Created By: Westrim on April 24, 2013 Last Edited By: Westrim on September 10, 2014

Extortion Distortion

Blow up the city or we kill your family.

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Extortion and Blackmail are well known tactics in Real Life and in fiction to force unwilling compliance, with many variations. From an outside perspective, the risks are usually fairly even, or the request is outweighed by the threat; a life for a life, or money for career preservation.

However, sometimes the request far outweighs the threat, throwing the balance out of whack and resulting in this trope.

The blackmail in this case concerns something far more important than what the blackmailer is threatening; help us assassinate the king or we kill your wife. It's most often justified by threatening loved ones, leading the blackmailee to ignore the imbalance and help with the plan. It gets to headscratching levels when what is wanted will still likely or definitely result in the loss of what is threatened- it doesn't matter if you get your wife back when you just helped initiate World War Three.

Always Save the Girl is a subtrope for love interests.


  • Attempted in Olympus Has Fallen, where the villain tried to use the Presidents son to blackmail him into handing over a code that would detonate every American nuke, but was unable to grab him.
  • In White House Down, the bad guys do succeed in grabbing the daughter of a police officer, which results in the President surrendering and the near nuclear obliteration of the Middle East.
  • In Iron Man 3, the Vice President is willing to be a puppet leader in exchange for a cure for his daughters disability.
  • On Series/Nikita, Nikita is threatened with the death of Michael unless she assassinates the President.

Community Feedback Replies: 12
  • April 24, 2013
    Do you have any actual examples? In your laconic, the threat seems much smaller than the actual plan (its still horrible, yes) so I'm not seeing where "disproportionate" comes into the equation there.

    The whole idea may actually be chairs, for blackmail to work you generally have to present a threat which is worse than the consequences of cooperating (from the perspective of the blackmailee) anyway. No kidnapper ever wrote a note saying "pay the ransom or we make your son do the dishes before we let him go."
  • May 9, 2013
    I agree. The threat is always worse than the consequences of cooperating to the blackmailee, and the benefit is always greater than the cost to the blackmailer.

    On the other hand, do we already have a Save The World Or Save The Girl trope? Because we should.
  • May 9, 2013
  • May 9, 2013
    It seems to me that the idea behind the trope is "do something to a lot of people, or we'll do something that affects you personally." Kind of a case of A Million Is A Statistic.

    • In Eagle Eye ARIIA recruits Jerry into its plot to assassinate the president and his cabinet by framing him for domestic terrorism and Rachel by threatening her son. It ultimately doesn't work when Jerry disrupts the event and lets himself get shot by the secret service.
  • May 9, 2013
    ^Hmm ok that might work if there's enough examples.

    Blackmail Mass Murder?
  • May 11, 2013
    I'm not sure what the lack of clarity is; blowing up a city is generally much, much worse than losing a family. Disproportionate, even. They're on completely different levels of tragedy, unlike regular blackmail where they're generally on the same level or the action they are blackmailed into is not as bad as their secret. The first paragraph explains regular blackmail, the second explains this type.
  • May 11, 2013
    ^Yeah, I misunderstood, I thought you were saying the threat of killing the family was the disproportionate part (since that's the actual "blackmail" part.)

    Its workable but needs a more specific title. The, um, "sides" of a blackmail equation are almost never equal.

    Blackmailed Into Monstrosity perhaps. Or maybe Blackmailed Into Villainy. It seems like this could be expanded to any time someone is Forced Into Evil through it, not just when they have to do something "worse" (whether the thing theyre asked to do is actually worse is subject to some YMMV anyway - this could get nattery. IE: Is threatening to kill ten kindergardeners better or worse than making someone blow up an entire nursing home?)
  • May 11, 2013
    Minor niggle; threatening to kills someone's family isn't blackmail, just extortion in modern legal terminology (it's only blackmail when you're threatening to do something that would otherwise be legal, like reveal infomation).
  • September 10, 2014
  • September 10, 2014
    ^ Yes, but this is a Sadistic Choice wherein the choices are not equally balanced and one is being used to manipulate you into doing the other.
  • September 10, 2014
    ^ a subtrope, then?

    Call it Unbalanced Sadistic Choice then.
  • September 10, 2014
    Less destructive examples could come from some type of Serious Business.