Failure-to-Save Murder

Say there are three characters, Alice, Bob, and Charlie. There is a tragic accident, and Charlie is killed. Alice was present when the accident happened but may or may not have been able to prevent his death. This trope comes into play when characters discuss whether Alice could be considered the murderer of Charlie. Generally, there are three parts in this scenario: the Child (the person who died, Charlie), the Hero (the person who failed to save the Child, Alice), and the Fool (the one who blames the Hero for failing to save the Child).

In one version, Alice endures the false accusations of another character. Bob, who was very close to Charlie, blames Alice for his death just as if she'd killed him herself. In this version, Alice usually could not have prevented Charlie's death, but Bob will cherish a lingering hatred toward her because she "failed" to save him. If this happened in the past, it may serve as Bob's motivation for his continued antagonism toward Alice. If so, Bob is typically flavored as a villain via The Complainer Is Always Wrong, or at least The Load, and his decision to let go of his anger (or not) becomes a major part of his Character Development.

A second version is when Alice blames herself for the death of Charlie (playing both the Hero and the Fool). Additionally, the antagonist may go on to use this against Alice, playing on guilt as a form of torture or to break her down. This version is prominent enough to have become its own trope: "I Let Gwen Stacy Die." It is almost exclusively a heroic trope, since villains are less likely to blame themselves for anyone's death, even a loved one's; if they do, this is typically used to flavor them as more of an Anti-Villain or Well-Intentioned Extremist.

This trope is very much a Gray and Grey Morality trope and plays on ideas of guilt and responsibility. If Alice can save Charlie, does she have a moral obligation to try, or is it okay to Kick the Son of a Bitch? If Alice cannot save Charlie, is it right for Bob to blame her for his death? If Bob does, what does that say about him?

See also It's All My Fault, These Hands Have Killed, can be an element of Survivors Guilt. Disney Villain Death plays on this. Contrast Save the Villain.

Compare/Contrast Murder By Inaction, where Alice deliberately and maliciously allows Charlie to drown, as well as Betrayal By Inaction.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In one scene in Baccano!, Jacuzzi insists that Isaac and Miria should stop treating him like a good person because he's not — he's fleeing from Chicago because he murdered three men. Donny interjects that Jacuzzi didn't kill them, his friends did. Against Jacuzzi's wishes. Because those men were about to kill him. Jacuzzi fails to see the difference.
  • In Bleach, Uryu's grudge against the Soul Reapers stems from the fact that they had Soul Reapers watching his grandfather, and when he got attacked by Huge Hollows, didn't intervene until after his death. Uryu comes to realize that he didn't do anything to try to help his grandfather at that time, and that it's wrong to blame the Soul Reapers when his grandfather was not bitter toward them. Also, he has since discovered that the Ax-Crazy Token Evil Captain Mayuri was the actual culprit, bribing Soul Reapers so that they would be too late and, worse, abducting the survivors (including his grandfather) in order to perform horrific experiments on them to satisfy his own curiosity (if by "curiosity" you mean "torture and kill them in numerous horrible ways for no obvious scientific reason"). He has thus shifted his emnity towards him and away from Soul Reapers in general (though he doesn't fully like or trust them either). This results in his being reduced to Mayuri's Butt Monkey. Not even the fact that Uryu nearly killed Mayuri the first time they fought can save him from that status.
  • In Muhyo And Roji, Rio Kurotori joins Ark after the two executors she goes to for help in saving her mother from a haunt turn her down for petty reasons.
  • In Naruto, Sasuke's motives are based around his feelings of guilt for not being able to stop the massacre of his clan.
  • In a filler episode of One Piece, a female member of the Desert Pirates remembers Princess Vivi and King Cobra visiting her city and promising to come help if anything happened, during which time she personally met a young Vivi. When the droughts hit, and Cobra didn't come to help, the city was deserted, and the girl was left in despair until the Desert Pirates recruited her. This caused her to resent Vivi upon seeing her again, but Vivi apologized, saying that there were many other towns requiring the king's attention, enabling the two to reconcile.
  • In Fruits Basket, Kyo blames himself for Kyoko Honda's death. He could have gotten her out of harm's way, but he would have transformed in the middle of a busy street, so he did nothing. Nobody else seems to know about it (except possibly Kazuma), but he heavily associates it with his mother's death, which many people do blame him for. It doesn't help that he (mistakenly) believes Kyoko died hating him for his inaction, either.

    Comic Books 
  • In The DCU, John Stewart failed to save the planet Xanshi in the Cosmic Odyssey miniseries. John's guilt for this was extreme enough in the years afterward that one could be forgiven for assuming that he'd blown up the planet himself. The Xanshian warrior Fatality blames the whole Green Lantern Corps for the destruction of her planet, and went on a crusade to kill them all.
    • In this case, John's guilt isn't unjustified. He didn't just fail to save the planet. He knocked out J'onn J'onzz, who could have saved the planet. Stewart was overconfident and didn't consider the possiblity the bomb would be yellow and decided to "protect" the guy who is on par with Superman in power.
  • In W.I.T.C.H., Ari of Arkhanta (a farmer who enslaved a banshee to become powerful) carries a massive grudge against the Oracle of Kandrakar. The reason? Ari's son was born autistic, and the Oracle isn't doing anything to fix this.
  • Superheroes in general tend to get blamed for whatever they couldn't/didn't do.
  • A random woman once berated Superman for being off-world during the "New Krypton" storyline — while trying to stop a war — while her husband was having an aneurysm. She thought Superman could have saved her husband with heat vision or something. Superman was the only person that actually took her seriously — everyone else in-universe and out thought she was crazy to expect that from Superman.
  • In the relaunched Batgirl first issue, a cop screams that Barbara is a murderer when the villain kills someone and she doesn't stop him. Slightly more legitimate since it seemed like she was just letting it happen (she was actually petrified in fear, this being her first real mission since being un-paralyzed), but given that the real murderer was still standing right there it seems like the cop should have had other thoughts on her mind. Commissioner Gordon calls the cop out on this in the next issue.
  • Hawkeye and Mockingbird's marriage broke down initially largely because of this. Long story short, Mockingbird was drugged and raped by the Phantom Rider, and gets revenge by choosing to let him fall to his death rather than save him. When Hawkeye finds out, via the obviously biased word of Phantom Rider's spirit that Bobbi allowed him to die, Hawkeye becomes strained with her because 'Avengers don't kill'. He later gets past it when he learns the full details, but they never return to their former closeness.
  • Civil War. A group of superheroes fail to stop Nitro from blowing up Stamford, resulting in 300 casualties, most of whom were school children. Naturally, the public blame all superheroes for this, and call for a radical political shift to make sure superheroes are controlled to avoid this ever happening again...somehow. Only a handful of people seem to actually care about hunting Nitro down.
  • Iron Man foe The Exile killed his father and possibly his brothers in a drunken rampage despite Tony's best efforts to stop him. The Exile rightly blamed himself at first, but his Mandarin Ring (the Rings' sole purpose is to make Tony Stark suffer) convinced him that it was Tony's fault for not stopping him in time.
  • Paperinik New Adventures gives us an interesting variation: the Gryphon blames Paperinik for the death of his father the Raider, but, as pointed out by Paperinik, he could have saved him by using his Time Machine to prevent the Raider from going on the mission in which he would have committed his Heroic Sacrifice, had he really wanted to. Trip, the teenaged son of the Raider brought there by Eidolon, wasn't happy to hear this... Especially after Paperinik is proved right when the Raider shows up, as Eidolon taking him got him to cancel that mission to save his son.

    Fan Works 
  • In Constant Temptation Light blamed himself for being unable to protect his Love Interests from his father who had them killed.
  • In the Children of Time finale, Professor Moriarty intends to kill Beth Lestrade, because of her Temporal Paradox status. Sherlock Holmes has, by this time, done a Face-Heel Turn and — though he once genuinely cared about Beth (and may have even shared something approaching Belligerent Sexual Tension with her) — now simply stands there and practically asks Moriarty to kill him, as well. He's just that bored with life. Beth steps forward, instead, and makes a desperate Heroic Sacrifice, taking the bullets meant for Holmes. He does absolutely nothing to stop Moriarty from killing her, nor does he do anything to help her while she lies dying. Moriarty uses this against him big-time in his efforts to break Holmes, and it works magnificently. Even after things are set right, it's indicated that Holmes will not be able to forgive himself for a very long time to come.

  • In I Robot, Spooner plays the Fool against a robot who saved his life instead of a child because he had a bigger chance of survival. This caused him to develop hatred against all robots, arguing that the child's life was worth more and should have been prioritized over his regardless of the odds.
  • Nero's motive in Star Trek. The Fool is Nero, The Hero is Spock, and by proxy the Federation, and The Child is Romulus, with Nero's pregnant wife on it.
  • The Abominable Dr. Phibes is this in spades. Dr. Phibes (The Fool) spends the entire film in a Roaring Rampage Of Revenge against the medical team (The Hero) who failed to save his wife (The Child) after she was injured in a car crash.
  • The killer's motivation in the original Friday the 13th is that the camp counselors were too busy having sex to prevent a young boy from drowning. However, the character's madness has extended this to all camp counselors, even those working at Camp Crystal Lake many years later. Though to be perfectly fair, ALL the counselors at Camp Crystal Lake are AWFULLY interested in having sex...
  • Played with in The Dark Knight Trilogy. In Batman Begins, Bruce chose to leave Ra's al Ghul aboard a crashing train to stop his plot of driving the city to fear-toxin-induced destruction, which earns him the wrath of Ra's' daughter Talia in The Dark Knight Rises. The twists here? First, Bruce had been goaded by Ra's for some time to "do what is necessary," meaning the murder of criminals, so Batman defeating him without actually killing him was that much more significant. Of course, Talia didn't draw any distinction between Ra's' death and murder, seeing the situation as Bruce betraying him and the League of Shadows. Illustrated perfectly in this dialogue from TDKR:
    Batman: "He (Ra's) was trying to kill millions of innocent people."
    Talia: "Innocent is a strong word to throw around Gotham, Bruce."

    Journal Roleplay 
  • In Doubt Academy: Black, it's unclear whether or not this would actually count as murder in Monobear's Kangaroo Court. This forms the crux of Chapter 4's Trial, as Hiroshi claims that they tried to prevent the victim's Attempted Suicide and failed. Much of the debate of that trial revolves around whether or not they're lying, as well as the morality of his friends trying to conceal the evidence they found linking him to the scene. Turns out Monobear doesn't consider him responsible.

  • Roland spent at least a couple volumes of The Dark Tower chastising himself for letting Jake die.
    • Ditto his first love Susan. Also his mother, although to be fair he was mind controlled into killing her himself. This trope could easily have been named Roland of Gilead Syndrome.
  • This is the source of many characters' resentment of Gaius Sextus in Codex Alera, specifically those who were close to "the Child," Sextus' son Gaius Septimus.
  • At the climax of Hand of Thrawn, Tierce accuses Pellaeon of letting Thrawn die. Of course, by then he's not really making a lot of sense.
    "He ran out of time. He died at Bilbringi. You let him die at Bilbringi."
  • At the conclusion of the New Jedi Order Dark Tide duology, Corran Horn is made the fall guy for the destruction of Ithor's ecosystem.
  • The Fate of the Jedi series begins with Luke Skywalker exiled from the Galactic Alliance for failing to prevent his nephew Jacen from falling to the Dark Side and consequently the Second Galactic Civil War.
  • In The Prodigal Mage Arlin Garrick blames Rafel and Asher for the drowning of his father in a whirlpool at the blighted reef, despite all of their early warnings and later efforts to save everyone.
  • In The Titan's Curse, Percy promises Nico that he'll keep his sister Bianca safe. At the end of the book, Nico finds out about her Heroic Sacrifice and runs away, blaming Percy for her death until the next book. It doesn't help that his Fatal Flaw is holding grudges, or that he has a heavily repressed crush on Percy. Even at the end of Heroes Of Olympus, he is still struggling with his anger despite, in more rational moments, accepting that there wasn't anything Percy could have done.

    Live Action TV  
  • The UnSub in Criminal Minds episode "Hanley Waters" was a woman who had been involved in a car accident one year before. The paramedics had managed to save her, but failed to save her six-year-old son.
  • Averted in one episode of Scrubs. Paramedics failed to save a woman's son, but she was so impressed by how hard they tried that she decided to become one.
  • Smallville's version of Metallo hates Clark because he didn't save his sister when her apartment burned.
  • Two examples in NCIS:
    • Tony saved a young boy from a fire as a recent college graduate. Said boy becomes an arson investigator, but is sore at Tony for not saving his sister as well. (Tony says that would have likely killed all three of them, since trying to get past the burning wreckage separating the two of them from the girl would have taken a great deal of time they might not have had.) Small subversion in that said arson investigator doesn't go axe-crazy; the team (and the audience) are just worried he has.
    • Harper Dearing blames the Navy and NCIS for the death of his only son because they failed to stop a terrorist attack; he carries out a vendetta against them, blowing up their headquarters.
  • In Grey's Anatomy the doctors fail to save a woman and they must take her off of life support, as she signed a DNR years earlier. Her husband blames the doctors and comes back to the hospital for revenge months later, shooting up the place.
    • It doesn't help that Shepherd comes off as a bit of a jerk when he orders her to be taken off life support. Later, when the guy sues the hospital (but before the killing spree), he is further inflamed when Shepherd reveals that it took him only a few seconds to determine if his wife would ever come out of the coma. Sure, it might make sense from a medical viewpoint, but not to a grieving husband.
  • An episode of Chicago Fire has Mills (a firefighter-turned-paramedic) try and fail to save a young man from overdose. The guy's father blames Mills for his death. Later, he comes to the firehouse and apologizes, but he's actually planning to have Mills kidnapped and killed. When that fails, one of the thugs he hires spills the beans, and the father is jailed.

    Video Games 
  • In Heavy Rain it's heavily implied that Grace Mars blames Ethan for their son Jason's death -even though he jumped in front of the car to save him and was in a coma for months. While it is true that Ethan accidentally let him wander off for those few crucial seconds, he did everything he possibly could to save him after that initial mistake.
  • The entire motive behind Godot/Diego Armando's quest for vengeance against Phoenix Wright in In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations is that he blames Phoenix for Mia Fey's murder.
  • In Vagrant Story, Rosencrantz accuses Ashley Riot of killing his own wife and son as part of a scheme by Ashley's superiors to turn him into a more loyal Riskbreaker. It's never clarified if this is the case, or if the antagonists are trying to use Ashley's guilt to undermine his exponentially-growing power, and ultimately Ashley decides that it doesn't matter.
    • Hell, it's not even clear if that was his family, or if it's a family he killed on an assignment.
  • In Tales of Symphonia Chocolat acts this way towards Lloyd after she finds out that he killed her grandmother Marble. She forgives him later on when the prisoners of the Iselia Ranch tell her that Marble was transformed into an Exbelua and Lloyd originally intended to save her. A similar case occurs with Kuchinawa, who blames Sheena of killing his parents by being unable to control Volt, even if she was merely a child at that time and most likely unable to translate Volt's speech ("It's just like before! What the hell is he saying?"). He hides this grudge at first, but gives in to it after Sheena actually manages to make a pact with Volt and multiple other Summon Spirits during the game. Sheena has to set him straight again by fighting a duel with him. Interestingly enough, his brother Orochi insists that the tragedy was an accident and that Sheena should not feel responsible and accept the duel.
  • In Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Admiral Bobbery suffers from the second variation of this trope, after learning that his wife Scarlette passed away while he was on a voyage. He blames himself for it, thinking that he could have nursed her back to health if only he wasn't at sea at that time. He then vowed to never sail the sea again, filled with grief and regret. Mario manages to take away his pain however, by showing him a letter that Scarlette wrote with her last breath to prevent Bobbery from feeling guilty about her death.
  • Pretty much Hope's entire story for the first half of Final Fantasy XIII. He blames Snow for his mother's death because she volunteered to help Snow's resistance faction fight, and although Snow tried he was unable to save her from falling from a broken bridge. Hope plans revenge for quite a while, only to be interrupted before he can stab Snow by a missile attack which nearly causes both of them to fall to their deaths; Snow's insistence on protecting Hope (as he'd promised Hope's mother) at his own expense, and the revelation of how deeply he blames himself for her death, finally prompts Hope to get over his anger.
  • In Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, Kurtis' family got killed and he personally holds Captain Gordon accountable for this, even though the latter wasn't involved in this in any way. As far as Kurtis is concerned, though, Gordon didn't do his job as a Defender of Earth and should be replaced.
    • Disgaea 4 does this on a much larger scale with Judge Nemo. Though Artina, the only person to show him kindness, was killed by her own country, he blamed Valvatorez for not saving her or avenging her death (Due to Artina asking him not to do so in the case of the latter). It eventually escalates to the point where he blames ALL of humanity as well as demons and angels.
  • Dustil Onasi's motive in Knights of the Old Republic: He joined the Sith out of resentment because he believed his father had abandoned him and his mother to die...even though it was the Sith who killed his mother in the first place.
  • In Wing Commander II, Zack "Jazz" Colson allies with the Mandarins to take revenge on the Tiger's Claw crew for letting his brother die when the Kilrathi attacked Goddard.
  • In Dragon Fable, Konnan swears vengeance against your PC for failing to save his family and hometown from the dragon Akriloth (though in all fairness, the battle against the dragon in question wasn't winnable anyway). This would eventually lead him to join the evil pyromancer Xan and become Drakonnan, the Big Bad of the Fire War.
  • Brought up in Devil Survivor 2 when you receive Keita's death clip. While the characters are resolved to save him, Joe mentions that you technically have the option to do nothing and let the death come to pass as foretold, and idly wonders if that might count as killing him.
  • In Corpse Party PC-98, most of the deaths involve either Yoshiki or Satoshi either abandoning one of their companions after seeing them endangered or otherwise failing to take some action to prevent it. Afterwards, they feel immense guilt over their actions and lament their cowardice.
  • Takuro accuses Hiroshi of this in Nira Oni after the monster goes after Hiroshi and poor Mika, and they can't find the latter afterwards.

    Web Comics 
  • A variation occurs in The Order of the Stick, when Redcloak in all seriousness holds O-Chul responsible for the deaths of several captives - when it is in fact Redcloak who is about to have them killed (or worse) unless O-Chul reveals a particular bit of info (which he actually doesn't know). Ironically, since to him it's clear that O-Chul would callously let everyone die just to protect his secret no matter what, he lets the captives live. He then attempts to demoralize the captives by telling those prisoners to spread the word that O-Chul was willing to let them die. This backfires as the captives take inspiration from O-Chul's devotion and resistance. Consider also how many goblins and goblinoids Redcloak has already sacrificed for his cause (including his own brother and his brother's entire family). He later admits to a hobgoblin subordinate that he suspected for a while that O-Chul really didn't know anything. O-Chul not being able to say anything even with innocent lives at stake confirmed it.

    Western Animation