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Better to Die than Be Killed

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"Well, up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong;
'You'll never take me alive,' said he."
Andrew Barton "Banjo" Paterson, "Waltzing Matilda"

A situation where a character commits suicide rather than face capture, imminent death, enslavement, public humiliation followed by (possibly grisly) execution, or something even worse. If there is no way to avoid death, characters will often prefer to go on their own terms rather than let their enemy decide their fate. Sometimes it's just to deny the enemy the satisfaction of killing them.

The most common places that Better To Die Than Be Killed shows up are stories where people face a Fate Worse than Death in either the classical sense or in a Body Horror / The Virus sense, such as in a zombie movie where being taken by the zombies means being eaten alive or joining their number. In the older stories, such as westerns, samurai, and kung-fu stories, a woman faced with rape and death at the hands of her enemies would often choose to die by her own hand rather than suffer this fate.


A variation of this also appears in the classic scene where a disgraced army officer finds a loaded gun on his bed as the obvious hint to kill themselves in order to spare the regiment the embarrassment.

Another variation happens quite a lot, where a mook kills themself rather than let the heroes find out any information. This also shows up in espionage where a captured spy takes a Cyanide Pill, or in Military Fiction where a ship or base engages its Self-Destruct Mechanism, to deny captors any information they might gain from them under torture.

This trope may derive from Real Life. Many cultures that are primarily based around personal glory and honour, including that of Ancient Rome, held that suicide was an acceptable form of death: to a Roman, suicide was not just a way to avoid experiencing perpetual dishonor or humiliating punishments such as Crucifixion, but a noble deed meant to demonstrate one's own stoicism and honor in the face of adversity. Emperor Otho was considered a weak, luxury-loving sybarite until he committed suicide shortly before a plot to assassinate him could be put into effect; his self-inflicted death changed Romans' minds, leading them to see Otho as a greater man than he perhaps really was. Feudal Japan had many similarities with the Romans in their opinion about "honorable suicides": see also Seppuku and Kamikaze. For other comparable examples, see Martyrdom Culture. The Christians were seen as depraved and disgusting by Romans such as Tacitus in part because they would rather accept fates worse than death instead of committing suicide, which the Romans interpreted as almost obscene (as was the Christian willingness to be crucified or dismembered by wild animals, literally the two most dishonorable methods of death a Roman could conceive of). They were widely disdained and mocked for worshiping a crucified god because of this at first, as ancient graffiti attests to (eventually, some came to admire them for nobly facing a horrific death rather than give up their faith and convert in many cases, though it took a long time for this attitude to change).


A small number of actual criminals would rather die than be taken to prison ("You'll never take me alive, copper!") — for the most part, people tend to treat these cases a lot less sympathetically than other examples of this trope, as it's seen as a cowardly way to escape justice. The criminal may even make one last shot at a Blast Out, meaning either a bloody escape, or more likely, Suicide by Cop. If there's a ledge nearby, you can bank on a High-Dive Escape.

In a setting where Suicide Is Shameful, this trope shouldn't be glorified.

Compare I Die Free and Spiteful Suicide, which may overlap. Contrast Face Death with Dignity, Mercy Kill, I Cannot Self-Terminate. In video games and some other media, this could be considered a case of self-kill-stealing, especially to stop experience or a reward being gained by the kill. Has nothing to do with the fact that "People die if they are killed".

As a Death Trope, expect unmarked Spoilers ahead. Beware.

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Other examples:

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    Asian Animation 
  • In Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf: Joys of Seasons episode 65, the goats are all about to be eaten by Wolffy and Wolnie on Mr. Slowy's ark. Mr. Slowy decides to jump off the ark and into the water instead to avoid them, and the other goats follow suit thinking it's better to drown themselves than to be consumed. Thankfully, the Moving Lake that caused the flood persuading Slowy to build an ark in the first place goes away before they do drown, and they all turn out fine.

    Films — Animation 
  • Barbie & The Diamond Castle: In a Never Say "Die" version, Melody, the only one who knows the key to the Diamond Castle and who happens to be trapped in a mirror, shatters the mirror rather than let the castle fall into the villain's hands, in essence trapping herself in the mirror forever. She gets better.
  • In a subversion of the usual Disney Villain Death seen in other movies where the death tends to be accidental, the Lord Protector from Wolfwalkers, while being dangled precariously over a river with a bunch of spiky rocks at the bottom by the protagonist's father, chooses to loosen his breastplate armor and fall on his own accord rather than be thrown in.

  • In the Set It Off song Partners in Crime, the female half of a Bonnie and Clyde style couple claims in the chorus "They'll never take us alive". After the couple is gunned down in a shoot-out with the police and are bleeding out on the ground, she practically boasts to the cops who shot them that "you never took us alive." In the music video, they're so badly outgunned (all they have is a single snub-nose revolver between the two of them, while all of the police have at least their service pistol) that it borders on the Suicide by Cop variation.
  • "Waltzing Matilda", often considered Australia's unofficial national anthem, is about a "swagman" who steals a sheep. Lawmen subsequently catch up with him as he's setting up camp by a waterhole, and rather than be captured he jumps in and drowns.
  • In the Macabre song "The Sweet Tendor Meat Vendor" ends with the Meat Vendor killing himself to avoid being executed for his crimes.
  • In "Yankee and the Brave (ep 4)" by Run the Jewels, Killer Mike decides that this is his fate before El-P implores him to run instead.
    I got one round left, a hunnid cops outside
    I could shoot at 'em or put one between my eyes
    Chose the latter, it don't matter, it ain't suicide
    If if the news say it was, that's a goddamn lie
    I can't let the pigs kill me, I got too much pride
    And I meant it when I said it, never take me alive

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • Suicide is an acceptable end for disgraced officers of the Imperial Guard, as well as an acceptable option for individuals who are touched by the Warp.
    • Defied by Space Marines, who live to fight and are only content dying on the field of battle. The only time they'll consider playing this trope straight is if it involves strapping grenades to themselves and charging forward.
    • In an amusing subversion, the Imperial Infantryman's Uplifting Primer expressly orders Guardsmen to not commit suicide, at least without authorization and certainly not wasting valuable ammunition to do so without authorization. The penalty for attempting to commit suicide is death. The penalty of committing suicide without authorization is having your body incinerated and the ashes shot into space, and then sending the bill to your next of kin.
    • The IG also have a "For Their Own Good" rule that basically means that if a sanctioned psyker suffers a Perils of the Warp attack within range of a Commissar, they are immediately shot and killed.
    • It's also a much-preferred alternative to being taken alive by the Dark Eldar or the Emperor's Children.
    • Arguably the rationale behind Exterminatus — basically assisted suicide on a planetary scale. It is typically performed on worlds that have been, or are in danger of being, overwhelmed by Chaos, Tyranids, or Necrons; through this, the resources (human and otherwise) are kept from the enemy, and the people are spared further suffering.
  • One High Elf King in Warhammer Fantasy jumped overboard and drowned himself rather than be taken by Dark Elves when his ship was captured. Considering that Dark Elves make Chaos Warriors look benevolent this was probably justified.
  • In Exalted, there is a spell called Unconquerable Self - it burns the person casting it, their possessions, and any artifacts attuned to them to ash. It requires no words, gestures or components to cast, making it useful if one were taken prisoner, for example. It also directly sends your soul to Heaven, preventing any form of soul trapping or other mystical enslavement.
  • Every single Infernoid in the Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG share an effect that allows you to Tribute an Infernoid during either player's turn to some effect, mainly disrupting the Graveyard. This includes the effect's user himself, which means they can suicide at any time, dodging many nasty effects from your opponent.
  • In Werewolf: The Apocalypse, a Garou that gets Embraced by a Kindred gets a chance to make a none-too-difficult roll to die rather than be reborn as a creature of the night. Those that refuse, or fail anyway, become Hybrid Monsters called Abominations, and there are undesirable consequences both socially and metaphysically for them should they not redeem themselves by going out in a blaze of glory as soon as possible.

  • Several variations in the plays of William Shakespeare:
    • Discussed, but averted in Macbeth - "Why should I play the Roman fool, and die on mine own sword? Whiles I see lives, the gashes do better upon them."
    • Played straight in Antony and Cleopatra, where both title characters commit suicide to avoid humiliation and death after their armies are defeated.
    • Four times in Julius Caesar. The last one was done by Brutus, who ran himself upon a sword held by his comrade because Brutus' Stoic philosophy expressly forbade him to commit suicide but he could see no other way out.
    • Invoked by Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice, when Portia tells Shylock to "beg mercy of the Duke": "Beg that thou mayst have leave to hang thyself!"
  • Cesare - Il Creatore che ha distrutto — The traitor Draghignazzo knows that once he's been found out, he'll only be tortured, so he takes advantage of his own Poison Ring.
  • Puccini's Tosca. After killing the villain, the heroine is cornered by the villain's lackeys; she jumps off a high balcony to her death, rather than let the lackeys execute her.
  • Another Puccini example: Liu's death in Turandot. Rather than be tortured and possibly killed by Turandot's guards, she grabs one of their daggers and does herself in.
  • In Freud's Last Session Sigmund Freud tells C. S. Lewis that he plans to kill himself because he has a horrific case of oral cancer, forcing him to wear an ill-fitting prosthesis; the disease is causing him great pain and is slowly killing him.
  • In Tamburlaine: Agydas.
  • In Seneca's version of The Trojan Women, the child Astyanax jumps from the battlements of Troy before he can be thrown from them.

    Web Comics 
  • One Cyanide and Happiness comic has a prisoner about to be executed. He gets out of it by requesting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as his last meal due to his peanut allergies. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) this wouldn't fly in real life.
  • Goblins: During his fight against Kore, Forgath is grievously wounded and about to be killed by the cursed paladin, who at this point has lost his helmet and is revealed to be an Humanoid Abomination with the face of his previous victims embedded in his own. By now convinced that his very soul is in danger, Forgath choose instead to die by dropping from the very high bridge they were fighting on.
    Forgath: I'm willing to die, but you can't have my soul.
  • In The Order of the Stick, destroying the Gates — dimensional barriers keeping the Snarl from destroying all that exists — is actually regarded as a superior alternative to allowing them to fall into the hands of Xykon, but is only halfway this trope: the reasoning behind that if the gate is destroyed, the Snarl will not come out immediately and in full force and said gate can be rebuilt later. While if it is knowingly summoned through one of them, the end of the world will be imminent.
  • In issue 10 of Sonichu, Author Avatar Chris and his "band" the Hedgehog Boys (which are pretty much some of the various Sonichus around in his series) use a song to destroy the 4-cent Garbage building, two "villains" who are left behind, Clyde Cash and Jack Thaddeus, opt to leap down an elevator shaft holding hands (they were apparently lovers) than let Chris kill them. It was actually pretty touching.
  • Stand Still, Stay Silent:
    • One of the book salvaging spots, which is a barricaded room, contains a corpse in a Hazmat Suit holding a gun, with a small hole its visor.
    • Tuuri commits suicide when she finds out she has come down with the Rash.
  • Surviving Romance: Protagonist Chaerin occasionally makes use of this to immediately rectify some mistakes due to being stuck in a "Groundhog Day" Loop. The earliest example is when Jeha believes her to be a psychopath after killing the infected Seungwon and she casually jumps out of the window.


Video Example(s):


Local 58 - Contingency

On a late summer night in the 1970's, Local 58's sign-off routine is suddenly interrupted by a message from the U.S. Department for the Preservation of American Dignity. In the face of a conventional military invasion which will undoubtedly bring great suffering to America's people, a terrifying conclusion has been come to; civilians must 'ACT' to preserve America's dignity before the invaders can destroy it themselves...

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