Having judged quite a few contests this year, I was very impressed by the calibre of the
entries. Sharp hooks. Nicely textured characters. Clean, strong prose. Why, I wondered
whenever I read a particularly strong entry, was this story sitting in my judging pile, instead
of on the shelf of my local book store. It did seem that something was missing — but what?
I gave that question a lot of thought. Finally when I read Vanessa Grant's book, Writing
Romance, it came to me. Discussing suspense and story questions, the author of over twenty
contemporary romance novels writes: "When your characters achieve their happy ending, it's
important that they sacrifice something to earn their happiness." BINGO! Most of the
otherwise wonderful stories I'd read tended to fall short in this area. Looking back, I
realized I had no sense of what the hero and heroine sacrificed in order to be together.
In some cases, the initial conflict seemed to evaporate, and the couple decided to act on
their longstanding attraction. In other stories, wise secondary characters persuaded the hero
and heroine that they belonged together. No compromise. No reevaluating of priorities. No
goal shifting. It was like opening a beautifully wrapped package only to find the box empty.
Sacrifice and love have a connection that goes back a long way. For nearly two-thousand
years, one of Western civilization's great 'keepers' has contained this passage: "Greater love
hath no man than a man lay down his life for his friend." I find the choice of words
significant. Why not greater honor hath no man? Or greater righteousness? Perhaps it's
because sacrifice -- putting the needs of someone else before our own, is the cornerstone of
true love. It's the bench mark by which we separate it from mere attraction or infatuation.
Don't believe me? Then go to your own keeper shelf and revisit some old friends. I'm
willing to bet that in the pages of these memorable, treasured books you'll find sacrifice — somewhere between the black moment and the happily ever after. In The Writer's Journey,
Christopher Vogler defines the fictional hero in terms of sacrifice. "People commonly think
of Heroes as strong or brave, but these qualities are secondary to sacrifice - the true mark of
a Hero. Sacrifice is the Hero's willingness to give up something of value, perhaps even his
own life on behalf of an ideal or a group."
If you're like me, with four Disney-mad young children, you've probably seen Hercules on video more often than you'd care to think about. Remember the young man's quest to
become a hero? He struggles, he trains, he beats up monsters, he gets his own line of
merchandise. But it's not enough to get him home to Mount Olympus. He isn't a 'true'
hero. Only when he barters his soul for that of his beloved does he achieve genuine hero
status. As his father, Zeus, says at the end of the film, "A true hero is measured not by the
size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart." Adult translation — 'by the depth of
So, have I beaten you with this stick long enough? Willing to cry, "Uncle!" and concede
that sacrifice might have a place in your stories? Good. Then let's explore some aspects of
sacrifice as it applies to crafting romance fiction.
MAKE IT BIG
A crucial moment in your book and your heroine sacrifices by giving your hero cab fare.
It's the last ten dollars she had in her purse and she was going to spend it on new pantyhose.
Now she has to go to a job interview with a run in her stocking. Don't expect readers to
break down in tears and overwhelm you with fan mail. When it comes to romantic sacrifice,
make the stakes high.
MAKE IT PERSONAL
High stakes doesn't always mean life and death. Just having the hero take a bullet for
heroine, or vice versa, isn't necessarily the answer. For instance, if your heroine is a police
officer, accustomed to putting her life on the line for others, it isn't such a big deal for her
to risk death on behalf of the hero. If the heroine has deep fears about her mortality, on the
other hand, you've got the makings of heroic sacrifice. Sometimes there are things almost as
important to you characters as life and death. A long-cherished goal. A deeply-held belief.
A fundamental aspect of their personality. When your hero or heroine must yield one of
these in the name of love, an otherwise minor sacrifice can take on heroic proportions.
MAKE IT A FUNCTION OF GROWTH AND CHANGE
Closely related to sacrifice is the idea of change and character growth. Good stories,
engaging stories, memorable stories, have heroes who evolve through conflict and ordeal into
wiser, stronger, better people than when they started. The act of sacrifice is concrete proof
of the vital change that has taken place. To bring that home to your reader, make sure the
sacrifice is something of which the hero would not be capable at the outset of your story.
Gradually let the character grow throughout the book with stages of progress and setback
until the key moment when he or she must step forward and do what was previously
HE SACRIFICED/SHE SACRIFICED
As with almost everything else in life, men and women approach sacrifice differently. In
general, women tend to be socialized towards self-sacrifice to a greater degree than men.
For that reason, a female hero's sacrifice may take a different slant to that of her male
counterpart. She may need to develop powers of assertion or self-confidence in order to
romantically engage the man she loves. What she's really sacrificing are familiar patterns of
behavior and deeply-ingrained insecurities that may be difficult and frightening to relinquish.
THE SACRIFICIAL OFFER
To do or not to do? Some authors get by with having the hero offer to make a sacrifice —
quit a dangerous or time-consuming job, kick out a deadbeat relative. Then the loved one
turns down the offer saying something like, "Just knowing that you'd be willing to do this
for me is enough." Chances are it won't be enough for the reader. Readers like heroes of
action, not hollow promises. Readers like heroes who follow through. The exception is a
case where the pursuit of sacrifice would imperil the happy ending. When this happens a
compromise is in order.
This is only part of the scoop on sacrifice. For more insights on this and related topics
like character growth, do yourself a favour by checking out The Writer's Journey and
Vanessa Grant's book (Writing Romance, Self Counsel Press, ISBN 1-55180-096-9). Try
incorporating their suggestions into your work. Then maybe I won't be enjoying your
contest entries anymore — I might have to go out and buy your books.
Hey, that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make.