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What I Did for Love

The Secret Heart of a Romance Novel

© 1999 by Deborah M. Hale

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 his sacrifice'.

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.


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.


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.


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 impossible.


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.


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.



Cover art copyright by Harlequin Enterprises Limited and are trademarks of the publisher.
All text within this site is Deborah Hale. Reprinting without permission is prohibited.