When someone dies fighting for a cause they believe in, it can create a powerful symbol for others to rally around. The character's message may not have been all that effective while alive, but once their enemies kill them, others take notice of their example and agree with them, and begin to rise up. In works of fiction, some characters are aware of this and take efforts to avoid it.
This trope is whenever someone could kill their enemy, and perhaps does, but it is addressed that their death could make them a martyr for their cause and prompt even more people to rise up to follow their legacy than rose up to follow them in life. Regardless of if the character actually dies or not, the story treats this as the truth — if they die (or at least, die before their enemies can discredit them), their enemies will have it even worse from those that take up the cause in their name.
Compare Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?, which this trope may be the answer to. See also Nice Job Breaking It, Hero! and Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!, which may overlap with this trope if the character does die and become a martyr, and Pragmatic Villainy, which this trope is likely to be an instance of.
- In the Fall 1152 storyline of Mouse Guard, this is the reason why the traitor Midnight is not killed or executed. As the Guard realizes that his death would make him a martyr, he's banished instead.
- Batman: The Cult: Batman faces the immortal (via regular Blood Bath) cult leader Deacon Blackfire. Blackfire faces him in a ring of his followers, and actually wants Batman to kill him in front of them to invoke this trope. Batman realizes this and instead breaks his pedestal in front of all of them by hitting him in nerve clusters for maximum pain until Blackfire can't handle it anymore. Seeing their messiah as just a man, his cult kills him.
- When Negan, leader of the Saviors, is introduced in The Walking Dead's 100th issue, he lists off various reasons on why he can't just choose one person to execute with Lucille. For Rick, who is the leader of Alexandria, the group that had been butchering Saviors left and right, it's because of this trope. After all, the Saviors operate on dominating their opponents, not murdering them all.
- A New Hope: Grand Moff Tarkin accidentally falls victim to this trope when he demonstrates the Death Star's ability to be a roving Kill Sat on Alderaan, hoping that other systems hoping to join the Rebel Alliance would think twice afterwards. The exact opposite happens; not only did the destruction of Alderaan hasten the defection of those who were already considering doing so, but a whole swath of otherwise neutral systems joined up en masse.
- Undercover Brother. Mr. Feather and "The Man" are discussing General Boutwell (who is black) and his possible run for the Presidency of the U.S.
The Man: Now Boutwell might be President?!... I want the White House to stay white. Eliminate him!Mr. Feather: But, sir, if we kill him, we'll only be making him a hero.
- Inverted in Monty Python's Life of Brian: the People's Front of Judea could have rescued Brian from dying on the cross, but they decide to make him a martyr instead. He doesn't take it well.
- In Batman Returns, when Catwoman and Penguin have their team-up, Catwoman shoots down Penguin's initial suggestion of turning the Batmobile into "an H-Bomb on wheels" by pointing out that Batman would have even more power as a martyr, and that the best way to destroy him is to destroy his reputation.
- Explained to the Cigarette Smoking Man in The X-Files: Fight the Future to explain why Agent Mulder is not just shot by the Government Conspiracy. As long as he's alive, he's just seen as a crazy FBI agent Reassigned to Antarctica. If he dies (especially in a "mysterious" fashion, as the Cigarette Smoking Man is wont to do), he'll become a martyr to the Conspiracy Theorist circle, which could give them some problems down the road.
- In the live action Masters of the Universe movie, Skeletor gives this as his reason for not outright killing He-Man immediately (though it's obvious there's ego involved, too).
Evil-Lyn: The people wait for He-Man. They believe he will return to lead them. For you to rule completely he must be destroyed.
Skeletor: If I kill him, I make him a martyr, a saint. No, I want him broken first!
- Gladiator: This trope is the reason why Commodus doesn't just kill Maximus after the latter is revealed to be still alive. The whole point of Commodus's Bread and Circuses act is to keep the people of Rome from realizing how bad a ruler he actually is. Maximus openly defies Commodus, but at the same time, he's so popular among the people that killing him would make Commodus in turn unpopular.
Commodus: And now they love Maximus for his mercy. So I can't just kill him, or it makes me even more unmerciful! The whole thing's like some crazed nightmare.
Falco: He is defying you. His every victory is an act of defiance. The mob sees this, and so does the senate. Every day he lives, they grow bolder. Kill him.
Commodus: No. I will not make a martyr of him.
- In X-Men: Days of Future Past, the plot is driven by the need to stop Mystique from killing Bolivar Trask, creator of the Sentinel program, because his death at the hands of a mutant will only drive others to finish his work. In addition, since Mystique is captured when she does it, they are able to adapt her mutation to give the Sentinels Adaptive Ability, which made them unstoppable.
- The reason why Ramses exiled Moses in The Ten Commandments.
- HYDRA's S.H.I.E.L.D. mole agents are a Slave to PR for this reason when they manage to capture Captain America and his cohorts in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Brock Rumlow tells one of his agents to stand down when he's about to execute Captain America in broad daylight because they know if they're seen doing the deed by anyone, it'll expose them and turn Steve into a martyr.
- Nodded to in Avengers: Age of Ultron. When Quicksilver complains that Ultron and Wanda aren't being direct about the Avengers, Ultron rhetorically asks if he wants to make them martyrs.
- Tango & Cash: The reason why Perret manages to convince the other criminal leaders that his plan to set up the titular pair of Cowboy Cops is the best (even if they complain about how complicated it is, and instead of just tossing as many assassins as it takes to kill them) is that if they just up and die, while they are still respected by the public and the LAPD as hero cops, the response will be an increase of difficulty in their criminal enterprises courtesy of crusading cops—but if they are disgraced as a set-up for the kill...
- Hercules (2014): King Eurystheus says if he killed Hercules right away, the people would have revolted since Hercules is revered as a hero. So he aimed to ruin his reputation by framing him for the death of his family before trying to kill him.
- This is why Achimas, one of the world's top Professional Killers, is contracted to assassinate General Sobolev in The Death of Achilles. Sobolev was preparing a military coup in Russia, so his enemies required him dead and his death to be a shameful one, because otherwise his aides would have turned him into a martyr and carried out his plans even without him.
- Katniss in The Hunger Games becomes this trope for her selfless and pacifistic behavior in the games, instead of killing her opponents like is expected, but with the unrest she causes, killing her would just make tensions worse. The Film of the Book even directly has Haymitch warn Seneca "Don't kill her. You'll only make a martyr of her."
- In George R. R. Martin's early short story "And Death His Legacy" (collected in Dream Songs) the protagonist assassinates a right-wing demagogue during one of his sermons, which inspires his already fanatical followers to continue his work and the movement grows. "My God, What Have I Done?."
- And in The Mystery Knight, a Blackfyre usurper is allowed to live for this reason, though also because if they cut off his head, the next-in-line of succession will take over the role. This way the current Blackfyre is their hostage, hampering any future attempts by the Blackfyre rebels to take the Iron Throne.
- Isaac Asimov's "In a Good Cause": Altmayer is arrested for attempting to kill the alien ambassadors from Diaboli (he hoped to unite the human factions through an Enemy Mine situation), he asks whether he's going to be shot without a trial. Instead, he's told that he'll only get a few years... they don't need a martyr. But all of his immediate co-conspiritors will be shot, creating the impression of him being a state witness.
- From Russia with Love. James Bond is aware that the Soviets are plotting something, but doesn't think they're planning murder because they could just assassinate him. Turns out they are planning to kill him, but in a way that will create a public scandal. In this case the scandal is the object though, rather than Bond's death. Bond is a nuisance, but the real object is to discredit British Intelligence.
- The Stormlight Archive:
- The Way of Kings: Discussed. Kaladin organizes the bridgemen, turning them from slaves waiting to die into real, professional soldiers. Gaz promises to assassinate him, but his superior says that is a terrible idea, as it will just turn Kaladin into a martyr. Bridgemen have the most dangerous job in the army, so it's better to just let him die on the field. Of course, they are both unaware that Kaladin has magical powers that haven't been seen in centuries, and thus is extremely unlikely to fall to something as minor as arrows.
- Words of Radiance: Sadeas knows better than to assassinate Dalinar; even though Dalinar's reputation is at an ebb, he is still a respected general and leader. Killing him out of the blue would just make people flock to the ideals he's been espousing, which Sadeas hates. Instead, his wife's spies find the written records of Dalinar's visions and release them to the public (edited slightly to seem more ridiculous). Then he tries to assassinate Dalinar, since no one will care if a madman dies. This backfires when Dalinar survives the assassination, wins the war, and proves everything he's been saying is true. Sadeas still plans to politically undermine him, however. He makes the mistake of telling Dalinar's son, Adolin, this while they're alone. Adolin snaps and kills him.
- In Legends of Dune, Serena Butler travels to a machine planet, ostensibly in order to negotiate peace with Omnius, with only her loyal bodyguard for protection. However, she does her best to try to get the machines to kill her, specifically to cause this outcome and rally humanity behind her death, just like it happened before, when Erasmus killed her infant son. However, Omnius is no idiot and keeps his machines at bay. Unbeknownst to Serena, her bodyguard is actually loyal to Iblis Ginjo and has secret orders to kill Serena in order to turn her into a martyr. The bodyguard snaps Serena's neck with a well-placed kick before being gunned down by the robots, thus ensuring that the Army of Humanity has another martyr.
- The Party in Nineteen Eighty Four don't simply kill people guilty of Thoughtcrime for this reason, instead subjecting them to Mind Rape to rid their brains of heretical thoughts. Then they kill them.
- As part of his lessons on effective propaganda as he leads his insurrection in Victoria, John Rumford emphasizes that martyring enemies is extremely bad optics. If someone must be executed, it should be done in such a way that he gets no chance to become one: either by vilifying or humiliating him as appropriate so no one will sympathize with him, or else just merely having him disappear quietly, without attribution. Also, less ruthlessly, he does prefer a convert to a victim, and pardons several enemies who are genuinely contrite and willing to switch sides.
- In The Wheel of Time, the Aes Sedai Magical Society deals with leaders who have to be deposed by permanently de-powering them and putting them to low, menial work. People might be inspired by the memory of someone who's been executed or work to free someone who's imprisoned or exiled, but nobody rallies behind a scullery maid, no matter who they used to be.
- In Abbadons Gate, Clarissa Mao would have simply try to kill Jim Holden for getting her father imprisoned, but realized this would turn him into a martyr in many peoples' eyes, so as Melba Koh she devised a ploy to plant bombs on spaceships that would concentrate around recently created alien artifact and make Holden's spaceship transmit a faked recording in which he claims the artifact for the Outer Planets Alliance and will destroy anyone who gets close to it, casting villainous intent on his previous exploits.
- Altered Carbon: Takeshi Kovacs is the last surviving member of Quellcrist Falconer's Envoys who fought a rebellion over 250 years ago against the United Nations Protectorate Forces. In season 2, he is back on Harlan's World, the place Quellcrist based her operations and is still home to rebels fighting the government's forces. When Kovacs is captured at the site of a slaughter of rich and influential people, he is sentenced to public execution. Once the officer who captures him realizes who Kovacs is, he strenuously advises they forgo the public one and just quietly shoot Kovacs in the stack. Rather than lose face for stopping the public execution, the governor goes through with it. Her actions end up with Takeshi not only alive, but reveal that Quellcrist is alive when she comes to rescue him. The entire planet witnesses this before a mole cuts power to the prison, allowing both Quellcrist and Kovacs to escape.
- At the end of the Stargate SG-1 episode "Icon", Rand Protectorate loyalist leader Jared Kane guns down the religious extremist leader Soren. Daniel Jackson tells him he may have just created a martyr.
- In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Angel 1", the ruler of a matriarchal society sentences a male former member of the Federation named Ramsey and two accomplices to death for revolutionary activities. The crew of the Enterprise can do nothing to help them as far as legalities are concerned (a rare case where they abide by the Prime Directive), but Riker advises Mistress Beata of the possible consequences, saying her actions are trying to hold back evolution, which can't be done, and warns her that she'll make a martyr out of Ramsey. At the last minute, Beata relents, and simply chooses to have Ramsey exiled.
- In Season 8 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Harmony has become an international celebrity who's making Buffy and the Slayer Organization's lives miserable, making vampires seem like misunderstood good guys and the slayers look like Nazis for unfairly hunting them. Still, Buffy orders her troops to let her live, for this very purpose.
- More than once in the course of Babylon 5, Sheridan is targeted for actions that try to turn or discredit him rather than kill him, for exactly this reason.
- The Syndicate in The X-Files lets Mulder repeatedly get away with poking his nose into their various ventures because Mulder has a reputation in the world-wide community of conspiracy nutters and killing him would just serve as a message to everyone that he was digging in the right direction. By letting him live, the conspirators are basically Keeping the Enemy Close, preferring one they already know to the hundreds to thousands that would replace him if something happened to him.
- Tyrant: This concern is why Jamal, the new dictator of Abbudin after his father's death, is so careful about dealing with liberal protestors in the capital's public square. He knows full well that using violence to crack down on political dissenters will simply rally more people to their cause.
- Game of Thrones Has Roose Bolton use this against Ramsay's suggestion of killing Jon Snow because of a potential claim on the North. After all, killing the Lord Commander of an extremely well known and politically neutral organization over a tenuous claim that's against his vows anyway may not be the best way to pacify an already very pissed off North. Of course, that doesn't stop Ramsay from trying it anyway. Twice. And guess who was right? Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!.
- In Flash Gordon, Ming has captured Barin, the leader of one of the cantons on Mongo, and plans to execute him publicly for defiance. Knowing that Ming heeds the prophecies spoken by a fringe cult on Mongo, Flash and his friends infiltrate the cult, knock out the real members, disguise themselves, and fake the ritual (involving a cult member being stung by a scorpion-like creature, mumbling something that sounds like gibberish before expiring, and another member translating it). The chosen message is vague, but Ming immediately realizes that it warns him that, by killing Barin, he would be creating a martyr for the other cantons to rally behind. Instead, he opts to keep Barin imprisoned until he can find another solution. Interestingly, his Dragon turns out to be a secret member of the cult and is aware that the "prophecy" is fake. However, he is secretly working to bring Ming down.
- Michael Burnham warns Captain Georgiou that would happen on Star Trek: Discovery if T'Kuvma is killed. Instead, she suggests capturing him; a dead T'Kuvma is a martyr for the Klingons, while an imprisoned one is discredited and dishonoured. Ironically, Burnham is the one to cause the problem in the end when she kills T'Kuvma in anger after he kills Georgiou.
- This sets off the plot of Blake's 7. Roj Blake was a Rebel Leader who was captured, brainwashed into denouncing his own revolution, then had his memories erased. A resurgent rebel group tries to awaken his memories so he can be a figurehead, only to be massacred and Blake captured again. But this time the brainwashing doesn't hold, so the Terran Federation decide to frame Blake as a child molester and deport him to a penal planet. This tactic of ruthlessly massacring rebels while keeping their leader alive is later shown to be a standard tactic of the Federation.
- In Season 4 of Supergirl (2015), Agent Liberty warns Mercy Graves not to kill Supergirl, when she shows him she has kryptonite, since that would create a martyr and undermine their efforts to spread anti-alien sentiment.
- The theme of Hero by Heather Dale.
You think that when I'm up upon
That pike you'll win
They'll say that I was fighting
For the spirit of the law
What will they say about you
When I'm gone?
- Warhammer 40,000: Averted in the background for the Deathleaper, a Tyranid special unit. It had already infiltrated the world of St. Caspalen, and knew that killing its leader, Cardinal Salem, would make him a martyr to the Imperials, stiffening their resolve. So it continually attacked the Cardinal's bodyguard, brutally slaughtering them but leaving him untouched, until the man finally snapped and committed suicide. Left leaderless, the planet was an easy win for the Hive Fleet.
- Discussed in Starcraft II. Raynor tells Tosh that Arcturus Mengsk chooses to marginalize him with the media and paint him as a fanatical terrorist because he knows just killing Raynor will make him a martyr for rebellious sentiment. Tosh agrees, but points out that if Raynor causes enough trouble/becomes a big enough threat Mengsk will risk it and simply kill Raynor.
- In StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops, Valerian uses this to stop Nova from assassinating General Davis.
- In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Tulius lampshades this when the Civil War questline is completed for the Imperials, that by killing Ulfric they may have just created a martyr for rebellion against the Empire and the worship of Talos.
- In Fallout: New Vegas, Mr. House discusses this with regards to NCR's President Kimball. Kimball's seven-year stalemate, militarily against Caesar's Legion and and politically against House in the Mojave has ruined his public image, so when House takes over the Mojave and ousts both the NCR and the Legion from the region, Kimball will take the blame from NCR's people. But if Caesar's assassins kill Kimball, he'll become a martyr for the Mojave once House takes over the region, which is why House wants him kept alive so when he takes over, he can negotiate peace with NCR.
- In Legacy of Kain, Kain accidentally falls victim to this trope in the first game. To prevent a tyrannous king called The Nemesis from taking over Nosgoth, he travels back in time to kill him as a young boy, William the Just. However, Moebius the Timestreamer uses the death of a young and beloved king to galvanize the humans of Nosgoth into exterminating the vampires, and when Kain returns to the present, he finds his race almost extinct thanks to Moebius's crusade.
- In one of the alternate timelines Booker and Elizabeth visit in BioShock Infinite, the alternate Booker never found Liz but instead joined Vox Populi, died fighting, and was posthumously turned into a martyr by the Vox Populi leaders. Moreover, when Booker Prime suddenly appears and everyone thinks he is Back from the Dead, said leaders actively try to off him again, because he is more useful to them dead than alive.
- In Batman: Arkham Knight, this is why Scarecrow does not want to kill Batman right out of the gate. Killing him as he currently is would only solidify his status as a symbol of hope to people, whereas breaking him and holding him up for all the world to see before killing him would turn him into just another man and destroy that legendary status. This leads to friction between Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight, who doesn't care what Batman's legacy will be after he's gone, he just wants him dead.
- Regime Superman in Injustice: Gods Among Us accidentally makes Lex Luthor a martyr after killing him for his betrayal, which causes the populous to question if Superman has gone off the deep end for good. Superman learns his lesson in Injustice 2 in his story mode ending where he doesn't kill Batman knowing that people would turn against him. Superman decides to make Batman Brainwashed and Crazy to serve under him.
- In Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, the Emperor and Vader end up accidentally doing that by killing Starkiller, while he's covering the escape of the future La Résistance leaders. The Emperor instantly realizes their mistake and orders Vader to relentlessly root out the rebellion, lest this mistake doom them both. The rebels end up adopting Starkiller's family crest as their symbol.
- Mass Effect: Andromeda: The end of Jaal's Loyalty Mission invokes this one. Aksul, leader of the fanatically anti-alien Roekaar, is holding Jaal at gunpoint, and Ryder is holding him at gunpoint. Aksul tries to goad them into shooting him in front of his followers. If Ryder does shoot him, Jaal is horrified, and the angaran leaders scold Ryder for making Aksul into a martyr, noting it'll make the political situation worse. Note that the leader of the resistance doesn't object to the death, just the means by which it was done.
- RWBY: In "Necessary Sacrifice," Adam, obsessed with destroying everything Blake loves to spite her for leaving him, orders his men, the Albain brothers, to assassinate Blake's parents. While the Albains believe this will Make an Example of Them by showing the people of Menagerie what happens to those who question the White Fang, they don't dismiss the possibility that doing so will create martyrs; Blake's parents are the beloved leaders of Menagerie, and they fear it could rally Menagerie against the White Fang. In "True Colors," while the assassination attempt fails, the fact that they attacked Blake's parents in the first place is enough to turn all of Menagerie against the White Fang.
- Anti Bunny: Nailbat. The mayor's robot has Nailbat broken and defeated... only for the mayor to order the robot to take him alive. The robot questions this until the mayor explains that new Nailbats can be created out of ordinary citizens who witness a martyr. The robot can kill Mors... but to kill Nailbat, he has to arrest him and have him judged by court and paraded by media, until no one wants to be Nailbat anymore.
- A twisted version of this is the end of Tarquin's story in The Order of the Stick. Tarquin, an absolute slave to the idea of Genre Savvy, knows that the only good story is one that ends with the villain defeated in a grand final battle, making them immortal. Elan defeats him, and then drops him on a rock in a desert, refusing to kill him - and thus ruining the story. Instead of a grand death at the hands of a hero, Tarquin is a bad joke, a pathetic loser defeated and left to wallow in his own pity.
- In The Legend of Korra, Amon only takes bending abilities from criminals and jerkasses before taking over the city for this reason. When Korra challenges him to a duel and he ambushes her with a group of chi-blockers and has her at his mercy, he actually tells Korra that taking her powers at this point would only make her a martyr, so he lets her go unharmed (albeit terrified).
- Action Man (2000): There was a peace conference/athletic competition that two high-ranking officials and their families were attending. Dr. X's mercenary drugs the officials with knockout gas, but asks him why he isn't killing them instead of just broadcasting fake news footage of a reporter saying they appear to have died. His answer is that he wants to create confusion and fear, not martyrs to a peace process.
- Iron Man: Armored Adventures: When Magneto tries to kill Senator Kelly, he won't do it in a way that makes it clear to everyone that Kelly was killed by a mutant because it'd turn Kelly into a martyr for other mutant haters to rally around.
- Jesus is probably the Trope Codifier of arguments for this. The Romans crucified a popular, charismatic, and inspirational outcast preacher (the single most humiliating version of the death penalty in their laws, to boot) in a tiny backwater occupied province. In doing so they established the cornerstone of a religion that made it to the heart of the capital within the generation of Christ's death and would conquer the Roman Empire. Though the teaching of Christianity is that this was invoked: the reason The Christ was brought to the Earth was to redeem mankind's sins and show the way by dying in martyrdom.
- Most historians believe that Abraham Lincoln's assassination was the worst mistake pro-Confederacy John Wilkes Booth could have ever made, not only because it ruined any chance of a peaceful reconstruction, but because it made Lincoln a martyr to his cause.
- One thing the conspirators didn't seem to factor in after assassinating Julius Caesar was that the guy was incredibly popular, and that no amount of slander or smear campaigns could change the fact that Caesar's pro-plebian laws were incredibly benign and appealed to the average Roman. As a result, his assassination allowed Marc Antony and Octavian to spark another civil war, this time over whether or not the conspirators will be punished for their actions.
- When Erwin Rommel began conspiring against Adolf Hitler near the end of World War II, he stated to his rebel group that he was against the plots to assassinate Hitler because that would make him a martyr. He instead pitched the idea of arresting him and putting him on trial.
- One of the tenets of Neo-Liberalism is that society shall not try and persecute anyone no matter what twisted beliefs they hold. The practical side of this mindset is that fringe movements tend to cry themselves out because they have no martyrs and few slights to rally behind.
- A common argument against the death penalty. Punishing heinous crimes, particularly ones motivated by anti-social political ideologies, with a public (or well-publicized) execution can be the kind of herostratic fame and validation the perpetrator was after in the first place, possibly inspiring other mentally unbalanced individuals to go out and commit equal or even greater crimes. Leaving the perpetrator to a long life, rotting in jail, where they and their crimes will die forgotten is arguably a Cruel Mercy that denies them what they want.
- During The French Revolution, Charlotte Corday assassinated Jean-Paul Marat, a member of the radical Jacobin faction that had a leading role in the Reign of Terror, hoping his death would stop the killings and bring peace. After she was caught and executed for the deed, killing him had the opposite effect; the Jacobins treated Jean-Paul as a martyr and the killings intensified.
- In May of 1431, the English illegally rigged Joan of Arc's trial to ensure she was executed, as she had already cost the English dearly, lifting the siege of Orleans, destroying their army in the battle of Patay, and coronating the Dauphin as Charles VII of France. However, executing the woman who had saved all of France in a clearly rigged trial merely wound up turning what had ordinarily been a war of succession into a war of liberation against a foreign occupier. The French peasantry flocked to the banner, Charles VII repeatedly tried to get Joan acquitted, and the English would ultimately suffer shocking disaster after disaster. Historians widely agree that executing Joan was the worst mistake the English made.