The pursuit of happiness is one of the fundamental activities of mankind, be it from accomplishment, family, or gainfully performing a duty or calling. This is why characters who are shown to have attained a certain amount of happiness are very sympathetic to an audience, something indispensable for an author to tell a good story. However, people who are happy don't usually go out of their way to answer the Call to Adventure, making their involvement in a story very difficult. The solution writers most often employ is to kill the happy characters.
That's right, in order to get The Hero to pick up the phone, everyone they love will get killed, or at the least kidnapped and held hostage. This doubles as a potent force for drama (clichéd though it may be) as the audience is shown how the hero's Dark and Troubled Past was born. In fact, if a movie features a Crusading Widower Anti-Hero, you can bet flashbacks will be of their happy days before their family was killed.
This isn't confined to beginnings or backstories though. Any character close to achieving their goal or enjoying great happiness in the course of the story will have the writer Yank the Dog's Chain with the Diabolus ex Machina.
This isn't to say this trope is only used to unjustly torment heroes; villains can be born from these tragedies (or kept from a HeelFace Turn) in equal measure. Nor is the use of this trope a sign of poor writing; personal tragedy is a valid motivation for characters, as is the struggle to Earn Your Happy Ending. Only when the story sabotages the character's dreams to preserve Status Quo Is God at the expense of catharsis does this trope start to go overboard.
If several characters had this happen to them, it may result in Dysfunction Junction. Stories with a Snicket Warning Label outright warn readers this will happen. Retirony happens to characters about to become happy.
- Ga-Rei -Zero-: So you've moved up the ladder in life. You have a loving foster father, and an adorable foster little sister. You steadily rise in your occupation, what's with being a phenomenally talented person. Your fiancee is the son of one of your higher-ups. The aforementioned little sister is going your path, and is an even more talented person than you. Things will be getting even better in the future, right? The answer is, unfortunately, a profoundly resounding NO, because your name is Yomi Isayama.
- In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Mami Tomoe is killed almost immediately after she finally finds contentment in her life — directly on the heels of a monologue about how wonderful she feels, in fact. It's implied that being happy indirectly caused her death — it made her reckless.
- Happens in the first episode of D.Gray-Man, a couple is literally split up in their day of their wedding, just when the women was thanking God for their happiness (and perhaps Killed Mid-Sentence). It's pretty much someone giving them the finger, and the now turned Anti-Hero blames God. The show is absolutely in love with this trope. You can pretty much expect that any character who is both a) happy with his life and b) not a main character is going to either die or have someone he loves die.
- Euphie from Code Geass. She's just about ready to make peace with Zero, and he's willing to accept it. Cue in some... unfortunate incidents and she's dead and forever hated by an entire country (or more). She even dies happy thinking she did her best for the world.
- In Blood-C, Genki Girl twins Nene and Nono are the first to die...or so it seems. When they turn up alive with everyone else late in the series, they're complete jerks and become Asshole Victims instead.
- In Neon Genesis Evangelion, it appears that the universe goes out of its way to horribly destroy anyone that even tries to be happier.
- In End of Evangelion, Asuka spends a good 10 minutes fighting off the MP-Evas, after finding a reason to live (her mother is with her and she loves her) only to have them get back up and kill her.
- Also in End of Evangelion. When Lilith begins the Instrumentality of mankind, various Rei dopplegangers take the appearance of people that each human loves (such as Misato for Makoto Hyuuga, Yui for Fuyutsuki, and Ritsuko for Maya), giving them such pleasure and happiness before destroying their AT field and reducing them to a puddle of orange goo.
- In Saikano, you know that whenever a secondary character is having a happy moment, joking and/or laughing as a break of the horrors of war, they are about to be killed in a short moment by an enemy bombing or attack.
- Medaka Box: Time will tell if it sticks but as of chapter 154, Zenkichi has been killed right after having his marriage proposal accepted by Medaka.
- Higurashi: When They Cry:
- At the beginning of every arc (from his perspective), Keiichi notes that he much prefers his new life in Hinamizawa, and is surrounded by people who all know and love him. Then someone mentions the Watanagashi festival or the murders, and it all goes downhill from there...
- Also, Rika in Dice-killing Arc. She's just defeated the "Groundhog Day" Loop that she's been trapped in for centuries, has two months of happiness... then gets hit by a truck.
- Fullmetal Alchemist has a classic example of this with the tragic death of Hughes who spent about 80% of his face time in the series happily babbling on about his beautiful wife and lively young daughter.
- In The Ultimates, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are a couple, but how happy they are about it is the portent of tragedy.
- Though nobody dies, this is just one of many reasons why Spider-Man fans hate One More Day. Peter and Mary Jane have been Happily Married for about twenty years (real-time). But we can't have that; how are we going to get Peter caught up in Love Triangles? (And this isn't the first time; they previously tried to kill MJ off in order to make Peter a swinging single again.) Peter and MJ reached the 25 year mark in the newspaper strips, so that's some small comfort, and they're Happily Married in Spider-Girl.
- The final arc before Superior Spider-Man.
- The Punisher: You're a Vietnam vet with a good life with your lovely wife and adorable children. Then they all get murdered by a botched Mafia hit. So what do you do? Start wearing a black shirt with a white skull printed on it, get as many guns as you can carry, go completely nuts and kill everyone you believe might be even vaguely criminal. Subverted in Punisher Max. Frank wasn't happy with his life since he discovered his inner Blood Knight in 'Nam and was dissatisfied with peace. Frank is haunted by the fact that he had asked his wife for a divorce right before she and their children were killed in the botched Mafia hit.
- The Incredible Hulk is not the Hulk unless he's upset. Therefore it's kind of a Foregone Conclusion that any happy relationship he is currently in will end poorly at some point in the near future.
- Most Deaths by Origin Story are this way. From Ben Parker and Thomas & Martha Wayne to Wee Hughie's girlfriend-turned-fiance, it seems the greatest tragedies come from the greatest happiness.
- The Death of Spider-Man arc's prelude in Ultimate Spider-Man was this for Genre Savvy readers - even without the title, the fact that everything in Peter Parker's life was going absurdly well was a big clue that there was much badness on the way...
- This is actually an executive mandate concerning all members of the Bat Family: they aren't allowed to have long-term happiness in their private lives. Being heroes must always take precedence over any personal happiness they may have, so if any character is on the road to getting married or otherwise have something incredibly positive happen to them, expect a Yank the Dog's Chain moment to happen somehow. Notably, one of the creative teams for Batwoman quit in response to being told this.
- The Pre-Crisis Superman was leading a pretty cozy life. He was the world's mightiest and most beloved hero, he had a family, friends and a good job. Then his cousin Kara gets killed off. Then his best buddy breaks their partnership off. Then all of his Rogues come together to kill him. When it's all over, his life is in shambles: he's depowered, with no secret identity and no job, most of his friends have been killed and the world believes him dead.
- Orpheus and Eurydice in The Sandman, though this was of course a foregone conclusion.
- Anya Corazón's father was a nurturing, caring, and accepting parent who while concerned and apprehensive, still did his best to understand his daughter's need to do good with the abilities she'd trained so dedicatedly. So naturally, first order of business in her new series was to kill him.
- The Mothman Prophecies. John and Mary are ecstatic over their purchase of a new home, laughing in the car on the way back to it. And then disaster strikes...
- What Dreams May Come. The first ten minutes have Chris meeting his future wife, having kids, and laughing. And laughing. And laughing. And then his kids are killed offscreen, then he dies, then his wife commits suicide...
- Parodied in Hot Shots!; one guy happily talking to his wife just before he went to fly. He's not only happily married to a perfect gal, but also has yet to sign his life insurance policies and he just recently discovered the secret to world peace and who really killed JFK. But he'll deal with all that stuff after this one last mission. His callsign, by the way, is "Dead Meat."
- In Serenity, the film continuation of Joss Whedon's short-lived space opera, Firefly, poor Wash gets the bridge dropped on him just as the elation of bringing the ship down safely through a shitstorm of death is dawning on him. It probably didn't help that Wash probably brought viewers more smiles than anyone else.
- Parodied in Walk Hard, where the main character's brother's every line involves mentioning how happy he is to be alive. He is immediately sliced in half in a machete battle.
- In The Great Escape, Big X comments to one of his colleagues that he's never been happier than when he was at the Stalag working on escape plans. Less than a minute later, he and all of the other recaptured prisoners present are murdered by the Gestapo.
- Leslie from Bridge to Terabithia. She was, in fact, inspired by a real person the author of the original book knew.
- How to Train Your Dragon 2. Valka and Stoick reunite after 20 years, where it could be argued that Valka abandoned her husband and newborn son to help dragons. However, not only does neither Stoick and her now-adult son Hiccup have any hard feelings, but Stoick sings her a love song and their partnership is rekindled as brightly as it ever has - in the middle of the film. There's no way this reunion will end happily. Sure enough, Stoick is killed by Toothless.
- Tolkien's Legendarium:
- In The Hobbit, the narrator notes that while the Fellowship spends a while in Rivendell, there's nothing to report because they were too comfortable and content, then lampshades the trope noting that isn't it interesting that when characters are suffering there are pages and pages of description, while when they're happy, it's boring and warrants only a sentence or two.
- The Lord of the Rings: You live in an idyllic little town where everything is green lawns, simple folks, and blue skies. You spend your days in the woods, the hills, little rivers... When all of a sudden, your uncle disappears, his best friend tells you you have to leave your home immediately, and big scary horsemen with big scary swords stab you with a soul-stealing dagger, leaving a wound which will never heal.
- The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Lord Foul's Bane. Thomas Covenant lampshades this, pondering if he had lived an entire lifetime's worth of laughter before the discovery of his leprosy.
- Ernest Hemingway has the main couple of A Farewell to Arms quite happy, having escaped the Italian manhunt to Switzerland. While there's a level of self-destruction going on - they're living entirely on credit - the characters don't seem particularly bothered. Cue Death by Childbirth.
- This happens a lot in Warhammer 40,000 fiction. If you ever see ANY peaceful farmers or other common people, living pleasant lives and thanking the God-Emperor daily for the blessings He has seen fit to bestow upon them, you can expect a war which will kill most or all of them to break out within the chapter.
- It hasn't happened yet, but in Thud!, it's revealed that the greatest fear of Sam Vimes, who over the course of the Discworld series has gone from a drunken wreck of a night watchman to a public VIP and happily-married father, is that this is going to happen someday, if not to him then to his infant son.
- Roger Ebert referenced this trope in his book The Little Book Of Hollywood Cliches. In his list of the "top movie characters likely to die," he says:
''The person who says "I've never been happier than I am now" is not going to live to see the end credits.
- Finnick Odair, a short time after his wedding to Annie Cresta in Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay. And that was only after they went through a whole heck of lot of extremely ''un''happy.
- Sisterhood Series by Fern Michaels: The very first book, Weekend Warriors, starts off with Myra Rutledge and her daughters Nikki Quinn and Barbara Rutledge, all three of them happy as they can be. Then Barbara gets struck and killed (along with her unborn child) by a drunk hit-and-run driver exploiting Diplomatic Impunity. Cue the Heroic BSoD and the formation of the Vigilantes!
- Danielle Steel often starts her book with an ad nauseam description of how perfect the protagonist's life is. Which is often a good sign that (a) it's all going to fall apart very soon or (b) the person is actually miserable, despite the supposed perfection.
- Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It only took 2 books for Remus to stop being an Insecure Love Interest and let himself be happy. Damn this trope.
- The infamous Book of Job in The Bible starts out with a happy, faithful man who has everything he could ever want; a prosperous farm, perfect health, and a loving family. Then Satan decides to test his faith and demands God lets him destroy his life piece by piece. His livestock die, his home is destroyed, his family is killed, and he himself breaks out in boils. At the end, though, he did pass the test of faith and ends up getting back more than he even had before.
- Done on 24 with Jack Bauer and...just about any major love interest he's had on the show, as well as Tony Almeida and Michelle Dessler.
- Boardwalk Empire: Fan favorite Richard Harrow has decided to leave his past behind. He's married to a woman he loves, has adopted his late best friend's so as his own, and is set to move away from the gangster life into a comfortable life with his sister. He just needs to perform One Last Job, though...
- In a late episode of The Commish one of the officers was promoted to detective. Cue Car Bomb.
- Doctor Who:
- "Love & Monsters": The members of LINDA had become good friends and were having a good time with their amateur band when the evil alien arrived to use them for his own sinister purposes.
- At the start of "Face the Raven", the first episode of a three-part Season Finale, the Doctor and Clara Oswald who have spent the last two-plus seasons in a relationship that has evolved into their becoming at the very least Platonic Life-Partners are just coming back into the TARDIS after making a narrow escape from their latest wacky adventure, smiling and laughing. Then the phone rings... by the end of this episode, Clara is Killed Off For Real and the Doctor is shipped off to parts unknown for the benefit of his enemies. Although she demands he not let this turn him into a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds, neither knows about the Cold-Blooded Torture he's going to undergo, and with no Morality Chain he temporarily becomes a Villain Protagonist. Played with in that over the course of the season the Doctor and Clara being so happy is presented as a problem in and of itself: Since he is functionally immortal and she is not it's inevitable that they will be separated for good at some point, but thanks to undergoing so many personal tragedies and triumphs together they're now codependent. With his focus on her increasingly getting in the way of relationships with others and his need to help whomever he can, the season ends with both of them having to accept that they must part and find other ways to be happy.
- Used utterly without shame at the end of the Downton Abbey 2012 Christmas special. After Mary gives birth to her and Matthew's son, we get a few minutes of them sitting together in hospital, gushing about how happy they are and how Matthew falls more in love with her every day. Back home, the rest of the cast are discussing how far away the less certain times in their lives seem now. Then Matthew dies in a car accident in the last two minutes.
- ER's Greg Pratt was about to be named ER Chief and propose to his girlfriend when he was killed in a car accident.
- After the crews split up in the third season of Farscape, the Crichton who went with Aeryn aboard Talyn got Harvey removed from his head, unlocked the wormhole knowledge in his brain and could now utilize it to get home, and hooked up with his Love Interest, basically accomplishing all of Crichton's goals on the show. We can't have that now, can we?
- The pilot episode of the 2000 remake of The Fugitive spends the first 15 minutes establishing that Richard Kimble basically had it all—a beautiful wife he adored, plans to buy a house, discussion of starting a family, a stellar surgical career—before it was blown apart by his wife's murder and his subsequent wrongful conviction.
- Game of Thrones:
- Robb Stark has things going exceptionally well for him at one point. He's been quite successful in his war, he just secured an alliance that would allow him a possible decisive victory, he's married and his wife is expecting. Then comes the Red Wedding. The TV adaptation played up how idyllic his life was compared to the novels.
- Spoofed wonderfully in the "Game of Thrones Ultimate Rap Battle", which depicts him as relentlessly cheerful in the face of the rest of his family's misery and incredibly Genre Blind about his inevitable downfall.
Yeah we're heading to a wedding, gonna party today,
And I'm gonna be a dad? God, everything's GREAT!
- Everything seems to go well for Myrcella: she falls in love with the boy she's arranged to marry, she reveals to Jaime that she knew he's her real father and they have a sweet father-daughter bonding moment. She dies instantly after that.
- Joan of Arcadia featured the spunky new friend added into the second season who was quirky and happy and full of life and is then stabbed to death in an alley way for drama.
- Subverted on Law & Order: UK. DS Ronnie Brooks gushes to partner DS Matt Devlin about the birth of his grandson and the possibility of reconciling with his estranged daughter. Minutes later... Matt is shot.
- Lost does this to Jin and Sun. After being apart for nearly two seasons, Sun thinking Jin is dead, Sun returning to the island only for Jin to be stuck in the '70s, Jin coming back to the present only to be moved to another part of the island any time Sun might find the group he's with and they finally reunite only for both of them to die along with Sayid in the next episode.
- Million Yen Women: When Nanaka was killed, she was not only considering starting to work again after a year-long sabbatical and really looking forward to the gig, but also seemed like she could start dating Shin.
- In the series 3 finale of Misfits, Simon and Alisha get in a fight provoked by the ghost of Sally (who Simon killed), and who later tries to kill Alisha. Simon saves her and the two reconciled as ghost!Sally fades away and make love and... in the last five minutes of the episode, as they leave a room happy and smiling at each other, Rachel (who was killed by Nathan) appears as a ghost and kills Alisha in the spot as payback before fading away.
- NCIS' Ellie Bishop is blissfully happy with her new boyfriend when he's killed. In the episode where she avenges him, it's revealed she would have accepted his proposal had he not died.
- Marian from Robin Hood joyfully, fiercely, blissfully shouts: "I love Robin Hood! I'm going to marry Robin Hood! (This after years of not being able to admit her love for mostly political reasons.) A second later, the hypotenuse of their love triangle runs her through with his sword and she dies.
- On Sisters, second-oldest sister Teddy was finally happy after years of trauma and preparing to buy a house with her new husband (who himself had been through years of hell), when he was killed via a Car Bomb by a crime lord he was preparing to testify against.
- Invoked in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "I, Mudd". Kirk and his crew are held captive by androids, so they all generally act like illogical fools in order to get the androids to short circuit. Scotty grabs his heart and "dies". Kirk says he died from too much happiness.
Scotty: "I cannot go on! I'm tired of happiness. I'm tired of comfort and pleasure. I'm ready! Kill me! Kill me!"
[Kirk and others mime shooting hand phasers, complete with vocalized sound-effects]
"Goodbye, cruel universe."
McCoy: "He's dead."
Android: "You...cannot have killed him. You have no weapons."
Kirk: "Scotty! Scotty's dead. He had too much happiness. Now he's happier; he's dead. We'll miss him. Let us hear it for our poor, dead friend."
[human characters all laugh]
- Ianto in Torchwood. Okay, happy might not be the exact word, but he's just managed to accept his relationship with Jack, tell his sister about it, and generally not be a blob of angst in a sharp suit... And then boom, incurable alien virus.
- Everything Joss Whedon has ever written. If fans see someone happy, they know bad things are right around the corner.
- One of the cruelest examples happens in Dollhouse, right after Bennett and Topher kiss. They're both happy, he's bouncing around like a schoolgirl, she's actually smiling for once in the episode, and then Saunders shoots Bennett right as Topher walks back in the room.
- Joel Mynor has this as part of Death by Origin Story. After years of being supported by his wife he finally managed to make something that was a hit, giving him a huge paycheck. He decided to surprise his wife with it by secretly buying her a house and calling her to meet him at the address. She died in a car crash on the way. I mean... jeez.
- I'll see your Saunders and raise you Willow and Tara.
- Angel milks this for all it's worth with Cordelia and Angel at the end of Season 3. They've just independently realized they love each other! They're running (separately) to a romantic location where they can tell each other how they feel! So, naturally, one's going to ascend to the heavens, never to be seen again (sort of), and the other's going to be put in a box and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. And no, they never do express their love to each other.
- Equally, Giles and Jenny Calendar.
- Wesley and Fred too. Just to drive it home, we learns something's gone horribly wrong occurs right when Fred's singing "You are my sunshine".
- Xander and Anya.
- Buffy and Angel. Relatively speaking, Buffy / Riley and Willow / Oz got off pretty easy.
- Whedon embraces this trope. "Happy people make boring television."
- Older Than Steam: Anglo-Saxon Poetry from the 10th and 11th century. The only reason anyone was ever happy in these poems is to contrast how miserable and wretched they are now after their fate took a turn for the worse.
- Heavy Rain. At the start of the game, Ethan Mars has a blissful suburban life with his wife Grace and their two sons, Jason and Shaun. Then Jason is killed in a car accident and Ethan is put in a coma for six months. There's a Time Skip to two years later when Ethan is depressed, traumatized over the accident, separated from his wife, and has a strained relationship with Shaun who barely even speaks to him.
- Max Payne pretty much says it all in the prologue to the first game. It's not to come off as a surprise, considering the opening cutscene is just after Max has completed his Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
Max Payne: Life was good. The sun setting on a sweet summer's day. The smell of freshly mowed lawns, the sounds of children playing. A house across the river on the Jersey side. A beautiful wife and a baby girl. The American Dream come true ... But dreams have a nasty habit of going bad when you're not looking.
- In Mass Effect 2, Jack lampshades it if she romanced a male Shepard only to die as the second squad team leader during the suicide mission.
Jack: Too many of them... I knew I'd get hit on this job. I was too happy... too happy with you.
- Mother3 opens with Hinawa, Claus, and Lucas visiting their grandfather, happily playing with friendly dinosaurs, eating lunch, and preparing to depart for Tazmily in the afternoon. It's all downhill from there.
- Ancel in the extra Angsty Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume. Lampshaded with his Truthade profile, which notes he was doomed the moment he told his love interest there was something he wanted to ask her when he got back.
- Star Ocean is pretty fond of this:
- The first game starts off peacefully, and the main character even idly wishes something would happen. Then a disease breaks out that petrifies its victims, and while looking for a cure they encounter Earthlings and thanks to a series of tropes end up 300 years in the past searching for the original source of the disease to create a cure. The Hero eventually regrets wishing something would happen.
- Star Ocean: Till the End of Time opens with two protagonists on a family vacation at a beautiful beach resort planet, which is quickly attacked by humanoid shark aliens.