panel or not, if the audience are thinking about the physics rather than the drama of a scene, something’s gone wrong.
It’s a testament to how well crafted TITANIC is that this has only been raised since the film’s initial release, once the emotional impact of the story has worn off.
Character sacrifice needs to follow the logic of the world and story, or risk taking some viewers out of the film.
He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings.
At the same time, a meaningful character sacrifice isn’t necessarily completely permanent.
An important character permanently dying poses problems for TV shows and franchise films. They have to reset the status quo somehow while creating the illusion of change. Additionally, permanently dead heroes make for unhappy endings.
Often when soon to be resurrected characters make their decision to sacrifice themselves, they believe it is a permanent one. They don’t know there’s a possibility they can come back to life.
Even if an audience is aware of the genre formula, that they won’t stay dead, the emotion this generates can be effective.
Additionally, even if the character knows they can come back, their resurrection might be uncertain or carry a significant cost.
Two Star Trek films starkly illustrate how important the difference can be. In THE WRATH OF KHAN, Spock (Leonard Nemoy) dies saving the Enterprise. The crew go to great lengths in the sequel THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK to resurrect him. Even then his memories aren’t fully intact.
When INTO DARKNESS attempts a similar moment, having Kirk sacrifice himself, it is rushed. He is then resurrected quickly, through a newly discovered property of another character’s blood, and without much consequence.
You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
THE DARK KNIGHT, written by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, presents an interesting variation on this problem. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) appears to die while saving the Mayor from assassination. It’s later revealed that he faked his death.
As with Spock or Kirk, it seems unlikely that such an important character is truly, permanently dead. (Especially in a film based on comics, where characters constantly die and come back to life.)
However, Gordon’s ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’ still have a cost. They still have dramatic weight, even if the audience never believed he had died.
For their safety, Gordon couldn’t tell his family the truth. They have to live with the pain first of his death and then of his deceit.
If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on the Fury Road!
Finally, character sacrifices often work best at the end of an arc, arriving in the third act when the stakes are highest. This also gives the audience longer to get to know the character, which in theory means their death has greater impact.
In George Miller’s MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, the alliance between Max and Furiosa is initially tense, formed out of mutual survival instinct.
They come to trust each other, and agree to risk their lives to return to and take over the Citadel.
However, it’s Nux (Nicolas Hoult) who has the biggest arc in the film. He is the character who changes the most. He becomes the “heart and tortured soul” of the story.
Nux begins as an indoctrinated but physically weak and insecure “war boy”. His goal is to prove himself worthy of Immortan Joe by dying in battle and entering Valhalla.
Ultimately, however, he turns on him and sacrifices himself to save Max, Furiosa and the other women.
This moment only works because of his scenes leading up to it. The script has carefully established and developed his motivations.
His growing relationship with Capable (Riley Keough) brings out his humanity. Still, Nux can’t stray entirely from his nature. He dies in battle the way he wanted, only for a different team.
This character sacrifice represents his redemption. It’s also the culmination of a clear arc.
Testing a character sacrifice
A character sacrifice doesn’t work for every story. Ask these key questions of your story before deciding to include one.
Is there no other way for the characters to be victorious? Do the limits on the characters’ choices make sense for the world and story?
Crucially, are the characters’ motivations consistent with how the story has established and developed them?
If the character can’t die or can’t stay dead for whatever reason, how else can their sacrifice or resurrection come at a significant cost?