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Trapped In Villainy
So you've got yourself an Anti-Villain. He's a pretty decent guy, and if you were on his side, you'd probably be best buds. And yet he constantly wants to kill you. Why? Can't you guys just talk it out? I mean, surely you can come to an understanding. What's the worst that can happen?

Oh wait, that's right: his boss will kill him.

See, many a Big Bad rules through fear, and that includes his subordinates. As such, they'll often threaten their Mooks, their Quirky Miniboss Squad, and even their Dragon, with death (or some other severe punishment) should they fail in their tasks. That doesn't seem too bad to a villain if they see themselves working for the Big Bad indefinitely, but if they have a Heel-Face Turn, a Heel Realization, or realize that they dug themselves too deep, what are they to do? Defy the Big Bad and get killed for it? Or keep on doing the villain's dirty work, even if that means just digging themselves even deeper into their disastrous situation? It's quite a conundrum.

Sometimes, a villain will find protection from the Big Bad (or those higher up on the food chain than him) by joining up with the good guys and using them as his shields. However, this isn't quite as easy if the villain is stuck in a hostage situation, or if their boss has the power to remotely kill off the former villain should they ever hesitate to perform the duties. But their strongest weapon is, again, fear. Even if it would be ridiculously easy to join the heroes (clinging onto their honor aside), sometimes a Big Bad will have such a strong grip of fear over his minions, that they don't even dare to try to betray their master.

The "oppressive force" in question doesn't always have to be a Big Bad, or even a villainous character. The former villain may have wielded a dark power, and failure to continue doing their job will cause the power to turn on them. This may be brought on by Horror Hunger, if an evil character has to feast on something...unpleasant, and after deciding he doesn't want to be evil anymore, will remain incapable of fighting his urges (at the risk of death).

See Anti-Villain for other forms of non-evil villainy. Compare with Punch Clock Villain, where the villain does their evil deeds just because it's a job, and hey, they have to be paid (but they don't feel anywhere near as much remorse for it). This often occurs due to a character who is Driven to Villainy, but then wants to get out. Contrast Just Following Orders, since that is used as an excuse after the fact, and in most cases they didn't have much of a problem following orders at the time. These may often overlap with Forced Into Evil.


Examples

Anime and Manga
  • Black Ghost in Cyborg 009 is fond of picking a hero, then going out and getting a nice and sympathetic guy (or tracking down the hero's loved ones if Black Ghost is feeling particularly mean), forcibly augmenting them with cybernetic parts, and ordering them to go kill said hero or the self-destruct mechanism in them will explode. He does this so often that it's practically his modus operandi.
  • Played with in Code Geass R2: after becoming The Emperor, Lelouch instructs his most faithful followers (particularly, Sayoko) to surrender to his enemies and to claim that they only obeyed him out of fear. But then again, he is not exactly a villain.
  • In InuYasha, Kagura quickly comes to hate Naraku, especially when she begins to develop sympathy for poor Kohaku. Unfortunately for Kagura, Naraku has possession of her heart and can kill her easily at any time by crushing it.
  • Many Contractors in Darker Than Black. They're extremely powerful, so they're very in-demand as spies and assassins for various organizations; however, if they can't/won't do this, they aren't allowed to live. On their own, most are closer to True Neutral.
  • In Attack on Titan, Reiner, Bertolt, and Annie are hinted to be a case of this. While their motives and purpose remain unknown, it's clear they aren't particularly happy about what they're doing. Bertolt flat-out refuses a Last-Second Chance, tearfully stating that he can't stop.
  • Most of the villains in Snow White And Seven Dwarfs. It's part of the package when you're forced to work for a dictatorship.

Film
  • In 36 Hours (1965) a woman is taken from a Nazi concentration camp and ordered to use her skills as part of an elaborate Faked Rip Van Winkle deception against a captured American officer - or she will be sent back to the camp.
  • In Blood For Dracula, we get perhaps the most sympathetic version of the count: a sickly, dying vampire that needs the blood of a virgin in order to avoid a very painful death. He considers this a curse and doesn't seem to enjoy killing.

Literature
  • Harry Potter has Draco Malfoy who, for the first five books, is just a nuisance for Harry to deal with at school. Once he joins the Death Eaters, however, things change. He's given the job to kill Dumbledore, which seems simple enough in theory. But once Draco realizes that he can't follow through with murder, he remains hesitant throughout the next book, and only stays in Voldemort's service because he's terrified of the man.
  • In The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom, as a prisoner, is interrogated by a Nazi, who at one point comments that he is "less free" than she is, and is generally shown to be quite human but forced into what he does by his superiors.
  • Murtagh in the Inheritance Cycle.
  • The heroine and her cult-sisters in The Assassins of Tamurin are cursed to be tortured by wraiths should they undergo a Heel Realization and turn on their "Mother"... which she, naturally, does, and is why she's so terrified when she realizes how "trapped" she is.
  • The Zombie Knight
    • Jeremiah Colt works for a crime boss because said boss is holding his children hostage.
    • General Lawrence doesn't want to go along with the rogue Vanguards' plans, but his reaper will release him into death and get a new servant if he doesn't.
    • House Blackburn appears to be in the same boat as the General, implied to be because the orchestrator of the plot is blackmailing them.
  • Invoked by the Black Ajah in The Wheel of Time books. They are magically bound by oaths that will kill them if they betray the organization, so even those who have second thoughts are stuck with them, and one character's Moment Of Awesome involves realizing the wording includes "Until the hour of my death."

Live-Action TV
  • In an episode of Bones the Perp/Victim of the Week was strapped into a bomb vest and forced to rob a bank or else the bomb would be set off.
  • Rebecca in Burn Notice. The only reason she was working for Anson was because he had her brother captive.
  • Game of Thrones
    • In season 2, Theon Greyjoy feels this way (in contrast to the book, where he's much less sympathetic). He has not outright been threatened with death by his father, but he felt compelled by family loyalty to fight for them against his friends, and though he initially thinks he can be a Punch Clock Villain, he finds himself kicking dogs left and right as he struggles not to lose the respect of his mutinous killers he has for subordinates. When Maester Luwin gently confronts him about the brutal facade he's been putting up, Theon replies that he's "gone too far" to let go of it. His fear of his underlings proves justified, as they turn on him in a second when he's proven his incompetence and it's their lives or his.
    • Tyrion feels compelled to serve his power-hungry and ruthless family.
  • When Londo becomes Emperor of the Centauri in Babylon 5, he is forced to take on a Drakh Keeper, upon threat of the Drakh detonating fusion bombs they'd hidden all over Centauri Prime, which would kill millions of his subjects. He thus spends his 15-odd year reign as Emperor forced to either rubberstamp or stay out of the way of Drakh policy in their shadow-rule of the Centauri Republic, which they use as a seat of power to subvert and make war on the Interstellar Alliance. Per the Centauri Trilogy of novels (and the flashforward scene in the episode "War Without End"), Londo does have moments where he manages to discreetly work around the Keeper, generally when he's inebriated since alcohol can temporarily put it to sleep.
  • Prison Break: Quite a few people who work for the Company and the General are being coerced in some way. For instance Mahone's child is injured when he refuses to play ball.

Mythology and Folk-Tales
  • Vampires have to drink blood, either killing the victim outright or turning their victim like it or not or they starve to death.

Tabletop Games
  • Forgotten Realms: Prior to his apotheosis, the mercenary Kelemvor Lyonsbane would transform into a dangerous werepanther due to a family curse if he did something out of kindness.

Theater

Video Games
  • Dr. Cossack from Mega Man 4. Sure, he's not threatened to death, but what about his daughter?
  • Starcraft II: It's revealed at one point that Tychus Findlay's armor is both unremoveable and can be remotely activated to kill him. So at the climax, he's about to shoot the now deinfested Kerrigan or be killed by Mengsk (it's the only reason he was released from prison in the first place). Raynor shoots him.
  • The Reapers in The World Ends with You are mostly Punch Clock Villains, but they do point out that if they don't erase players, then they get erased instead.
  • During the events of Soul Calibur IV, Sophitia Alexandra is threatened with the death of her daughter Pyrrha by the Soul Edge, and ends up fighting anyone who would destroy it.
  • From Chapter 10 of Fire Emblem Awakening: This conversation between a Plegian general and his soldiers after Emmeryn's Heroic Sacrifice causes a Face-Heel Turn amongst the Plegian army:
    Mustafa: So be it! Those of you who are unwilling to fight are dismissed!
    Soldier: But I don't wish to abandon you, sir!
    Mustafa: I cannot defy the king, lad. I know him well. He would murder my wife and child to set an example. I will accept the blame for your actions today. Now go!
    Soldier: W-wait, General! I see a cause worth fighting for, one I believe in: loyality to my general.
    Mustafa: ...Aye. That's a good lad.
  • In Odin Sphere, the noble dragon Belial is forced to do the Three Wise Mens' bidding since they control his heart with magic. Belial is only freed when Cornelius mortally wounds the dragon by piercing his heart. Belial uses his last remaining seconds of life to devour one of the Wise Men.

Web Comics
  • In Dragon Ball Multiverse, the novelization implies this is pretty much the only reason why Bujin still hangs out with Bokack.
  • In one arc of Jack, a man becomes the assistant of a doctor who is working on a new treatment that could save the man's wife from dying of cancer. The man eventually discovers that the doctor is a twisted paedophile who is molesting child patients in his "care". He immediately threatens to go to the authorities, but the doctor reminds him that his research is the only hope his wife has and he is weeks away from completing it. The man reluctantly chooses his wife's life over the well-being of the children. Becomes a Shoot The Shaggy Dog Story when the doctor eventually murders all of the children to cover his tracks, and the man's wife dies of shock when he confesses what he did. The only bright spot is that a hidden camera placed by a suspicious security guard exposed the doctor's crimes and he gets executed via lethal injection while whimpering in fear. The powers that be are sympathetic to the man's plight; though his sin denies him entry to Heaven, he is sent to Purgatory instead of Hell.
  • In Sam and Fuzzy, Sam isn't exactly happy being the Ninja Mafia Emperor. He can't just up and retire since the Mafia doesn't have a retirement policy that doesn't involve a bodybag.
  • In El Goonish Shive, this is the reason Hedge, Guineas, and Vlad stuck with Damien. After his death they immediately made Heel Face Turns.
  • Sluggy Freelance
    • Dr. Irving Schlock decided the only alternative to years of running for his life from Hereti Corp to be hostile takeover of the company. After acknowledging his Start of Darkness, he's in charge of the same agents who had been out to kill him.
    • After taking in Oasis, Kareen Zapata felt her family was becoming more and more burdened with accessory to her slaughter of criminals. Though at first the town owned Oasis for cleaning up organized crime, she remained a ruthless vigilante and compulsive killer.
  • Redcloak, sort of, according to Xykon's "The Reason You Suck" Speech. He's not following Xykon because Xykon will kill him if he doesn't, but he's still trapped that way because if he betrays Xykon and The Plan, then he'll have to face up to the fact that every evil thing he did was his own damn fault, including killing his brother Right-Eye. And since to admit that would be too painful for him, he's stuck following The Plan, no matter what it results in for him.

Web Original
  • Dragon Ball Abridged suggests that some of Freeza's men, including Zarbon, are this.
    Freeza: You know, Zarbon, I'm starting to think my people don't understand what I pay them for.
    Zarbon: You don't pay us—
    Freeza:allow them to live for.

Western Animation
  • In The Dreamstone most of the Urpneys are impersonal dim wits who only follow Zordrak's orders because of his tendency to turn Mooks into stone or feed them to his carnivorous pets should they annoy him. Granted it's not so much they have a conscience as much as they'd just prefer not to be sent out on dangerous missions with ridiculous gadgets in tow to steal from angry Noops and Wuts. They change to Punch Clock Villains in later episodes, even sabotaging one of Zordrak's schemes so he won't relieve them off their duties. Frizz and Nug would still rather not be dragged into missions however.
  • In He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2002), Skeletor traps He-Man with a gem that forces him to be evil or else die. The heroes eventually reverse-engineers this to get Skeletor to only be good, but in the end, both devices break, as nothing would really change from this.
  • In the first season finale of Teen Titans, Slade forces Robin to become his apprentice and turn on his comrades, or else they will die.
  • In Adventure Time episode "Jake vs. Me-Mow", kitty assassin Me-Mow forces Jake into killing Wildberry Princess with the threat of death.
  • In the Wacky Races episode "Super Silly Swamp Sprint," Dick Dastardly says it was the other racers that forced him to be a bad guy. So maybe it wasn't his idea to be one to start with.

Real Life
  • Josef Stalin's subordinates. He was notorious for having people who failed or displeased him purged, not just people who belonged to "enemy" groups as Adolf Hitler did. According to one Urban Legend, this really bit him in the ass in the end. It's said that the stroke he died from might not have been fatal had a doctor been called immediately. Unfortunately for him, he was alone when it happened and his subordinates were so afraid of earning his ire by disturbing him that he wasn't discovered until hours later.
  • This trope is certainly associated with criminal gangs and organized crime. Once you are initiated in (often by committing a murder or taking a beating), the only way out is to die. This leads to the term "Blood in, blood out".
  • Many low-level people associated with Islamic terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda completely fall into this category. Tragic examples have included unwilling suicide bombers that are handcuffed or otherwise bound to their explosive vehicles.

Being Evil SucksSliding Scale of Antagonist VilenessForced Into Evil
They Called Me Mad!Motivation IndexUndying Loyalty
Tragic VillainThis Index Has Had a Hard LifeTroubled Abuser
Too Funny to Be EvilEvil TropesTwo-Faced
Tragic VillainVillainsTreacherous Advisor
Tragic VillainAnti-VillainUtopia Justifies the Means

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