Small Steps Hero

"I made a mistake... focused on big picture. Big picture made of little pictures. [snip] Hard to see big picture behind pile of corpses."
Mordin Solus, Mass Effect 2 and 3

This sort of hero will always choose doing an immediate good even if it means allowing a later or distant evil. For example, saving an innocent versus stopping the Big Bad here and now. Even if they know this will doom more people later on, this hero will still save the person. They won't stop doing what's right just because something bad will happen in the future, even if it brings cataclysmic disaster. Even if the distressed person is something very irrelevant to the grand scheme of threats, they must be saved. There's good to be done, and whatever obscure threats arise from it are a problem for another day.

How this pays off varies.

May overlap with Always Save the Girl, in which the small good the hero does relates to someone they're personally connected to. See also Chronic Hero Syndrome, which is often fueled by this personality.

As mentioned before, a common target for a Sadistic Choice. This character's natural enemy is the Totalitarian Utilitarian.

The polar opposite of the Well-Intentioned Extremist, Unscrupulous Hero, and Tautological Templar. This hero shuns Omniscient Morality License. If The Hero changes their mind from moment-to-moment, this may turn in to a Frequently-Broken Unbreakable Vow. This trope Enforces the "Unavoidable" side of the Sliding Scale of Unavoidable vs. Unforgivable.


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     Anime & Manga  

     Comic Books  

  • Superman:
    • In general, if he chose to, Superman could solve every problem on the planet if he risked a Zero-Approval Gambit or just forced everyone to do the right thing. But he chooses not to because he doesn't see himself as a greater judge of morality than the earthlings he protects. He will gladly sacrifice himself or let a God of Evil like Darkseid escape justice if it means he can save just one human life.
    • In Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Superman actually rejects this philosophy in the end, accepting that pretending to be a man is wrong when it's clear you aren't one, and that with great power... yadda yadda.
    • This was combined with Super Dickery in the classic The Death of Superman story. Superman is chasing Doomsday (an unstoppable juggernaut that can level cities in seconds flat) while a family is trapped in the burning ruins of their house. The issue ends with Superman intentionally blocking out a boy's pleas for help to continue his pursuit. The next issue, however, opens with Superman stating that he was hoping one of the Justice League members would have woken up from their Doomsday-delivered ass-beating. He's about to turn around and go help the family anyway when Doomsday sucker punches him. Luckily, the League does wake up. In the follow up arc, the boy feels terribly guilty, and wonders if Superman would still be alive if he hadn't tried to get his attention.
    • In the animated adaptation it becomes a chilling case of OOC Is Serious Business. Superman rescues a cat from a tree as per usual but proceeds to deliver an ominous almost threatening lecture about how he can't be wasting his time with little things like this. Subverted. It was an evil clone.
  • Batman:
    • This trope is actually one of the things he looks up to Superman for. Superman is far more of an idealist than Batman is, so Batman usually takes the role of Poisonous Friend in relation to him. But even on his own, Batman qualifies as this archetype. As one of the richest men on the planet, he could potentially solve even more problems than his friend if he stopped being Batman for a significant amount of time and put all of his effort into running his company, but that would mean that somewhere, there's a call for help that's being unanswered.
    • One strong example of this trope is in Batman: Arkham City, where Talia is taken hostage by The Joker while Hugo Strange is executing a citywide "purge". Batman calls Alfred for back up and calls Oracle to get a fix on Talia's position, but both of them refuse to help him. They flat out force him to skip saving the girl and save the city at large.
  • Captain America, more often than not. He thinks more like a soldier than your typical superhero, though he puts The Men First and is quite unwilling to sacrifice anyone. Case in point, during the Secret Wars (2015) arc, he was flatly against destroying other universes and the countless lives in them in order to save the Marvel Universe.
    ''"Victory is possible. And even if it wasn't...we do not fight what is monstrous by becoming monsters ourselves."
  • Nova. Examples include: ignoring warnings about changing time just to save one life, refusing to save himself (or the collective intelligence of his galactic order) just to give a population enough time to evacuate before Galactus ate their planet, and refusing a Re Power chance because the person who offered it works for HYDRA part-time. In the last case, keep in mind that he was dying without his powers, Ego The Living Planet had taken over the Nova Corps, and the scientist crushing on him desperately wanted to save his life.
  • Spider-Man is usually this. An example comes in Ultimatum, where Ultimate Spider-Man stays behind in Manhattan, rescuing any civilians drowning from the flooding of New York. Virtually every other hero quickly left New York to fight Magneto and Doctor Doom and save the world. Spider-Man was diving fathoms deep into the flooded streets of New York just to find one person to save and then diving right back down to find another. Watching Spider-Man do this is what finally convinces Ultimate Jameson that Spider-Man truly is a hero.
  • Originally, this was what separated Reed Richards from his Arch-Nemesis, Doctor Doom. In most Alternate Timelines in which Doom has conquered the Earth, he eventually creates a Utopia. However, he initially creates it through fear, tyranny and sometimes outright atrocities. Reed refuses to take this method and usually acts heroically even when he knows it's logically unsound (sometimes at the coaxing of his wife). However, later depictions of Reed have abandoned this outlook.
  • Rising Stars has Matthew Bright, one of the Specials, a group of people granted great power by a falling meteor. Due to their great power, Specials are forbidden from working in any government jobs, which includes law enforcement. Matthew, however, wants desperately to help people and be a police officer, so he fakes an identity and joins up that way, keeping his powers a secret. However, during an investigation, a bomb goes off and traps several of his fellow officers inside, where they will likely die. If Matthew uses his powers to save them, he outs himself as a Special, will be fired from his job, potentially even sent to prison, unable to help anyone ever again. Or he can let those men die and preserve his secret. Matthew's thoughts says it all.
    Matthew: "I signed on to save lives. If I meant that, then I had to do what was necessary. Or it was all a lie. Whoever did this was smart, all right. Lead me on a wild goose-chase. And now my men are trapped inside the building I didn't search. I can't let them die. I refuse. Damn the exposure, I refuse.
  • DC's Captain Marvel is most definitely this. He does his best to save as many people as he can, but doesn't impose his will on the world. He's seen the dangers of what happens when someone like Black Adam loses touch with their humanity and starts acting like a god. This was especially made evident in the animated Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam . When Adam has a hostage, Cap is willing to turn back into his moral form if Adam will spare her life, knowing that doing so will mean his own death. Unfortunately, Adam tries to kill Billy and the hostage, but luckily Superman makes the save. Unluckily for Black Adam, that also made Billy. It didn't end well for Adam.
  • Invoked by Marvel comic book villain, the Kingpin. He has a pattern of paying some costumed supervillain to menace the citizens in Location A, while a much more low-key operative undertook a theft from Location B. The heroes have become aware of the pattern, but aside from teaming up more frequently to 'be in two places at once' they've found it a hard move to counter.


  • In Captain America: The First Avenger, the eponymous hero fits this trope perfectly:
    • He jumps on a grenade during boot camp just to save the other recruits. Thankfully it was a fake grenade.
    • He was fully prepared to let an escaping Nazi shoot him to protect a small child.
    • Almost let said Nazi get away with the Super Serum that created him, just to save that child from drowning. Subverted when the child yells, "I can swim! Go get 'im!"
    • Rescues 400 soldiers on what is essentially a Suicide Mission.
    • In The Avengers, he's the one on the ground protecting civilians and directing the law enforcement while everyone else is fighting waves of aliens or the Big Bad himself.
  • In Terminator 2: Judgment Day. When his mother turns Vigilante and decides to kill the man responsible for the foretold Robot Apocalypse, John demands that the Terminator take him to stop her, even if his death could save billions.
    Terminator: This is tactically dangerous.
    John: Drive faster.
    Terminator: The T-1000 has the same files that I do. It knows what I know. It might anticipate this move.
    John: I don't care. We gotta stop her.
    Terminator: Killing Dyson might actually prevent the war.
    John: I don't care! Haven't you learned anything yet? Haven't you figured out why you can't kill people?
  • In Man of Steel, Clark refuses to not help people, even if it means blowing his secret. Though he agrees with his father that keeping his secret is For The Greater Good, he will risk it for something as "small" as stopping a drunk from leching an unwilling woman.


  • In The Dresden Files, this is a big part of how Harry Dresden's Chronic Hero Syndrome manifests itself and gets him in trouble, to the point his enemy mockingly gives him a gravestone with the epitaph reading "He died doing the right thing." It's most noticeable in the third book, when he was given said gravestone by the big bad, when he's forced into a Sadistic Choice between stopping a vampire from sacrificing an innocent girl that would also unmake a holy sword that contains one of the nails that pierced Christ and once given the name Excalibur and starting an all-out war between two of the most powerful magical factions on earth. He chooses to save the girl, and the resulting war is a central plot element for the next eight books in the series.
  • Explicitly stated to be the duty of a Samurai in The Hagakure: Book of the Samurai. Amongst other virtues, a samurai is supposed to always act for the sake of justice without any hesitation (making a decision "within seven breaths"), and to never show any fear of death. Thinking of the consequences of their actions, and thus failing to act, is said to be shameful. However, the "heroism" here is relative—samurai were also expected to obey and serve their masters no matter what, even if they found the task objectionable.
  • Blake Thorburn, the protagonist of Pact, attempts to embody this. Driven to do good in repayment for the kindness that others have shown him, and aware that he is fated to die, he clashes with the Grey and Gray Morality of practitioner society, which does such things as allow the Anthropomorphic Personification of European Colonialism to rule over Toronto, torturing and enslaving those practitioners that get on its bad side, for the sake of stability. Though he accomplishes good by defeating monsters and freeing the Lord of Toronto's slaves, it's not without its consequences-his successful overthrow of Conquest sends Toronto into chaos, and his premature attack on a bound demon that was steadily eroding its binding, which nobody else would confront before it broke free, got him severed from the world and made an Unperson.
  • One interpretation of the First Ideal of the Knights Radiant from The Stormlight Archive. Every Radiant swears "Journey Before Destination", and this is explained to mean that the Radiant must never use the ends to justify the means. What matters is not where you are trying to go, but where your journey actually takes you.

     Live Action TV  

  • Doctor Who: A repeated weakness of the Doctor. Threatening an innocent is an almost 100% foolproof way for a villain to protect themself from him. Stated most explicitly in an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures when the Doctor opts to save Clyde and Rani rather than chase the Big Bad, The Dragon (who purposely put Clyde and Rani in danger because she knew it would happen) remarks "when given the choice between saving the universe and saving the children, the Doctor goes the wrong way." However, the Time War, in which the Doctor intentionally wiped out all the Time Lords and Daleks in existence to stop them from destroying the universe, is a notable aversion on his part.
    • A number of times during Matt Smith's run, he's stated that if he pretty much didn't do this, then he wouldn't be able to call himself The Doctor. In "The Beast Below", since he can't figure out how to Take a Third Option, he's preparing to lobotomize a peaceful, intelligent creature that's been enslaved since it was in pain and he believed freeing it would kill the surviving population of Great Britain.
    • Averted in "The Day of the Doctor", where it is revealed he took a third option and with his 12 other incarnations he saved Gallifrey with a Tricked Out Time gambit that destroyed nearly all the Daleks.
  • Revolution: Charlie Matheson is prone to this. "The Dark Tower" had her convincing her mother Rachel Matheson that they can try to save Nora Clayton and turn the power on at the same time.
  • The main protagonists of Stargate SG-1, First Contact team SG-1. They were supposed to only be explorers, whose primary mission was to fight the Goa'uld, a race of Puppeteer Parasites who liked to rule over everybody else. The main characters were very aware that they shouldn't get involved with a lot of the problems out in the galaxy, but could never say no to someone asking for help. They themselves often lampshaded their own weakness in that regard.
    O'Neill: Carter, if I ever get the urge to help someone again, shoot me.

     Tabletop RPG  

  • Dungeons & Dragons' "Book of Exalted Deeds" (a 3.5 Edition supplement) explicitly states that it's the duty of a good character to never do an evil act. Any evil act. Period. The rules state unambiguously that ends never, ever, justify the means, no matter how small the evil was and how beneficial the results were.
  • Both Champions and DC Heroes stated that heroes were expected to rescue innocents even if it meant letting the villain(s) get away.

     Video Games  

  • It must be noted: Despite providing the page quote, Mordin Solus of Mass Effect is Not an Example of the trope, though he describes it succinctly. Mordin is perfectly fine with making sacrifices if necessary, but he simply believes he made a mistake before and sacrificed too much.
    • Its fully possible to play Shepard this way, especially a Paragon Shepard. Give a soldier a proper burial instead of using the corpse for research, send allies to help hotspots and take more fire without them and making sure civilians have room despite shortages are all possibilities. Thanks to the mechanics of the third game, doing some of these can make it harder to save everybody.
  • The protagonist of Tales of Vesperia, Yuri Lowell. Don't get it wrong—Yuri is a shining example of Good Is Not Nice and will gladly say Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right even if it means Paying Evil Unto Evil. However, if he's faced with sacrificing just one innocent life to save the world or enforce justice, he will not do it. The quote below sums it up best:
    "You can't deny that lives were saved because those bastards were put down! You'd rather tell people, 'sorry you have to die today, I promise we'll change things soon'?"
  • Tales of Symphonia: Even before Yuri Lowell, there was another Tales protagonist who would compulsively put saving a single innocent life above the overarching quest to save the world. A man who never looked the other way when he saw people suffering. A man whose gentle idealism gave everyone the courage to look for another way to save their world without having to sacrifice their dear friend. That man's name? Lloyd Irving.
  • This is the gameplay mechanic that Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar resolves around. The Player Character is forced to perform small amounts of good and avoid bad deeds in order to fulfill the Eight Virtues. Future games, especially Pagan, deconstruct the hell out of this trope.
  • Vyse of Skies of Arcadia. In particular, he will willingly give up the Mac Guffins that control the Doomsday Device to protect innocent people.
  • Connor from Assassin's Creed III will always fight the Templar present at the moment, regardless of whatever "greater good" that Templar claims to be pursuing.
    • In fact, he frequently gets in trouble with his mentor about his apparent shortsighted view of things. His mentor advocates secrecy, stealth, and operating in small degrees to affect large changes (which has been the way the Assassins have operated for centuries), while Connor, when given the choice, prefers to take the direct path, and, at one point, advocates approaching Washington directly to inform him of the Assassin/Templar conflict, despite being told that it would be disastrous.
  • Defied Trope in Metroid: Fusion, where Samus is ready to make a Heroic Sacrifice to defeat the X-Parasite that threatens the galaxy, but is called out on it by "Adam", her A.I. commanding officer.
    Adam: "How foolish. Even if you are successful in destroying the station, you'll only remove the one thing between the X and total universal domination: yourself."
  • Archangel Tyrael in Diablo III discusses an instance in which, during a battle between heaven and hell, he had Azmodan, Demon Lord of Sin, at his mercy, but chose to spare him in order to answer a plea for assistance from one of his lieutenants. This discussion takes place as Azmodan is laying siege to Bastion Keep, causing him to wonder if killing him and leaving his lieutenant would have been better.
  • Fallout: New Vegas: Despite the Mojave Wasteland's attempts to create a world of Gray and Gray Morality where you sometimes need to compromise your morals For The Greater Good, you can play your Courier this way instead. For example, you can expose Chief Hanlon for falsifying reports at Camp Golf, thus destroying NCR morale, and you can save a family trapped in the radioactive Vault 34 at the cost of dooming the nearby NCR farms that provide food to the nearby settlements.
  • Fable III attempts to set this up near the end. You are a king with foreknowledge that the Big Bad is going to attack at a certain time, and you need to amass funds for your defense. However, you're often faced with choices that basically boil down to spending money to help people or making money by screwing them. So you can be a benevolent ruler and have your citizens die or be a tyrant to protect them. Or become a real estate mogul and finance the kingdom's defense out of your own pocket.

     Western Animation  

  • Samurai Jack has two main goals: return to his own era, and defeat Aku (preferably in the past to prevent the Bad Future) however, while in said future, he will never ignore a call for help, and will ignore, decline or downright sabotage any possibilities for returning to his past (even if it Only Works Once) in order to save people.
  • Sergeant Slaughter advocates this in G.I. Joe: The Movie, where he refuses to leave a comrade behind even if it means he or the rest of the team will all die.
    "We all go home, or NOBODY goes home!"
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: Katara, as laid out in an early episode of Book 3. The Gaang stumbles across a small village in the Fire Nation who rely on the lake they live on, which has been polluted by the local factory. Despite them being crunched for time (or so Sokka claims), Katara intentionally makes it so that they stay long enough for her to help them. Then the local military unit blame the villages for their supplies going missing, and their factory going up. Katara refuses to leave the villagers be, even when Sokka insists otherwise.
    I will never turn my back on people who need me!
  • In Legend Of Korra. Korra helps the villain unleash a major Sealed Evil in a Can just because he was holding one of her friends hostage.
  • Lion-O in ThunderCats (2011), multiple times. This is one of the major themes of the series, and Lion-O seems to be aware that in the long run, when it comes to seeing the big picture, all these small good deeds will help him succeed against Mumm-Ra.

Alternative Title(s):

Small Steps Heroine