Created By: BlueIceTea on April 14, 2012 Last Edited By: BlueIceTea on April 26, 2012
Troped

Heroic Suicide

A character kills himself to accomplish some heroic goal.

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Suicide is generally considered a bad thing. Even when the person committing it feels he has no other choice, it's still far from heroic. In contrast, Heroic Sacrifices are almost always regarded as noble, and those who perform them are held in high regard. Despite the similarities, these two things rarely overlap.

But sometimes they do.

This trope is about situations where suicide becomes heroic. Say a character discovers that he is a Person of Mass Destruction, a crucial part of an Evil Plan, or the Big Bad's Soul Jar. In such situations killing oneself may be the only way to save the day.

This is a specific sub-trope of Heroic Sacrifice. The difference is that in most Heroic Sacrifices dying is merely an unfortunate by-product of a heroic act. In a Heroic Suicide, dying is the goal. Or, to put it another way, a Heroic Sacrifice engages in lethal activity even though it will get him killed. A Heroic Suicide engages in lethal activitiy because it will get him killed.

The clearest examples are when a character personally will become the threat that endangers others, and they have to kill themselves to prevent it. Any such situation definitely counts as a Heroic Suicide. Otherwise, it might count, but be careful.

A good rule of thumb is that in most Heroic Suicides, the character's death is both necessary and sufficient to acomplising their immediate goal. That is to say, they can't accomplish their goal without dying, but how they die doesn't matter much. To elaborate:
  • Necessity: Ask yourself if there's even a theoretical possibility that the character could accomplish their goal without dying. If there is, it's probably a regular Heroic Sacrifice. For example, say you drink poison intended for someone else, trade places with a man on death row, or turn your spaceship into a guided missile. None of those qualify, because in each case your death is only a side-effect of what you are doing. The point is to prevent the other person from drinking the poison, buy time for the man to escape, or disable the enemy ship. You would still accomplish these goals even if you discovered you were miraculously immune to poison, received a last-minute pardon, or were beamed off your ship at the moment of impact. This trope only comes into play if the character has to die to accomplish their goal. Though that isn't to say their death will always be permanent.
  • Sufficiency: Ask yourself how important the circumstances are under which the person dies. Do they accomplish their goal just by dying, or does it matter what they were doing when they died? For example, say you get yourself killed diffusing a bomb. In that situation, it's stopping the bomb that makes your actions heroic, not the dying. You couldn't achieve the same goal just by, say, shooting yourself in the head. On the other hand, say you are the bomb. In that case, it doesn't matter how you die, as long as you do it quickly. Shooting yourself in the head is fine. So is getting poisoned, stabbed, or decapitated.

Compare Thanatos Gambit, My Death Is Just the Beginning, Seppuku, and Better to Die Than Be Killed. Often overlaps with Cyanide Pill which could be considered a sub-trope (examples go there, not here).

Warning: This is a Death Trope. Expect lots of unmarked spoilers.


Examples:

Film
  • In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the T-800 ally must kill himself at the end to destroy the last possible source of Terminator technology that could let people reverse-engineer Terminators and Skynet.
  • Constantine. Angela Dodson's identical twin sister Isobel commits suicide when she realizes that the Big Bad plans to use her as part of a ritual to release Hell on Earth. She sends a psychic message to Angela from beyond the grave to tell her to find Constantine, and leaves a message for them so that they can stop the Big Bad from performing the ritual on Angela.
  • Hartigan from Sin City kills himself so that no one will hurt Nancy to get at him.
  • Ripley falls backward into a smelter to stop the Alien gestating in her from birthing and starting the whole ordeal all over again in Alien 3
  • In Gran Torino, after his previous attempts to stop a gang from harrassing his neighbours failed, Walt Kowalski taunts them so that they will kill him. Thinking he was grabbing a weapon, they gun down an unarmed old man in front of an entire block worth of witnesses and are sent to prison.

Literature

Live-Action TV

Community Feedback Replies: 53
  • April 14, 2012
    Arivne
    Film
    • Constantine. Angela Dodson's identical twin sister Isobel commits suicide when she realizes that the Big Bad plans to use her as part of a ritual to release Hell on Earth. She sends a psychic message to Angela from beyond the grave to tell her to find Constantine, and leaves a message for them so that they can stop the Big Bad from performing the ritual on Angela.
  • April 14, 2012
    reub2000
    Video Games
    • Star Craft - Tassadar crashes his carrier into the overmind while channeling templar and dark templar energy in order to destroy it.
  • April 14, 2012
    Koveras
  • April 14, 2012
    Routerie
    Would Harry Potter be an example? Killing himself to kill the piece of Voldemort inside him?
  • April 14, 2012
    KTera
    • Hartigan from Sin City kills himself so that no one will hurt Nancy to get at him.
  • April 14, 2012
    Koveras
    ^^ Potter doesn't kill himself. He lets himself be killed IIRC, which is a Heroic Sacrifice.
  • April 14, 2012
    reub2000
    What's the difference?
  • April 14, 2012
    Routerie
    So is the difference between this and Heroic Sacrifice that here, the hero takes his life with his own hand? Or is the difference that here, death is the goal rather than a byproduct?
  • April 14, 2012
    Koveras
    The two questions above are very relevant. The description seems to draw a line between Heroic Sacrifice and this but there is really very little solid difference between voluntarily facing certain death and voluntarily taking your own life. For instance, the jury is still out whether Jesus committed a Suicide By Cop, since he knew the authorities would execute him but wanted it this way and let them capture him.
  • April 14, 2012
    FrodoGoofballCoTV
    Anime and Manga:
    • Another very... interesting example or not-example (depending on the definition of this trope) occurs toward the end of Code Geass' second season. Lelouch ends up taking over The Empire, pulls a Zero Approval Gambit, and then arranges for his own assasination, leaving an opening for a Velvet Revolution to bring about the very future he'd been fighting for all along.

    On second thought, this is a case of Self Sacrifice Scheme, wheras perhaps this trope is more specific?
  • April 14, 2012
    BlueIceTea
    ^^^ The latter: Death is the goal rather than the byproduct. Basically what I was thinking was that in fiction, Heroic Sacrifices are generally considered noble, whereas Suicide generally isn't. This trope is about the convergence between the two - situations where Suicide becomes Heroic.

    The Star Craft example doesn't sound like it fits. Using your ship as a missile doesn't count because the point is crashing the ship, not dying.

    The Mass Effect 1 example needs a better write-up. It's not clear to me how the game is using this trope.

    *Slaps forehead* Of course! How could I forget Harry Potter?! Is it an example? Hmm... I guess it would have to be, by the description. Just letting Voldemort kill him wouldn't count, but since he is a Horcrux, and Voldemort couldn't be killed as long as he was alive (he thought) then his death was the only way to stop Voldemort. So... yeah! Not a suicide per se, but still fits the trope! :)

    Not sure about the Code Geass example, not having seen the work myself. Someone else want to weigh in?
  • April 14, 2012
    azul120
    It's a little open to interpretation, but I'd say the Code Geass example was about suicide. Lelouch, fearing his beloved sister is dead, and having just been betrayed by the Black Knights, feels like he has lost all purpose to live on, and basically has himself offed in such a way that he hopes will bring peace.
  • April 14, 2012
    Jordan
    • In the Doctor Who episode "The Waters of Mars", the Doctor changes history to rescue someone doomed to die, which causes him to go totally A God Am I with megalomania. His rescuee kills herself in order to stop him, after which he snaps out of it.
  • April 14, 2012
    Tuckerscreator
    In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the T-800 ally must kill himself at the end to destroy the last possible source of Terminator technology that could let people reverse-engineer Terminators and Skynet.
  • April 14, 2012
    animeg3282
    The Code Geass one is Suicide By Cop :D But it can be under this as well
  • April 14, 2012
    chicagomel
    I think Doyle in the Angel half of the Buffyverse counts too...he knew he'd have to die to climb up and stop the crystal from turning on and killing all the half-breeds, but he did it anyway, especially once he knew Angel was planning on it.
  • April 14, 2012
    Treblain
    Got to be careful with this one; it's easy to mistake any conscious Heroic Sacrifice for it. The simplest case where Heroic Suicide is going to come up is when they personally will become the threat that endangers others, and they have to kill themselves to prevent it. That's just the easiest situation to determine this trope, not the only one, but some of the other examples don't quite work.

    A good example is Al Gough on Flash Forward. He learns that in the future an innocent woman will die due to his actions, so he jumps off a building so as to Screw Destiny so it can never happen.
  • April 14, 2012
    nman
    Alright, I can't remember the episode, but I know that some guy in House suffocated himself so that House could give his son a heart to transplant. I'll try to remember the episode, but I'm a bit foggy on it.
  • April 15, 2012
    fulltimeD
    I agree with Koveras: as is, this is not particularly distinguishable from Heroic Sacrifice. It's The Same But More Specific. I don't think we need to split this from Heroic Sacrifice.
  • April 15, 2012
    ParadiscaCorbasi
    • Ripley falls backward into a smelter to stop the Alien gestating in her from birthing and starting the whole ordeal all over again in Alien 3
  • April 15, 2012
    Routerie
    Do we have a trope already about a character having to die to achieve good ends? Not as a gambit, but just having it be the right thing to do? Because that would include all these examples and exists independent of Heroic Sacrifice - the character may or may not actually end up sacrificing himself.
  • April 15, 2012
    BlueIceTea
    Doyle from Angel definitely does not count. Look at the sentence:

    he knew he'd have to die to climb up and stop the crystal from turning on

    Exactly, dying wasn't his goal, stopping the crystal was. Dying was just an unfortunate side-effect.

    I think a good rule of thumb is: is the character causing something bad to happen just by being alive. I think I'll add that to the description.
  • April 15, 2012
    captainsandwich
    needs link to Thanatos Gambit
  • April 15, 2012
    Manateehugs
    Western Animation, possibly Princess Yue of the Northern Water Tribe in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The moon spirit in a koi fish form is killed in a fire nation attack. Yue was healed by the moon spirit when she was a baby, by directly having some of the moon spirits life given to her. When the mortal form of the moon spirit is killed, she sacrifices this life force to the moon spirit. This kills her body. However it could be tricky to pin it as a suicide, as she becomes the moon spirit herself.

    Hayley
  • April 15, 2012
    Synchronicity
    It's actually subverted in Sherlock's Season 2 finale, the final piece of Moriarty's game is to train snipers on John, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade, who will then all shoot if Sherlock doesn't jump from the top of the building. And he does jump - but in the end it's revealed he faked it (with Molly's help).
  • April 15, 2012
    randomsurfer
    On Angel Darla (a vampire) stakes herself so that her and Angel's* 100% human son can be born.

    (* Or "Angel's and her?" Or something. It all looks weird but I'm not a good enough Grammar Nazi to figure out what's right.)
  • April 17, 2012
    BlueIceTea
    @fulltimeD: Given how big the Heroic Sacrifice page is and how many examples this trope has garnered, I think it's worthwhile to make the distinction.

    I know the description needs some work. I'll tinker with it later when I get some time. Meanwhile can someone do a better write-up for the Harry Potter example, please? :)
  • April 17, 2012
    reub2000
    I'd put that there goal is to die in bold in an effort to prevent Trope Decay.
  • April 17, 2012
    Stratadrake
    Harry Potter, if it's about the Harry-Voldemort thing, that's not an example. He had to die to get rid of the Horcrux inside his scar, so that they could finally get rid of Voldemort for good. Fortunately, certain mitigating circumstances under which it happened allowed him to come back from limbo.
  • April 17, 2012
    Generality
    There's another example from the Constantine film: at the end, Constantine kills himself so that the Devil will come up to claim him, and can thus be informed of Mammon's plan and prevent its completion.

    Regarding the Harry Potter example:

    The essence of Heroic Sacrifice is that a hero dies to protect someone else. This is hard to do via suicide. You can take a bullet for someone else, but seldom can you help someone by shooting yourself. This, I think, is the critical distinction between the two tropes. Heroic Suicide is not, at least, immediately protective, but accomplishes a heroic goal through some other means.

    Harry Potter manages to satisfy both definitions. What he does is walk up to Voldemort, expecting to be killed. In this way it counts as suicide. He does so knowing that it will weaken Voldemort and make him easier to kill. Thus it is heroic and qualifies for this trope. But there's another element in play. Harry was on a mission to destroy all of the Horcruxes. If he were devoted solely to that mission, he might have waited until he had devised a means to kill the last intentional Horcrux, the snake. As it was, he went to his supposed death knowing that his mission was incomplete, and he did so because Voldemort had threatened to kill all of his friends and loved ones in Hogwarts if he did not. As such, he acted to protect his friends, and so this qualifies as Heroic Sacrifice as well.
  • April 19, 2012
    BlueIceTea
    Okay, I've re-written the description, and I'm more or less ready to publish. Just going to give it a few more days to collect input/examples/suggestions. If you want to tinker with the write-up, feel free to do so; I know it's not great.

    And yeah, Harry had to die because as long as he was alive, Voldemort couldn't be defeated. So he counts.
  • April 19, 2012
    JHM
    This happens in The Joy Luck Club, if I recall correctly...

    Also, you might want to note that this one can easily overlap with My Death Is Just The Beginning, as it does with the Thanatos Gambit.
  • April 19, 2012
    MyTrainIsOff
    From a certain perspective Baby Doll deciding to get lobotomized in Sucker Punch falls into this.
  • April 19, 2012
    Nithael
    Azazel from Fallen is a demon who can possess anybody he touches or, if his host dies, anybody within "five hundred cubits," or about a sixth of a mile, and he is only destroyed if there are no hosts left to possess. At the end of the movie, John Hobbes tricks him into going to a secluded cabin, kills his host and smokes a poisoned cigarette so that when he dies, the demon will have nobody to possess. It doesn't work.
  • April 19, 2012
    cathstuart
    I can't think of specific examples, but there are plenty from war, spy and noir-type stories of people who commit suicide to protect vital information, say to prevent themselves giving p information under torture. I think, depending on how the story is being played, these can be portrayed as examples of Heroic Suicide.
  • April 19, 2012
    Nithael
    Yes, maybe we should add something like "Compare Seppuku, Better To Die Than Be Killed, Cyanide Pill".
  • April 19, 2012
    HawkofBattle
    Being Human might have had a case of this in season four with future Eve attempting to kill her past self to prevent a vampire apocalypse, knowing that, as long as she lives and is heralded as the Warchild, humanity will never start any uprising, expecting her to save them instead.
  • April 19, 2012
    Koveras
    • In book six of the Arcia Chronicles, all Elves of the Swan Clan commit suicide to feed the magical barrier around the trapped Big Bad with their life energies. However, this proves to have been a Senseless Sacrifice, since another group of heroes infiltrated the barrier and killed the Big Bad--but the Elves didn't learn about that.
  • April 19, 2012
    randomsurfer
    Might this count?
    • In Harry Potter And The Philosophers Stone Harry, Hermione & Ron play a bigger-than-life-size chess game against a magiced chessboard, replacing some of the pieces with themselves. At one point Ron - the one of the three best at chess so he's directing the action for their side - realizes that in order for them to win he has to sacrifice himself. True, he doesn't end up dead (just knocked out) but none of them know that he won't die. They've seen the other captured chess pieces be smashed to smithereens and assume that it will happen to him too.
  • April 19, 2012
    TwinBird
    The line seems too blurry to me to split this.
  • April 20, 2012
    Routerie
    ^^That seems a plain Heroic Sacrifice. He wanted to win the chess game, and his death would have been an unfortunate byproduct. He didn't aim to die. If he could have slipped through the pieces without dying, that would have suited him just fine.
  • April 20, 2012
    Statalyzer
    I agree. The Harry Potter example isn't SUICIDE. Heroic Suicide would be more like Dr. Jekyll killing himself because that was the only way he could get rid of Mr. Hyde (which needs to be an example).
  • April 20, 2012
    Statalyzer
    I agree. The Harry Potter example isn't SUICIDE. Heroic Suicide would be more like Dr. Jekyll killing himself because that was the only way he could get rid of Mr. Hyde (which needs to be an example).
  • April 23, 2012
    Nithael
    In Gran Torino, after his previous attempts to stop a gang from harrassing his neighbours failed, Walt Kowalski taunts them so that they will kill him. Thinking he was grabbing a weapon, they gun down an unarmed old man in front of an entire block worth of witnesses and are sent to prison.
  • April 24, 2012
    BlueIceTea
    I'll publish this in a day or two.
  • April 24, 2012
    Nithael
    From Heroic Sacrifice:

    • Occurs in the Death Note live-action movies (but not the original manga or anime). Like in the anime/manga, Light gets Rem to write L's name in the Death Note. When L is apparently dying due to that, Light admits that he's Kira to him... but then it's revealed that L outwitted Light by writing his own name in the Death Note before Rem did, setting himself to die in 23 days and overriding Rem's attempt to kill him. L thus proves Light is Kira, but still dies less than a month later due to writing his own name in the Death Note.
  • April 24, 2012
    randomsurfer
    • 24 season 2: George Mason, who has already been exposed to a lethal amount of radiation, volunteers to fly a plane carrying a nuclear bomb to the Mojave desert in order for it to explode away from civilization, to minimize the damage. His offer is initially declined; it's thought that he won't be able to pilot the plane, and Jack decides to make the sacrifice himself. But George sneaks on to the plane before liftoff and convinces Jack that after takeoff it's just a matter of pointing the plane in the right direction, so Jack jumps out with a parachute, allowing George to take it the rest of the way.
  • April 24, 2012
    Routerie
    ^ That's another Heroic Sacrifice. George killed himself, but his death wasn't the goal.
  • April 24, 2012
    Routerie
    Maybe we should look at alternate names. With so much confusion already, I imagine a lot of future misuse.
  • April 24, 2012
    Damr1990
    Question, in cases when I Cannot Self Terminate or similar, would a Suicide By Cop Count? (i can't kill myself so i request/arrange/gambit an event that causes my death, the method being irrelevant as long as i can achieve the goal of me dying) (like the Terminator 2 Example)
  • April 24, 2012
    Sligh333
    Bruce Banner, The Hulk has tried this a few times.
  • April 24, 2012
    AlexeiMundhenkvorYaruk
  • April 25, 2012
    OneMore
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