A way with worlds: 27 - Yin and Yang: Self-Serving Self-Sacrifice
by Steven Savage of Seventh Sanctum
Page 1 of 1
We all know the story
elements, we all know the classics:
- The heroic sacrifice of
some pilot or engineer or captain who guides his
plane/ship/spacecraft into the enemy target and dies.
- The martyr to his/her
cause who goes out in a spectacular or ugly manner and is
- The guy who throws
himself on the grenade or detonates the bomb by hand or
whatever in order to save his buddies/country/world (pick
- The . . . you get the
It seems that these are
classic stories, variance on the theme of self-sacrifice for a
higher cause. A story idea from the beginning of time.
However, have you ever
encountered a story where the hero's self-sacrifice somehow set
your teeth on edge? Did a sacrifice somehow ring false? Did you
find yourself somewhat glad a character died in a
self-sacrificing act? Did it someone seem . . . not heroic, even
though it was portrayed as such?
There's many ways to write
heroic self-sacrifice in a way that won't work for readers and
will be unrealistic in a coherent setting. I'm going to examine
one of the most common ones, a dichotomy I call Self-Serving
I'll admit, I'm a Babylon 5 fan, and one of my favorite
episodes is "Comes the Inquisitor." You don't have to
be a Bablyon 5 fan though to appreciate one of the elements of
the story: that one measure of a person's sincere self-sacrifice
is to do so without anyone else knowing.
In short, self-sacrifice
transcends the self. It's when someone decides that something
else is more important to them than themselves (or their concept
of self). What matters is the why and the result, not that people
In a way, one can cast it in
spiritual terms - the person engaged in self-sacrifice reaches a
point where their principles are more important than a temporal
self. They transcend petty, "local" concerns and in
their actions, act without or without much ego.
Now, this is likely an
idealized take on self-sacrifice, but I believe it makes the idea
clear: in self-sacrifice, one is actually "beyond" the
So, how can this get messed
Is it possible to destroy yourself or sacrifice for
I'd say the answer is yes.
And this is where we get into the kinds of self-sacrifice that
seem to annoy readers and sit wrong. I'll put it simply:
It's not real self-sacrifice
when done for selfish reasons.
Yes, self-sacrifice can be
done for selfish reasons:
- In order to make
- In order to become
famous or remembered.
- In order to escape a
problem by appearing to "go out" in a heroic
- To fulfill fantasies of
- As an act of
self-hatred, essentially as suicide that doesn't look
- A contrivance by the
author to induce feelings in the reader.
If you'll notice, this
self-serving self-sacrifice isn't really self-sacrifice at all -
it's self-destruction. It merely masquerades under the name of
What problems does this masquerade cause?
- First of all, if you're
presenting the character as self-sacrificing, then it
appears transparent and false to the reader.
- Secondly, if this
transparency isn't seen by people in your setting, then
the setting has suffered that continuity-destroying
disease of contrivance.
- Third, your knowledge
of the character may be flawed, or the character has been
shoehorned improperly into the mold.
- Fourth, you may be
trying to implement some archetypes that doesn't fit the
character. I've seen self-sacrificing images pulled off
in spectacular ways (Gamera II and III, believe it or
not), but it doesn't work for everyone.
Always remember - any time
something comes before your continuity, you put your continuity
at risk. It's worse when done in a way that, frankly, seems
annoying and coercive.
IS IT RESOLVABLE?:
Simply - no. This is a fundamental dichotomy that you
aren't going to resolve. Both concepts negate each other.
conflicted between self-sacrifice and self-serving can be very
interesting. This can provide interesting dynamics to write
about, and help make realistic characters. However, don't expect
to find a comfortable balance between the two.
If you're writing a character that is self-sacrificing,
self-serving reasons for self-sacrificing will only negate your
character's integrity, unless that's your intention. Be careful -
this is not an uncommon error.
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