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Sudden Principled Stand

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"With all due respect, sir, I was not trained to murder the innocent."

Things are not going well. Everyone around you gets more cynical and less caring with each passing day. What started out with good, or at least neutral, intentions, ends up more self-serving or antagonistic. The descent has been so slow and so drawn out that it has just crept up on everyone.

Then someone says "Enough!" and flat-out refuses an order. This is a shock to everyone within hearing distance, and often jolts them into remembering why they are really there, or what they used to be. This can be in a confrontation with someone in a position of authority, who finally is coming too close to dragging themselves and everyone else over the Moral Event Horizon, but it can be triggered by other factors as well. The Sudden Principled Stand can of course also be done with only two people present, the one giving the order and the one refusing.

The Sudden Principled Stand takes part of its drama from its suddenness — it might very well be planned, but its execution comes as a surprise for the people around it, who earlier had been given no hint about it.

One common variation is that the principled stand hinges on a very minor technicality, in which case it is a Reconstruction of a one-off Obstructive Bureaucrat. Can also be combined with a Heel–Face Turn, especially if late in the story. Earlier in a story, it can be used as an Establishing Character Moment, to establish a moral center, or establish a later conflict. The variant where the principles invoked are evil is of course possible, but likely uncommon.

Compare Grew a Spine, Everyone Has Standards, Even Evil Has Standards, Neutral No Longer, Awakening the Sleeping Giant, Not What I Signed on For, Won't Do Your Dirty Work, Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!, Spanner in the Works, You Leave Him Alone!, Challenging the Bully, Rage Breaking Point (where anger is handled this way). Contrast Slowly Slipping Into Evil, of which this can be a Defiance.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Food Wars!: Erina against Azami. After witnessing Azami committing numerous atrocities when he becomes dean, Erina draws the line when Azami asks her to join Central to side against her friends. She relinquishes her seat from the Council of Ten and helps the Rebels win the Regiment de Cuisine.
  • Onani Master Kurosawa, Kurosawa was initially blackmailed by Kitahara into masturbating on other people's things as a form of revenge and mostly went along with it because of his own depression and misanthropy. The point where things start turning around is when he's asked to target his now-taken crush and he gets hit with a bout of Heel Realization, and he starts off by confessing to being the one responsible to the whole class.
  • In One Piece, in a flashback, Dalton is moved to tears by Hiruluk's Obi-Wan Moment, and after the latter kills himself, he sees Wapol laughing his ass off over it. With the last person to try and save the country in crisis now gone, Dalton decides that this is the last straw, and chews him out for his assholish behavior over the years, finally declaring no matter how advanced Drum Kingdom is in medicine, "Medicine cannot cure [Wapol's] stupidity." Unfortunately, in a deconstruction of the trope, this leads to Wapol being furious with Dalton, and soundly defeating him, before sending him to prison. Pays off for him in the long term, though; he’s become the effective new leader of the country by the time the Straw Hats reach it thanks to his continuation of that devotion, and downright replaces Wapol as its king eventually.
  • In Toward the Terra, Glaive Murdock is generally portrayed as an unrepentant bully and jerk, but he gets several of these, including pretending he didn't receive a command to slaughter retreating civilians and refusing to Colony Drop a colony full of innocent hostages despite a standing order to do so when attacked.

    Comic Books 
  • Sabretooth, in the Age of Apocalypse, begins his gradual Heel–Face Turn when after leading Apocalypse's Horsemen to successfully seize the U.S.'s nuclear stockpile at Cape Citadel, he refuses to obey Apocalypse's order to nuke the rest of the world in order to induce a global winter so as to promote En Sabah Nur's goal of Survival of the Fittest. He was okay with grabbing control of the weapons but not with actually using them. His Heel–Face Turn ends when, years later, he finally refuses to massacre child survivors of Apocalypse's culling of U.S. cities (as their will to live reminded him of himself when he was their age), even going so far as to actually hide them from the rest of Apocalypse's forces. Deemed to have committed the ultimate crime by acting contrary to "Survival of the Fittest", he is then court-martialed and sentenced to life imprisonment. When he manages to break out, he's firmly established to now being on the side of good, or at least not on the side of evil anymore.
  • The Batman Adventures: Invoked in Mad Love, when Harley sends Batman a message claiming the Joker's latest plan is too much even for her to accept; it turns out to be a trick to get close to Batman.
  • Black Orchid:
    • In the miniseries by Neil Gaiman, the second Black Orchid, after one of Lex Luthor's operatives, Sterling, tracks her down to the Brazilian rainforest, refuses his ultimatum to accompany him peacefully to Lexcorp for anatomical study. Sterling orders his two Mooks to kill her with herbicide. However, awed by her beauty and that of the surrounding ecosystem, they refuse ("I—we've killed for you before. It's what we do. But not her. Not here."), and he returns to Metropolis empty-handed. Foreshadowed in that one of the mooks, en route, discusses what he's read about the endangered Amazon rainforests.
    • The later continuation by Dick Foreman retconned this to have been the result of Black Orchid using pheremonal control on the two mooks, but it's clear that wasn't Gaiman's original intention.
  • Captain Atom reaches this point in issue 50. Issues earlier, Dr. Megala had arranged for a video recording revealing all the dirty secrets of the Captain Atom project to go out on national television after his death as insurance against his being eliminated by Wade Eiling. In issue 50, Megala does die, albeit not at the hands of Eiling, so Eiling has Cap go on television to claim that Megala was a supervillain and that everything that he was going to say was a bunch of lies. Just then, Megala's recording breaks in, and it turns out that all Megala had to say was that "Wade Eiling wears combat boots." When the regular broadcast resumes, Cap starts to go ahead with his rehearsed statement, but then decides he has had enough, and instead comes clean about how he is really a government agent who has been masquerading as a superhero.
  • From the Exiles comic from Marvel comics the character of Mimic resolves to no longer kill after their 'setting right what's gone wrong' had descended into his having to kill a number of alternate universe versions of people he's known. This unfortunately ends up backfiring leading to his death as he hesitates in killing Proteus, a body-snatching reality warper, resulting in his own possession and death as his body burns out from the possession.
  • In Supergirl story arc Last Daughter of Krypton, Simon Tycho kidnaps the titular heroine, planning on dissecting her. Nonetheless, one of his mercenaries decides he didn't sign for hurting young girls and releases Supergirl.
  • Trollhunters: The Secret History of Trollkind: Vendel remarks and commends Kanjigar for abstaining from eating the humans on the Mayflower on principle despite the desperate conditions.

    Fan Works 
  • Better Bones AU:
    • After half the arc is spent watching the kin show its increasingly cult-like nature and descend into executing people who defy Darktail, Breezepelt, who has previously been loyal to the Kin, takes a stand and expresses horror at the idea of Heathertail being executed, leading to his Heel–Face Turn. He then spends the rest of the arc trying to atone for what he's done by fighting against the Kin from the inside and saving as many of the cats slated for execution as he can.
    • Hawkfrost, despite fighting with his father Tigerstar for most of the Great Battle, objects to him and turns against him after Tigerstar suggests trying to kill everyone, even the noncombatants, in a Last Villain Stand. He gets brutally attacked by Tigerstar for it and, despite Ivypool getting him to the Dark Forest in time to avoid being fully Deader than Dead, he remains in a state of flickering half-existence afterwards.
  • Child of the Storm:
    • No one hears it, and it had been building for some time, with some foreshadowing but it is still very jarring (in a good way) when the Winter Soldier flat-out refuses to assassinate Carol.
    • In chapter 11 of Ghosts of the Past, Maddie demands to know what will be done with the newly recaptured Harry, and prepares to protect him when she gets an unsatisfactory answer. Unfortunately, Sinister then uses a Trigger Phrase on her to shut her down. However, it proves the foundation of her Heel–Face Turn.
  • In The Deafeated (an AU where Ichigo failed to save Rukia), Kenpachi takes a stand when Momo is allowed to brutally whip Ichigo for her belief he's involved with Aizen. Kenpachi backhands her into a wall and declares that anyone who wants to lay a hand on Ichigo has to go through him. Afterwards, he saves Orihime from Mayuri's experimentations at Ichigo's request. It's even more notable as before this, every captain (except Ukitake) that Ichigo met either experimented on him or tortured him because of someone who died in his attempt to rescue Rukia. Later subverted when it turns out Kenpachi did it in hopes Ichigo would join Aizen so they can fight again.
  • The Enclave from Fallout: Equestria repeatedly fall prey to this, especially since their troops have been trained all their lives to believe they're the "good guys" and bastion of civilization in a barbaric world. One trooper immediately deserts when his commander shoots a defenceless filly (accidentally, but he wasn't sorry about it), and later a whole battleship outright refuses to continue firing on a civilian target, and is eventually shot down by their own side.
  • In Loved and Lost, Twilight Sparkle is manipulated by Prince Jewelius into becoming colder and disowning her friends, brother, and mentor after he disgraces them all following the Changeling invasion. She doesn't believe their warnings about Jewelius having used her and the Changelings in stealing the throne, and she doesn't seriously object to Celestia being hanged until the deposed princess gives her a heartfelt apology. Though she later starts having doubts about who to believe, she still doesn't object much against Jewelius. However, when he orders her to get Canterlot's citizensnote  off his back by telling them a lie about him having the situation under his control, she goes against those instructions and tells the crowd the true state of things. This leads her into having with Jewelius an argumentnote  that leads her into realizing how right her friends were about him and throwing away entirely his bad influence on her.
    Twilight: Everypony in Canterlot has been deceived once already. I was not taught to lie, especially to ponies who trust me.
  • A Theory of Butterflies and Other Insects: Sasha initially makes a poor impression on Wartwood with her delinquency and refusal to take responsibility for her own actions. When the toads arrive, Sasha helps them collect their taxes at first, but has a Heel Realization and turns against them to protect the Planters and the rest of Wartwood, declaring that it doesn't matter if she still isn't accepted there, but this just isn't right.
  • In a roundabout way, Knock Out of all bots in Transformers Prime: Time War. Much to the shock of everyone present, stands between Megatron as he's about to kill Smokescreen during the battle for the Space Bridge. Only it was Smokescreen's order to save himself that he disobeyed.

    Films — Animation 
  • Phoebus against Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney), as quoted above. After a montage of atrocities committed against Parisian gypsies and anyone Frollo thinks could be sheltering them, Phoebus draws the line when ordered to burn a miller's family in their home and furiously tosses his torch into a water barrel. Frollo then grabs another torch and sets the fire himself. Without an instant of hesitation, Phoebus dives into the flaming house and manages to bring the family to safety. Frollo's soldiers then grab Phoebus and prepare to execute him in response right before Esmeralda, hiding among the terrified patrons, intervenes with a distraction.
    Frollo: The sentence for insubordination is death. Such a pity. You threw away a promising career.
    Phoebus: Consider it my highest honor, sir.
  • In Kung Fu Panda 2, Boss Wolf refuses to fire upon the heroes with his own men in the crossfire. Shen responds by killing him on the spot.
  • In The Lion King II: Simba's Pride, Vitani refuses to attack the Pridelanders even when ordered by Zira, because she was convinced by Kiara's speech. In response, Zira threatened that Vitani would die as well. In turn, the rest of Zira's followers refused to attack the Pridelanders. In fairness, most people would agree that threatening to kill your own daughter is a pretty clear Moral Event Horizon.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In The Apartment there's Bud's climactic refusal to let Sheldrake use his apartment for a tryst with Fran after her suicide attempt.
  • Near the end of The Elite Squad, during the final search for Baiano, Renan expresses doubt when they start breaking down the doors of the innocent. Nascimento lets him take some kids out of the area.
  • In the The House Bunny, Lily does not utter a single word until she sees her friends acting like the same snobs who tormented them, at which point she vehemently calls them out for becoming exactly what they hated.
  • Two of the Democrats in Lincoln pull this off on the day of the vote, Yeaman in particular.
  • Scarface (1983): Throughout the film, Tony has been a drug lord, a murderer, generally getting worse and worse. However, seeing Sosa's hitman about to kill the target while the man's wife and kid are in the same car makes him draw the line.

  • Deryni Checkmate: The day after the Curia excommunicated Morgan and Duncan, its leaders, Archbishops Loris and Corrigan, tried to push through an Interdict on Morgan's duchy as well. The previously neutral Bishop Cardiel spoke against the measure, precipitating a schism within the Church. Cardiel argued that it was unjust to punish the people of Corwyn for the actions of its duke and left open the possibility that Morgan and Duncan were morally innocent. The conflict escalated as other bishops, including Arilan and Tolliver (Corwyn's bishop), joined in, accusing Loris of supporting a rebellion against the king and promoting genocide against the Deryni.
  • Heralds of Valdemar: In By the Sword, mercenary Kerowyn quits the Skybolts in a dramatic Insignia Rip-Off Ritual rather than follow their inept Captain in an attack intended (by their corrupt employers) to get the entire company killed. The rest of the company is inspired, and after some misadventures they get Kero installed as Captain herself.
  • In Ru Emerson's The Princess of Flames, King Sedry's henchman Nolse has done every manner of dirty deed in Sedry's service, including killing Sedry's own brother for him. But when Sedry tries to torture information out of Fialla, the lady of an ally, Nolse discovers to his shock that he actually does have a conscience and it won't tolerate this. Sedry kills him, but the fight buys enough time for Fialla to be rescued.
  • In the opening of The Shadow of the Lion, Abbot Sachs has, with the help of several Knight Templar, apprehended some children in a church, that he claims are enacting satanic rites. Erik reminds the knights that the kids are most likely innocent, have sanctuary in the church, and can only be removed by order of the parish priest. This sets up Erik as a moral center for the knights, and a conflict with the abbot.
  • Trail of Glory: The entire plot of 1812: The Arkansas War hinges on this trope, in that the United States is forced to address slavery in the 1820s instead of the 1850s, and in a far more direct way. It's not too sudden, but then it involves an entire nation.
  • Vorkosigan Saga:
    • In Falling Free, Bannerji doesn't refuse to fire at and destroy the ship that the Quaddies escape on per se, but he demands a proper work order, signed by the Hazardous Waste Management Officer, and with an Environmental Impact Assessment attached. This gives the ship time to escape.
    • In Shards of Honor, when Sergeant Bothari refuses to rape Cordelia as per Admiral Vorrutyer's orders.
      "She's Commodore Vorkosigan's prisoner. Sir."

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Boys (2019): Homelander has discovered the existence of The Boys and accuses Starlight — who is dating Hughie Campbell — of being in league with them. He's working himself up into a homicidal fury when Queen Maeve gets up and tells Homelander to leave her alone. Homelander is surprised saying he could not remember the last time Maeve gave a shit about anyone. It's implied that both Starlight and Maeve's ex-girlfriend Elena have started Maeve feeling guilty about how far she's strayed from her ideals.
  • Game of Thrones: Tyrion puts up with a great deal on Joffrey's wedding day. The groom seems even more obnoxious than usual and goes to great lengths to humiliate his uncle for no reason other than it amuses him. Tyrion puts up with it until Joffrey orders him to kneel before him. At that point, his face says it all: no chance. Margaery diffuses this brinkmanship by calling attention to the pie.
  • Succession: Rhea thinks nothing of screwing over, backstabbing, and straight-up breaking the law when it suits her to get more money and a better position. But she finally draws the line at confronting a rape victim and destroying her in order to suit Waystar-Royco and leaves Shiv to do it alone.
  • In Torchwood: Miracle Day, Cpl. Coltrane starts off as little more than Colin Maloney's cringing accomplice as he murders Dr. Juarez by demonstrating the true purpose of the modules. In episode 6, however, he shows up just in time to shoot Maloney when he's trying to kill Esther.
    Cpl. Coltrane: This has got to stop!
  • A form of this occurs in The West Wing. In the 6th season, a conservative Senator is trying to attach a rider banning gay marriage to a budget bill. Toby is looking to rally support, and goes to the Vice President, Bob Russell, for a statement of support. Russell, who is widely regarded as an idiot, mildly corrupt, and a bit of an opportunist, surprises Toby by refusing. Russell states that he has a gay nephew, but is against gay marriage because "it could set back progress fifty years." Bartlet eventually convinces the Senator to drop the amendment on the budget bill.
  • Xena: Warrior Princess: In a flashback to Xena's days as a conqueror, her lover Barius, who had countless acts of violence with her, drew the line at her planned genocide of the Centaur race and betrayed her in order to save them.

    Pro Wrestling 

    Puppet Shows 
  • In The Muppets (2011), just as Tex Richman is about to cut the power to the Muppet theater:
    Tex Richman: Deadly! What are you doing?
    Uncle Deadly: Enough! Just because I have a terrifying name and an evil English accent, does not preclude the fact that, in my heart, I am a Muppet, not a Moopet!

    Video Games 
  • Cecil near the beginning of Final Fantasy IV. Having already stormed a defenseless city of Squishy Wizards to rob their crystal and been demoted for meekly questioning the King's orders, he's then used as an Unwitting Pawn to destroy the summoners' village, Mist. When Kain points out that the King would want them to kill a little girl who is one of the few survivors, Cecil refuses and turns away from Baron.
    Cecil: Any man who'd wish for this is no king of mine.
  • In No One Lives Forever, Magnus Armstrong is a principled villain and his rationalizations for working with HARM wear thin over the course of the game. After Cate Archer beats him in a fistfight, she convinces him to abandon HARM altogether.
  • In Shin Megami Tensei IV, if you're on the Law or Chaos routes, Isabeau makes one against you right before the final dungeon, as you're following a path that will result in the destruction of either Tokyo or Mikado. You'll be forced to fight her, as she considers you too far gone no matter what you say. Only the Neutral route will spare her from this fate.

    Web Animation 
  • Played for laughs in If the Emperor Had a Text-to-Speech Device: the Centurion has been listening patiently to all of Emperor's and Kitten's more-and-less insane conversations, but when they begin to talk about the Space Wolves and Lemun Russ while Magnus the Red was in earshot, he interrupts them and reveals his true identity: Rogal Dorn.

  • While Magus of El Goonish Shive had previously shown a willingness to do a good many things in hopes of returning to the physical world, when Pandora told him to force Mr. Verres to kill a certain wizard in cold blood, he decided that was one thing he was not willing to do. (Warning: Link contains spoilers)

    Western Animation 
  • Gillecomgain from Gargoyles is a rare villainous example: He had no compunctions about killing Macbeth's father or marrying Macbeth's girlfriend (both on Prince Duncan's orders), but when Duncan ordered him to assassinate Macbeth himself as well, he refused for pragmatic rather than moral reasons: "Nay, milord. Macbeth is an heir to the crown, and much beloved by the people; besides, it might lead to some uncomfortable questions about his father's demise... and who demanded it."
  • Lion-O from Thunder Cats 2011 takes one against a bloodthirsty mob and his own father.

    Real Life 
  • In 1962, a group of street musicians in Munich had gathered quite a crowd and kept playing well after 22:30 into the night. Police arrived and instead of just saying "this is a residential area, would you please stop playing here or move to the park", they immediately arrested the musicians. At that point, some people in the crowd protested that this was unfair, and 17 years of unresolved social tension after World War 2 finally spilled over. The officers called for backup, which arrived in the form of a riot squad, and at that point, the situation grew into a real riot. Completely inexperienced and untrained, police handled the situation as poorly as one would expect and the riots escalated and lasted for over a week, and also marked the beginning of the German civil rights movement which was marked by Police Brutality and left-wing terrorism that lasted for the next two decades. And all because someone stood up and said "Don't you think this is a bit excessive?"
  • Many Dutch student fraternities let their members go through two weeks of humiliation (which often include humiliating tasks, getting shouted at by older members, excessive alcohol consumption, and very little sleep) before they are a full member. Other fraternities dislike this practice and don't have this kind of initiation ritual (or some much lesser form). At least one fraternity puts an older member among the new members and calls this "mole" forward to be "humiliated", until the new members invoke just this trope, at which point the masquerade is given up, and everybody has a good laugh.
  • During the weeks leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet government increasingly pressured East Germany to crack down on protests. Combining a harsh Take That! against communist China with a thinly veiled accusation that the Soviets were demanding a return to stooping to the repressiveness of Nazi Germany, the premier of East Germany pointedly and quite angrily rebuked Moscow, "We refuse to implement the Chinese Solution" (referring to the Tiananmen Square Massacre), with wording that intentionally drew an explicit parallel to the Third Reich's escalation of repression from Kristallnacht into the eventual enactment of "The Final Solution". The speech marked the beginning of the end for the Eastern Bloc.
  • Invoking this was part of the Milgram Experiment by asking a volunteer to administer increasingly painful electric shocks to someone (an actor) on command by an authority figure. The researchers were trying to find out when people would stand up and say "no more" due to an attack of conscience. They estimated that no more than 3% would administer a 450V (likely fatal) shock. In initial testing 65% administered that level of electricity. The actor was supposed to stop responding after 300V. Real Life Nightmare Fuel at its darkest.

    The Sudden Principled Stand did eventually occur in all cases. Specifically, when the volunteer was asked to continue the experiment by having the authority figure insist on it, every single one of the volunteers said no. Specifically, the authority figure stated "Please continue" after the first objection, followed by "The experiment requires that you continue" after the second, "it is absolutely essential that you continue" and finally "You have no choice, you must go on". After the final prod, all volunteers stopped the experiment without fail.
  • A high-ranking member of the Devil's Disciples biker gang turned in his own nephew after learning the five people he killed in the name of the gang included three children. He later had to leave the gang as his fellow members didn't appreciate him snitching to the cops, even over a child murderer.