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Character Sacrifice

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS!!! Mentioned – Aliens, Severance, Night People, Dog Soldiers, Devil’s Advocate, CSI:NY, Eastenders and Spooks.

“Greater love hath no man than this,: that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John, 15:13)

David Bishop makes a good point this morning about Dr. Who and two characters that sacrifice themselves to fight a big scary monster while their friends get away. Unfortunately, those two characters don’t do it at the same time, but separately, one after the other, so ultimately the viewer is left bored at the repetition.

Whether it’s scary monsters, a terrorist attack or a teen’s rebellion, another character’s sacrifice – literal or metaphorical – can be the pinnacle of good characterisation and add to your script. If you invest in a character, to see them sacrifice themselves, in full or in part, can be truly devastating. Hands up who remembers Danny in SPOOKS sacrifice himself for Fiona when they are held at gunpoint? Fantastic. Not so fantastic: Danny in the CSI:NY finale distracting BOTH those terrorists (couldn’t one have gone after him??) whilst his friend nicked that acid-stuff to throw in one of the terrorists’ faces later. A little bit comic book, in my view. They had a perfect opportunity there to have a character sacrifice himself for his friends; I suppose contracts got in the way (in that no one had had theirs terminated), but I must admit that I thought Danny Messer in CSI had had it and was going to be killed. And that does add to a finale’s impact.

I suppose, in essence, we are voyeurs when it comes to characterisation: we like to see another’s suffering, so when they die, it is some kind of carthartic release, especially if it is a suicide. In a film in particular, if you follow this character – usually the protagonist and usually within the thriller and horror genres – we have been privy to their logic throughout, so when they do kill themselves, it makes sense. If you consider a film like DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, Kevin vanquishes the beast througho this method, which becomes ironic. (Not to so ironic that Kevin finds himself alive again of course, since if Lucifer could control events so easily then why didn’t he from the start, instead of trying to bring Kevin onside?? But hey ho).

Sacrificing themselves so another might be saved then is usually the job of a secondary character, for that person who is saved is nearly always the protagonist. There can be a number of reasons why a secondary character might sacrifice themselves for the protagonist and/or their mission: the most usual I find however is redemption: in ALIENS Gorman has to redeem himself for his cowardly behaviour at the nest for example, just as the Boss Richard does in SEVERANCE when he steps on the landmine. Another reason can be gungo ho stupidity: both Spoon in DOG SOLDIERS and Vasquez in ALIENS find themselves in the front line by getting carried away, leading to their otherwise uneccessary deaths. I’m always reminded here of Plato’s assertion that courageous men “know what to be afraid of“, else you’re just a t***. Or words to that effect, anyway.

But of course sacrifice does not cover only literal death as I’ve outlined; sometimes character sacrifice can be all the more devastating because it is more subtle and metaphorical. Dramas on TV and Film can do this especially well, draw you in to a character, make you root for them, only to see them have their wishes unfulfilled as they give themselves for someone else: NIGHT PEOPLE is a good example here with the rent boy and the footie boots, letting himself fall by the wayside so another boy might not end up like him. Soap operas too can touch on it from time to time: in Eastenders, Kat Slater slept with Andy so Alfie might not be hurt, diminishing herself to the status of a whore – a label she had battled her whole life since her uncle’s abuse of her as a child – only for Alfie to then blame her for trying to save him.

Sacrifice can only impact on a viewer if you’ve really built up character; give your characters a particular function in your narrative – it will give it more logic. But also think about what brought them to this place in your film, why we’re watching them NOW in their “life” (as opposed to last week, a decade in the future or two years ago) and then you will have access to their motivations. If you know a character’s motivation in the story, you then will know why they might sacrifice themselves for it.

Any fave character sacrifices, then? Over to you…

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28 thoughts on “Character Sacrifice”

  1. Gah! Return of the Spoiler lady! I’m saving Severance for this year’s Halloween movie day!

    It’s not the sacrifice that gets me, but stupid bravery. Chokes me up. So whilst you’ve got Spoon in Dog Soldiers (which is great), I’m also thinking of a mortally wounded Inigo Montoya still fighting the Count in The Princess Bride, or the two survivalist hicks blasting the shit out of the Graboid in Tremors. Awesomeness, all round.

  2. So what we’re dealing with Oli is I’m just not allowed to talk about movies EVER, right??? How then shall I illustrate my fabulous articles for you all? Do some of Good Dog’s interpretative dance maybe?!? : P

  3. Lost Season 3 Spoiler:

    Charlie’s death on Lost was a sad self-sacrifice.
    He could’ve escaped, but Desmond told him that rescue wouldn’t come for Claire and her baby unless: 1) Charle flips the switch and enables communication and 2) dies.
    Charlie succeeds in flipping the switch. Logically, one may think – ‘Rescue will come now since the act of flipping the switch will allow rescue to come!’
    However, future-seeing Desmond told Charlie that, in the future he saw, Charlie flips the switch and also dies.
    Charlie being alive may affect the future Desmond saw, therefore Charlie knows what must be in place. Assuring the future that Desmond saw, Charlie accepts his escapable death.
    He also learns something incredibly essential to everybody’s well-being on the island.

  4. Dude! Spoilers!

    Of course you can discuss movies, and plots. But major character deaths and endings are not allowed, unless there’s a proper Spoiler Warning beforehand. Not allowed!

  5. I was also going to mention Gene Hackman’s Reverend Scott in The Poseidon Adventure but some people might bet miffed that the ending’s been given away.

    Which is why I won’t add Ripley in Alien 3 or Eddie Woodward’s Sergeant Howie – a literal sacrifice – in The Wicker Man. Or that the previous post was from John Huston’s magnificent adaptation of Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King.

    Oh, I’ve done it now! Rosebud’s a sleigh! Quint gets eaten and the shark’s blown up! It was Verbal all along! The English patient isn’t really English! The Mummy… er, returns!!!

    I mean come on…. wanting bloody spoiler warnings posted?

    Heaven forbid people should get their panties is a twist because a plot point is given away. Surely if you want to be in the business you have to treat it like a business and find out about the films and their plots even if you haven’t seen them.

    It’s not like Lucy’s travelling around and finger-banging everyone’s pet… Oh, have I given that away? You were going to do that next weekend weren’t you?


  6. Okay, this is a frightening turn in my life–


    Metaphorically, of course. And welcome to Carlo and his delicious spoilers even tho I don’t watch LOST – you’ve come to the right place my friend!!!

    I will put a heading on the blog though James, along the lines of


    That work for you?

  7. GD: Yes, people should find out about films, but not everyone’s seen bloody everything yet. And don’t forget we watch them primarily for entertainment, that’s why they exist. I’m “in the business”, thanks, but I don’t enjoy watching something as much if the fucking ending’s been ruined for me, it’s not going to have the same effect, it’s not going to hit me in the same way. First time you see a movie, you have to just experience it. *Then* it can be examined closely, and so on. If you already know the ending before you see it, how can you judge if it comes as a surprise, or is as predictable as anything? The Man Who Would Be King is an amazing film, I love it to bits. But I doubt that as many people have seen it as, for example, Jaws. And you’ve just given away a key moment in the ending, which now won’t have the same impact on someone seeing it for the first time.

    Lucy: I’d prefer some sort of shield over the screen, like a velvet cloth or something… But is it really a big deal to put something like (spoilers) in a post that deals with major spoilers? Then people who hadn’t seen the film in question would know to skip it and come back later, when they have seen it – or just keep reading if they don’t mind spoilers. I know I keep harping on about this, but most people don’t like having the ending given away, and it baffles me why you think I’m being silly or oversensitive.

  8. Sorry James… I don’t really mind spoilers you see, so it’s taken me a while to catch on that they really piss some people off. I wrote spoliers ALOT on my AOL blog and no one seemed to mind, but perhaps my stats have gone up more than I realise!

    I do kinda need to spoiler some things though to make various points in these articles, so what I’m going to do is not only add SPOILERS to posts like this, but actually mention which films I’m going to reference to make various points and that way people can then see which posts they need to miss on the basis of which films they haven’t seen and which films they may not have seen but don’t care if I spoiler.

    Any good to you and/or the rest of the Anti-Spoiler posse?

  9. All I know is that if someone had told me the ending of The Usual Suspects before I saw it, I probably would’ve popped a cap in their ass, as the popular saying goes.

    That said, is there some sort of unofficial spolier period after which it is acceptable to disclose plot details? I mean, if you haven’t seen The Sixth Sense by now, you probably never will!

  10. Lucy, I’m sorry, I know just how much it pains you to have to agree with anything that comes out of my flapping maw.

    Everyone else… Oh, get over it. They’re only bloody movies after all. It’s not like it’s a matter of life and death.

    Unless, of course, it is A Matter of Life and Death.

    If it’s a movie that’s way past its release date and been shown on terrestrial TV already, it’s fair enough talking about it.

  11. A matter of life and death? I thought it was far more important than that (apologies to Bill Shankly).

    Seriously though, I don’t care. I’m only really sticking around for the next fight 😉

  12. Oh GD, I love the word “maw”, nice one for bringing it into the blog. As for you, young Chipster, I know you’re well up for a fight – shame on you, you’d never catch me behaving like that! ; )

    As for pet finger banging… Don’t ask me. I was talking about scriptwriting ffs…

  13. “Oh, get over it. They’re only bloody movies after all. It’s not like it’s a matter of life and death.”

    Mr Dog, that’s very irritating indeed. Which I imagine was the idea…

  14. Mr Dog, that’s very irritating indeed. Which I imagine was the idea…

    No, not really. The actual words were used to provide a little chuckle when accompanied with the next line, but films and television… they’re certainly not the be-all and end-all. If you think they are….. well, what can I say?

  15. GD: Come on now, don’t put words into my mouth, you naughty boy – straight to bed with no supper. Movies and TV *are* pretty important if you enjoy them, and if you work (or plan on working) in the industry. Aren’t they the reason we’re doing all this? Writing, blogging, discussing? Nobody’s suggesting they are life and death. What I’m saying is, having a movie ending spoiled for you is really, really, really, *really* fucking annoying. Simple as that. Like talking on mobile phones in the cinema, pushing past people on the tube, or farting in someone’s face – ultimately none of those things are going to kill you, or even matter in the great scheme of things. But they’re still incredibly inconsiderate and annoying. Especially the face farting thing. When you spoil, you fart in my face, and the farts smell of communism.

  16. I don’t recall ever having anyone fart in my face James but then I went to a girls’ school which I suspect now may have been a blessing… : )

  17. Putting things in your mouth and farting in your face? That wasn’t me in the gimp mask.

    Bah, don’t you find that from looking out for what’s being made you end up knowing the story details before you see the film anyway? Even if I do know what’s going to happen, if the film is well executed enough I get caught up in the moment and forget about what’s coming? Hell, I knew the reveal in Fincher’s Seven before the lights went down but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment. No big deal.

    Movies and television shows and commercials provided me with a pretty handsome pay cheque. It’s a lot better than working in a goddam factory or digging ditches or being sent out into the desert by Whitehall. But a lot of the times there are too many folk in the industry who put too much bloody importance on it.

    It’s not like it’s the only entertainment about. Past generations managed to get on pretty well with public stonings and burning witches.

  18. Lucy: Oh, you’re lucky. You have no idea. It’s horrendous.

    GD: Knowing story details before seeing the film: Used to be the case, but I try to be careful nowadays – what with reviews telling the whole blimmin plot, and articles casually giving away endings etc. I managed to stay almost completely spoiler free for most of this year’s movies, and also Brick, which I only caught on DVD last night (sometimes takes me a while to catch up…) But if I’ve had the end spoiled, I can *never* forget what’s coming, because it nags away in my mind the whole time. Oh blimey, if I’d had the end of Seven spoiled, it wouldn’t have had the same impact at all, I’d have just been sitting there waiting for it. I’m usually good at turning off the bit of my brain that can figure out an ending while watching a movie, but not if I actually *know* it. We all watch things in different ways, and for a lot of us, spoilers are just evil. Evil, I says.

  19. One more great sacrifice in the movies…


    (Not that it’s Casablanca or anything, but it’s still a spolier…)

    Bronski, action/horror B-cinema’s most hardcore character, surfing Jason Vorhees into the atmosphere of Earth 2 and burning them both to a crisp. Bloody brilliant.

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