Tywin Lannister: And do you believe them?
Arya Stark: No, my lord. *beat* Anyone can be killed.
Most of the time when you finally grasp who the main characters of the story are, you can expect that these characters will survive through the end of the story (or at least until the last episode). Well, This Is Not That Trope.
This is very common in Darker and Edgier works. When the writers want to impress you with their ruthlessness, they may trumpet that Tonight, Someone Dies, then kill off a random second-stringer that nobody much cares about. They might even kill off a major character because his actor was leaving anyway, or because they needed a good cliffhanger to convince people to watch the next season. That is also not this trope (although it's pretending to be).
Anyone Can Die is where no one is exempt from being killed, including pets, children, the elderly, even the main characters (maybe even the hero!) The Sacrificial Lamb is often used to establish the writer's willingness to kill off important characters early on. To really be the Anyone Can Die trope, the work must include multiple deaths of named characters, happening at different points in the story. Bonus points if the death is unnecessary and devoid of Heroic Sacrifice.
This trope is very helpful in keeping fans from being Spoiled by the Format. In a kid's show, of course Alice and Bob are going to survive the raging rapids.note In a work of this type however, the danger actually becomes dangerous.
War shows like Mobile Suit Gundam benefit from having a larger cast since there are so many people to kill off. The frequent deaths within a wide cast make the storyline unpredictable, forcing you to wonder who'll be left standing once the dust settles.
Still, even if all characters are allegedly up for the possibility of a dance with the reaper, the general laws of storytelling (and, more importantly, how actors are contracted) tells us that you can expect the chances of main-character death to increase as you approach the climax of an arc, the final episodes of a season, the final chapters of a book, or the final instalment of a series, even if the work averts Death Is Dramatic. A creator needs to be quite committed to the concept to kill off an important character in a completely plot-irrelevant way.
When used poorly or too frequently, this trope can cause Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy or Eight Deadly Words as the audience won't see any point in getting attached to characters that they expect to die sooner or later.
Note that the character needs to be Killed Off for Real for the trope to have the desired effect; it does not work if the writers cheat and bring back the guy later (see Not Quite Dead, Disney Death, Negative Continuity, and Climactic Battle Resurrection). As such Super Hero Comic Books as a medium have gained a reputation of "Anyone Can Die... until someone wants to use the character in a later story."
A good way to check if this trope applies is to see if who survives is an important plot point, rather than only how they survive.
Contrast with Tonight, Someone Dies, Sorting Algorithm of Mortality and Contractual Immortality. Compare Second Law of Metafictional Thermodynamics. Compare Characters Dropping Like Flies, which is just about lots of people dying, and can overlap with this trope.
See also Kill 'Em All, when everyone will die. Opposite of Nobody Can Die and Plot Armor, where not even situations that should kill people manage to. See also Dwindling Party, where the deaths are evenly spaced rather than near the end. Easier to do in works with Loads and Loads of Characters. Can be expected in a Tragedy. Red Shirt is (usually) when the deaths are reserved for nameless extras. This trope tries to upgrade them to Mauve Shirt first.
This is definitely Truth in Television, because all living organisms are mortal and will eventually die for any number of reasons, with no fiction writers to determine how it happens, so No Real Life Examples, Please!.
As a Death Trope, all spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
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