I had an interesting talk with a writing buddy about whether or not a main character must always make a sacrifice in order for it to be a satisfying story. We finally decided that it depended on the type of story. For simple stories like early chapter books and some picture books it’s not necessary. In those sometimes the character just learns something or experiences something—like the first day of school. There’s not a lot of character growth in those kind of stories. This is also true of series mystery characters. There isn’t a lot of character growth in a continuing character. The detective or amateur sleuth figures out the mystery and catches the bad guy, but doesn’t change a lot from book to book. They often don’t even age. They are stuck in a time warp.
For me I see characters changing the most in middle grade and young adult novels. In order for the characters to grow they have to make choices and learn from those choices. And in the climax they are going to have to make a sacrifice. They have to give up something they want or have in order to achieve the better good. That sacrifice forces them to change, to grow, to mature so they aren’t the same person they were at the beginning of the story. If they don’t have to make a sacrifice then the change doesn’t feel real. They haven’t earned it. And once they’ve made the sacrifice, they can’t get back what they gave up. Janie gives up her place in the cool kids’ clique in order to help her friend who is living in a homeless shelter. She can’t then end up being the most popular kid in school. She sacrificed popularity to do the right thing. If you then give her popularity at the end of the story, it cheapens her sacrifice. Don’t go soft on your characters. The sacrifice they make must be real and it has to hurt and it can’t be regained. Picture someone struggling to climb a mountain. At times they are hanging by their fingernails. Through strength of will and physical strength they make it to the top and then they are told the next time they want to come up to take the elevator to the summit. Their feeling of accomplishment is replaced by one of why did I bother. You’ve robbed them of their struggle. Don’t do that to your character. Let them keep the nobility of their choice.