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TV Tropes Monday: Sacrificial Lamb/Sacrificial Lion

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Nothing serves to raise the stakes in a story than the death of character. It serves as shorthand for, “Things are/just got serious.” So it should not come as a surprise that writers mark certain characters for the grave in order to raise said stakes.

Enter the dual trope of Sacrificial Lamb/Lion.

The main difference between the two is the amount of time dedicated to character development. A lamb is a dead character walking, meant as a sacrifice to the drama gods. They enter and exit the story early, usually in the first act (if they are lucky) or the prologue (I call that unlucky). They get enough development so that the audience identifies with them but not so much that their death will change the story in a meaningful way. A sneaky author might position the character as a Decoy Protagonist, someone who looks like they will be the protagonist, only to die and give way to the real hero. This tends to maximize the shock by manipulating the audience expectations.

The lion, unlike the lamb, is a fully fleshed character. It’s a character the audience has come know over the course of the story. He is part of the main cast, but not the main character, for obvious reasons. The audience has time to know the character and bond with them. So when their death comes, not only is it an even bigger shock, but tends to be the turning point of the story, so much so that such deaths usually come at the end of act II, setting up the final showdown in act III. In a long running series characters will remember the event and mourn the loss.

Star Wars shows great examples of both. The opening scenes show a great many deal of soldiers dying as a result of the imperial attack on Princess Leia’s ship. The same goes for the captain who is cruelly tossed aside by an enraged Darth Vader. Their deaths put the war in the title and serve as an establishing moment for Vader. Luke’s aunt and uncle get a bit more character development, but they to are sacrificed to give Luke a reason to join Obi-Wan in his quest to help the rebels as well as to show that the Empire will kill anyone that gets in their way. They all serve as lambs within the story.

Obi-Wan’s death by Vader’s hand shows the lion side of the trope. The audience has spent about half the movie with him and has formed an attachment to him. His death not only comes as a shock, but serves as the final push Luke needs to dedicate himself to defeating the Empire. Not only that, Obi-Wan keeps inspiring Luke after his death as both a missing mentor as well as a force ghost.

Of course, when misused these tropes can cheapen the narrative, specially the lamb side of the equation. Death loses its meaning if there is no connection between the characters and the audience.


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