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...