Screenwriters and playwrights know it. Novelists and biographers know it. Readers know it. Moviegoers know it. We all know it intuitively. Agent and writer Donald Maass says it simply in Writing the Breakout Novel: one quality that leaves the deepest, most lasting and powerful impression of a character is self-sacrifice.
In A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens, Carton willingly goes to the guillotine in Darnay’s place. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Gandalf willingly faces death by taking on a monster in the abyss in order to let his traveling companions escape. In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi allows himself to be cut down as Luke and friends escape. In Alison McGhee’s Shadow Baby, an old man saves a young girl from a burning trailer, losing his life in the process. In my second novel, Eye of the Sword, (March 2012), one of the characters dies saving the life of another. I’m sure you can think of many others. Writers of movies, novels, and plays know that a deed of self-sacrifice is one of the most heart-rending a character can perform.
These scenes grab our hearts, because they go where researchers of moral development say our greatest value resides. Kohlberg, Hoffman, and Gibbs, who trace the stages of moral growth, say that people in the highest stage embody “the supreme value of self-sacrifice” (Moral Development and Reality, Gibbs). They make that choice, because it’s who they are.
Today as we celebrate Memorial Day, may our greatest respect and honor go to the real-life men and women who willingly put their lives on the line for us. Heroes all.