Doomed Moral Victor

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"The tyrant dies, his rule ends. The martyr dies, and his rule begins."
Søren Kierkegaard

This can be a whole stock plot.

A villain, often an Evil Overlord with 0% Approval Rating, harms the hero or their people who are not nearly as high ranking and powerful. Despite being hopelessly outmatched, the brave hero strikes back and wins some battles through cleverness, willpower and sheer charisma.

Ultimately though, our hero gets the worst of it in a very nasty way and finally bites the dust, Defiant to the End, with fighting spirit and charisma intact, if nothing else. The hero will show this through shouting or growling a lofty Facing the Bullets One-Liner or by dying calmly and full of dignity. In fact, the moment itself can be a Crowning Moment of Awesome in the hands of the right sort of hero.

A cynical viewer may wonder why the hero dying a miserable death after losing everything they ever had would encourage anyone to get on this villain's bad side, but the oppressed masses are animated by the notion that no matter how intimidating the opponent is, it's still possible to resist. These rebels sometimes lose too, which makes them all Doomed Moral Victors. Either that or a lot of people just liked this person, and now they're really pissed.

Not to mention that the hero will be reunited with their loved ones in the afterlife (provided the setting has one, of course,) while the villain (especially in the case of immortality) will never see them again.

This is heavily reliant on, as J. R. R. Tolkien called it, the "Theory of Courage," the idea present in older iterations of Norse Mythology that despite the foreknowledge or likelihood of failure, one must press on to do the moral thing for no better reason than the fact that you should.

A non-violent Doomed Moral Victor is someone who does Turn the Other Cheek and gets killed for it.

See Tragic Hero for a failing hero whose fate is their own fault. Contrast Tragic Dream. See also As Long as There Is One Man, My Death Is Just the Beginning, Evil Cannot Comprehend Good, Last Stand.

As a Death Trope, Spoilers ahead may be unmarked. Beware.

As an Ending Trope, Spoilers ahead may be unmarked. Beware.

Examples of Doomed Moral Victor include:

Anime and Manga

  • Happens at least twice in Fist of the North Star, and used as a Tear Jerker both times. Shuu dies after being forced to complete Souther's pyramid to protect his village, and Fudoh's heroic final stand against Raoh.

"My body may die; I may be reduced to but a single drop of blood. But those with Kenshiro's courage will rise time and again to face you; while you, Raoh, will live for the rest of your life but a mere terrified coward!!"

  • Also happens in Basilisk, where Oboro can only free herself from her role as an Unwitting Pawn by killing herself rather than her major rival and love interest.
  • Franz from Gankutsuou, who secretly takes Albert's place in the duel with the Count. He knows very well that it's impossible for him to win, but he still goes through with it, and tries his hardest to fight. He dies a very painful and bloody death.
    • However, Franz's "moral victory" is in some ways a literal one, as he not only succeeds in convincing Albert not to hate the Count for his actions, but a fragment of his sword, which got lodged in the Count's chest actually kills the Count later when he ceases to be Gankutsuou and becomes vulnerable again.


  • Spartacus is the classic example. He is a slave who becomes the leader of a slave uprising against the Roman Empire. After a string of stunning victories, they're finally utterly defeated and he and his rebels are crucified along the road to Rome. Historically, Spartacus had the chance to quit while he was ahead and escape to freedom, but was trapped into continuing confrontations by the blood lust of his army—making this one even more tragic, as well as Older Than Feudalism.
    • His whole army become martyrs when they refuse to give him up to the authorities in exchange for their lives, "I'm Spartacus!"
  • The title character in Gladiator becomes a darling of the public, kills the emperor in a duel and dies afterward.
    • He was already mortally wounded by the Emperor just before they entered the arena. It was meant to be more of a fancy execution than a duel, in order to discredit the hero and bolster the strength of the Emperor. The evil Emperor still loses.
  • William Wallace of the movie Braveheart builds an army to drive the English garrison out, gets betrayed, captured, refuses to bow before the king, and is tortured and killed. Then his army wins a decisive battle.
  • In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Robin Hood's father Lord Locksley charges out of his castle and attacks the Sheriff of Nottingham's men, dying in the process. This motivates Robin to oppose the Sheriff.
  • The anarchist being sent to the gulag delivers an impassioned speech to the passengers on the train in Doctor Zhivago that they are the real slaves and he is the only free man on the train.
  • V for Vendetta, though in this case, deliberately set up in a massive gambit by the title character. Probably from the very beginning.
    • Also, the girl with the glasses who is killed by a fingerman.
    • And, for that matter Valerie. Her refusal to give in even as she's tortured, experimented upon, and eventually killed by Norsefire -- for no greater crime than being lesbian -- is one of the major motivations for V, and later for Evey. V wouldn't have become the intentional Doomed Moral Victor he became if she hadn't become one without even trying.
  • One could make this argument for Leonidas and the Spartans of 300, railing against the inevitable conquest of a gigantic army that proves not so inevitable after all. But not until after they've died to a man proving it.
    • In fact, the historical Leonidas was told by the oracle that the only way to save Sparta was for him to die in combat, causing him to deliberately invoke the trope.
  • Brazil is probably a subversion.
    • Not entirely a subversion. He escapes to the freedom of his own mind where they cannot touch him. There's something sadly heroic about it all.
      • Still a subversion: Sam's dream sequences severely degenerate over the course of the film. In the first sequence, he is the Knight in Shining Armor saving the distressed damsel in a surreal landscape; by the last, he has become the damsel, inert and passive, being taken to a decidedly ordinary ending. The machine has destroyed his desire to be anything more than he is, even in his dreams. The heroism is lost; only the sadness remains.
  • Averted in Scarface, when Tony Montana was about to kill the anti-drug activist from the Bolivian government, but instead shoots the backup assassin at the last moment. Played straight later, however; Tony's having standards and refusal to hurt children lead Sosa to decide that He Has Outlived His Usefulness.
  • In The Untouchables, the death of Jim Malone.
  • The Wicker Man.
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, as the death of Billy inspires McMurphy to attack Nurse Ratched, and the lobotomy of McMurphy inspires the Chief to escape, and one assumes the others escaped through the hole in the window as well, though that isn't shown.
    • More so in the book, where McMurphy's attack on Ratched gets him lobotomized, as in the film, but we're explicitly told that one by one the other named patients have checked out. The Chief is just the last one to go.
  • Parodied in Life of Brian, where instead of the PFJ coming to rescue Brian from the cross, they leave him up there precisely for this trope, much to his dismay.
  • Yimou Zhang's films tend to feature characters actively choosing 'the impossible task,' becoming Doomed Moral Victors.
  • Ofelia in Pan's Labyrinth. This parallels the CNT-FAI in the Spanish Civil War, the setting of the film.


  • Completely subverted in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the protagonists think their struggle will end like this, but they are both broken and changed by the Party instead, making it a case of Shoot the Shaggy Dog.
    • Well, not completely subverted. They still count as the Moral Victors, only that their will has been destroyed by endless torture. Are they any less heroic for trying to resist the Party by being human in the first place?
  • "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman is a story much like 1984, where Harlequin is captured, broken and changed in the end. Despite this, he still wins something as his actions have an effect.
  • Discworld:
    • Parodied in the book Night Watch, where rebels (somewhat based upon La Résistance in Les Misérables) use as their slogan something like "you may kill us, but you'll never take our freedom", which Pratchett notes that the villains consider the stupidest slogan they've ever heard. Ultimately, the book does present the rebels as a somewhat straight example of doomed moral victors, given that the evil ruler is assassinated and his forces are defeated, but this is tempered by the fact that his seemingly benevolent successor ends up being even worse. The entire fight is pointless anyway, the plot to assassinate Lord Winder was around since before La Résistance and occurs identically in both time lines, despite the pivotal (and only) battle going the opposite way.
    • Invoked by Twoflower's daughters in Interesting Times when it becomes evident that their rebellion has failed. Rincewind, a hardcore cynic and self-proclaimed Dirty Coward promptly explodes in anger at their acceptance of this, angrily telling them that there is no such thing as a cause worth dying for, as a person can pick up five causes on any street corner, but only has one life. The aghast girls ask how Rincewind can live with such a philosophy—Rincewind's answer is a bitter, vehement "Continuously!"
  • Pretty much every named character in Brave New World. They end up banished to islands.
  • Due to the Values Dissonance between the 17th and 20th centuries, Don Quixote is now seen as one of these. This is especially true in The Musical Man of La Mancha with its song "Dream the Impossible Dream".
  • The fourth book of Jerry Pournelle's War World anthology series has a short story by S.M. Stirling called "Kings Who Die", in which a scholar/soldier-turned-bandit-refugee-turned-tribal-founder deliberately invokes this trope when he martyrs himself fighting a vastly superior foe in single combat; he chooses to become a legend to inspire his newly-established society.
    • And Stirling uses the trope again at the end of A Meeting In Corvallis.
  • Played with in The Red and The Black as the reader is meant to see the Anti-Hero as this when he is able to happily go to the guillotine after finally renouncing his Holier Than Thou persona and religion in general, and being authentic for the first time, despite the fact that society as a whole likely views him as scum.
    • Likewise, the death of Meursault in The Stranger, which was inspired by the above.
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms has Liu Bei, who's trying to uphold the doomed Han Dynasty. Well, except when the book itself subverts the "moral" part.
    • Various other officers are also examples. Chen Gong refused Cao Cao's pardon because he felt Cao was too evil to serve and was executed instead. The physician Ji Ping dies without ratting out his confederates in a plot to assassinate Cao Cao, despite Cao's best efforts to get him to confess. One of Liu Zhang's officers commits suicide at Liu Zhang's feet when his warning about Liu Bei is ignored.
  • In Roger Zelazny's short story The Keys to December, the main character's people are terraforming a world to fit them, since the only world they could live on was destroyed. The native lifeforms, under the new evolutionary pressure, evolve sentience and religion (worshiping the main character as he awakes every 250 years and patrols the world to see how the terraforming is going). He realizes that they cannot evolve further and, after failing to convince his people to stop or slow the terraforming, leads his believers in a rebellion. Finally, he and his main rival agree to put the question to a vote of their people—as the main character says, if he loses, "I'll retire and you can be God." He loses, and lives out his life as the God of the presumably now-doomed people.
  • Les Misérables is probably one of the older uses of this trope - the friends of the ABC are courageous and noble and ultimately, in spite of their barricade and all their preparations, totally helpless against the forces of the government.
    • Made explicit in the musical: "Let others rise to take our place until the earth is free!"
  • To Kill a Mockingbird downplayed this trope in Atticus Finch: he was doomed to lose his case, not die. In doing so, though, he achieved the same goals of a martyr.
  • Mistborn has a couple of cases. First the Skaa rebellion, which is purposefully trying to invoke this trope to inspire the masses to revolt, and second, Kelsier who was also intentionally invoking this trope, but had a better plan for it.
    • Somewhat subverted, given that Kelsier's plan to overthrow the empire actually succeeds
  • Not played exactly straight in The Wheel of Time, but Rand, once he goes full-blown Jerkass Mode, throws former allies and even his best friends into battles, not because they've actually got a shot, but because they pulled it out of their ass before and he's hoping they can do it again.
  • Albus Dumbledore, from the Harry Potter novels, died a Doomed Moral Victor because, in the end, his death was All According to Plan. By choosing the time and means of his death, he denied Lord Voldemort mastery of the Elder Wand, something that was key to the villain's ultimate demise. Additionally, by committing "Suicide by Snape", Dumbledore succeeded in one of his secondary goals: keeping Draco Malfoy from crossing the Moral Event Horizon into true villainy, and putting the young Slytherin on the eventual path of redemption.
  • Mme. Raquin in Therese Raquin watches Thérèse and Laurent die and gets satisfaction that her son is avenged. However, the ending is ambiguous as to her fate. The implication is she died not long after, but even if she didn't her paralyzed and silent state means that she is completely dependent and will die unless someone finds her.
  • In Michael Flynn's Up Jim River, Zorba discussed how he rescued a wannabe doomed moral victor on the grounds that the revolt would only lead to a Full-Circle Revolution.

Live-Action TV

  • The crew in Blakes Seven, according to one interpretation of the Bolivian Army Ending.
    • Considering that the group manages to take out more than two thirds of the Federation's military forces, allow for several other human powers to expand, and begin a full scale (though now leaderless) rebellion by uniting various warlords; it's easy to see why.
  • Legate Damar in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The grassroots rebellion begins while he's still alive; his death galvanizes it.
  • In the recent BBC series Robin Hood Robin gets this at the end of Season Three.
    • It also happens to Marian the the end of the second season. She finally stands up to Guy and admits to him (and herself) that she's in love with Robin. Guy then runs her through with his sword.
  • Invoked in Community episode "Beginner Pottery" when Shirley becomes one when she captains her ship into a "storm" in order to save Pierce, stating she would rather be nice than strong. Her reward: becoming an admiral, at least in the eyes of the professor.
  • Burgess Meredith's character in the episode "The Obsolete Man" of The Twilight Zone.
  • "The Last Room," early June 1959 episode of The David Niven Show (an Anthology series Niven hosted), also starred him as a Secret Police interrogator in an unspecified totalitarian country, trying to break a captured Christian and get him to give up the names of church leaders. He failed ... and was haunted by the question of how the fellow held out unto death. At the end, after the interrogator visited an abandoned church and his subordinate arrested him on suspicion of having converted, he acknowledged the prisoner had won.


  • In the music video for My Chemical Romance's "SING", all of the heroes, or Killjoys, as they are known in the story, are shot by either the main antagonist, Korse, or his army of Draculoids, save for the youngest of the group, played by Grace Clark.

Oral Tradition. Folklore, Myth and Legend

  • There's Prometheus, whose opponents are the Greek gods; they are not exactly villains, but certainly powerful and unforgiving foes to have.
    • Arguable, since Prometheus is later freed by Hercules and the gods eventually just leave him alone.
      • You spend a few generations getting your liver pecked out by an eagle on a daily basis just for giving Man the ability to cook meat and keep warm - I think he qualifies
  • Jesus Christ. According to the Bible, dying for humanity was his entire raison d'etre.
  • Norse Mythology before Christians influenced it, when There Was Nothing After Death and evil won in the end. Of course, it's not quite all there since there is nobody left to fight after Ragnarok. In later versions, it's played straight when the new world is reborn.

Video Games

  • Pulled off well in Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core. Zack Fair dies in a heroic Last Stand against the corporate army that has been hunting him down like a dog, and while he doesn't even come close to bringing down Shinra, his death empowers the guy who does...

Zack: Boy oh boy. The price of freedom is steep...

    • Zack, of course, had no intention of taking down Shinra. All he was trying to do in fighting the Shinra army was protect his comatose friend. When he inevitably fails (seriously, how can you go up against an army and win? But then, he knew that...), he still wins, because his actions saved Cloud's life. Everyone else might forget Zack, his entire history might be erased by Shinra, but Cloud will remember him. And that's all he wanted. Sob...
  • Ramza of Final Fantasy Tactics who, despite being persecuted more and more by those would perverse the idea "righteousness," constantly struggles against the evils of his world. That said, since he refuses to resort to the sort of tactics Delita employs, it's all too obvious as to where this path will lead him in such a world; no that Ramza is unaware of this, nor will he change his course.
    • Zalbaag is probably a better example. Depending on how you view the ending, Ramza might never really qualify as "doomed." Zalbaag dies specifically trying to do what is right. The only reason he doesn't do so sooner in the plot is because Ramza's accusations are very unbelievable due the various Xanatos Gambits in place. As soon as he finds evidence proving them, he fights and dies for it. Ramza doesn't do so.
    • Wiegraf and his entire rebellion are this. Their name even refers to the fact they know they are going to die, but fight because they feel they are morally in the right.
  • Gorath from Betrayal at Krondor becomes a shining example of cooperation and friendship with humans as well as acting at personal expense for the good of your people, and favoring mercy over a thirst for vengeance. That last one dooms him - he chooses to spare his Arch Enemy Delekhan and shortly dies stopping him from activating the Lifestone. Unfortunately, the top-secret circumstances and the discontinued nature of that plot line prevent him from influencing his people or his friends in the martyr fashion typical of this trope.
  • Captain Brenner/O'Brian, The Obi-Wan of Advance Wars: Days of Ruin/Dark Conflict. Although he dies, his army unit carries on in his name and The Hero eventually wins.
  • Fire Emblem: Seisen no Keifu: Sigurd. Just Sigurd.
  • The Hyrulean soldiers who are cut down by the invading Zant and his Twilit monsters, in the explanatory cut scenes of The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess. The massacre is stopped only by Princess Zelda surrendering to spare their lives.
  • The apprentice/Starkiller/Galen Marek from The Force Unleashed eventually becomes this, when he becomes the mask, embraces the new Rebellion, and is then killed and made into a martyr for the Rebel cause.
  • One of your choices at the end of the dystopian IF game Kaged can have this effect. You end up in a stadium, facing the Inquisitor. You can either accept his "heads, life sentence, tails you die" offer, or leap at him with your hands around his neck. If you do the latter, snipers among the crowd in the stadium kill you, but it's hinted that the Inquisitor dies and you inspire the rebellion.
  • The obscure, semi-canonical (Bradbury was on the dev team), text-adventure sequel to Fahrenheit 451. Guy manages to break into the Library and find Clarisse (who apparently faked her death at the end of the book), who has stolen a monumental stash of microcassettes containing the contents of the New York Public Library. They lock themselves in a transmitter room long enough to upload the cassettes' content to the Undreground's archives all over the world. They finish their upload, but don't have time to escape when the Firemen bust in and immolate them.

Visual Novels

Web Comics

Western Animation

Real Life

  • Under slavery in the United States and in the West Indies among others, many slaves who were tortured and killed after they tried to escape.
    • Not to mention John Brown, a controversial abolitionist who was executed for his violent attempts to free slaves in Virginia. His death outraged the North and hastened the outbreak of the Civil War, during which his name was a rallying cry for Union soldiers. The marching song "John Brown's Body" became the famous Battle Hymn of the Republic, with new lyrics inspired by the old.
  • The passengers on United Flight 93. (Also a Crowning Moment of Awesome.)
    • This assumes the passengers' motivations were not merely to save their own lives but to stop the attack. We'll never really know.
    • Also assumes that the plane was not (probably) simply shot down
  • Depending on your political views, Che Guevara.
  • William Wallace (then again..), Dolores Ibárruri, amongst others.
    • Even without the movie and the upgrade, Wallace applies. He's one of Scotland's most revered heroes in a country that honors ALL of its heroes.
    • But Dolores Ibarruri wasn't killed in the war, and in fact returned to Spain after Franco's death. How is she a doomed moral victor?
  • Pretty much EVERY Polish underground unit that fought both Hitler and the Soviets and kept on fighting after WWII. It is damn near unbelievable that some of these people literally fought for something on the tune of FORTY years before being hunted down. But they almost all gained their wish when the Soviet Empire fell.
  • Cato the Younger, one of the leading political opponents of Julius Caesar during the collapse of the Roman Republic. He committed suicide rather than surrender and accept a full pardon and political reinstatement, since that would concede Caesar had the RIGHT to offer pardon and Cato's side were in the wrong. He became a powerful symbol for unflinching adherence to virtue in the face of defeat and his reputation flourished posthumously; it was said, "The winning side had the Gods but the losing side had Cato." Doomed but self-proclaimed morally righteous causes have evoked Cato's name throughout history.
  • The Easter Rising in Ireland. In fact, that was the *whole* plan. Rise, be put down, be executed, and provide inspiration for others. "Blood sacrifice" Pearse called it. And so "a terrible beauty is born..."
  • The Bulgarian April Uprising of 1876 was the same thing. I've heard claims the Irish revolutionaries were inspired and learned from Bulgarian revolutionaries.
  • The Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
  • The 1956 revolt in Hungary. This slowly led to Hungary becoming the least oppressed (or so they say) nation in the Soviet block, which in turn lead to Hungary becoming an independent republic in 1989.
  • The Prague Spring.
    • And in particular, Jan Palach (and several other people) who committed a suicide by setting himself on fire as a protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.
  • Jose P. Rizal.
  • Uprising of 1953 in East Germany. Failed, but became a holiday in West Germany.
  • Leonidas of Sparta. He went to Thermopylae knowing that he would die, and not only that he would die, but that tactically, the Persians could trade twenty thousand of their men for three hundred of his any day and come out ahead. The deaths of the Spartans inspired the rest of the Greeks, and Persia's offensive was doomed.
    • This is only somewhat true. Yes, they knew they were going there to die. There were FAR more than 300 people defending the gap, as all the soldiers brought their slaves, and the purpose wasn't to inspire anything. Indeed, the Greeks were already plenty inspired. The point was to buy them the time to get ready. The fact that they held out so long as they did, even in a pass that allowed their 300+ to match the massive Persian army in combat, was an inspiration, but not necessarily in the sense of this trope.
  • Sophie Scholl and The White Rose, the small Nazi Resistance group that handed out leaflets in the almost certain face of death. Even minutes before the core members of the group awaited decapitation via guillotine, "...several members of the White Rose believed that their execution would stir university students and other anti-war citizens into activism against Hitler and the war. Accounts suggest, however, that university students continued their studies as usual and citizens said nothing, many regarding the movement as anti-national." 22-year-old Scholl's last words:

"How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?"

"The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours' time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if just ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope that for our sake God will not destroy Germany. No one among us can complain about his death, for whoever joined our ranks put on the shirt of Nessus. A man's moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give up his life in defense of his convictions."

  • Socrates.
  • The "Arab Spring" started with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunez, followed by a few more. Several months, deaths and demonstrations later, the authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia had been deposed, with a dozen more countries implementing democratic reforms.
  • Arndt Pekurinen, a Finnish conscientious objector, who was executed without trial during the Continuation War in 1941 from refusing to take arms as he was force-levied in the army against his will. Two first soldiers who were ordered to execute him refused, and only the third obeyed as he himself was threatened with court-martial.
  • Naturally, this was a common fate among those who resisted the Holocaust. One perhaps stands out more than others, an Italian bricklayer named Lorenzo Perrone, who smuggled food and winter clothing to Auschwitz inmate Primo Levi out of his own meager rations, which would have been punishable by death. Even so, the effort eventually killed him, as the starvation he endured led to him contracting and eventually dying from tuberculosis. Levi would later write in If This is a Man "But Lorenzo was a man; his humanity was pure and unblemished, and he was outside this world of denial. Thanks to Lorenzo I happened not to forget I myself was a man."