"These are the books where people begin to die. These are the books where we realise that all bets are off and no one is safe. And on that cheerful note, enjoy the trip."
—Dan Abnett foreword in The Saint
When the writers want to impress you with their ruthlessness, they may trumpet that Tonight Someone Dies, then kill off a random second-stringer that nobody much cares about. They might even kill of a major character because his actor was leaving anyway, or because they needed a good cliffhanger to convince people to watch the next season. That is also not this trope (although it's pretending to be).
This is where no one is exempt from being killed, including the main characters (maybe even the hero). The Sacrificial Lamb is often used to establish the writer's Anyone Can Die cred early on. However, if the Lamb's death is a one-off with no follow-up, it's just Killed Off for Real. To really be Anyone Can Die, the work must include multiple deaths, happening at different points in the story. Bonus points if the death is unnecessary and devoid of Heroic Sacrifice.
This trope is very helpful in keeping Genre Savvy fans from being Spoiled by the Format. In a kid's show, of course Alice and Bob are going to survive the raging rapids. In an Anyone Can Die work however, the danger actually becomes dangerous.
War shows like Mobile Suit Gundam benefit from having a larger cast since there are so many people to kill off. The frequent deaths within a wide cast make the storyline unpredictable, forcing you to wonder who'll be left standing once the dust settles.
Still, even if all characters are allegedly up for the possibility of a dance with the reaper, the general laws of storytelling (and, more importantly, how actors are contracted) tells us that you can expect the chances of main-character death to increase as you approach the climax of an arc, the final episodes of a season, the final chapters of a book, or the final installment of a series, even if the work averts Death Is Dramatic. A creator needs to be quite committed to the concept to kill off an important character in a completely plot-irrelevant way.
Note that while the character needs to be Killed Off for Real for the trope to have the desired effect, the writers will try to cheat and bring back the guy later (see Not Quite Dead, Disney Death, and Battle Royale With Cheese). As such Superhero Comic Books as a medium have gained a reputation of "Anyone Can Die... until someone wants to use the character in a later story."
See also Kill'Em All, when everyone will die. Opposite of Nobody Can Die and Plot Armor, where not even situations that should kill people manage to. See also Dwindling Party, where the deaths are evenly spaced rather than near the end. Easier to do in works with Loads and Loads of Characters.
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