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 (or at least, die before their enemies can discredit them), 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.
- Batman: The Cult: Batman faces the immortal (via regular Blood Bath) cult leader Deacon Blackfire. Blackfire faces him in a ring of his followers, and actually wants Batman to kill him in front of them to invoke this trope. Batman realizes this and instead breaks his pedestal in front of all of them by hitting him in nerve clusters for maximum pain until Blackfire can't handle it anymore. Seeing their messiah as just a man, his cult kills him.
- 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?!... 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 Python's 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 it's 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.
- In X-Men: Days of Future Past, the plot is driven by the need to stop Mystique from killing Bolivar Trask, creator of the Sentinel program, because his death at the hands of a mutant will only drive others to finish his work. In addition, since Mystique is captured when she does it, they are able to adapt her mutation to give the Sentinels Adaptive Ability, which made them unstoppable.
- The reason why Ramses exiled Moses in The Ten Commandments.
- 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 is 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."
- In George RR Martin's early short story "And Death His Legacy" (collected in Dream Songs) the protagonist assassinates a right-wing demagogue during one of his sermons, which inspires his already fanatical followers to continue his work and the movement grows. "My God, What Have I Done?."
- In Isaac Asimov's short story In a Good Cause—, after a man is arrested for attempting to kill the ambassadors of an alien race (he hoped to unite the human factions through an Enemy Mine situation), he asks whether he's going to be shot without a trial. Instead, he is told that he'll only get a few years... they don't need a martyr, so everyone else is going to be shot instead, creating the impression of him being a state witness.
- 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.
- In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Angel 1", the ruler of a matriarchal society sentences a male former member of the Federation named Ramsey and two accomplices to death for revolutionary activities. The crew of the Enterprise can do nothing to help them as far as legalities are concerned (a rare case where they abide by the Prime Directive), but Riker advises Mistress Beata of the possible consequences, saying her actions are trying to hold back evolution, which can't be done, and warns her that she'll make a martyr out of Ramsey. At the last minute, Beata relents, and simply chooses to have Ramsey exiled.
- In Season 8 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Harmony has become an international celebrity who's making Buffy and the Slayer Organization's lives miserable, making vampires seem like misunderstood good guys and the slayers look like Nazis for unfairly hunting them. Still, Buffy orders her troops to let her live, for this very purpose.
- 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.
- Anti Bunny:Nailbat. The mayor's robot has Nailbat broken and defeated... only for the mayor to order the robot to take him alive. The robot questions this until the mayor explains that new Nailbats can be created out of ordinary citizens who witness a martyr. The robot can kill Morris... but to kill Nailbat, he has to arrest him and have him judged by court and paraded by media, until no one wants to be Nailbat anymore.
Religion and Mythology
- In The Legend of Korra, Amon only takes 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.
- Jesus Christ is probably the Trope Codifier of arguments for this. The Romans crucified a popular, charismatic, and inspirational outcast preacher in a tiny backwater occupied province. In doing so they established the cornerstone of a religion that made it to the heart of the capital within the generation of Christ's death and would conquer the Roman Empire. Though the teaching of Christianity is that this was invoked: the reason The Christ was brought to the Earth was to redeem mankind's sins and show the way by dying in martyrdom.
- Some governments are careful about this, knowing that offing a popular figure could incite revolution.
- That's probably why Tank Man (the guy who stood up to a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square) wasn't disgraced on national television in China.
- Conversely, many a high profile Conspiracy Theorist has cited this as a reason that whoever's behind whatever well-hidden plot they claim to have uncovered hasn't already dealt with them.
- Proof of this could be seen during Timothy McVeigh's trial, where a Vocal Minority believed executing him would have him regarded as a martyr by some groups.
- 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.
- Most historians believe that Abraham Lincoln's assassination was the worst mistake the South could have ever have made, not only because it ruined any chance of a peaceful reconstruction, but because it made Lincoln a martyr to his cause.
- The Ireland Easter Rising was a miserable failure that derailed promising diplomatic efforts and was led by an Axe Crazy Blood Knight working for a totalitarian regime. But the execution of its leaders galvanized the Irish to claim independence from Britain.