Follow TV Tropes


Balancing Death's Books

Go To

"Lookit here... You need a ticket to ride this ride, and if your ticket gets punched then you gotta take somebody else's ticket."
Emerson Cod, Pushing Daisies

So, time is up, the Grim Reaper has arrived to collect the soul of you or your loved one, and he's not interested in a game of chess. It looks like all hope is lost. But wait... all Death needs is a soul, right? Surely there's someone around here whose life is less valuable than the person Death has come to collect. Maybe he'll take their soul instead.

Essentially, this is getting the Grim Reaper (or some other soul collecting entity), to accept one life in exchange for another. It can be done through an offer or some kind of trick. If a person volunteers to be the replacement soul, it could be a Heroic Sacrifice, but it doesn't have to be. There is often some kind of Equivalent Exchange involved, if the reason one life has to be traded for another is to preserve some kind of balance. When characters find themselves in this situation, it is almost always the case that Someone Has to Die. If an exception is made, it's generally at the whim of the soul collector. If it can't, it will result in Cheated Death, Died Anyway, where the character's violent death is unavoidable, it just happens in different circumstances.

It's rarely explained why Death has to maintain this kind of balance. Presumably, if his books don't add up, the Celestial Bureaucracy will be down on him like a ton of rectangular building things. Or he's anal-retentive, either explanation is good. It's also rare that anyone questions whether one soul is really equal to another in value. (For example, is the soul of an Ax-Crazy sociopath a fitting replacement for the soul of a person who volunteers at animal shelters and donates every spare dime they have to charity?) It's generally accepted that any soul can replace any other and still maintain the balance.

As the examples show, this trope is Older Than Dirt, with many variations. Compare Chess with Death, Sacrificial Revival Spell and Take Me Instead.

As a Death Trope, all spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Another: This is the explanation for why the students of class 3-3, and any of their relatives within the first circle, are in danger of dying horrible deaths throughout the school year. The class has a dead person in it, but the class doesn't know which of them is the dead person. And neither does the universe, so it tries to haphazardly guess through random picking.
  • Hansel and Gretel in Black Lagoon hold this as their life philosophy, believing they're immortal as long as they keep killing. Balalaika disabuses them of the notion. Violently.
  • Bleach:
    • When a human dies their soul passes on to Soul Society, and when they die in Soul Society, they eventually reincarnate back into the Living World. This process is called the cycle of reincarnation. Maintaining the Balance of Souls is the primary function of the Gotei 13, wherein the approximate amount of souls in the Living World and in Soul Society must always be the same. Not doing so and allowing the number of souls in, say, Soul Society to exceed the number in the Living World will cause Soul Society to flow into the Living World, destroying all of existence. It's because of this reason that the Gotei 13 was forced to exterminate the Quincy; their attacks did not purify hollows and allow them to pass on to Soul Society, but instead caused them to cease to exist, removing them from the cycle of reincarnation and tampering with the Balance. The shinigami tried to reason with them but they refused to listen, forcing their extermination. When the Vandenreich started messing with the Balance once more, Mayuri Kurotsuchi was forced to kill 28,000 Rukongai citizens in order to even it out.
    • The remains of Captains killed in battle are too dense with Reiatsu to naturally break down into Reishi and return to the soil of Soul Society, which is why 12 years after their deaths a ritual is performed to cast them into Hell. Unfortunately, it is implied that doing this too many times at once risks destroying the balance between Hell and the other realms, which is exactly what happens when Yamamoto, Unohana and Ukitake are sent to Hell one after the other: the jaws of Hell are wrenched open from the other side, and Hollows sent to Hell begin escaping to the World of the Living as Hell's miasma leaks into Soul Society.
  • In Death Note, Shinigami's lifespan must be stolen from humans by killing them with their Death Note; whatever was left on the human's clock is added to the Shinigami's. The books also balance in the other direction, but the exchange rate is far harsher — if a Shinigami deliberately uses their Death Note to extend the life of a human (such as by killing that human's would-be murderer), the Shinigami will instantly die, and their remaining lifespan gets transferred to the human in question. This occurs twice over the course of the series — the first time it's relegated to worldbuilding and backstory, with the Shinigami Rem explaining to human Misa Amane that Misa was supposed to die several months ago, after being stabbed by a crazed fan of hers. However, a friend of Rem's, a Shinigami named Gelus, decided to save her because he'd fallen in love with her, dying in the process and leaving behind his Death Note. Rem seems to believe that her picking it up afterwards led to her gaining her own affection for Misa. It's then shown again when Light Yagami, in a plot to get rid of his nemesis L, manipulates the circumstances to a point where either L dies, or L will have Misa executed for being the Second Kira. Rem, stuck between saving Misa's life and her own, opts to save Misa, cursing Light while she's dying.
  • Although there's no actual bargaining with Death involved, the homunculi of Fullmetal Alchemist are preemptively packed with the life energy of dozens (or hundreds) of victims. Whenever they sustain what should be a lethal blow, someone else's life is used up and the homunculi quickly recovers.
  • I Wish: Seven tells Lyu-Jin that this can be done. He explains that her brother chose to die in her stead by getting on the airplane to Hawaii, and that Lyu-Jin can resurrect her friend's father by killing herself.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh!, during the Waking the Dragons arc, the loser of a game in the Seal of Orichalcos has their soul taken away to be used to fuel the Great Leviathan. At one point, Yami loses a duel and Little Yugi heroically sacrifices himself, taking Yami's place and resulting in a Heroic BSoD for the latter. They both get better.
  • YuYu Hakusho:
    • Early on, when Yusuke is still dead, Keiko gets trapped in a fire. Yusuke is told that the only way to save her is to use the magic egg that is the only chance he has at coming back to life. Yusuke does, and as a reward for his sacrifice, he gets another shot at returning to life.
    • Only shortly after that, they seem to be building up to another such life-for-life scenario when Kurama uses a magic mirror to offer his life in exchange for his mother's. However, Yusuke also manages to resolve this without anyone dying by offering his life instead. In honor of his selflessness, the mirror spares all three of them, only taking a piece of life from Yusuke and Kurama to fuel the recovery of the mother. The mirror even says that if everyone was like Yusuke it wouldn't have such a bad reputation.

    Comic Books 
  • In Death: The Time of Your Life, a spinoff of The Sandman (1989), Death's lingering fondness for the protagonists leads her to agree to bring their baby back but, she warns, she'll be back, and someone will be leaving with her. Her return 5 years later is the catalyst that starts the story. In an unusual variation on this trope, Death says she isn't interested in someone else dying to balance the scale. She needs something else. She points out that every living thing will die eventually, so someone else "dying so their beloved will live" just hastens the schedule, and she isn't in a hurry. She still demands that someone die, but not for any cosmic reason but (it's implied) because she's already playing favourites enough by granting a reprieve and just not demanding any price at all would be stretching too far.
  • The Sword of Regret in Fables kind of does this pre-emptively. It can revive half the people slain with it if the wielder regrets killing them, but every time the wielder willingly kills with it the sword compels them to slay the nearest living thing as well. Only one of each "pair" of deaths can come back, wielder's choice.
  • In a Justice Society of America story, Atom-Smasher knows that an exact number of people must die in a plane crash to avoid damaging the time stream and so, at the last moment, swaps his mother for the villain who caused the crash in the first place. (Saves the mother and replaces her with the villain, that is. For those who were confused.)
  • New Gods: This is common with the Black Racer. A person may substitute himself, or even someone else, for the one meant to die and the Racer won't make a fuss about it. This was used in Final Crisis, when The Flash led the Racer to collect Darkseid instead of himself, as part of the ploy to defeat the villain. The Racer seems rather laid back about that issue, despite representing the inevitability of death.
  • In Thorgal - Beyond the Shadows, Thorgal travels to the underworld to bargain for his wife's life, and Death decides to be a dick. Death takes him and his guide to an enormous black cavern filled with tiny golden strings that a blind beast constantly cuts off at seemingly random. Death gives Thorgal a bow and arrow and tells him that he will repair his wife's life-string if Thorgal fires off an arrow in any direction, knowing full well that the arrow will sever one life-string at random. Thorgal, being the hero and all can't go through with it, but his companion (who was in love with Thorgal) grabbed the bow and let loose the arrow. In a twist that should surprise absolutely no one, it turned out that the life-string she struck "just happened" to be her own.

    Fairy Tales 

    Fan Works 
  • ""Evil Be Thou My Good"" has Harry opening the Lament Configuration upon Voldemort's orders, offering him and his Death Eaters up in exchange for letting Harry and the previously-believed dead Sirius go. Pinhead was going to refuse, but when Harry tells him they fancy themselves connoisseurs of pain, Pinhead agrees. Unfortunately for Voldemort and his henchmen...
  • "A Mingling of Magics: The Legacy of Merlin" reveals how Merlin (Merlin (2008)) was able to make his three apprentices immortal (The Sorcerer's Apprentice); using the magic of life and death, after receiving a vision of his future death, Merlin traded his own immortality to ensure the survival of his three apprentices to await his successor.
  • In the Doctor Who/Firefly fic "The Man with No Name", the Big Bad, while not exactly Death himself, can revive the dead if someone else gives up their life willingly in exchange. When Mal is killed, the Doctor decides to do this to save him. Because he greatly regrets his actions, though, the Big Bad instead sacrifices his own life, saving Mal and the Doctor.
  • In the Neomorphs series, on the rare occasions that Azmaveth, the lord of the afterlife, lets someone come Back from the Dead, he always insists on another life being given in exchange — for Rachel's resurrection, Jake performs a Heroic Sacrifice, and when he's later given a chance at coming back himself, he's given a set period of time in which to kill Mersa in order to secure his place among the living.
  • "Torching Pies" sees Jack Harkness (Torchwood) recruit Ned the Pie-Maker (Pushing Daisies) to bring Owen Harper back to life rather than use the resurrection gauntlet. Through some unspecified means, Jack is able to somehow ensure that when the time comes for Ned's gift to kill someone else in exchange for Owen's life, Jack is the one who "dies"; his natural immortality brings Jack back to life without Ned needing to do anything, and thus Owen may be essentially immortal as well so long as Ned doesn't touch him again.
  • Quaithe the Shadowbinder does this to save Daenerys in Purple Days. Unfortunately, Daenerys has already seen far, far too much of what lies beyond, and comes back wrong, now an Omnicidal Maniac that desperately believes that either she personally murders everything alive in Planetos in dragonflame, or the White Walkers will transform everything she leaves standing into an abomination.
  • In Robb Returns, to compensate for Robb's return, the Old Gods arrange Ramsay's particularly brutal death to a raven and a wolf, and Patchface commits suicide so the Old Gods will heal Shireen Baratheon of her greyscale. Lord Hightower later invokes this deliberately, trading his life to revive Ned Stark after Ned is struck down by Euron Greyjoy in the fight under the Hightower.

  • In the film Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Darby uses his third wish to go in his sick daughter's place when the Death Coach comes to claim her. Ultimately averted, as Darby is tricked into making a fourth wish, invalidating the first three. He's kicked out of the Death Coach, but its okay because his daughter has already been healed.
  • Final Destination:
    "What if it was our time, what if we weren't meant to get off that plane? What if there is a design...and it's not finished?"
    • Expanded upon in the fifth movie, where the characters can prevent their inevitable death by killing another, getting to live that person's remaining lifespan. Death fails to mention there's no handy way to gauge how long that person may have had left, however, so the protagonists only get a few days out of it.
  • A mundane example occurs in Fort Apache. The colonel (Henry Fonda) is dead set on fighting it out to the death against Cochise's forces, but sends back Major York (John Wayne) to the supply wagons, telling him to take O'Rourke with him, meaning Sergeant-Major O'Rourke (Ward Bond), not his son, the junior officer of the regiment. York tells the Sergeant O'Rourke, who like himself can see that there will be no survivors in the battle, that he is to take O'Rourke with him, and the Sergeant tells him: "Ye will find lieutenant O'Rourke further along," thus indicating that he is to save his son's life.
  • Hellraiser series:
    • In the original Hellraiser Kirsty unknowingly solves the Lament Configuration and summons the Cenobites, who plan to take her to their realm, being unable to leave without someone after being summoned. In her place Kirsty offers her Evil Uncle Frank, who had earlier escaped the Cenobites' dimension (they take Frank, but then turn on Kirsty, who forces them back).
    • Happens again in the sixth entry Hellraiser: Hellseeker, where Kirsty is manipulated into opening the Lament Configuration again. This time she offers five souls in exchange for her own, murdering the five people herself.
  • Lord of Illusions. After Nix is revived, he notes that he has to give something back to the grave in return. He sacrifices his own minions as a gift to the world of the dead.
  • A non-supernatural variant occurs in the Hostel series. The organization that arranges for rich clients to torture and kill victims has a policy that no one may leave without committing a murder, In the second film, one of the victims buys her way out, and kills her tormentor to satisfy the requirement.
  • A Matter of Life and Death has this as part of a supernatural trial, the hero's love interest is told by that someone has to die to keep things even and does she love him enough to give him up? Leads to a mutual exchange of Take Me Instead.
  • Men in Black 3 features this as a key plot point. As the alien Griffin phrases it, "Where there's death, there will always be death.'' In the end, while Agent K's life is saved through time travel, J's father, an army colonel, dies in his place helping defeat Boris the Animal.
  • In The Night House, this is what the Nothing wanted. After Beth was declared technically dead in a car accident, the Nothing stalked her and tried to spur Owen into killing her. He loved her too much to do it and tried to trick The Nothing into thinking the books were balanced by killing other women who looked like her.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean:
    • In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, it is revealed that Jack had previously made a deal with Davy Jones - and Davy Jones is now coming to collect his soul as payment. Jack offers Will as payment instead, but Davy Jones refuses, because "one soul is not equal to another" — a chance Jack immediately exploits to negotiate a "price" for his soul. Specifically, he seizes on Jones' objection to the rate of exchange and not the principle itself, and strikes a bargain to deliver 100 souls in three days in exchange for his own. Both know this is an impossible task — it's implied that Jack agrees to it so he can get Jones off his back long enough to find the Dead Man's Chest.
    • In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the Fountain of Youth functions this way - in order to extend one person's life, another must lose theirs.

  • At the end of 11/22/63 we find out the cost for stopping JFK's assassination. Since the country never entered the Vietnam War, thousands of people are killed in a natural disaster.
  • In the Aspect of Crow trilogy by Jeri Smith-Ready, Crows can only resurrect people by taking the lifespan from others. Rhia has a bit of a Heroic BSoD when she realizes that her resurrection took a month or so of life from every person in the nearby village, even though they volunteered for it. In the final book, this leads to a conundrum when she has to resurrect four dead Spirits, as no amount of human sacrifice can equal an immortal life, which is resolved when another Spirit gives her immortal life.
  • In Charles de Lint's The Blue Girl, the ghost of a nerdy fellow asks about this, thinking to exchange the life of a bully to save the life of a girl he likes. The guardian angel assigned to him at first thinks he's contemplating a heroic sacrifice before finding the truth, after which he is thoroughly disgusted.
  • Bruce Coville's Book of...:
    • Bruce Coville's Book of Nightmares:
      • Variant in Drawing the Moon — the victims aren't dead, they were stolen by the moon. When Andrew goes to the Moon to get them back, the Moon agrees to return them, but she needs two others in their place. She winds up taking the mugger who attacked them, and Andrew himself.
      • Inverted in Death's Door — Death is trying to collect a bunch of kids ahead of time, and they have to figure out a way to keep it from happening. And it's implied that he'll keep doing it until he succeeds.
    • Bruce Coville's Book of Spine Tinglers II: All in Good Time has a young Jewish girl try to stop Death (herein called "the Boneman") from taking her grandfather by marking the doorframe with lamb's blood (a la Passover). Death warns her that he has to claim someone, and the girl's pregnant aunt is caught in a car crash. After realizing what she did, the girl's grandfather convinces her to wipe the blood away, because he's ready to go. She does, he dies, and her aunt and the baby recover fully.
  • The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold:
    • It's possible to perform a "death magic" ritual that will cause a demon to kill anyone you name. The catch is, the demon has buckets for two souls, and can't return to the netherworld until both are full — performing the ritual is thought to be inevitably fatal. The protagonist ends up surviving performing the ritual; through a miracle, the demon and the soul of the man he wanted dead are trapped inside a stomach tumor; when he gets stabbed through the tumor, the demon takes the soul of the person stabbing him.
    • It's also mentioned that the only prayers of this kind that are answered are the ones in which the victim was a nasty piece of work. In essence, the demon god dispenses miracles of justice. Praying for the death of someone who doesn't deserve it won't get you anything but sore knees — well, and the possibility of hanging, because attempting death magic is a capital crime. (Succeeding at death magic is not illegal, because the result was a god-granted miracle, but the fact that no one survives succeeding at death magic makes the whole issue kind of academic.)
  • In The Death Gate Cycle, any magic which brings a dead corpse to life (as a zombie-like being) causes the untimely death of another member of that race, resulting in the eventual decline and near-extinction of the Sartan.
    • Inverted in the same series with the character Hugh, who is resurrected completely and made immortal to boot- but to keep things balanced, he can never kill another living thing again, even by accident. As he's a professional assassin, he's not happy about this development and spends several books trying to track down the guy who did it to get him to lift the magic.
  • In order to release Camber's soul from stasis in The Harrowing of Gwynedd, his daughter Evaine voluntarily gives her life in a ritual.
  • Discworld:
    • In the novel Maskerade, Granny Weatherwax plays Poker With Death in order to gain the right to make this kind of trade. Not only did she try to cheat (by giving herself 4 queens), Death let her win:
      Death: Alas, all I have is four ones.
    • The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents features Maurice, the Intellectual Animal cat, doing this to save one of those Educated Rodents; he and the mouse known as Dangerous Beans had just suffered fatal injuries, and once Maurice confirms that he has five lives available to him, he suggests that Death takes two of his to allow Dangerous Beans to stay as well. It manages to be almost as touching as a real Heroic Sacrifice even though, as a cat, he still has three lives left despite that.
      • This is actually explicitly stated in a few places as being "the way things work" for the Discworld. Death occasionally mentions others who have challenged him, but it's extremely rare that they ever win, even when playing games that Death isn't very good at- mostly because Death cannot lose by mortal means. In fact, when he becomes temporarily mortal in Reaper Man, he has to learn how to lose to fit in with humans. He even mentions that losing is much harder for him to do then winning.note 
    • In Reaper Man, Death is turned mortal, and given his lifetimer (an hourglass showing the exact amount of time he has left). When he saves a little girl destined to die in a fire, he gives her the sand in his lifetimer.
    • The only time when Death doesn't need to do an equivalent exchange is in Hogfather, when he stands in for the Disc's Santa Expy. Since he's acting as the Hogfather instead of Death, he can give presents—such as life to the Little Match Girl, who was going to freeze to death that night.
  • In Firewing dead bats can come back to life by absorbing the life force of a living bat who somehow ends up in the afterlife before dying. Goth kills Griffin to steal his life force and return to life. While Shade gives up his own life for Griffin, and turns out to have enough for Luna too.
  • The foster father premise is expanded upon in the novel Godmother Night, with much exploration of mysticism and lesbian relationships along the way.
  • Dustfinger exchanges himself for Farid in Inkspell of The Inkworld Trilogy.
  • This concept is referenced in the epilogue of My Sister's Keeper. While it's never explicitly stated to be true (since My Sister's Keeper has no supernatural elements), Kate, who was near death from leukemia before miraculously recovering and going into remission, invokes this trope as the thing she credits for her extremely improbable survival; Kate's sister Anna was killed in a car crash just as Kate was seemingly on death's doorstep, and Kate believes that she was allowed to live because Anna died in her place.
  • In The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones, a character was supposed to be sacrificed to a goddess; an elder priestess explained that the goddess just demanded a life, not necessarily the nominated victim's, and that she generally took a spare life from one of the temple cats (they, of course, had nine). It didn't work in that particular case, but the goddess accepted a spare life from an enchanter who also had lives to spare.
  • In the Salman Rushdie children's book Luka And The Fire Of Life, a wickedly summoned spirit cannot leave without taking a life. Or turning an immortal into a mortal.
  • In The Night Angel Trilogy, black ka'kari confers Resurrective Immortality to its holder. Only later does the cost become apparent: for each resurrection, someone the holder cares about soon dies.
  • The Stephen King novella, Riding the Bullet is about a man trying to hitchhike to a faraway hospital after he gets a call that his mother has had a stroke and may not make it. One of the drivers that picks him up turns out to be a ghost and presents him with a Sadistic Choice, either let her die, or die in her place to let her live longer. It's then subverted when he chooses to let her die and she survives the stroke anyway, with the implication that the entire choice may have been some kind of Secret Test of Character. She does eventually die, from another stroke several years later.
  • From Robin Hobb's The Soldier Son trilogy: "You owe me a life or a death, Nevare Burvelle!"
  • In Jasper Fforde's Something Rotten, the rule for the underworld is someone's got to cross over, but it doesn't have to be the original soul. Although the gatekeepers do at least make an effort when Thursday complained that Spike wasn't dead yet.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • A variant occurs in A Clash of Kings that may not directly involve dealing with a supernatural entity, but operates on the same principle: After Arya saves the lives of "Jaqen H'ghar" and two other prisoners, he subsequently informs her that, due to her interference, the Red God is now due three lives. Not to worry though, she can but name three names and he'll happily help balance the books. However, after the first two murders Arya threatens him with having his name be the third forcing him to either kill himself, abandon his honor, or help Arya kill a lot more people. He chooses the third option.
    • Mirri Maz Duur's "Only death pays for life" in the first book A Game of Thrones. Of course, she's not very clear about whose death, or her definition of life.
  • In Watership Down, in the last legend of Prince El-ahrairah, the Prince of Rabbits is playing Chess with Death for the fate of his people. After he loses several games betting (among other things) his ears and tail, he decides to die in their place by carrying back a disease to his enemies. He tries to enforce the decision by jumping into one of the Black Rabbit's pits full of plagues. Then Death informs him that the pit he jumped into holds a plague (Myxamatosis) that is transmitted by fleas biting the ears—and he no longer has ears. However, Death spares his people because of the attempt. Presumably because the Black Rabbit enforces Frith's (the rabbit God) promise that rabbitkind won't be wiped out despite their many enemies.
  • "The Brave Man" from Always Coming Home is the story of a person who offered to die instead of his wife after she had a very difficult miscarriage.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5:
    • "Deathwalker" features an immortality serum developed by the Mad Scientist Jha'Dur, a.k.a. the Deathwalker. Its manufacture also requires the death of another person, and Jha'Dur gleefully expects the entire galaxy to tear itself apart in pursuit of eternal life.
    • There is a machine which can heal someone — by taking the life-force from someone else. In "Endgame", Marcus uses this to perform a Heroic Sacrifice to save Ivanova because the person was mortally wounded. The machine was originally intended to perform executions.
  • A couple of episodes of Big Wolf on Campus feature this, all started when Tommy rescues an old man from a "mugger" he later learns was the Grim Reaper. The Reaper now comes after Tommy claiming that "he is owed one soul" and seeks to take Tommy's as a replacement.
  • Happens quite often in Charmed (1998):
    • The episode "Death Takes a Halliwell" revolved around Prue having to accept that death is not an enemy to be fought against.
    • The episode "Styx Feet Under" had the sisters cast a spell to prevent an old man from being killed by his nephew which ended up preventing others from dying. Piper was turned into the Angel of Death briefly and Phoebe was marked to die, but they were able to change the circumstances so she was allowed to live.
    • Leo was written out of the series on the basis that there was a battle to be fought with the Ultimate Power and Leo was destined to die in the crossfire. The Angel of Destiny froze him in time until the battle was over. He was released once Phoebe, Paige and Christy died at the end of "Kill Billie: Vol. 2" but taken away once they changed the past. He was brought back once Christy, Dumain and the Triad were killed.
  • In Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, evidently this applies to mortals, but not to witches. Zelda has repeatedly murdered Hilda, and so long as she's buried in their Cain Pit she comes back, but raising a mortal costs a life. Sabrina attempts a Loophole Abuse using this double standard by sacrificing Agatha to raise Tommy then using the Cain Pit on her, which fails painfully. Agatha soon starts to cough up grave dirt and begins rotting, and would certainly have died if Tommy hadn't been killed again. He also Came Back Wrong, although it's unclear if that was related to her attempt to cheat death or just how it always works.
  • Dead Like Me:
    • During the episode "Reapercussions", George decides to prevent the death of one of the souls she is assigned to reap. Although it's presented as a direct result deal, where George prevents one death and causes a lot more, it's never properly established that this will happen every time. However, the implication is that by preventing the death of one, someone else will die.
    • Roxy does get away with just gremlins trying to make her life miserable after saving someone's life, suggesting that it's more of a Screw Destiny get one Butterfly of Doom free thing.
  • In Game of Thrones, as per the Song of Ice and Fire entry in Literature above, Arya Stark releases three prisoners that would have otherwise died during a fire, and one of them later invokes the trope to seque to his offer to kill whatever three persons Arya nominates... and as in the book she threatens him with his name being the third to force him to go over that limit.
  • An episode of Home and Away featured Sally Fletcher in purgatory after being stabbed. She was met by the ghost of her foster father, (who somehow looked 18 years older than he was when he died), who offered her the chance to return to Earth, and showed her flashes of what would happen to her friends if she didn't. After she had made the decision, he told her that someone else would die in her place, "to balance the books." A few days after she'd woken up, Dan Baker, the husband of Sally's best friend Leah, was killed in a rock-climbing accident, and Sally blamed herself.
  • Invoked by Caligula in I, Claudius. During an illness that would end up with Caligula believing he was transformed into a god, a sycophantic senator announced to all who would listen that he begged to the gods to take his life if it would spare Caligula's. Caligula got better, and then made sure the senator kept his vow.
    • The same incident was depicted in The Caesars, although several senators were said to have made similar vows rather than just one. Caligula decreed that they should all accordingly take their own lives.
  • A MADtv (1995) sketch takes place at a funeral, with a woman mourning her husband, screaming "Take me, Jesus! Take me instead!" Sure enough, Jesus shows up, brings the woman's husband back to life, and then asks the woman to go with him. Naturally, the woman wasn't expecting her wish to be granted, and Hilarity Ensues.
  • Merlin:
    • The show uses this as the balance in the old religion, as Nimueh tries to make him exchange his mother's life for Arthur's. Eventually he realizes that killing Nimueh would work too.
    • This is why Igraine died - her life in exchange for Arthur being born.
  • In Pushing Daisies, Ned's ability to revive the dead has a one-minute grace period; after that, another life of approximately equal value (a human being's life for another human's, an animal's for an animal's, a plant's for a plant's) is taken in exchange. Unlike most other examples of the trope, the choice isn't Ned's, he can't influence it, and the only rule the exchange seems to obey is that the sacrifice must be physically nearby.
    Ned: It's a random proximity thing.
    Emerson: Bitch, I was in proximity!
    • Also unlike other examples of the trope, Ned still can't touch the re-animated even after the one-minute period. If he does, they return to being dead—and forever this time.
  • Smallville:
    • Though the guy with the scythe doesn't appear in person, things worked out this way in one episode, in which Clark going back in time to save Lana, after Jor-El had told him that someone close to him would die in exchange for the restoration of his powers, resulted in Jonathan's sudden heart attack later.
    • Lois almost died a second time. Her death would also have prevented the other two's, since they'd be too busy being shocked to go die in a car crash and have a heart attack after a heated discussion, respectively.
    • In a rather roundabout fashion in Infamous. Clark reveals his secret to Lois, and Chloe ends up being ripped to shreds by Doomsday. Clark hits the Reset Button, going back in time, and this time Linda Lake dies instead, but since she is such an Asshole Victim, who cares?
    • In Hex, Zatanna intends to bring her father back to life in exchange for her own life. However, Chloe accidentally gets trapped into the spell - as her life is drained while Zatanna's father starts to materialize, Zatanna decides an innocent life is too much and severs the spell.
  • Supernatural:
    • An episode had a woman manipulate a reaper into saving some lives at the expense of others—basically she was killing people she viewed as immoral (including atheists and homosexuals) in order to heal people who were dying.
    • Dean also does this when he exchanges his own soul to bring his brother back from the dead.
    • And then Sam tries to do the same thing to save Dean. And earlier John did it to save Dean. The Winchesters have a... thing about this trope.
    • It turns out that the disruption of the natural order caused by someone not dying when they're supposed to automatically leads to the death of someone else, then another someone else, over and over again until they actually die. The brothers' tendency to repeatedly come back from the dead annoys Death quite a lot.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959): The episode "One for the Angels" has Lou Bookman bargain with Death for the right to live long enough to make one final, ultra-successful pitch ("one for the angels"). Upon being granted this right by a sympathetic Death, he promptly retires from his sales job and plans to live forever. After a few (denied) attempts to talk Mr. Bookman into changing his mind, Death finally reveals that this trope is in play, at which point Maggie, one of the children Mr. Bookman is friends with, gets hit by a car, and Bookman's attempts to change his mind are subject to the same Exact Words that he'd used on Death. To collect her soul, Death has to be in her room at midnight; the salesman waits at the stoop outside the apartment building, stalling Death and giving a pitch so enthralling that he misses his deadline - something Death stated was "unheard of". That pitch, of course, was "one for the angels," and so the salesman leaves willingly with Death, who reassures him that his selflessness earned him a place "up there".
  • The X-Files: In "Tithonus", Scully meets a man who is hundreds of years old. He was dying during a yellow fever epidemic and was afraid when he saw Death coming — he managed to look away when Death got close, but it meant that Death took the nurse by the man's bedside instead. Fed up with having lived this long, he's now trying to catch Death's eye again so he can finally die. At the end of the episode, it's heavily implied that he gets Death to take him instead of Scully after Scully is injured, and now Scully is immortal.

  • The Demons & Wizards song "Fiddler on the Green" provides a variant on this trope: The song turns out to be about the Grim Reaper taking a young boy "too early" and, feeling remorseful for his error, 'balances it out' by taking a young girl so the boy can gain a companion when he goes to the afterlife.
  • An "answer song" to "Under the Gripping Beast" has the heroine's lover offering to take her place in hell.
  • The old folk song "Lonesome Valley, and its many variants (one of which was featured in O Brother, Where Art Thou?), defy this trope:
    Nobody else can go there for you.

    Mythology and Folklore 
  • Classical Mythology has the story of Admetus and Alcestis. Admetus is a beloved king; and, when he is due to die, Death agrees to allow him to live if he can find another willing to die in his stead. However, he is unable to find anyone - for all that his subjects love him, they don't love him enough to die for him, with even his father refusing to do it. Finally, believing himself doomed, he returns to his room - to find that his wife, Alcestis, has already agreed to die in his place, and promptly expires. Admetus lives - but in the knowledge that he has lost the one person who loved him enough to die for him. Then, in a surprise twist happy ending, Heracles arrives and punches out Death to save Alcestis.
  • There's a legend about the prophet Elijah who was treated with kindness by a poor elderly couple. That night their cow died. The Rabbi Joshua asked him why the family had to suffer like that, and Elijah explains that the Angel of Death came to the house that night for the old woman, so he prayed that it would take the cow instead.
  • In "Godfather Death", Death allows his mortal godson to know whether a sick person is destined to die or not, and gives him a magical cure that saves anyone not yet scheduled for death. The godson becomes a famous physician and eventually uses his knowledge to cheat Death and cure a king and then the king's daughter against Death's wishes. Death then leads the godson into a cave where many candles representing human lives are burning, and shows him his own life candle is almost burned out. When the physician asks Death to set up a new candle for him before the old one can go out, Death answers this is not possible, because for every fresh candle that begins to burn, an old one has to go out. This revelation also points to the possibility that the disease of the princess was the price for the physician saving the life of the king, and that the reason the physician has to die is because he saved the princess' life; in some variants this is said explicitly.
  • Older Than Dirt: In the ancient Mesopotamian myth Inanna's Descent to the Netherworld, Inanna was killed and trapped in the underworld, Irkalla. Ereshkigal, Queen of Irkalla, would only allow her to leave if she gave another's life in return. Inanna sent her husband Dumuzi. When she came back trying to find someone to take her place, he wasn't mourning for her. Instead, he was lounging around under a tree (or in some versions, sleeping with another woman), leading Inanna to think he didn't care about her. So in a fit of hurt and anger she sends him to Irkalla... but later regrets it.

    Tabletop Games 
  • New World of Darkness examples:
    • Sin-Eaters are somewhat defined by having come back from the dead once, but their geists can ensure they come back many more times. Problem is, to fuel the resurrection, someone else somewhere has to die... and when the Sin-Eater wakes up again, there will be a caul over their face depicting just how the person died.
    • The mages may have powers over life and death, but even they are unable to resurrect anyone. There is one exception, however — the Legacy known as the Tamers of the Cave. One of the spells the Tamers have special knowledge of allows them to raise someone from the dead, and the odds are good that the person will Awaken sometime after that. The downside? The Tamer dies in their stead.
  • Dark Eldar in Warhammer 40,000 have made it their raison d'etre to stave off their inevitable deaths by regularly throwing the figurative Reaper (the chaos god Slaanesh) fresh souls to keep it from taking theirs instead. Pretty much any sentient being's soul will do and the older the Dark Eldar is the more often will souls have to be sacrificed in their place; this has much the expected result on the species' moral compass. Not that they had much of a moral compass in the first place — the entire reason they need to do this while other Eldar do not is because the Dark Eldar refuse to stop indulging in the depraved hedonism that spawned Slaanesh. The Thirst gradually fades if a Dark Eldar rejects that lifestyle.
  • Subverted in Warhammer. Prince Apophas of Khemri made a deal along these lines with the personification of death: he could avoid his horrible death curse and enter into paradise if he provided the god of death with a soul of equal value to his own. To find one, he runs around as an undead creature killing people. The subversion is that all souls are unique; he's never going to find one of equal value to his own! He's basically set himself up as the personal harvester of the God of the Dead, only without knowing it.
  • This is the concept behind a handful of resurrection spells in Magic: The Gathering, such as Hell's Caretaker

    Video Games 
  • In Death and Taxes, you are a Grim Reaper balancing their own books, and the death quota is determined by your boss, Fate. Kill or spare too many and you'll get fired, but if you alternate those actions on separate days, everything checks off and you can keep your job. But be careful- Fate is secretly tired of his job and is trying to cause an apocalypse to end all life to get out of it.
  • The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion: The assassins' guild, which offers its victims' souls to a being called the Night Mother, are willing to help a man fake his death in exchange for his mother's life. The man's ancestors, however, aren't happy with his Rules Lawyering and lack of filial piety, and rise from the dead to try to kill him (and the player) after he's revived.
  • King's Quest VII is quite possibly the only game in which an extra life serves as a collectible item, relevant to the story. Rosella saves a cat from a coffin midway through, and the cat tells her that "since you saved one of my lives, I'll give it to you." This extra life, of course, is needed to get the best ending.
  • In Planescape: Torment, this is the crux of The Nameless One's power. He cannot die, so another random person on The Great Wheel dies in his place every time he's supposed to. Those who die in his place become mindless tormented shadows and spend the rest of their eternal un-lives trying to track him down and getting payback, unaware (or uncaring) that it will only make more people suffer their fate.
  • The second game in the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time trilogy, Warrior Within, starts off when the Prince escapes the death that was assigned to him in The Sands of Time, which forces the Guardians of the Timeline to sic their monster, the Dahaka, to claim it back. He spends seven years on the run from the beast and eventually manages to sacrifice himself to the monster in order to appease it by taking advantage of a mask that lets him invoke the Timey-Wimey Ball.
  • In Quest for Glory IV, there is a spell that enables someone to trade their own life for that of someone they love. Toby ultimately uses it to resurrect Tanya.
  • In the original Toe Jam And Earl, if you are playing a two-player game and one of you loses all your lives, you can bum one off of the other player, reducing their number of extra lives, but allowing you to stay in the game.
  • A Total War Saga: TROY: Cerberus can call the shades of the dead to fight in his wake, but requires equivalent amounts of living souls to be sent to the Underworld in their place — in game terms, spectral units become available based on how many enemies he kills.
  • Valkyrie Profile: The Ritual of Soul Transfer appears in several places in the series, and allows anyone to sacrifice their own life to resurrect a recently deceased. You get a couple of... 'recruits' that way. In somewhat of a subversion, a person tries to sacrifice his life in order to save someone else who sacrificed their life in this manner. Lenneth tells him this cannot be done, and he dies for nothing.
  • A particular quest line in World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria involves a Night Elf asking you to investigate a springs, the waters of which are rumored to grant immortality. You bring a vial of water back to him, where he discovers that, while technically true, it only grants life at the cost of the life force of another. When his daughter is gravely wounded later in the quest line, he uses the vial to use the remainder of his own life to save his daughter's.

    Visual Novels 
  • Amnesia: Memories reveals in Joker World that the heroine died in the original Joker World, and Ukyo made a wish to save and be with her again. The resulting time-rewinding and hopping into parallel universes created a universal anomaly. The heroine isn't supposed to be alive, and several dangers come her way because the universe is trying to correct this 'mistake'. The deadline is always August 25th, the date of her original death. And if she manages to survive past that date, the universe begins to consider Ukyo the universal anomaly and proceeds to balance the books by killing him.
  • Necrobarista uses a smaller unit of measurement that only affects one's length of stay in the Afterlife Antechamber. After death, a person given 24 hours before they must move on to the afterlife, but this can be extended or reduced by a second party, but the Council of Death wants to keep the amount of time given or taken even to "keep the balance". Maddie's cafe racked up over a time debt of 600 hours of extended stay and is constantly hounded by them over it, which leads her to look for other ways to fix it.
  • In The Pirate's Fate, whenever Mila tries to use the magic coins to Set Right What Once Went Wrong and revive one of her companions who had died previously, the timeline results in one who had survived before dying instead. This is, however, not an inherent effect of the coins (another user did the same but only lost the love of her life), just that the circumstances surrounding their deaths meant that it was extremely likely that one person was going to die no matter what.

    Web Animation 
  • Rescuing Ghosts appears to depict a mother giving up her own life to revive her daughter.

  • At the end of Angel Moxie, Alex successfully takes out Yzin, but dies doing so. Seeing this, Miya offers up her mortal existence to revive Alex.
  • Jack, The Reaper, doesn't play chess. As "The Case of the Traveling Corpse" demonstrates, though, once he goes to Earth, he's not going back to hell until someone dies. Like Death of the Discworld, though, he's shown to fudge things whenever possible.
  • Subverted in The Rule of Death, when Pete Colby's rise from the grave alerts an ominous man in black who's quite intent on putting him back in the dirt. Despite the supernatural tome of death records he holds, the man is just an insane Tautological Templar who's killed without incident, no book-balancing required.

    Western Animation 
  • In Adventure Time, Abraham Lincoln, as King of Mars (don't ask), accidentally executed Jake thinking he was the Magic Man. He travels to the Eighth Dead World to bring him back, where he meets with Death. When Death refuses the payment of one penny, the King offers his immortality instead, killing him and turning him to stone (an exact replica of the Lincoln Memorial, in fact).
  • An episode of Darkwing Duck has Darkwing die, and spend part of the episode trying to avoid Death. At one point, he inadvertently tricks Death into taking his neighbor instead. In this case, after some debate ("After all, the world needs Darkwing Duck, while Herb Muddlefoot serves no particular purpose."), Darkwing decides not to let Death take someone else.
  • Family Guy
    • In Season 2's "Death Is A Bitch", to avoid paying a hospital bill, Peter writes that he is deceased; eventually the lie catches up to him when Death comes to harvest Peter's soul. But the former sprains his ankle while chasing the latter down the street, forcing Death to recuperate at the Griffin house. So Death informs them that in order to make everything right again, someone else has to die in Peter's place. Stewie quickly suggest Lois as a replacement, then Chris had the idea to blow up the entire Earth, and even Meg asks him if he could kill all the girls that are prettier than her. The real "Eureka!" Moment comes when Death sees a photo of the Dawson's Creek cast in a magazine. At first, Peter is hesitant to kill the kids, in which Death gives him an ultimatum: either he kills them or he kills Peter. So Peter fills in for him and is sent on a plane, but later finds a loophole (inadvertently, though) by killing both the pilots, leaving the whole cast and himself to miraculously survive.
    • In the Season 4 episode "I Take Thee Quagmire", Glen Quagmire once faked his death to escape his new wife, who had turned out to be clingy enough to consider homicide and/or suicide an appropriate response to divorce. However, as is often the case when somebody on the show lies about being dead, Death showed up to collect Quagmire's soul. When Quagmire's wife tried to interfere, she touched Death and abruptly dropped dead. Quagmire's friends manage to convince Death to take her soul instead, since her last name was also Quagmire and she had alluded to being suicidal.
  • A slight variation happens at the end of The Halloween Tree: the protagonists each give a year of their lives to Moundshroud in exchange for the life of their friend.
  • In one The Simpsons Halloween special, Homer becomes Death, and receives an order to kill Marge. He manages to trick God into taking her sister Patty instead. God actually finds out and chases Homer with a beam of light. He eventually gives up and stops caring because He's "too rich for this."
  • Averted in-universe in the film version of Watership Down. Lord Frith is offered this bargain ("My life for my warren") and refuses to intervene. "There can be no bargains. What is, is what must be." Possibly subverted in that the rabbit making the offer AND his warren both survive, and their enemies are routed.
  • In the first episode of Wishfart, Akiko wishes to become a living girl again, upsetting the balance of the living world and The Underworld. To restore the balance (and stop the King of the Underworld from causing The End of the World as We Know It), Dez volunteers to take Akiko's place as a ghost since Akiko enjoys being alive again. However, when Akiko sees what Dez is doing, she agrees to go back to being a ghost for the sake of her friends.

    Real Life 
  • They say that during the Holocaust, one Jew tried to bribe a guard to transfer his son (about to be sent into a gas chamber) into the workers section. The guard said "Bring me another boy. The books must be balanced". note 
  • In a heroic example, St. Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to take the place of a man who had been selected at random to be starved (along with nine others) because somebody escaped from the concentration camp. The condemned man broke down in tears over what would happen to his family without him, so Kolbe, a Catholic priest (and therefore celibate), requested to take the man's place. The guard agreed. For extra tearjerking, it transpired some time afterward that the missing prisoner had not actually escaped —he had drowned in the camp latrines.
  • During the Reign of Terror, a father sacrificed himself to save his son when his name was called up for execution while the son was asleep. The son then survived because the reign of the Committee of Public Safety was ended a short while after the execution of the father.