How to write SACRIFICES

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One of the best ways to garner sympathy for your character as well as prove just how invested they are in their goal is to make them sacrifice something hugely important to them.


In The Final Empire, the evil ruler has this law-enforcing group called Obligators. They're bald and have elaborate tattoos around their eyes. The protagonists want to overthrow this entire empire, so one of the characters, Marsh, pretends to be an Obligator to manipulate them and get important intelligence. When we first see the character with his head shaved and tattoos around his eyes, it's a huge O__O whoa moment. Those tatts are permanent, so we realize this character just sacrificed his future for the rebellion. If he's an Obligator now, even if only in appearance, he'll be seen as an enemy by the general population and all the rebels. They wouldn't trust him.

But then Marsh makes an even BIGGER sacrifice--arguably the biggest sacrifice I've seen a fictional character make. A fraction of Obligators become Steel Inquisitors--creatures with big metal spikes hammered into their eye sockets and straight out through the back of their skulls. They have more spikes nailed through their torso as well.

And Marsh becomes one in order to keep and deepen his cover.

Not only is the rest of his life ruined, he's in constant pain, and he's blind.

What's more, the rebel leader, Marsh's younger brother Kelsier, married the woman Marsh was in love with. So the two brothers are not on the greatest terms, and yet your heart absolutely breaks when you see what Marsh subjected himself to, what he sacrificed, to see his brother's rebellion succeed. He ruined his life for the sake of the brother he hated, and that not only shows how much Marsh loved Kelsier deep down, but how much he was willing to sacrifice for him. At that moment, Marsh became my favorite character of all time--solely for his sacrifice.

*******END SPOILERS*******

When a character can readily throw away everything that's important to them for another person or a cause, we see just how important that thing is to the character. That builds a LOT of sympathy for them. Depending on the nature of the sacrifice, it'll provide a huge emotional impact to the reader.

There are the cliche sacrifices--giving up power for love, for example. Try to avoid those unless you have a really interesting twist on it. Giving up your life for something tends to be overdone, as well. Dying is easy. But living with some kind of consequence is a true sacrifice.  

Here's how I come up with the most impacting sacrifices. You have to look at the specific character and what's important to them. They spend the book running after something or escaping something else. They fight tooth and nail for something--what is it? Make them sacrifice something so that goal is lost.

On the flipside, look at what your character fears most. Have them sacrifice something so they'll have to face that fear or be subjected to it the rest of their lives.

Here's a scenario (pulled out of thin air):

Vince and Martha are archeologists. Martha gets a huge opportunity for a special excavation in Peru she's been dreaming about for years. However, she'd already committed to exploring a bat cave somewhere else. Vince is deathly afraid of bats, but in order to let Martha live her dream, he takes her place on the bat cave exploration. (Of course, he doesn't tell her he's afraid of bats.)
(I'm sure this wasn't realistic at all, but ignore the lack of realism and focus on the concepts of sacrifice illustrated here.)

Here's another scenario:

Marco finally has the chance to go to a concert for his favorite band and meet the members. However, his best friend broke up with his girlfriend the morning of the concert. So Marco sacrifices his night at the concert to play video games and eat ice cream with his friend.

Another important thing to remember about sacrifice is it's more powerful when they don't broadcast to other characters exactly what they sacrificed. They keep it to themselves and the other characters find out about it through someone else. That makes the impact so powerful, because it means the sacrifice wasn't made to show off and look like such a great guy. Keeping quiet about the sacrifice makes it more sincere and genuine.

So to come up with what your character sacrifices, find the thing they love and need most and make them give it up. It doesn't have to be a physical object. It could be something abstract like sacrificing future happiness or living pain free or staying in their comfort zone.

When they're about to make the decision to sacrifice, don't force the decision on them so it's their only option. You get a bigger impact when the character makes this decision of their own free will, not because they were forced to and they didn't have any other choice.

If I have the choice of buying either a ceiling fan or a chandelier for my room (this was actually a decision faced by my friend lol), picking the fan would mean I give up the pretty ambience of the chandelier, but picking the chandelier would mean I give up the cool air from the fan. THIS IS NOT A SACRIFICE. Decisions are not necessarily sacrifices because you still gain something from either choice. A true sacrifice is one where you gain nothing. You make the sacrifice so someone else can gain something. Sacrifices are made for other people, not for yourself.

Summary of main points:
1. To figure out a sacrifice, think about what your character loves/needs/wants the most, and/or what they fear the most. If you can tie in both of those into the same sacrifice, even better!
2. Give them some grave consequence(s) that they have to live with because of their sacrifice. 
3. Don't have them brag about what they just sacrificed. Make them keep the knowledge of what they sacrificed to themselves as long as possible. It makes the sacrifice seem more genuine, rather than a means to garner sympathy and admiration from peers.
4. Sacrifices can be physical objects or abstract concepts or goals.
5. They should make the sacrifice of their own free will, and they should have other options available. Don't force the decision onto your character so that's the only thing they could possibly do.
6. It's not a sacrifice if you gain something from it. You sacrifice something important to you so someone else can gain something important to them.

EXERCISE! Share your answers in the comments!
1. Establish your two+ characters being affected by the sacrifice. Who's sacrificing and who's gaining?
2. What is something your sacrificial character really wants/needs/loves? (Or what do they fear most?)
3. What does your gaining character want/need/love?
4. Come up with a scenario where there's a conflict of interest--the sacrificial character must sacrifice what they want/love/need so the gaining character can get what they want/love/need.

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