When someone dies fighting for a cause they believe in, it can create a powerful symbol for others to rally around. The character's message may not have been all that effective while alive, but once their enemies kill them, others take notice of their example and agree with them, and begin to rise up. In works of fiction, some characters are aware of this and take efforts to avoid it.
This trope is whenever someone could
kill their enemy, and perhaps does, but it is addressed that their death could make them a martyr for their cause and prompt even more people to rise up to follow their legacy than rose up to follow them in life. Regardless of if the character actually dies or not, the story treats this as the truth — if they die, their enemies will have it even worse from those that take up the cause in their name.
Compare Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?
, which this trope may be the answer to. See also Nice Job Breaking It, Hero
and Nice Job Fixing It, Villain
, which may overlap with this trope if the character does
die and become a martyr, and Pragmatic Villainy
and Dangerously Genre Savvy
, which this trope is likely to be an instance of.
- In the Fall 1152 storyline of Mouse Guard, this is the reason why the traitor Midnight is not killed or executed. As the Guard realizes that his death would make him a martyr, he's banished instead.
- Undercover Brother. Mr. Feather and "The Man" are discussing General Boutwell (who is black) and his possible run for the Presidency of the U.S.
The Man: Now Boutwell might be President?! [snip] I want the White House to stay white. Eliminate him!
Mr. Feather: But, sir, if we kill him, we'll only be making him a hero.
- In Monty Pythons Life Of Brian, the People's Front of Judea could have rescued Brian from dying on the cross, but they decide to make him a martyr instead. He doesn't take it kindly.
- In Batman Returns, when Catwoman and Penguin have their team-up, Catwoman shoots down Penguin's initial suggestion of turning the Batmobile into "an H-Bomb on wheels" by pointing out that Batman would have even more power as a martyr, and that the best way to destroy him is to destroy his reputation.
- Explained to the Cigarette Smoking Man in The X-Files: Fight the Future to explain why Agent Mulder is not just shot by the Government Conspiracy. As long as he's alive, he's just seen as a crazy FBI agent Reassigned to Antarctica. If he dies (especially in a "mysterious" fashion, as the Cigarette Smoking Man is wont to do), he'll become a martyr to the Conspiracy Theorist circle, which could give them some problems down the road.
- In the live action Masters of the Universe movie Skeletor gives this as his reason for not outright killing He-Man immediately. (though its obvious there's ego involved too)
Evil-Lyn: The people wait for He-Man. They believe he will return to lead them. For you to rule completely he must be destroyed.
Skeletor: If I kill him, I make him a martyr, a saint. No, I want him broken first!
- Gladiator: This trope is the reason why Commodus doesn't just kill Maximus after the latter is revealed to be still alive. The whole point of Commodus's Bread and Circuses act is to keep the people of Rome from realizing how bad a ruler he actually is. Maximus openly defies Commodus, but at the same time he's so popular among the people that killing him would make Commodus in turn unpopular.
Commodus: And now they love Maximus for his mercy. So I can't just kill him, or it makes me even more unmerciful! The whole thing's like some crazed nightmare.
Falco: He is defying you. His every victory is an act of defiance. The mob sees this, and so does the senate. Every day he lives, they grow bolder. Kill him.
Commodus: No. I will not make a martyr of him.
- This is why Achimas, one of the world's top Professional Killers, is contracted to assassinate General Sobolev in The Death of Achilles. Sobolev was preparing a military coup in Russia, so his enemies required him dead and his death to be a shameful one, because otherwise his aides would have turned him into a martyr and carried out his plans even without him.
- Katniss in The Hunger Games becomes this trope for her selfless and pacifistic behavior in the games, instead of killing her opponents like it expected, but with the unrest she causes killing her would just make tensions worse. The Film of the Book even directly has Haymitch warn Seneca "Don't kill her. You'll only make a martyr of her."
- At the end of the Stargate SG-1 episode "Icon" Rand Protectorate loyalist leader Jared Kane guns down the religious extremist leader Soren. Daniel Jackson tells him he may have just created a martyr.
- Warhammer 40K: Averted in the background for the Deathleaper, a Tyranid special unit. It had already infiltrated the world of St Caspalen, and knew that killing its leader, Cardinal Salem, would make him a martyr to the Imperials, stiffening their resolve. So it continually attacked the Cardinal's bodyguard, brutally slaughtering them but leaving him untouched, until the man finally snapped. Left leaderless, the planet was an easy win for the Hive Fleet.
- Discussed in Starcraft II. Raynor tells Tosh that Arcturus Mengsk chooses to marginalize him with the media and paint him as a fanatical terrorist because he knows just killing Raynor will make him a martyr for rebellious sentiment.
- In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Tulius lampshades this when the Civil War questline is completed for the Imperials, that by killing Ulfric they may have just created a martyr for rebellion against the Empire and the worship of Talos.
- In Fallout: New Vegas, Mr. House discusses this with regards to NCR's President Kimball. Kimball's seven-year stalemate against Caesar's Legion and House in the Mojave has ruined his public image, so when House takes over the Mojave and ousts NCR from the region Kimball will take the blame from NCR's people. But if Caesar's assassins kill Kimball, he'll become a martyr for the Mojave once House takes over the region, which is why House wants him kept alive so when he takes over, he can negotiate peace with NCR.
- In Legacy of Kain, Kain accidentally falls victim to this trope in the first game. To prevent a tyrannous king called The Nemesis from taking over Nosgoth, he travels back in time to kill him as a young boy, William the Just. However, Moebius the Timestreamer uses the death of a young and beloved king to galvanize the humans of Nosgoth into exterminating the vampires, and when Kain returns to the present, he finds his race almost extinct thanks to Moebius's crusade.
- In one of the alternate timelines Booker and Elizabeth visit in BioShock Infinite, the alternate Booker never found Liz but instead joined Vox Populi, died fighting, and was posthumously turned into a martyr by the Vox Populi leaders. Moreover, when Booker Prime suddenly appears and everyone thinks he is Back from the Dead, said leaders actively try to off him again, because he is more useful to them dead than alive.
Religion and Mythology
- In The Legend of Korra Amon only takes the bending abilities from criminals and jerkasses before taking over the city for this reason. He actually tells Korra that taking her powers at this point would only make her a martyr when he has her at his mercy.
- According to some interpretations of The Four Gospels, Pontius Pilate was hoping the mob would want Jesus freed because he knew what trouble martyrs could be. Unfortunately the Pharisees wanted Jesus dead so they egged the mob into asking for the zealot Barab'bas instead.
- Some governments are careful about this-knowing that offing a popular figure could incite revolution.
- That's probably why TankMan wasn't disgraced on national television in China.
- When Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was killed by Serbian assassins, Austria-Hungary's outrage at Serbia led to war. Germany and Russia were pulled into it as their allies, and this spiraled into the conflict known today as World War I.