A martyr (from Greek word mártys, "witness") is a person who is suffering (or has suffered) persecution for their beliefs, and has inspired other people through their behaviour. The most frequent assumption in popular culture, is that the martyr has died because of their belief in their cause.
It isn't a requirement to die, although the term "living witness" may be used instead of Martyr, in that case. Many times, the martyr's enemies will give them one last chance to refute their belief, just before killing them. If the martyr dies reasserting their belief, the crowd is often inspired by their death. If the martyr does refute their belief, the crowd's inspiration may be destroyed (which is why the enemy is trying this at all). If the crowd loses their inspiration, this is a subverted trope. If the crowd hears the martyr disown their beliefs, and still remains inspired by their example, it's a Double Subversion. And if the shadowy organization wants to turn a martyr against their cause into an asset, they can use propaganda to twist the martyr's belief into a post-mortem confession in their favor, though this may take anywhere between a week and a few centuries.
Compare As Long as There is One Man and You Cannot Kill An Idea (both are about how the cause will stay living), Martyrdom Culture (a culture that encourages meaningful deaths), Failure Gambit (the martyr may use one of those to invoke this trope), Doomed Moral Victor (which doesn't necessarily move people to the cause), Thanatos Gambit and My Death Is Just the Beginning (who intentionally dies to further a plan, but not necessarily involving a cause). Compare also The Paragon whose goal is the same (being an inspiration for people), but doesn't involve suffering (at least, not as much as this trope).
Contrast Martyr Without a Cause (when their "cause", while heroic, is rather trivial). Also contrast Heroic Sacrifice, which is any example of injury from a brave or heroic act. The Martyr may not have even been a hero themselves, but their death inspires others to become heroes.
Be wary of people who understand well the symbolism and effect of this trope — for those people, see Don't Create a Martyr.
Do note that while martyrs do not have to die (per its definition), they often do, so expect unmarked spoilers.
No Real Life Examples, Please! - the term has been linked to politics these days and we know what that entails.
- One Piece:
- When it's clear that their plans are about to fail, the higher ups of the New Fishman Pirates started slaughtering their own subordinates while invoking this trope; in their own words, "die and be left as a grudge (for fishmen's freedom)". Brook pointed out how nonsensical it is, then the Straw Hats kicked all their asses to just to show everyone how wrong they were.
- Straighter example in Gold Roger, the Pirate King, who used his death to become one of these. His final words are what inspired countless people to take on the life of a pirate in search for his lost treasures. Later Whitebeard in his death does the same.
- Dr. Hiriluk, from the Drum Arc. His willingness to die, relief that a possible disaster was only a trick intended to kill him, and his desire to heal his sick country inspire several characters, including Wapol's captain of the guard and the 20 M.D.s Wapol keeps in his service, to work for the betterment of the kingdom.
- Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann has to go over the top every time, and this is no exception. Kamina, Decoy Protagonist of the series, dies as his team is attempting to capture the Dai-Gurren. The morale is crushed, so Word of God is that he came Back from the Dead to inspire his team to continue fighting. His dream of all children being able to look up without fear is the dream that drives everyone to save humanity. After his death, flashbacks and Dead Person Conversation allow him to remain an inspiration to his team.
- In Nemesis the Warlock, Torquemada aims to become one when, his secretly alien body rapidly mutating, he commits suicide and orders the Terminators present to tell everyone he died battling Nemesis, thus ensuring the Termight Empire would rise to new heights of xenocide.
- From Astro City, the Silver Centurions are the greatest heroes of the forty-third century, with beings from over a hundred worlds all inspired by the works of the Silver Agent from The '70s.
- In V for Vendetta and its film adaptation, it's Valerie, the lesbian actress who's died from being experimented on before the action starts, but who slips a letter into V's cell in which she tells her story and urges whoever reads it not to give up their integrity in the face of torture and abuse.
- In Equestria: A History Revealed, it is hinted that the rebellious General Thunderhide may have purposefully set up his own death to seem suspicious to ensure his martyrdom, and to strengthen his legacy of the growing pegasi nationalism movement.
- Braveheart's main character, William Wallace, is used as a Martyr to the Scottish nobles. Throughout the movie, the common men of Scotland have been revolting against the English, but it isn't until Wallace's death at the climax that a Scottish noble decides to follow Wallace's example, and lead Scotland to freedom.
- The protagonist of the Nazi propaganda film Hitler Youth Quex: A Film about the Sacrifical Spirit of the German Youth (1933) is a teenager who opts to become a Hitler Youth rather than to join the communist youth organization. For this and for repeatedly foiling the communists' plots of sabotage and terroristic attacks on the Hitler Youth, Heini is harassed and threatened and finally stabbed to death by communists while distributing leaflets for the Nazi party. With his dying breath, he repeats "Unsere Fahne flattert uns voran!" ("Our flag flutters ahead of us!"), the refrain of the Hitler Youth marching song "Forward! Forward!" sung earlier in the movie. The film ends with the song being played while images of the marching Hitler Youth are seen, with the song's last line, fittingly "Die Fahne ist mehr als der Tod!" ("The flag means more than death!"), coinciding with a shot of the swastika flag. The film was claimed to be based on the real-life case of Herbert Norkus, a 15-year-old Berlin Hitler Youth who had been killed by communist streetfighters in 1932. It, being a propaganda, challenges the audience to follow on his footsteps.
- During a timeout during the Ultimate Game in Space Jam, Michael Jordan raises the stakes involved: if the Monstars win, Moron Mountain gets Michael Jordan; if the Toon Squad wins, the NBA players get their talents back. Once the Toon Squad becomes victorious, Michael asks the loaded question, "Why do you take it from this guy?" referring to the Monstars' ruthless boss Swackhammer. Inspired by Jordan's daring gambit, the Monstars turn on their boss and exile him to the moon.
- 300: Rise of an Empire: Leonidas' heroic death at the Battle of Thermophylae in the first movie is exploited by Themistocles to try to unite Greece against Persia.
- In Spartacus, the slave Draba defeats Spartacus in a duel and is ordered to execute him by his masters; disgusted, he refuses the order and attacks them instead, getting instantly killed for his act of defiance. His body is then hung up in the slave quarters to serve as a warning against rebellion... where it has the exact opposite effect.
- In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the destruction of Alderaan was followed by an upwelling of support for the Rebellion.
- Amazing Grace and Chuck: The film's villain has Amazing killed in a plane crash, but rather than intimidating them into ending their anti-nuclear movement as he'd hoped, it instead inspires them to kick it up a notch with a protest of silence that spreads among children across the globe.
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: Superman's death at the end of the film proves his worth as humanity's savior. His sacrifice also motivates Batman to form the Justice League.
- The Avengers (2012): S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson's brutal murder by Loki moves the superheroes to finally come together as a real team, as well as giving new meaning to their codename.
- Deewaar: One of the dockworkers who's new on the job refuses to pay the racketeers, since he needs the money to send to his family. When he gets in a fight with a racketeer and ends up accidentally getting run over and killed, Vijay decides to start fighting back against the racketeers.
- Mistborn: The Original Trilogy has Kelsier, who deliberately invokes this trope by knowing that he is too weak to defeat The Lord Ruler directly, wishing instead for his sacrifice to inspire the Skaa Rebellion to continue despite deaths. The Lord Ruler is eventually defeated by Kelsier's handpicked successor.
- In The Hunger Games, after the death of Rue, Katniss makes a large show of honoring her to the cameras. This is the spark that ignites the rebellions that begin to spring up around Panem.
- Katniss eventually decides on this fate for herself, as her PTSD gets worse. The Mockingjay is most effective as a symbol, while Peeta is the one with the skills to play to camera and inspire the rebellion. Katniss thinks it'll be simpler for everyone if she dies as a martyr rather than lives as a psychologically damaged tribute.
- In Wraith Squadron, the backstory of ex-child actor Garik "Face" Loran features several films that are thinly-disguised pro-Empire propaganda, including one entitled Win or Die where he embraces the Imperial cause, over the objections of his stodgy, Republican parents, who eventually end up shooting him. In a stunning fit of patriotic Glurge, he dies in the Emperor's arms, wishing he would take over the galaxy already. Apparently, recruitment for the Imperial Navy went up 5% when it was released. The modern-day New Republic fighter pilot is not proud.
- Towards the end of the first Arcia Chronicles, Lupe's worthless husband and wannabe poet Rodolph Gleo gets drunk and recites a short poem in public, calling his fellow Tayanans to resist the ongoing Tarskian occupation. He is promptly shot by a Tarskian informant but his Famous Last Words ("They shoot because they're scared... can't shoot us all... Fight them!") spurs on a riot that quickly spreads throughout the country and eventually lifts the occupation.
- In Clocks that Don't Tick, William kills the Lady of Pestilence in order to make her a martyr. It works quite well.
- The Dune series plays a lot with the themes of heroes, messiahs and martyrs.
- Paul's walk into the desert in Dune Messiah is an example and is fully exploited by his priesthood through Children of Dune
- In the Legends of Dune prequels by Brian Herbert, the death of Serena Butler's infant son at the manipulators of the robot Erasmus set off the Butlerian Jihad. Later Serena was set up to become a martyr herself by the Jihad's leaders. Later, Iblis Ginjo (the one who set up Serena's "martyrdom") ends up being raised to this status alongside Serena and her son after Xavier Harkonnen pilots the ship they're on into a star, after finding out that Iblis has been endorsing the Tlulaxa "organ farms". Unfortunately, the Harkonnen name ends up being tarnished as a result, even though he's the real hero of that story.
- The Dune Encyclopedia offers a differing, though similar, explanation of a forced abortion of Jehanne Butler's unborn daughter Sarah, who would have borne the Kwisatz Haderach. It is at that point that some humans feel that the machines have too much control. The Jihad in this instance wasn't a Robot War but a religious movement against the use of machines.
- In the Great Schools of Dune trilogy (taking place about 80 years after Legends of Dune), Rayna Butler, the leader of the Butlerian movement, ends up being killed by a pro-technology protester. This elevates her to martyrdom among the Butlerian fanatics, and her successor Manford Torondo only fuels that fire, using the countless throngs to intimidate the weak Emperor Salvador.
- The captain of the Japanese submarine I-53 is this is The Great Pacific War. He pulls off a successful torpedo attack against US ships off navigating the Straits of Magellan off the coast of Chile, but is later interned by the Chilean government and commits seppuku for this dishonor. His attack had already made him a hero back home, but the suicide raised him from "hero" to "heroic martyr figure".
- In the German novel The Method by Juli Zeh, the antagonists went out of their way to keep the heroine alive specifically to avert this.
- Warhammer 40,000:
- A variation: Living Saints are Sisters of Battle who are martyred by the various enemies of the Imperium, their images and backstories used to boost morale. Unlike most examples, they come back—as glowing-eyed, angel-winged incarnations of His wrath with six-foot flaming broadswords.
- A Confessor named Dolan spoke against the Cardinal Bucharis, who was committing heresies against the Imperium and creating his own empire by conquering worlds to his rule. Bucharis hoped that executing him would discourage any rebellion, instead the people under the Cardinal rose up against the Cardinal. Million of unarmed citizens mobbed the Cardinals armed guards, and they cornered him and tore him to shreds with their bare hands.
- Subverted with Cardinal Salem of Saint Caspelan. The Tyranid Hive Mind knew that killing the Cardinal would create a martyr and make the planet oppose greater resistance, so it sent a lictor to break down morale by jumping out of shadows, messily killing his bodyguards and escaping. The unfortunate Cardinal went mad in over a week, and the effect on planetwide morale made the planet an easy target.
- Warhammer: A young boy was found in the Empire believed to be the reincarnation of Sigmar, The Empire's deified founder. As the boy was brought to the capital, where it was believed the current Emperor Karl Franz would step down from the throne, he was found murdered with a Skaven dagger.
- In Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Raul Menendez becomes one in any ending where David Mason kills him. His death causes the ending to include a post-mortem posting of a YouTube video, which inspires supporters of "Cordis Die" to revolt all around the world.
- "The Martyr" is one of the three predefined world templates in Dragon Age II, which you can select if you don't import a Dragon Age: Origins save: it depicts the Warden (Player Character of DAO) as a young, idealistic Dalish Elf girl who fought for justice and ultimately gave her life to defeat the Archdemon (Dalish Elves being pretty much the most downtrodden minority in Thedas). It has since been confirmed to be the "BioWare canon" Warden for their Extended Universe works, and is used for the default canon for Dragon Age: Inquisition (if you don't import a save).
- In Dragon Age II, Anders intends to become this in the endgame for the Mage rebellion. Hawke can oblige this wish, have him live to support the rebellion, or even convince him to support the Templars in an attempt to redeem himself for the chaos he caused.
- The Matrix: Path of Neo averts this trope by diverting from the movie's events in favor of a more action-packed finale.
Lilly Wachowski: ...at this point, it's Martyr time. Now that may work in a movie, but in a video game, the Jesus thing is, well...Lana Wachowski: Lame.Lilly Wachowski: Really lame.
- Bioshock Infinite: In an alternate universe, Booker DeWitt has (posthumously) become an icon of the Vox Populi. When he apparently shows up again, alive and well, he is not welcomed as a hero, but relentlessly pursued as a supposed imposter because he's more valuable as a martyr.
- The Influence path to victory in Republic: The Revolution requires arranging one of your inner circle members to be murdered by The Government, then turning them into a martyr to rally your supporters in a bid for power.
- Joan of Arc Age of Empires II in her campaign, she is captured and burned by the English. Despite her death the French continued their war in memory of Joan, they soon won the war in the end.
- This backfires rather badly on the Confederacy in the backstory to Starcraft. When a popular senator on one of their core worlds, Angus Mengsk, started stirring up trouble, they sent in assassins to silence him in a dramatic fashion (killing him, his wife, and their daughter, and then cutting his head off and taking it with them), hoping to cow the resistance into submission. Instead, the world entered open revolt. The Confederacy doubled down, nuking the entire planet with orbital missiles. This, in turn, inspired Angus's son, Arcturus Mengsk, to create his own rebellion, called the Sons of Korhal. These rebels were eventually able to take down the Confederacy.
- Mengsk himself proves somewhat wiser, slandering the rebels that beset his regime and opposing them militarily but avoiding assassins. While he would love to kill Raynor and the others, he knows he has to do it in a way that makes Raynor out to be the villain.
- By the time of the Mega Man Zero series, humans have grown tired of the seemingly endless Robot War that ravaged their world, that most of them wanted nothing more to do with Reploids anymore. However, it was Zero's actions (most especially his Heroic Sacrifice, saving a human colony from a Colony Drop) that opened the way for the humans to accept Reploids again, and culminated in a peaceful era that lasted at least two centuries.
- Emmeryn becomes one in Fire Emblem Awakening - she sacrifices herself not only to spare Chrom from making a Sadistic Choice but also to show the people of Plegia that there is a better way to live than in a neverending cycle of war. And it works- soon after her Final Speech, many Plegian soldiers desert the army, having lost their will to fight.
- Invoked in Volume 5 of RWBY. After killing Sienna Khan in a coup, Adam orders his men to fabricate a story that she was killed by a human Huntsman to radicalize the White Fang so that they support his more violent ways.
- Tiny kitten Edmund dares to confront the towering, powerful villain The Grand Duke in Don Bluth's Rock-A-Doodle by chanting the hero's name repeatedly. The Duke swats Edmund down hard, to the point where it's uncertain if Edmund survived. Nonetheless, the dog Patou begins to take up the chant, as do most of the other small animals. Their collective chanting of his name causes Chanticleer to realize that he must have the power to raise the sun, defeat the Duke and dispel the gloom.
- Defied by Amon The Legend of Korra as he knew that debending the Avatar too soon before his following had grown strong enough would rally every bender in the world against him.
- Ironically, Amon himself could've been one after he was defeated by Korra and knocked into the bay, if not for over-the-top use of his hidden bending.