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Small Steps Hero

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"I made a mistake... focused on big picture. Big picture made of little pictures. [...] Hard to see big picture behind pile of corpses."
Mordin Solus, Mass Effect 2 and 3

This sort of hero will always choose to do an immediate good even if it means allowing a later or distant evil. For example, saving an innocent versus stopping the Big Bad here and now. Even if they know this will doom more people later on, this hero will still save the person. They won't stop doing what's right just because something bad will happen in the future, even if it brings cataclysmic disaster. Even if the distressed person is something very irrelevant to the grand scheme of threats, they must be saved. There's good to be done, and whatever obscure threats arise from it are a problem for another day.

How this pays off varies.

May overlap with Always Save the Girl, in which the small good the hero does relates to someone they're personally connected to. See also Chronic Hero Syndrome, which is often fueled by this personality.

As mentioned before, a common target for a Sadistic Choice. This character's natural enemy is the Totalitarian Utilitarian.

The polar opposite of the Well-Intentioned Extremist, Unscrupulous Hero, and Tautological Templar. Also opposite to this trope is Dick Dastardly Stops to Cheat, which can be reframed as "Small Steps Villain". This hero shuns Omniscient Morality License. If The Hero changes their mind from moment to moment, this may turn in to a Frequently-Broken Unbreakable Vow. This trope enforces the "Unavoidable" side of the Sliding Scale of Unavoidable vs. Unforgivable.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Koyomi Araragi, the protagonist of Bakemonogatari. Araragi is an impulsive Failure Hero combined with a Death Seeker. He considers dying for the sake of someone, anyone, the highest virtue he can aspire to. The problem with this is that he rushes into fights that he can't win, or takes direct actions where more subtle or more gradual ones would be necessary. At one point, we even learn that his death could possibly cause The End of the World as We Know It, because his life is the only thing keeping a Humanoid Abomination with enough power to destroy the planet from regaining her full strength. Interestingly, also Reconstructed, as while he is a Failure Hero, he also tends to help bring about salvation by inspiring others.
  • Dragon Ball: The only time Goku is willing to let someone die for his cause is when he's sure they can come Back from the Dead, if they've made up their own minds to do so, or if he has no other choice. Other than that, he will try to save most people. When he was a kid, it was a different case (back then he slaughtered an entire army).
  • Goblin Slayer: The main character dedicates his entire life to exterminating goblins, to the exclusion of all other threats that might threaten the world. When he hears of the return of the great Demon King, he shuts down any requests to help fight against it. If it's not about goblins, then find someone else.
  • One-Punch Man: Mumen Rider has made his hero career on never ignoring a citizen in need, no matter how humble their needs are. This leads him to occasionally arrive late to catastrophes if the alternative means breaking traffic rules, but it also leads him to throw himself against monsters one or two classes above him in Super Weight because he's a Hero, and heroes are supposed to sacrifice themselves to save civilians. He's even willing to try to save Garou from a Coup de Grâce because, having been (temporarily) defeated, he's supposed to be taken in alive. Despite being one of the most ineffectual superheroes in the setting (he's just a guy on a bike), he's noted to be surprisingly popular In-Universe for embodying what a superhero is supposed to act like.
  • The Rising of the Shield Hero: Naofumi is one of four heroes summoned to a fantasy world to fight against a Regularly Scheduled Evil known as the Waves of Catastrophe. However, the weapon he receives, the Shield is considered the most useless of the four, and Naofumi himself is not only disrespected but also accused of things he didn't do. Despite this, during the first Wave of Catastrophe, rather than meeting up with the rest of the Heroes to fight the source of the Wave, he instead chooses to defend a small village from the hordes brought forth by it. Later on while the Three Heroes spend the next weeks showering themselves in glory and praise thinking themselves as true Heroes; Naofumi travels the land as a Merchant and Healer who provides quality wares and services, building up a network with other Merchants and occasionally cleaning up the various messes that The Three Heroes inadvertently left behind through their actions spiraling out of control, and in many cases Naofumi actually provides the service that The Three Heroes had done but much better without many strings attached (as shown with Naofumi one time using his unlocked Plant Modification skills to alter seeds from a Monster Tree that one Hero had planted to provide food for a starving village and instead turn them into safer fruit-bearing bushes for that same village). This inadvertently paints a target on Naofumis' back by The Three Heroes Church; because the three Heroes that they worship as though Gods are instead complete idiots, while "The Devil Of The Shield" has slowly endeared himself to the populace at-large as The Paragon.
  • Sailor Moon: Especially prominent in the Anime (Usagi was willing to get a bit rougher in the Manga), but while Sailor Moon is willing to perform Heroic Sacrifice after Heroic Sacrifice herself, she's loath to see anyone else die to save the world. Despite the would-be sacrifice often being every bit as willing and eager as she usually was, and when she knew full well that Crystal Tokyo depended on her survival.
  • So I'm a Spider, So What?: Sariel is designed to protect mortal life above all other considerations. She acts to save lives in the moment, disregarding the future cost of doing so including the potential destruction of the entire world, along with all its mortals. While there are several people trying to prevent this outcome and protect Sariel, in many cases her actions only make things harder for them.
  • World Trigger: Osamu Mikumo is an archetypical Small Steps Hero, as he makes it flat-out clear many times that he will not ignore the plight of any helpless person to save his own life or to prevent a future tragedy/conflict. This comes back to bite not just him, but everyone on Earth after using his trigger in real battle teaches the Neighbors that C-Rank Border agents can't Bail Out (a mechanism which allows them to teleport to safety when taking fatal damage). Because of this, a large-scale invasion happens that claims more lives than he originally saved, but Osamu makes it clear he'd do it all over again.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman:
    • A common accusation against Batman, however between the direct employment of Wayne Enterprises and the charity of the Wayne Foundation, both trusted to Lucius Fox (a man who is explicitly stated in-series to have a metaphorical Midas touch in regards to running businesses), Batman as a whole manages to avoid this by effectively having 'Bruce Wayne' focus on the economy and long term change and 'Batman' focus on saving people in direct need.
    • One strong example of this trope is in Batman: Arkham City, where Talia is taken hostage by The Joker while Hugo Strange is executing a citywide "purge". Batman calls Alfred for backup and calls Oracle to get a fix on Talia's position, but both of them refuse to help him. They flat-out force him to skip saving the girl and save the city at large.
  • Captain America, more often than not. He thinks more like a soldier than your typical superhero, though he puts The Men First and is quite unwilling to sacrifice anyone. Case in point, during the Secret Wars (2015) arc, he was flatly against destroying other universes and the countless lives in them in order to save the Marvel Universe.
    Cap: Victory is possible. And even if it wasn't...we do not fight what is monstrous by becoming monsters ourselves.
  • Fantastic Four: Originally, this was what separated Mister Fantastic from his Arch-Nemesis, Doctor Doom. In most Alternate Timelines in which Doom has conquered the Earth, he eventually creates a Utopia. However, he initially creates it through fear, tyranny, and sometimes outright atrocities. Reed refuses to take this method and usually acts heroically even when he knows it's logically unsound (sometimes at the coaxing of his wife). However, later depictions of Reed have abandoned this outlook.
  • Hawk and Dove: What caused the death of the original Dove, Don Hall, during Crisis on Infinite Earths. While Shadow Demons are attacking everyone, Hawk and Dove are trying to get people to safety. Dove sees a bunch of kids stuck at a window, while his brother yells at him to keep moving. Don tries to save the kids anyway, allowing the Shadow Demons to get Don in the back and kill him.
  • Utilised by Marvel comic book villain, the Kingpin. He has a pattern of paying some costumed supervillain to menace the citizens in Location A, while a much more low-key operative undertook a theft from Location B. The heroes have become aware of the pattern, but aside from teaming up more frequently to 'be in two places at once' they've found it a hard move to counter.
  • Nova. Examples include: ignoring warnings about changing time just to save one life, refusing to save himself (or the collective intelligence of his galactic order) just to give a population enough time to evacuate before Galactus ate their planet, and refusing a Re-Power chance because the person who offered it works for HYDRA part-time. In the last case, keep in mind that he was dying without his powers, Ego The Living Planet had taken over the Nova Corps, and the scientist crushing on him desperately wanted to save his life.
  • Rising Stars has Matthew Bright, one of the Specials, a group of people granted great power by a falling meteor. Due to their great power, Specials are forbidden from working in any government jobs, which includes law enforcement. Matthew, however, wants desperately to help people and be a police officer, so he fakes an identity and joins up that way, keeping his powers a secret. However, during an investigation, a bomb goes off and traps several of his fellow officers inside, where they will likely die. If Matthew uses his powers to save them, he outs himself as a Special, will be fired from his job, and potentially even sent to prison, unable to help anyone ever again. Or he can let those men die and preserve his secret. Matthew's thoughts say it all.
    Matthew: I signed on to save lives. If I meant that, then I had to do what was necessary. Or it was all a lie. Whoever did this was smart, all right. Lead me on a wild goose chase. And now my men are trapped inside the building I didn't search. I can't let them die. I refuse. Damn the exposure, I refuse.
  • Shazam!: Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family also exhibited this trope. After the character was bought by DC Comics and folded into the DC Universe, he became a more extreme version of this to even Superman. The best way to sum it up is that, unlike Captain Marvel, Superman had the added pressure of being the world's most famous and beloved superhero. People looked up to him and always came to him for help, and thus he had more incentive to find a solution—any solution. Captain Marvel, on the other hand, did what he felt was right no matter what, even if it meant risking complete failure.
  • Spider-Man is usually this. An example comes in Ultimatum, where Ultimate Spider-Man stays behind in Manhattan, rescuing any civilians drowning from the flooding of New York. Virtually every other hero quickly left New York to fight Magneto and Doctor Doom and save the world. Spider-Man was diving fathoms deep into the flooded streets of New York just to find one person to save and then diving right back down to find another. Watching Spider-Man do this is what finally convinces Ultimate Jameson that Spider-Man truly is a hero.
  • Superman:
    • In general, if he chose to, Superman could solve every problem on the planet if he risked a Zero-Approval Gambit or just forced everyone to do the right thing. But he chooses not to because he doesn't see himself as a greater judge of morality than the earthlings he protects. He will sacrifice himself or let Lex Luthor escape justice if it means he can save just one human life.
    • In The Death of Superman, Superman is chasing Doomsday (an unstoppable juggernaut that can level cities in seconds flat) while a family is trapped in the burning ruins of their house. The issue ends with Superman intentionally blocking out a boy's pleas for help to continue his pursuit. The next issue, however, opens with Superman stating that he was hoping one of the Justice League members would have woken up from their Doomsday-delivered ass-beating. He's about to turn around and go help the family anyway when Doomsday sucker punches him. Luckily, the League does wake up. In the follow-up arc, the boy feels terribly guilty and wonders if Superman would still be alive if he hadn't tried to get his attention.
    • Subverted in Who Took the Super out of Superman?, where the Man of Steel has been gaslighted into believing he's going through a psychological breakdown due to his dual life. So, Clark decides to spend one week without acting as Superman; during those seven days, though, he feels terribly guilty every time he fails to deal with an emergency, big or small, but he reminds himself that humanity got by just fine for millennia without a Superman.
    • In Superman: Red Son, Superman is told he can't solve every problem in the world. Superman retorts he actually can and he'll do.
    • Reconstructed in Superman Unchained. Luthor says that for all of the world's admiration of Superman, in the end, he is just a man stumbling through life, capable of making mistakes as any human. He is trial and error. However, he also says Superman still teaches people to do the right thing and inspire each other, not to look to the stars in search of a savior. It's a rare moment where Luthor admits Superman is a Worthy Opponent.
    • Back in the Silver Age, Supergirl looked after orphaned kids when she wasn't taking down interplanetary dictators. By the Bronze Age the dichotomy between her compulsion to help people and her desire for a normal life had gotten so bad that she had to accept for her sanity's sake she couldn't solve every problem in the world.
    • In The Unknown Supergirl, Linda goes on a crime-stopping global spree shortly after fixing a display built by the Midvale Orphanage's children.
    • In 2008 story arc Way of the World, Kara tries to help an ill kid as dealing with super-villain Reactron.
    • In "One Life", Supergirl saves a high-school boy from several bullies, and the bigger bully complains that she's "bothering" them instead of tossing the Moon around.
    • In her 2009 series, Power Girl is challenged to save three persons located on three different continents within five minutes. As Power Girl beats the challenge, she still takes one second to rescue one cat from a tree.
  • Ratchet in The Transformers Megaseries will gladly risk his own life to save even one of his patients.
    Ratchet: (justifying blowing their cover to save a couple of random humans) Why are we here, on this planet? We're here to save lives. Now okay, maybe we're talking mass numbers, a global scale of species saved, but me, I take it one life at a time.
  • Wonder Woman: Diana might lean a bit more towards Pragmatic Hero when it comes to using lethal force, but she never forgets the smaller picture and those caught in the crossfire. She refuses to accept collateral damage in war and makes sure that as many innocents as possible are spared. When not acting as a superhero, Diana is an ambassador and activist.

    Fan Works 
  • In Worm crossover Echoes of Yesterday, Kara saves a teenage girl from her bullies to the surprise and bafflement of the staff and other people who don't get why a cape would bother with a case of high-school bullying. Some people even dismiss her as probably being "pretty low-tier stuff if she's breaking into high schools to save kids from bullying", instead of considering Kara has world-breaking powers but she feels naturally inclined to help whoever needs her.
    Principal Blackwell: What would bring a cape here in the first place? While what happened was certainly unacceptable, it wouldn't require the assistance of a powered individual.
    Supergirl: Firstly, I have enhanced senses. I could hear her screaming for help three blocks away. And secondly, ma'am, it appears I was needed, because no one was bothering to help her, even the staff.
  • For Those We Cherish has the Lamenters. Although they don't hesitate to acknowledge that The Needs of the Many outweigh the needs of the few, they also won't hesitate to make themselves the few who are sacrificed if it means saving more innocents.
  • In Hellsister Trilogy, Supergirl jeopardizes a Legion of Super-Heroes undercover mission to save an innocent girl.
    Dev-Em: Frab the innocent! You endangered us all with your actions, Kara. Me. Laurel. Cham. Dawnstar. Yourself. If I'd been a hair later with my pickups, we'd have had Ar-Ual and Adam to deal with, too. Plus all of Zerox. Think you could take on a planet of magicians? By yourself?
    Kara: Listen, Dev, and listen damn good. I am not a spy. I'm a super-heroine, and a Legionnaire, and a human being. Do you think I could have let a little girl die, at the hands of my own clone? Do you think I could ever have lived with myself if that happened?
    Laurel: Kara's right, Dev. We can't abandon people in danger just because of your mission. Even one like this.
  • Izuku in It Takes a Child to Teach a Village starts his hero career tutoring a girl a couple years younger than him who lives in the slums. This quickly escalates into Izuku tutoring dozens of people every day, partially because they're from rival gangs and can't focus on learning in each other's presence, and even tutoring Shigaraki. Izuku's main stipulation is that no one breaks the law in his presence nor expects him to break the law, even stating that it's not his business "what they get up to in their free time".
  • Discussed in A Letter From Screwtape to Mr. Holland Manners a crossover between Angel and The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape advises Holland Manners that if he can get Angel to fixate on "The Big Picture", bringing him into a conflict that mere mortals are not equipped to fight, he will start to despair and ask himself, "What's the use of me?"
    "This is always a question we encourage, primarily because temporal beings don't often understand the answer. The answer, of course, being that they are called only to this battle—this day, this hour, this act of kindness, this pride to be swallowed, this peace to be made. In these actions like the seeds of eternity. If once they understand this, we have been dealt a serious blow. Fortunately, not many do. They focus, as you know, on The Big Picture."
  • In Pokédex, Wobbuffet don't use their psychic powers to amputate their sentient tails because they cannot bear to hurt a living being, no matter what the consequences are to themselves and others in the future.
  • RWBY: Epic of Remnant: Ruby Rose declares that she understands that she can't save everyone, so she'll just save anyone she runs into and kill the Grimm one at a time, as every person saved and every Grimm killed will matter in the end.
  • Usually, the Seventh Doctor used foreknowledge gained from time travel to manipulate allies and enemies. The fanfic Safe In The Knowledge has him rescue an ordinary woman, and by extension her husband and infant daughter, from what would have otherwise been a domestic tragedy.
  • Turning Tables: Wong describes Spider-Man as this.
    Wong: It's true we lost half the universe. That's an indisputable fact. But there is still half a universe out there worth protecting. I do my part here, and you do yours out there. When you saved this girl, you saved this man's entire universe. What you are doing is not insignificant, it is not without meaning. It won't bring back your family or Stark, but you keep people from losing more than they already have. That's important.
  • In RWBY crossover Weight of the World, Ruby chooses to save Yang, Jaune, Nora, and Ren instead of the Relic. She declares she will not sacrifice more people she cares about for the world.

    Films — Animated 
  • Sergeant Slaughter advocates this in G.I. Joe: The Movie, where he refuses to leave a comrade behind even if it means he or the rest of the team will all die.
    Sergeant Slaughter: We all go home, or NOBODY goes home!
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: Peter seems to be teaching Miles to be one. In a scene that didn't make the theatrical cut, when Miles asks how he's supposed to save the world, Peter answers that he shouldn't focus on that but on saving one person at a time.
  • Wonder Woman (2009): Whilst fighting Ares at the gates of Hades, Diana is endangered, and Steve opts to rescue her rather than try to stop Ares. Later, Diana calls him out for it. To his credit, he does defy the Always Save the Girl trope: "I'm not going to leave a friend like that — man or woman!"

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Captain America: The First Avenger, the eponymous hero fits this trope perfectly:
    • He jumps on a grenade during boot camp just to save the other recruits. Thankfully, it was a fake grenade.
    • He was fully prepared to let an escaping Nazi shoot him to protect a small child.
    • Almost let said Nazi get away with the Super Serum that created him, just to save that child from drowning. Luckily the child yells, "I can swim! Go get 'im!"
    • Rescues 400 soldiers on what is essentially a Suicide Mission.
    • In The Avengers, he's the one on the ground protecting civilians and directing law enforcement while everyone else is fighting waves of aliens or the Big Bad himself.
    • In Avengers: Infinity War a recurring theme, as stated by Captain America, is "We do not trade lives". Cap first disabuses his team of this when Vision suggests that they could stop Thanos by destroying the Mind Stone that gives him his sentience (the only one who is capable of this is Wanda, his girlfriend, who is clearly upset by the thought. Cap puts an end to this before she can say anything). This is contrasted by Thanos, who, while mournful, sees the death of 5 out of 6 of his adopted children and still considers his losses worth it, and by Stephen Strange, who initially tells Tony that he is perfectly fine with sacrificing Tony's life to keep the Time Stone from Thanos...but when he realized Tony would be instrumental in defeating Thanos, he gives up the Time Stone and his life in exchange of for saving Tony's life. Of course, as it turns out, Strange is The Chessmaster, and by giving up the Time Stone, he ends up setting in place a series of events which ultimately led to Thanos' defeat. So, Strange could go either way.
  • Superman in the DC Extended Universe. In Man of Steel, despite agreeing (at first) with Jonathan that he needs to keep his powers a secret For the Greater Good, Clark risks outing this secret several times because he just can't stop using his power to help people, before officially becoming Superman. As a teenager, he risks his secret saving a school bus, and as an adult Walking the Earth, he tries to stay below the radar, but always blows his cover by saving people. In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, this trope is deconstructed, as Superman feels self-doubt that he's not doing enough to help people, and there's plenty of public debate about his tendency to deal with small and immediate problems without thinking of the bigger picture and potential consequences. For example, his flying into a foreign war zone and saving Lois from a warlord sparking a massacre or at least, this is what Lex Luthor wants people to think happened...
  • In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, when his mother turns vigilante and decides to kill Miles Dyson, the man unwittingly responsible for the foretold Robot Apocalypse, John demands that the Terminator take him to stop her, even if Dyson's death could save billions.
    Terminator: This is tactically dangerous.
    John: Drive faster.
    Terminator: The T-1000 has the same files that I do. It knows what I know. It might anticipate this move.
    John: I don't care. We gotta stop her.
    Terminator: Killing Dyson might actually prevent the war.
    John: I don't care! Haven't you learned anything yet? Haven't you figured out why you can't kill people?
  • Warlock (1989): At one point the heroes pin down the Warlock and are about to incapacitate him, but the villain takes an opportunity to curse a farmer who was helping them, and Redfrene resolves to save him, although it means letting the Warlock (who's aiming to destroy the world) escape. Redfrene admits that it was inexcusable of him, but he simply couldn't let the man die.

  • Dark Shores: Princess Malahi believes that Killian and Lydia are like that, looking after orphans in Mudaire's sewers, while they should be helping soldiers fight and protect Mudaire from Derin's army.
  • The Dresden Files:
    • This is a big part of how Harry Dresden's Chronic Hero Syndrome manifests itself and gets him in trouble, to the point his enemy mockingly gives him a gravestone with the epitaph reading, "He died doing the right thing." It's most noticeable in the third book when he was given said gravestone by the Big Bad when he's forced into a Sadistic Choice between stopping a vampire from sacrificing an innocent girl that would also unmake a holy sword that contains one of the nails that pierced Christ and once given the name Excalibur and not starting an all-out war between two of the most powerful magical factions on earth. He chooses to save the girl, and the resulting war is a central plot element for the next eight books in the series.
    • Harry learns he isn't alone in this mindset. Centuries older and having years of fighting dark forces, Captain Anastasia Luccio and her top deputy Donald Morgan of the Wardens, Wizards whose job it is to kill practitioners of black magic, fought against Heinrich Kemmler, a vile monster of a Warlocknote  and were present at the man's seventh and final death. They know what dangers his insane students could bring about if they find his last tome of magic and used it. Racing to stop his students Luccio, Morgan, and their new recruits come across children trick-or-treating when hordes of undead come at them. They have a choice, let the children die and fight to save the world, or risk the world for the children. Without hesitation, they choose the children. Luccio actually chastises Harry for thinking they would make the other choice.
    • John Marcone is a cutthroat gangster who always looks out for himself. Unless there is a child involved. He will protect the child, consequences be damned.
    • This trait is also shared by the Archangel Uriel(a.k.a. The Angel of Death). In the short story "The Warrior", he talks with Harry about how even small kindnesses can do much good down the line. Then in "Skin Game", he gladly loans Michael his Divine Grace, despite the risk of Falling if it's misused, all for the sake of saving the soul of one of Nicademeus' mooks.
  • Commander Sam Vimes muses in Feet of Clay that he, in contrast to his big-picture-seeing boss Vetinari, is essentially "a small-picture man" who would prefer to do what is immediately right rather than to look to the greater good. However, he's painfully aware that that way of doing things ultimately doesn't work, whereas Vetinari's ruthless pragmatism does.
  • Explicitly stated to be the duty of a Samurai in The Hagakure: Book of the Samurai. Amongst other virtues, a samurai is supposed to always act for the sake of justice without any hesitation (making a decision "within seven breaths"), and to never show any fear of death. Thinking of the consequences of their actions, and thus failing to act, is said to be shameful. However, the "heroism" here is relative—samurai were also expected to obey and serve their masters no matter what, even if they found the task objectionable.
  • Blake Thorburn, the protagonist of Pact, attempts to embody this. Driven to do good in repayment for the kindness that others have shown him, and aware that he is fated to die, he clashes with the Grey-and-Gray Morality of practitioner society, which does such things as allow the Anthropomorphic Personification of European Colonialism to rule over Toronto, torturing and enslaving those practitioners that get on its bad side, for the sake of stability. Though he accomplishes good by defeating monsters and freeing the Lord of Toronto's slaves, it's not without its consequences-his successful overthrow of Conquest sends Toronto into chaos, and his premature attack on a bound demon that was steadily eroding its binding, which nobody else would confront before it broke free, got him severed from the world and made an Unperson.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: Both Ned Stark and Jon Snow tend to do what's right in the moment, even knowing that bad things could result in the future. It tends to go poorly for both of them.
  • This trope crops up in The Stormlight Archive in a few different ways.
    • It is one interpretation of the First Ideal of the Knights Radiant. Every Radiant swears "Journey Before Destination", and this is explained to mean that the Radiant must never use the ends to justify the means. What matters is not where you are trying to go, but where your journey actually takes you.
    • On a more immediate level, Kaladin is a determined Small Steps Hero, who thinks everyone should do the immediate right thing at every turn and damn the consequences. In the second book in the series, this puts him in frequent conflict with Dalinar, who tends to take the long view and look at what is politically achievable, and with Shallan, who is perfectly happy to lie, scheme and steal as long as it serves the greater good.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Doctor Who: While this may seem like one of the biggest weaknesses of the Doctor, it always ends up backfiring on the villains. Threatening an innocent is an almost 100% foolproof way for a villain to protect themself from him. Stated most explicitly in an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures when the Doctor opts to save Clyde and Rani rather than chase the Big Bad, The Dragon (who purposely put Clyde and Rani in danger because she knew it would happen) remarks "when given the choice between saving the universe and saving the children, the Doctor goes the wrong way." However, the Time War, in which the Doctor intentionally wiped out all the Time Lords and Daleks in existence to stop them from destroying the universe, is a notable aversion on his part. In general, threatening innocents is also a great way to anger the Doctor. So while it may protect the villain in the short term, in the long run, it'll only make the Doctor more determined to defeat them. In general, the Doctor, rather than choose between saving an innocent and saving the universe, will do both.
    • A number of times during Matt Smith's run, he's stated that if he pretty much didn't do this, then he wouldn't be able to call himself The Doctor. In "The Beast Below", since he can't figure out how to Take a Third Option, he's preparing to lobotomize a peaceful, intelligent creature that's been enslaved since it was in pain and he believed freeing it would kill the surviving population of Great Britain. He states that once that's done, he'll find another name for himself. Fortunately, Amy is able to Spot the Thread.
    • The Doctor does fall prey to this in "Victory of the Daleks" when the Daleks present him with a Sadistic Choice between saving the Earth and stopping them in time. The Doctor naturally chooses to save the Earth, which leads to one of the very few instances when the bad guys actually get away to become Karma Houdinis.
    • Averted in "The Day of the Doctor", in which it is revealed he took a third option and with his 12 other incarnations he saved Gallifrey with a Tricked Out Time gambit that destroyed nearly all the Daleks.
  • Forever:
    • After Henry has stolen the key to the shackles and cell door in the slave ship in "Dead Men Tell Long Tales," he's ordered to check a man for signs of cholera, and despite his insistence the man is not contagious, the Captain orders him thrown over the side of the ship. Henry refuses to step aside and let them kill him, even though by standing up for this one man's life, he puts in jeopardy his plan to save all three hundred African prisoners destined for slavery.
    • Henry breaking this is what caused him to stop being a medical doctor. In the past he once chose to hide before he died rather than try to save a man who had been shot, in order to avoid people witnessing his death and disappearance. After that, he truly believed he did not have the right to be a doctor since he'd broken his Hippocratic Oath.
  • Ms. Marvel (2022): Kamala becomes this in the episode "No Normal", when she saved Kamran from Damage Control, and protects civilians from collateral damage. Her father Yusef assures her that he is proud of what she has done.
    "You saved people. You saved lives. And if you saved one life, well, you saved the world."
  • In Person of Interest, Harold Finch generally believes in this, though it does not always make him effective.
  • Revolution: Charlie Matheson is prone to this. "The Dark Tower" had her convincing her mother Rachel Matheson that they can try to save Nora Clayton and turn the power on at the same time.
  • The main protagonists of Stargate SG-1, First Contact team SG-1. They were supposed to only be explorers, whose primary mission was to fight the Goa'uld, a race of Puppeteer Parasites who liked to rule over everybody else. The main characters were very aware that they shouldn't get involved with a lot of the problems out in the galaxy, but could never say no to someone asking for help. They themselves often lampshaded their own weakness in that regard.
    O'Neill: Carter, if I ever get the urge to help someone again, shoot me.

    Tabletop RPG 
  • Both Champions and DC Heroes state that heroes are expected to rescue innocents even if it means letting the villain(s) get away.
  • Dungeons & Dragons' "Book of Exalted Deeds" (a 3.5 Edition supplement) explicitly states that it's the duty of a good character to never do an evil act. Any evil act. Period. The rules state unambiguously that ends never, ever, justify the means, no matter how small the evil was and how beneficial the results were.

    Video Games 
  • Connor from Assassin's Creed III will always fight the Templar present at the moment, regardless of whatever "greater good" that Templar claims to be pursuing.
    • In fact, he frequently gets in trouble with his mentor about his apparent shortsighted view of things. His mentor advocates secrecy, stealth, and operating in small degrees to affect large changes (which has been the way the Assassins have operated for centuries), while Connor, when given the choice, prefers to take the direct path, and, at one point, advocates approaching Washington directly to inform him of the Assassin/Templar conflict, despite being told that it would be disastrous.
  • In City of Heroes we have Back Alley Brawler, a Super Cop / Retired Badass who has punched out giant robots, traveled to other dimensions, and is a veteran in that whole alien invasion thing that happened a few years back. Despite all this, he stepped down from his official station with the Freedom Phalanx and plies his time as a By-the-Book Cop, stopping break-ins, car-jackings, arson, and purse-snatchers. He deliberately ignores the big crazy crimes now to help with everyday crimes because A. He has Big Damn Heroes on speed dial anyway, B. It is good training for fledgling heroes and C. It is really easy for high-level supers to just ignore miss Daisy being robbed for the tenth time that day when they are off to stop Doctor Insano from blowing up the world, so someone has to.
    • Many Alignment Missions for Heroes and Vigilantes boil down to this trope, giving the player the choice between saving an innocent or a hero, and stopping a villain in a more direct and often ruthless fashion. Those who wish to stay on the Hero path are encouraged to play this trope through by saving the innocent.
  • Archangel Tyrael in Diablo III discusses an instance in which, during a battle between heaven and hell, he had Azmodan, Demon Lord of Sin, at his mercy, but chose to spare him in order to answer a plea for assistance from one of his lieutenants. This discussion takes place as Azmodan is laying siege to Bastion Keep, causing him to wonder if killing him and leaving his lieutenant would have been better.
  • Dyztopia: Post-Human RPG: Akira often does the smaller jobs that most hunters neglect, since someone has to do them. Although it doesn't pay as well or increase their rank as much as bigger jobs, they're satisfied with being able to help the community in a small way.
  • Fable III attempts to set this up near the end. You are a king with foreknowledge that the Big Bad is going to attack at a certain time, and you need to amass funds for your defense. However, you're often faced with choices that basically boil down to spending money to help people or making money by screwing them. So you can be a benevolent ruler and have your citizens die or be a tyrant to protect them. Or become a real estate mogul, or musician, or even pie maker and finance the kingdom's defense out of your own pocket.
  • Fallout: New Vegas: Despite the Mojave Wasteland's attempts to create a world of Gray-and-Gray Morality where you sometimes need to compromise your morals For the Greater Good, you can play your Courier this way instead. For example, you can expose Chief Hanlon for falsifying reports at Camp Golf, thus destroying NCR morale, and you can save a family trapped in the radioactive Vault 34 at the cost of dooming the nearby NCR farms that provide food to the nearby settlements.
  • The freeware RPG Harem flips the Decon-Recon Switch on this trope. The deconstruction is Alexander and his party, who play out like standard RPG heroes fighting the evil empire of the Ratans. But since a party of four can't really take on a whole empire, they settle for Walking the Earth and helping those in mind. Where it comes apart is their gradual realization that what good they do is undermined by their inability to strike at the Ratan Empire and put an end to their tyranny, a fact that is beginning to splinter the group. The reconstruction is protagonist Ralph, who uses his heroics with the common folk to build money, political power, and party members in order to gradually create a force large enough to invoke real change while still being close enough to the citizens to earn respect and a solid reputation.
  • Mass Effect:
    • It must be noted: Despite providing the page quote, Mordin Solus is Not an Example of the trope, though he describes it succinctly. Mordin is perfectly fine with making sacrifices if necessary, but he simply believes he made a mistake before and sacrificed too much.
    • It's fully possible to play Shepard this way, especially a Paragon Shepard. Give a soldier a proper burial instead of using the corpse for research, send allies to help hotspots and take more fire without them, and making sure civilians have room despite shortages are all possibilities. Thanks to the mechanics of the third game, doing some of these can make it harder to save everybody.
    • In Mass Effect, a Sadistic Choice is given at the end of the "Bring Down the Sky" DLC, in which batarian terrorist Balak seeks to reignite a war with humanity by crashing an asteroid into a human colony. The Renegade option is to pursue and kill him, in which case he blows up his hostages but will no longer be a threat. Paragon Shepard chooses a Small Steps option, rescuing the hostages but allowing Balak to escape and continue his terrorist activities. If you choose the latter, it pays off in Mass Effect 3, where you meet him again and a reputation check lets you talk him into supporting the war effort against the Reapers.
  • Defied Trope in Metroid Fusion, where Samus is ready to make a Heroic Sacrifice to defeat the X Parasites that threaten the galaxy but is called out on it by "Adam", her A.I. commanding officer.
    Adam: How foolish. Even if you are successful in destroying the station, you'll only remove the one thing between the X and total universal domination: yourself.
  • The ending of Prey (2017) reveals that this is what Alex hopes you would be. In their evaluation of your actions, Alex and the operators focus on whether you helped any of the survivors on Talos I, whereas your choice to destroy the station or use the nullwave device is ultimately irrelevant. That's because their goal is a Typhon who's capable of empathizing with humans, not another Unscrupulous Hero with a vision.
  • Rave Heart: Ellemine insists on saving Veronica from Captain Sharky and the Star Raiders, even though saving Arcturo from the corrupt council is a more important task. Her reasoning is that if she can't save a single person from a planetary Evil Overlord, she can't save her family from a galactic conspiracy.
  • Leon Kennedy of Resident Evil series establishes himself to be this multiple times, willing to put the very fate of the world on the back-burner if it means helping someone in a bind. For instance, when Leon and his partner cross paths with a man looking for his daughter in the middle of a zombie outbreak:
    Helena: Leon, we don't have time for th—
    Leon: Then we're making the time.
  • Vyse of Skies of Arcadia. In particular, he will willingly give up the Mac Guffins that control the Doomsday Device to protect innocent people.
  • Spider-Man (PS4) is a deconstruction of this way of thinking: Spider-Man's insistence on fighting every tiny battle, be it a mugging or a drug deal, means that he completely misses Otto Octavius' slow descent into madness. Worse Spidey's well aware that part of the reason Otto went mad is that he desperately made use of an experimental technology that Peter Parker was meant to troubleshoot... but Peter was so busy web-swinging around he never got around to it. He's painfully aware of his failure when Otto becomes Doctor Octopus and unleashes a horrific bioweapon that winds up killing thousands, including Aunt May.
  • Tales Series:
    • Tales of Symphonia: Lloyd Irving would put saving a single innocent life above the overarching quest to save the world. He never looked the other way when he saw people suffering and his gentle idealism gave everyone the courage to look for another way to save their world without having to sacrifice their dear friend.
      Lloyd: How can we go on a quest to regenerate the world if we can’t even save the people standing right in front of us?!
    • The protagonist of Tales of Vesperia, Yuri Lowell. Don't get it wrong—Yuri is a shining example of Good Is Not Nice and will gladly say Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right! even if it means Paying Evil Unto Evil. However, if he's faced with sacrificing just one innocent life to save the world or enforce justice, he will not do it. The quote below sums it up best:
      Yuri: You can't deny that lives were saved because those bastards were put down! You'd rather tell people, 'sorry you have to die today, I promise we'll change things soon'?
  • Ultima:
    • This is the gameplay mechanic that Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar resolves around. The Player Character is forced to perform small amounts of good and avoid bad deeds in order to fulfill the Eight Virtues.
    • Deconstructed and averted like crazy in Ultima VIII. If you want to get off Pagan, you will have to make sacrifices and do morally reprehensible things.
  • Xenoblade Chronicles X: Rook can be played as an Incorruptible Pure Pureness All-Loving Hero, Friend to All Living Things, and Martial Pacifist. However, given that the main theme of the game is that neither violence nor mercy are the best options on every occasion, playing him/her this way can wind up being very costly. Still, the game usually makes no moral posturing on such decisions—doing what you believe is right, even at the cost of it turning out poorly, is just as risky as being a Pragmatic Hero.

  • Inverted in Paranatural. One of the main characters, Spender, is willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Something his first major "on screen" opponent, Forge, calls him out for.
    Forge: You're like me. For you, good is a rational act. It's rules, calculations, it's your choices plugged into a grand equation, added up, up into evils vanquished. Ideals upheld. ... We burn the present for the sake of a brighter future and act surprised when all it holds is ash!

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: Katara, as laid out in an early episode of Book 3. The Gaang stumbles across a small village in the Fire Nation that relies on the lake they live on, which has been polluted by the local factory. Despite them being crunched for time (or so Sokka claims), Katara intentionally makes it so that they stay long enough for her to help them. Then the local military unit blames the villages for their supplies going missing, and their factory going up. Katara refuses to leave the villagers alone, even when Sokka insists otherwise. Even before then, the heroes always assert that overthrowing the Fire Lord is just the start, a big aspect of their journey is about making a difference and building a better tomorrow.
    Katara: I will never turn my back on people who need me!
  • Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox: Zoom mocks Barry for being this. As the world crumbles around them as a result of Barry's actions Zoom gloats that he didn't try to stop a political assassination to change the shape of a country for the better or prevent a war to save millions...Barry doomed the world just to save his mother.
  • Defied in Justice League Unlimited. Green Arrow argues that the League are focused on fighting monsters and someone has to look out for the little guy, but Batman responds that those monsters that Arrow doesn't fight tend to step on little guys. He does usually remain a street-level hero, but his skills mean that he needs to be available for the bigger fight.
  • Samurai Jack suffers from Chronic Hero Syndrome and will always stop to help anyone in need, even if it means sacrificing yet another chance to achieve his ultimate goal of going back to the past and preventing Aku from taking over the world. The worst part is that if Jack actually did go back to the past and defeat Aku, it's highly likely that in a future without Aku in charge, none of those people would have even needed Jack's help in the first place. Of course, they're suffering right now, while his defeating Aku is in his future; he trusts that, no matter how many chances he loses, at some point destiny will bring him back to the past.
  • Lion-O in Thunder Cats 2011, multiple times. This is one of the major themes of the series, and Lion-O seems to be aware that in the long run, when it comes to seeing the big picture, all these small good deeds will help him succeed against Mumm-Ra. Indeed. In the season 1 finale, when facing a horde of enemies, Wily Kit and Wily Kat recruit many of these people to help fight on the side of the Thundercats because they helped out.

Alternative Title(s): Small Steps Heroine