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"Lookit here... You need a ticket to ride this ride, and if your ticket gets punched then you gotta take somebody else's ticket."
Emerson Cod, Pushing Daisies

So, time is up, the Grim Reaper has arrived to collect the soul of you or your loved one, and he's not interested in a game of chess. It looks like all hope is lost. But wait... all Death needs is a soul, right? Surely there's someone around here whose life is less valuable than the person Death has come to collect. Maybe he'll take their soul instead.

Essentially, this is getting the Grim Reaper (or some other soul collecting entity), to accept one life in exchange for another. It can be done through an offer or some kind of trick. If a person volunteers to be the replacement soul, it could be a Heroic Sacrifice, but it doesn't have to be. There is often some kind of Equivalent Exchange involved, if the reason one life has to be traded for another is to preserve some kind of balance. When characters find themselves in this situation, it is almost always the case that Someone Has to Die. If an exception is made, it's generally at the whim of the soul collector.

It's rarely explained why Death has to maintain this kind of balance. Presumably, if his books don't add up, the Celestial Bureaucracy will be down on him like a ton of rectangular building things. Or he's anal-retentive, either explanation is good. It's also rare that anyone questions whether one soul is really equal to another in value. (For example, is the soul of an Ax Crazy sociopath a fitting replacement for the soul of a person who volunteers at animal shelters and donates every spare dime they have to charity?) It's generally accepted that any soul can replace any other and still maintain the balance.

As the examples show, this trope is Older Than Dirt, with many variations. Compare Chess with Death, Take Me Instead!.

As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.

Examples of Balancing Death's Books include:

Anime

  • Early on in Yu Yu Hakusho, when Yusuke is still dead, Keiko gets trapped in a fire. Yusuke is told that the only way to save her is to use the magic egg that is the only chance he has at coming back to life. Yusuke does, and as a reward for his sacrifice, he gets another shot at returning to life.
    • Only shortly after that, they seem to be building up to another such life-for-life scenario when Kurama uses a magic mirror to offer his life in exchange for his mother's. However, Yusuke also manages to resolve this without anyone dying by offering his life instead. In honor of his selflessness, the mirror spares all three of them.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh!, during the Waking the Dragons arc, the loser of a game in the Seal of Orichalcos has their soul taken away to be used to fuel the Great Leviathan. At one point, Yami loses a duel and Little Yugi heroically sacrifices himself, taking Yami's place and resulting in a Heroic BSOD for the latter. They both get better.
  • Hansel and Gretel in Black Lagoon holds this as their life philosophy, believing they're immortal as long as they keep killing. Balalaika disabuses them of the notion.


Comic Books

  • In a Justice Society of America story, Atom-Smasher knows that an exact number of people must die in a plane crash to avoid damaging the time stream and so, at the last moment, swaps his mother for the villain who caused the crash in the first place. (Saves the mother and replaces her with the villain, that is. For those who were confused.)
  • In Death: The Time of Your Life, Death's lingering fondness for the protagonists leads her to agree to bring their baby back but, she warns, she'll be back, and someone will be leaving with her. Subverted in that she specifically states "There's no balance, there's just me." She's honoring a deal she made, not balancing the books.
  • This is common with the Black Racer, the death of the New Gods. A person may substitute himself, or even someone else, for the one meant to die and the Racer won't make a fuss about it. This was used in Final Crisis, when the Flash lead the Racer to collect Darkseid instead of himself, as part of the ploy to defeat the villain. The Racer seems rather laid back about that issue, despite representing the inevitability of death.
  • In Thorgal - Beyond the Shadows, Thorgal travels to the underworld to bargain for his wife's life, and Death desides to be a dick. Death takes him and his guide to an enormous black cavern filled with tiny golden strings that blind beast constantly cuts of at seemingly random. Death gives Thorgal a bow and arrow and tells him that he will repair his wifes life-string if Thorgal fires of the arrow in any direction, knowing full well that the arrow will sever one life-string at random. Thorgal, being the hero and all can't go through with it, but his companion (who was in love with Thorgal) grabbed the bow and let loose the arrow. In a twist that should suprise absolutely no one, it turned out that the life-string she struck "just happened" to be her own.


Fanfiction


Film

  • In the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie, it is revealed that Jack had previously made a deal with Davy Jones - and Davy Jones is now coming to collect his soul as payment. Jack offers Will as payment instead, but Davy Jones refuses, because "one soul is not equal to another" -- a chance Jack immediately exploits to negotiate a "price" for his soul.
    • Specifically, he seizes on Jones' objection to the rate of exchange not the principle itself, and strikes a bargain to deliver 100 souls in exchange for his own.
    • In the fourth film, the Fountain of Youth functions this way - in order to extend one person's life, another must lose theirs.
  • In the film Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Darby uses his third wish to go in his sick daughter's place when Death comes to claim her.
    • Ultimately averted, as Darby is tricked into making a fourth wish, invalidating the first three. But by this time his daughter has already recovered, and Death does leave empty handed.
  • The whole driving force behind the entire Final Destination series is the characters having missed their exit due to visions of the future, and Death correcting this error in increasingly complex and implausible ways.

  "What if it was our time, what if we weren't meant to get off that plane? What if there is a design...and it's not finished?"

    • Expanded upon in the fifth movie, where the characters can prevent their inevitable death by killing another.
    • Also hinted in the fourth that the reason for the visions is that somebody who's about to die is supposed to die elsewhere, so are sent the vision to get them out of harm's way... for the moment.
  • In the original Hellraiser Kirsty unknowingly solves the Lament Configuration and summons the Cenobites, who plan to take her to their realm, being unable to leave without someone after being summoned. In her place Kirsty offers her Evil Uncle Frank, who had earlier escaped the Cenobites' dimension (they take Frank, but then turn on Kirsty, who forces them back). Happens again in the sixth entry Hellraiser: Hellseeker, where Kirsty is manipulated into opening the Lament Configuration again. This time she offers five souls in exchange for her own, murdering the five people herself.
  • A Matter of Life and Death has this as part of a supernatural trial, the hero's love interest is told by that someone has to die to keep things even and does she love him enough to give him up? Leads to a mutual exchange of Take Me Instead!.


Literature

  • In Charles de Lint's The Blue Girl, the ghost of a nerdy fellow asks about this, thinking to exchange the life of a bully to save the life of a girl he likes. The guardian angel assigned to him at first thinks he's contemplating a heroic sacrifice before finding the truth, after which he is thoroughly disgusted.
  • In The Lives of Christopher Chant, one of the Chrestomanci books by Diana Wynne Jones, a character was supposed to be sacrificed to a goddess; an elder priestess explained that the goddess just demanded a life, not necessarily the nominated victim's, and that she generally took a spare life from one of the temple cats (they, of course, had nine). It didn't work in that particular case, but the goddess accepted a spare life from an enchanter who also had lives to spare.
  • Discworld:
    • In the novel Maskerade, Granny Weatherwax plays Poker With Death in order to gain the right to make this kind of trade. Not only did she try to cheat, Death let her win:

 Death: Alas, all I have is four ones.

    • Also, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents features Maurice, the Intellectual Animal cat, doing this to save one of those Educated Rodents. It manages to be almost as touching as a real Heroic Sacrifice even though, as a cat, he has several of his original nine lives left even after giving up an extra.
      • This is actually explicitly stated in a few places as being "the way things work" for the Discworld. Death occasionally mentions others who have challenged him, but it's extremely rare that they ever win, even when playing games that Death isn't very good at- mostly because Death cannot lose by mortal means.
        • In fact, when he becomes temporarily mortal in Reaper Man, he has to learn how to lose to fit in with humans. He even mentions that losing is much harder for him to do then winning.
  • In Watership Down, in the last legend of Prince El-ahrairah, the Prince of Rabbits is playing Chess with Death for the fate of his people. After he loses several games betting (among other things) his ears and tail, he decides to die in their place by carrying back a disease to his enemies. He tries to enforce the decision by jumping into one of the Black Rabbit's pits full of plagues. Then Death informs him that the pit he jumped into holds a plague (Myxamatosis) that is transmitted by fleas biting the ears--and he no longer has ears. However, Death spares his people because of the attempt.
    • Presumably because the Black Rabbit enforces Frith's (the rabbit God) promise that rabbitkind won't be wiped out despite their many enemies.
  • In The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold, it's possible to perform a "death magic" ritual that will cause a demon to kill anyone you name. The catch is, the demon has buckets for two souls, and can't return to the netherworld until both are full--so performing the ritual is thought to be inevitably fatal. The protagonist ends up surviving performing the ritual; through a miracle, the demon as well as the soul of the man he wanted dead are trapped inside his stomach tumor; when he gets stabbed through the tumor, the demon takes the soul of the person stabbing him.
    • It's also mentioned that the only prayers of this kind that are granted are the ones in which the victim really was a nasty piece of work. In essence, the demon god dispenses miracles of justice. Praying for the death of someone who doesn't deserve it won't get you anything but sore knees--well, and the possibility of hanging, because attempting death magic is a capital crime. (Succeeding at death magic is not illegal, because the result was a god-granted miracle, but the fact that no one survives succeeding at death magic makes the whole issue kind of academic.)
  • From Robin Hobb's The Soldier Son trilogy: "You owe me a life or a death, Nevare Burvelle!"
  • In The Death Gate Cycle, any magic which brings a dead corpse to life (as a zombie-like being) causes the untimely death of another member of that race, resulting in the eventually decline and near-extinction of the Sartan.
    • Inverted in the same series with the character Hugh, who is resurrected completely and made immortal to boot- but to keep things balanced, he can never kill another living thing again, even by accident. As he's a professional assassin, he's not happy about this development and spends several books trying to track down the guy who did it to get him to lift the magic.
  • There is a short story about a doctor who had Death as a foster father and was able to see Death coming to collect people and tell them when they would die. If Death was at the foot of the bed, they would recover, if Death was at the head of the bed they would die. The doctor manages to save the life of a beautiful girl by rotating the bed. But Death said he needed another life to "balance the books", so the doctor took his own life.
    • The same premise is expanded upon in the novel Godmother Night, with much exploration of mysticism and lesbian relationships along the way.
    • This is a Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale named Gevatter Tod (Godfather Death). In the fairy tale, the doctor does not sacrifice himself willingly, but tricks Death - twice - and is killed the second time.
  • A variant occurs in A Clash of Kings that may not directly involve dealing with a supernatural entity, but operates on the same principle. After Arya saves the lives of Jaqen and two other prisoners, he subsequently informs her that, due to her interference, the Red God is now due three lives. Not to worry; if she'll but name three names, he'll happily help balance the books. She does.
  • Dustfinger exchanges himself for Farid in Inkspell of The Inkworld Trilogy
  • One Bruce Coville-edited collection has a story where a young Jewish girl tries to save her grandfather by marking the doorframe with lamb's blood (a la Passover). Death warns her that he has to claim someone, and the girl's pregnant aunt is caught in a car crash. After realizing what she did, the girl's grandfather convinces her to wipe the blood away, because he's ready to go. She does, he dies, and her aunt and the baby recover fully.
  • In Jasper Fforde's Something Rotten, the rule for the underworld; someone's got to cross over, but it doesn't have to be the original soul.


Live Action TV

  • In Babylon 5 there is a machine which can heal someone---by taking the life-force from someone else. In the series, Marcus uses this to perform a Heroic Sacrifice to save Ivonava because the person was mortally wounded. The machine was originally intended to perform executions.
  • A Mad TV sketch takes place at a funeral, with a woman mourning her husband, screaming "Take me, Jesus! Take me instead!" Sure enough, Jesus shows up, brings the woman's husband back to life, and then asks the woman to go with him. Naturally, the woman wasn't expecting her wish to be granted, and Hilarity Ensues.
  • The Twilight Zone episode "One For The Angels" has a street salesman who bargains with Death for the right to live long enough to make one final, ultra-successful pitch ("one for the angels"). Upon being granted this right, he promptly retires from his sales job, but Death points out that he has to keep the books balanced, and arranges for a young girl to be hit by a car. To collect her soul, he has to be in her room at midnight; the salesman catches him before he can leave and gives a pitch so enthralling Death misses his deadline. That pitch, of course, was "one for the angels," and so the salesman leaves with Death, who informs him that his selflessness earned him a place "up there".
  • Invoked by Caligula in I, Claudius. During an illness that would end up with Caligula believing he was transformed into a god, a sycophantic senator announced to all who would listen that he begged to the gods to take his life if it would spare Caligula's. Caligula got better, and then made sure the senator kept his vow.
  • Though we didn't get to meet the guy with the scythe in person, things worked this way in Smallville, in which going back in time to save Lana, after Jor-El had told him that someone close to him would die in exchange for the restoration of his powers, resulted in Jonathan's sudden heart attack later. (Most fans would agree that Clark made the wrong choice.)
    • Lois also almost died the second time. Her death would also have prevented the other two's, since they'd be too busy being shocked to go die in a car crash and in a heart attack after a heated discussion, respectively.
  • In Pushing Daisies, Ned's ability to revive the dead has a one-minute grace period; after that, another life of approximately equal value (a human being's life for another human's, an animal's for an animal's, a plant's for a plant's) is taken in exchange. Unlike most other examples of the trope, the choice isn't Ned's, he can't influence it, and the only rule the exchange seems to obey is that the sacrifice must be physically nearby.

 Ned: It's a random proximity thing.

Emerson: Bitch, I was in proximity!

    • Also unlike other examples of the trope, Ned still can't touch the re-animated even after the one-minute period. If he does, they return to being dead--and forever this time.
  • In Dead Like Me, during the episode "Reapercussions", George decides to prevent the death of one of the souls she is assigned to reap. Although it's presented as a direct result deal, where George prevents one death and causes a lot more, it's never properly established that this will happen every time. However, the implication is that by preventing the death of one, someone else will die.
    • Roxy does get away with just gremlins trying to make her life miserable after saving someone's life, suggesting that it's more of a Screw Destiny get one Butterfly of Doom free thing.
  • Merlin uses this as the balance in the old religion, as Nimueh tries to make him exchange his mother's life for Arthur's. Eventually he realizes that killing Nimueh would work too.
    • This is also why Igraine died - her life in exchange for Arthur being born.
  • An episode of Supernatural had a woman manipulate a reaper into saving some lives at the expense of others--basically she was killing people she viewed as immoral (including atheists and homosexuals) in order to heal people who were dying.
    • Dean also does this when he exchanges his own soul to bring his brother back from the dead.
    • And then Sam tries to do the same thing to save Dean. And earlier John did it to save Dean. And yet earlier Mary did it to save John. The Winchesters have a...thing about this trope.
    • It turns out that the disruption of the natural order caused by someone not dying when they're supposed to automatically leads to the death of someone else, then another someone else, over and over again until they actually die. The brothers' tendency to repeatedly come back annoys Death quite a lot.
  • An episode of Home and Away featured Sally Fletcher in purgatory after being stabbed. She was met by the ghost of her foster father, (who somehow looked 18 years older than he was when he died), who offered her the chance to return to Earth, and showed her flashes of what would happen to her friends if she didn't. After she had made the decision, he told her that someone else would die in her place, "to balance the books." A few days after she'd woken up, Dan Baker, the husband of Sally's best friend Leah, was killed in a rock-climbing accident, and Sally blamed herself.
  • Happens quite often in Charmed. The episode "Death Takes a Halliwell" revolved around Prue having to accept that death is not an enemy to be fought against.
    • The episode "Styx Feet Under" had the sisters cast a spell to prevent an old man from being killed by his nephew which ended up preventing others from dying. Piper was turned into the Angel of Death briefly and Phoebe was marked to die but they were able to change the circumstances so she was allowed to live.
    • Leo was written out of the series on the basis that there was a battle to be fought with the Ultimate Power and Leo was destined to die in the crossfire. The Angel of Destiny froze him in time until the battle was over. He was released once Phoebe, Paige and Christy died at the end of "Kill Billie: Vol. 2" but taken away once they changed the past. He was brought back once Christy, Dumain and the Triad were killed.
  • In Game of Thrones, Arya Stark releases three prisioners that would otherwise die during a fire. One of them later invokes the trope and offers Arya to kill whatever three persons she nominates.


Music

  • The Demons and Wizards song "Fiddler on the Green" provides a variant on this trope: The song turns out to be about the Grim Reaper taking a young boy "too early" and, feeling remorseful for his error, 'balances it out' by taking a young girl so the boy can gain a companion when he goes to the afterlife.
  • An "answer song" to "Under the Gripping Beast" has the heroine's lover offering to take her place in hell.


Mythology

  • Greek Mythology has the story of Admetus and Alcestis. Admetus is a beloved king; and, when he is due to die, Death agrees to allow him to live if he can find another willing to die in his stead. However, he is unable to find anyone - for all that his subjects love him, they don't love him enough to die for him, with even his father refusing to do it. Finally, believing himself doomed, he returns to his room - to find that his wife, Alcestis, has already agreed to die in his place, and promptly expires. Admetus lives - but in the knowledge that he has lost the one person who loved him enough to die for him. Then, in a surprise twist happy ending, Heracles arrives and punches out Death to save Alcestis.
    • Not much of a surprise when you realise that the ancient Greeks were the inventors of the (usually literal) Deus Ex Machina, and pretty much always had a god/god-like hero show up at the end to sort things out.
    • Heracles, in particular, does this all the time. For instance, he's credited with having rescued Theseus from the underworld and Prometheus from having his liver eaten by an eagle every day (if anyone else had tried the latter, one imagines there would have been thunderbolts).
  • There's a legend about the prophet Elijah who was treated with kindness by a poor elderly couple. That night their cow died. The Rabbi Joshua asked him why the family had to suffer like that, and Elijah explains that the Angel of Death came to the house that night for the old woman, so he prayed that it would take the cow instead.
  • There are multiple variations of a tale in which a man makes a Deal with the Devil (or Death) and is allowed to know whether a sick person will survive or not (such as The Brothers Grimm tale "Godfather Death"). The Devil gives a signal like appearing at a dying man's feet or a survivor's head. At some point the man, who's a successful doctor because of all this, is called to treat a doomed person whom he'd rather save. In some versions, it's a rich man who will, hopefully give him lots of money, so he saves the guy anyway. The devil tells the man that now he'll have to give up his own life to make up for the patient's. Other versions involve a girl he wants to marry, and he tricks the Devil by turning the bed around.
  • Older Than Dirt: In the ancient Mesopotamian myth Inannas Descent to The Netherworld, Inanna was killed and trapped in the underworld, Irkalla. Ereshkigal, Queen of Irkalla, would only allow her to leave if she gave another's life in return. Inanna wanted a divorce, apparently, because she sent her husband Dumuzi.


Tabletop Games

  • New World of Darkness examples:
    • Sin-Eaters are somewhat defined by having come back from the dead once, but their geists can ensure they come back many more times. Problem is, to fuel the resurrection, someone else somewhere has to die... and when the Sin-Eater wakes up again, there will be a caul over their face depicting just how the person died.
    • The mages may have powers over life and death, but even they are unable to resurrect anyone. There is one exception, however -- the Legacy known as the Tamers of the Cave. One of the rotes the Tamers have special knowledge of allows them to raise someone from the dead, and the odds are good that the person will Awaken sometime after that. The downside? The Tamer dies in their stead.
  • Dark Eldar in Warhammer 40000 have made it their raison d'etre to stave off their inevitable deaths by regularly throwing the figurative Reaper (the chaos god Slaanesh) fresh souls to keep it from taking theirs instead. Pretty much any sentient being's soul will do and the older the Dark Eldar is the more often will souls have to be sacrificed in their place; this has much the expected result on the species' moral compass.


Video Games

  • The assassin's guild in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, which offers its victims' souls to a being called the Night Mother, were willing to help a man fake his death in exchange for his mother's life.
    • The man's ancestors, however, aren't happy with his Rules Lawyering and lack of filial piety, and rise from the dead to try to kill him (and the player) after he's revived.
  • The 'Ritual of Soul Transfer', appears in several places in the Valkyrie Profile series of games, and allows anyone to sacrifice their own life to resurrect a recently deceased. You get a couple of... 'recruits' that way.
  • Extra lives are common in many platformers that still used the life system, but King's Quest VII is quite possibly the only game in which one serves as a collectable item, relevant to the story. Rosella saves a cat from a coffin midway through, and the cat tells her that "since you saved one of my lives, I'll give it to you." This extra life, of course, is needed to get the best ending.
  • In Quest for Glory IV, there is a spell that enables someone to trade their own life for that of someone they love. Toby ultimately uses it to resurrect Tanya.
  • In the original Toejam and Earl, if you are playing a two-player game and one of you loses all of your lives, you can bum one off of the other player, reducing their number of extra lives, but allowing you to stay in the game.
  • In Planescape: Torment, this is the crux of The Nameless One's power. He cannot die, so another random person on The Great Wheel dies in his place every time he's supposed to. Those who die in his place become mindless tormented shadows and spend the rest of their eternal un-lives trying to track him down and getting payback, unaware (or uncaring) that it will only make more people suffer their fate.


Web Comics

  • Angel Moxie. In order to avoid duplicating spoilers, just read the Killed Off for Real entry on its page.
  • In The KAMics Gertrude or Brunhilda might have died if not for taking advantage of this trope
  • Jack, The Reaper, doesn't play chess. As "The Case of the Traveling Corpse" demonstrates, though, once he goes to Earth, he's not going back to hell until someone dies. Like Death of the Discworld, though, he's shown to fudge things whenever possible.


Western Animation

  • In one Simpsons Halloween special, Homer becomes Death, and receives an order to kill Marge. He manages to trick God into taking her sister Patty instead.
    • God actually finds out and chases Homer with a beam of light. He eventually gives up and stops caring because He's "too rich for this."
  • An episode of Darkwing Duck has Darkwing die, and spend part of the episode trying to avoid Death. At one point, he inadvertently tricks Death into taking his neighbor instead. In this case, after some debate ("After all, the world needs Darkwing Duck, while Herb Muddlefoot serves no particular purpose."), Darkwing decides not to let Death take someone else.
  • Quagmire of Family Guy once faked his death to get rid of his wife. However, Death showed up saying he was ordered to take a Quagmire. After Death accidentally kills Quagmire's wife, they note that she was suicidal and it didn't specify which Quagmire.
  • A slight variation happens at the end of The Halloween Tree: the protagonists each give a year of their lives to Moundshroud in exchange for the life of their friend.


Real Life

  • They say that during the Holocaust, one Jew tried to bribe a guard to transfer his son (about to be sent into a gas chamber) into the workers section. The guard said "Bring me another boy. The books must be balanced". [1]
    • In a heroic example, St. Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to take the place of a man who had been selected at random to be starved (along with nine others) because somebody escaped from the concentration camp. The condemned man broke down in tears over what would happen to his family without him, so Kolbe, a Catholic priest (and therefore celibate), requested to take the man's place. The guard agreed.
      • For extra tearjerking, it transpired some time afterward that the missing prisoner had not actually escaped --he had drowned in the camp latrines.

Notes

  1. The man went to a rabbi to ask what Judaism says about this. The rabbi said he needs to check. Since the rabbi never said that before, the father guessed (correctly) that the rabbi hesitates to tell him it's forbidden.
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