At what cost victory?

**Warning: this post contains spoilers about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows**

Like much of America, I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows this weekend, and, despite my grim determination not to, I got choked up at the death of Dobby.  I’d read the books, so I knew it was coming, but I just couldn’t help myself.  In addition to clearing out my tear ducts, Dobby’s death also got me thinking about the cost of the hero’s victory.

In real life our achievements always come with a cost.  You can’t become a marathon runner without putting in the time and enduring injury.  You wouldn’t expect to win a war without loss of life or resources.  If you want to walk on the moon, you have to accept the risk that your space shuttle might explode and kill you on take-off.  If your dream is to become a writer, you have to endure a fair amount of rejection and self-loathing along the way.  Nothing worth doing or having comes for free.

As in life, so in art.  Whatever it is our characters are trying to achieve, we as authors must make them pay a price to get it.  The tricky bit, though, is figuring out the appropriate cost.  Over the course of her seven book journey with Harry and friends, J.K. Rowling kills off several major characters close to Harry, including (among others) Cedric Diggory, Sirius Black, Dumbledore, Mad Eye Moody, Hedwig, Dobby, Remus Lupin, Colin Creevey, and Fred Weasley.  George Weasley has his ear cursed off and Harry himself “dies” in order to destroy the Horcrux inside him.

All in all, a pretty hefty toll, I think–enough to reflect the dangerous nature of the war against Voldemort but not so much as to feel that Harry ultimately failed by not ending the reign of the Death Eaters sooner.  Some of the deaths had more impact than others (and reactions to them vary from reader to reader), but because it’s freshest in my mind – thanks to movie magic – I want to reflect briefly on Dobby’s death.

I think making Dobby’s life one of the costs of Harry’s fight against Voldemort was clever (and even a bit manipulative).  Dobby was beloved by many readers but wasn’t a main character, and because his character was child-like, his death felt especially cruel.  At the same time, Rowling had established that it was Dobby’s greatest wish to protect Harry.  Thus, because Dobby died protecting Harry–and in so doing thwarted the plans of the Death Eaters–the reader can find meaning in Dobby’s death.  It’s a cost, yes, and one that tugs at the reader’s heartstrings and amplifies the villainous nature of Bellatrix (as if we need more of that). But it’s not the kind of cost that will profoundly effect Harry for the rest of his life or create a serious setback along his road to success.  It motivates Harry without making him bitter or vindictive.  The same can be said for many of the other deaths in the books (with the possible exception of Dumbledore).

This is clearly one route to go.  Kill off beloved but non-essential characters (extra points if they die making a sacrifice for the hero or his/her quest).  Another commonly tread route is to open the story with the death of someone close to the protagonist and set the narrative up as a revenge plot.  Think of every Jean Claude van Damme movie ever made: “they killed my wife and child/brother/father/best friend and I will hunt them down!”  The Harry Potter books incorporate this device (to an extent) with the death of his parents.  Another example that comes to mind is Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, which focuses on a particularly brutal revenge story following the death of the protagonist’s brother.

The hero’s cost, however, need not come in the form of lives lost.  It could be some part of their principles or morals they must abandon in order to achieve their goal, a dream they turn away from in favor of pursuing the villain, or the dreams and principles their friends might sacrifice in order to help them.  The cost could also come in the form of unintended consequences the hero’s actions have on those not directly involved in the central conflict.  Whatever damage you leverage against your hero, the price paid needs to reflect both the mood and message of the story and the protagonist’s character arc.

Just because Dobby’s death got me thinking about costs doesn’t mean I’ve figured out all the answers.  What are your thoughts on striking the right balance between costs and achievements?  What factors go into determining how high a price the protagonist should pay for his/her victory to feel earned?

One thought on “At what cost victory?

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