Ever finish a movie or book and had this weird unfulfilled feeling? It ended happily-ever-after, the hero’s love died but was miraculously resurrected by a healing potion the secondary character’s third cousin twice removed had in their back pocket. It was beautiful, you almost cried, but as you closed the cover or watched the credits roll something just wasn’t quite right. Everyone was fine, the journey over, the villain defeated, so why does it feel like it’s not really over? Because you were cheated.
The Cost of Freedom
Nothing is free, even for a save-the-day hero. There is a cost to saving the world or those you love. The hero can not live through a battle, achieve the story goal, came to the end of their journey or defeat the villain without losing something. Freedom for the world or even for themselves, is not free. We all know this, it’s part of the rules of life, which is why at the end of a film or book, if the price for that happily-ever-after has not been paid, we feel cheated. It always annoyed me when characters would walk through fire and come out unscathed.
The cost for freedom could be a number of things, but if we look carefully in the stories we love and walked away from feeling fulfilled, we will find the price.
In The Lord of the Rings the cost for saving Middle-Earth was high. The Fellowship lost Boromir, The Hobbit’s lost the Shire and had to fight another war to save it.
How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup loses his leg.
Tangled, even though Rapunzel saved Flynn, she lost the healing power of her hair.
I recently finished a story where the main character lost his love. I couldn’t believe it when it happened. Just when you thought the battle had been won and the hero and his love were safe, the villain emerged and the hero had to fight one more time. The cost of his victory was high, I hated it, but at the same time I knew it had to happen. The price had been paid. Through the tears of grief I felt for the hero I was applauding the writer because they had fulfilled that price.
I loved the movie How to Train Your Dragon, but it was the ending that really set it in my top five favorite movies. Hiccup had fought an incredible battle and won, if he had come out of it unscathed, the ending wouldn’t have the home driving punch it has. Not only was it the price for defeating the Green Death, but it also linked Toothless and Hiccup more closely.
I read a book series several years ago that did not fulfilled the price. It almost did, but the writer did not follow through. In the final battle the hero (a girl) was badly burned. She was healed but the burns left behind hideous scars. She was distraught because her face was ruined. I was trying hard to like this series. I found them cheesy and an example of how not to write several things, but finally, they were about to be redeemed, or so I thought. Finally the hero was human, someone I could relate to, someone I felt for, then, out of nowhere, her scares were taken away. Needless to say I felt very cheated.
(This is why characters brought back to life really bug me. They died, the hero mourned, the hero grew, the hero moved on. If you kill a character, please, keep them dead.)
What Will be the Price?
The price the hero pays could be physical, or, it could be emotional. They could lose someone or something. They could have witnessed something, (maybe innocents paying the price), that has left their heart scared. The price could even be change.
At the end of The Lord of the Rings, the Hobbits have taken back the Shire and began rebuilding it. Life is slowly slipping into a new normal for the residents of the Shire, except one, Frodo. Sam, Marry and Pippin are beginning new lives of their own, settling into things, but Frodo’s shoulder still hurts, his four fingered hand is a constant reminder, too much has changed for him, he can’t go on. The Ring took something from Frodo, something the peace of a long life in the Shire can’t erase. The price of being the Ring Bearer took too much of a toll and so he leaves. He doesn’t just leave the Shire, as Bilbo did years after his adventure, he leaves Middle-Earth.
Sometimes the price is the hero’s old life. After all they’ve been through, with all the scares they bare, they can not return, they can only move on.
As human beings, we seek fulfillment. Even though we cry and don’t like it when the hero loses someone, we still walk away feeling fulfilled, (whether we realize it or not). We can’t have things for free in real life, and even though stories are an illusion of real life, the same rule applies. You can’t take that dream job without moving and saying goodbye to your family. You can’t learn that lesson and grow without giving something up. Sadly, a lot of modern writers don’t want to make their hero’s pay the price. They don’t want to make people sad, so the cheat, but instead of just not making people sad, they take away something more important. Stories are meant to be fulfilling in a good way. Through their illusion of reality, they’re suppose to give us a piece of the fulfillment we seek. They’re meant to make us wonder why that, even though it broke our hearts, we still loved it.
Whatever the price is, it’s there. Whether it’s emotional or physical the price must be paid. It’s a good feeling when you read the words “The End”, close the book and let out a small sigh thinking to yourselves, “That was a good story”.