A character, oftentimes in dire need of something, receives help from another character and becomes so inspired by this kindness, they resolve to be helpful to other people. The helpee might be a side character whom The Protagonist (or another character) helps or the hero of the story whom another character helps — in fact, it's often how a hero and/or a Future Badass came to be. A villain who gets saved or otherwise helped may turn face and strive to be a better person, frequently by trying to atone for his sins. Or maybe it simply helped them to realize that Good Feels Good.
The Paragon often tries to invoke this trope by being kind to people so they in turn will be kind to others. This works in a similar but different way to The Golden Rule: rather than you treating people the way you want to be treated, you treat people the way you have been treated. Also, Ascended Fanboy is related to this: it is when they are inspired by their idol to be good to people, without necessarily them being saved by said idol (although they often overlap: the guy in distress who gets helped may then idolize said helper and be inspired to help other people in need, leading to The Knights Who Say "Squee!").
Related tropes include:
- Adopt the Dog (when showing some kindness turns you from a normal guy to a sympathetic/likable one)
- Androcles' Lion and Character Witness (when the helpee specifically helps the helper back later)
- Because You Were Nice to Me (a character becomes attached to someone because that someone, well, was nice to them)
- Contagious Heroism (when someone's heroic motives and spirit rub off on their surroundings)
- Laser-Guided Karma (which is both positive and negative).
- Morality Chain (a character is held back from turning bad because of someone they care for/who treats them well).
- Now, Let Me Carry You (when it involves The Caretaker).
Following in Their Rescuer's Footsteps is a subtrope.
- JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: After being shown mercy by Jonathan, Robert E. O Speedwagon eventually goes on to found the Speedwagon Foundation and become a great philanthropist.
- Subaru Nakajima is introduced in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS as a weak-willed crybaby who couldn't look after herself even if her life depended on it (literally). After being rescued from a massive fire by the title character, however, she comes to hate her former self and resolves to turn her life around, eventually becoming one of Nanoha's star students and The Ace of the galactic disaster relief service in her own right.
- Horribly subverted in Murciélago's "Rainy Day Killer" arc, where a down-on-his-luck factory worker was shown kindness on a rainy day by a little girl, who gave him a candy and smiled at him. Unfortunately, he then became obsessed with the idea of paying it back, which he did by kidnapping little girls dressed similarly to her and furiously strangling them when they weren't the right one. He never noticed time going by, so by the time he finally finds her again, she's a mother (whose own daughter nearly fell victim to him). Just before he's finally killed, he begs her to smile at him... and understandably gets a hateful scowl in response.
- Ningen Fushin no Boukenshatachi ga Sekai o Sukuu Youdesu: When Nick was at his lowest, freshly kicked out of his party and losing his girlfriend, he was cheered up by the idol Agate. When he meets Karan, Sem, and Tianna, he sees them in the same boat he was, Karan especially, and reaches out the same way Agate did for him.
- In the Ōkami-san series, the Otogi Bank performs favors for others in exchange for the promise of performing a later favor. Many of its current members were inspired to join the group because someone else helped them in the past. Also, in the climax of the anime adaptation, several of their past clients come back to aid them in their plan to rescue Ryuko from the Onigashima High School.
- One-Punch Man: The hero association got its start when the grandson of a multibillionaire was saved from a monster attack by an unknown man (actually Saitama, but he's completely unaware that this is the case).
- Mister Big, the crime boss of Zootopia, references this almost verbatim upon learning that Officer Hopps saved his daughter from being crushed by a giant doughnut. "I will take your kindness, and pay it forward." Rather than sending Hopps and Wilde to an icy tomb, Mister Big invites them to be his guests at his daughter's wedding reception, wherein he provides further clues in the Otterton case.
- This is the central theme of Pay It Forward. As part of a school project, Trevor comes up with the plan to "pay it forward" by performing random acts of kindness for three complete strangers who must in turn each do good deeds for three other people, creating a charitable pyramid scheme that would quickly ripple through society and change the world for a better. The movie ends on a bittersweet note, as it takes the death of the hero for the movement to attract the media's attention and to eventually grow nationwide.
- In Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a man going to the big city to try to get a job is robbed. A nearby stranger gives him a little money to get started. The man turns it into a successful career and pays it forward just before he dies. Fulghum then recalls that many people have told him variants of the story:
At least three things are certain: Our belief in the necessity of the generosity at the heart of the story; our shared capacity to be part of the chain of generosity; and our belief in the enduring power of the simple compassionate gesture. We want these things to be true. And they are.
- In Criminal Minds, Derek is from a tough neighborhood in Chicago. He goes back and keeps tabs on the kids at the local youth center. This is partially because he knows the youth center director is a pedophile and because he wants the kids to get the same help he got but without having to pay the same price.
- In an episode of Knight Rider, KITT gives a homeless man ten dollars from a Foundation account. At the end of the episode, the man comes back in a new suit flanked by two beautiful women. He tells KITT that he used part of the money to buy a lottery ticket that ended up a winner. When he offers to pay back the money, KITT tells him to find someone else to help instead.
- In the last episode of The O.C. we see Ryan working as a professional architect. He notices a rundown street kid watching him work and asks if the kid needs help, a callback to how lawyer Sandy Cohen offered Ryan help in the first episode of the series.
- In the final season of Person of Interest, it is revealed that at least three of the people the heroes have saved over the series have formed their own team. They are getting their own set of Numbers from the Machine and are saving the associated people from deadly danger. It is implied that there might also be other teams of previous Numbers who are paying things forward this way.
- In Quantico, Nimah Amin is a daughter of refugees from the Middle East and states in an early episode that she wants to be an FBI Agent as a way of paying back the United States for helping her family.
- Clay Walker's "The Chain of Love" is a song about paying it forward: a man helps an old woman with her flat tire and refuses to take any payment, instead telling her, "Don't let the chain of love end with you." The woman then goes to a restaurant and leaves a $100 tip for the waitress, with a note with it saying the same thing the man had told her. At the end of the song, it is revealed that the waitress is the wife of the man who helped with the flat tire.
- Azure Striker Gunvolt: Gunvolt was a tortured test subject for a superhuman project (which creates Adepts) before being saved by Asimov, who would become his father figure. Some time after, in the events in the game, he decides to do the same to another young Adept named Joule, citing his past as why he wants to.
- Chrono Trigger: At the beginning of the game, there's a rich Jerkass who gives you 10 gold if you dance like a chicken. His children hate him, his wife is worried about how this affects their family, and there's two treasure chests in his house. Later in the game, you can run across the man's ancestors who offer to purchase spiced jerky from you. If you instead give it for free, she swears that her children will learn to be generous towards strangers. If you return to the present, the man no longer gives you money, but he does let you open the chests, his children love him... and his wife is worried about his generosity.
- Dragon Age:
- In Dragon Age II, if Hawke rescues the elf girl Lia from the serial killer Kelder and then kill him in Act 1, then walks around town with Aveline in Act 3, the pair will encounter the now-grown Lia - one of the newest recruits to the City Guard. She wants to protect people the same way Hawke protected her.
- Sutherland in Dragon Age: Inquisition asks the Inquisitor to give him a chance to prove himself as a field agent (basically asking for a sword to scare some bandits away from his home village). Repeatedly putting your trust in him and his slowly-growing Ragtag Bunch of Misfits, instead of dismissing them as just another gang of upstarts, eventually allows them to become minor folk heroes in their own right. After Sutherland and his company decide to leave the Inquisition to take charge of their own hold, he asks the Inquisitor how he can repay their trust, and one of the available replies is to suggest that Sutherland pay it forward himself, finding a new bunch of promising hopefuls and helping them do what he and his own people accomplished with the Inquisitor's help.
- Mega Man ZX Advent: Grey was saved by a group of Hunters in an unknown lab (albeit accidentally via prematurely opening his capsule and they died in the process from security; he just grabbed a gun off a body and ran after waking up to the carnage) and then gets nursed back to health in their camp by the actions of a Hunter who found him almost dead outside near the camp after his escape ended with him being blasted off a bridge by explosion and chose to do the right thing. This inspires him to save others in need for no other reason than because it's right and he has the power to do so, even the Raiders (who are the Hunters' antithesis), and ultimately leads him to decide that such a goal is more important than his Quest for Identity, to the point when he confronts the Big Bad it's made clear he's doing it for the sake of everyone he's met and all of their rights to live in peace without a megalomaniacal man with a god complex manipulating things.
- In the NieR: Automata Ending E, other players (or rather, their automated copies) come to your rescue during the borderline impossible-to-beat Final Battle sequence. After beating it with their help, you are asked whether you would like to help another, random player somewhere in the world achieve this final ending, too, — but the price is the deletion of all of your saved games and progress.
- In Octopath Traveler, this is Alfyn's entire motivation for becoming a traveling apothecary: As a child, he was saved from a rare, mortal disease by one, free of charge, and resolved to follow in his footsteps. Over the course of his travels, he meets a fellow apothecary who was similarly inspired by the same man, Graham Crossford.
Alfyn's savior, and then himself: I saw someone in a bind and I helped them out, simple as that.
- He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2002): While it was actually a case of Androcles' Lion, Man-At-Arms uses this as an explanation to keep Adam's identity a secret when a dragon he helped later came to He-Man's rescue (it recognized his scent).
- Shelldon has an episode called "Pay Happiness Forward" in which Connie embarks on a school project of this nature. She does two favors, one for each of two people, with the idea that instead of returning the favor to her, each of them instead does a favor for two other people.
- This article reports of a man who showed a random act of kindness on the day before he died, which inspired a "Pay It Forward" movement.
- Stories occasionally surface in the news about 'pay it forward' chains at restaurant and coffee shop drive-thrus, when someone pays for the order of the car behind them; the next person then pays for the order of the car behind them, and so forth.