YIN AND YANG: SELF-SERVING SELF-SACRIFICE
By Steven Savage
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We all know the story elements, we all know the classics:
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 Self_Sacrifice.
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 know.
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 self.
So, how can this get messed up?
Is it possible to destroy yourself or sacrifice for egotistic motives?
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:
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 self-sacrifice.
What problems does this masquerade cause?
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.
Exploring characters 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.