One of the key elements to a story is having the protagonist make a sacrifice–pay a heavy price–at the climax or breaking point; what makes that good is when the author has had enough build-up to get the audience to care about the protagonist’s sacrifice and how they adapt. There is the creation of tension and conflict . . . the bones of story. Often in narrative construction, the sacrifice comes out of a choice the protagonist makes.
Trilogies like The Lord of the Rings and The Hunger Games both feature protagonists whose heavy price actually comes near the beginning of their stories–the inciting incident. At Rivendale, Frodo chose to take the Ring to Mt. Doom after seeing what it does to those around him. It is clear to him he is not afflicted by the Ring as much as the others. At the Reaping, Katniss chose to volunteer as tribute to spare her sister, Prim, from having to fight to the death in the arena. She has a much higher chance of victory given her skills. Accordingly, how Frodo and Katniss adapt to their choice becomes the story we love. They continue to make choices throughout their journeys, all of which lead up to Frodo being unable to throw the Ring into Mt. Doom and Katniss shooting President Coin instead of Snow. These would be considered the climax of the overall arc.
For Avatar the Last Airbender, the choice and adaptation comes twice. Before Aang is recovered from the iceberg, he chose to abandon his responsibility as the Avatar. Because of the fear of a twelve-year-old, he wakes to discover his race has become extinct, and he blames himself for not being there. The story, therefore, is Aang adapting to a world one-hundred years after his time, until the final chapters of book three when the time to face Firelord Ozai is upon him. The audience is given every indication Aang must sacrifice his air nomad morals of life preservation to end the war by killing the Firelord.
During the final battle, we see Aang’s affliction as he parries Ozai’s attacks. We are at the edge of our seats to see if he will put aside his morals for the greater good. To the audience and fellow cast member’s awe and delight, Aang circumvents the laws of sacrifice to have his cake and eat it too. Aang gained the knowledge of taking away someone’s bending when he met with the lion-turtle. He spares Ozai’s life and eliminate him as a threat. This second moment of choice and sacrifice is inverted. Aang does not follow the formula of a character paying a heavy price (one’s principles) in order to see an end to violence. Instead, he forces the formula to adapt to what he wants, bringing a conclusion still remembered by fans and characters years later.
Despite differences in when or what form their choice, sacrifice, and adaptations comes in, Frodo, Katniss, and Aang share a common price: an ordinary life. While “ordinary” is highly subjective, think in each story the moment Frodo, Katniss, and Aang chose to forgo a life without being the Ring bearer, the Mockingjay, or the Avatar. These characters’ choice to respond to the Call to Action is a form of sacrifice for the life they could have had if they were someone else. The life without the weight of the Ring, the life of a girl freed from war, the life of a simple monk. So you see, stories work best when characters’ choices have consequences, and when they are forced to make sacrifices and adapt to the spirals of conflict and plot. No matter how you present it, all three–choose, sacrifice, and adapt–must exist. It won’t just make reading the story better for your readers, it’ll make it that much more enjoyable for you to write.
I leave with this quote from Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:
It is our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.