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"If you lie down with dogs, you'll get up with fleas."—Old adage
When an evil character is in the same vicinity as a good character, usually something devious is going on. Sometimes, though, the villain just doesn't want to fight. Maybe they just finished a hero/villain teamup. Maybe they're in a neutral zone, and they can't be overtly hostile. Or maybe the evil one is just Genre Savvy enough to realize that sometimes the best way to hit somebody is to trick them into crawling down to evil's level.
This trope is what happens when a villain starts annoying the hero as much as possible without actually giving them any clear cause to resort to violence. Once placed in this situation, the hero has two options. First, give in. After that, punishment is inevitable. Whenever an evil character manages to provoke a good character in this manner, the good one always ends up getting punished. This is almost always what the evil character intended by being such a pest in the first place.
The second choice, and always the one taken by especially noble heroes who make it a point to be Lawful Good, is to walk away and not dignify the evil ones with the satisfaction of manipulating a good guy.
Naturally, this trope can tend to be a pretty heavy Broken Aesop- the Naive Everygirl must forgive and understand and offer her friendship to the Alpha Bitch no matter how badly and rudely and unfairly she's treated... but don't expect anybody to cut you a break, ever. The number of times main characters must learn to accept jerks and devils in plain sight because "it's the right thing to do" is exactly proportionate to the number of times they can't get away with similar infractions.
A character's response to this trope is a good way of determining where they fall on the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism. See If You Kill Him You Will Be Just Like Him for this trope as it applies to a Matter of Life and Death.
Anime and Manga
- In S-Cry-ed, Maxfell's alter only works when he's in trouble, so he taunts Kazuma by implying that there are bombs in the toys he handed out. Really, he's just provoking Kazuma into making him desperate.
- In the movie The Believer, the skinhead main character and his skinhead friends walk into a kosher deli and start loudly demanding ham and cheese sandwiches. They successfully provoke the owner of the deli into attacking them (after they refuse to leave), and the judge who sentences them finds both sides equally at fault.
- A particularly cruel variation in The Patriot: The villain kills the hero's civilian son in front of him early in the film and later tries to bait the hero into breaking a truce by bringing it up.
- In the film Starship Troopers, a fleet officer taunts the main character, Johnny Rico, trying to get him to fight back. When Johnny tells him that he would have to be insane to hit an officer, the man tells him to 'disregard rank'. This ends in an all out brawl, and a minor subversion, because neither character is apparently punished.
- There was a room full of people, including officers who outranked them both, who heard the guy loudly announce "We are disregarding rank" right before Rico beat the shit out of him.
- In Terry Pratchett's Discworld, one villain made the mistake of facing Carrot, who is indeed a much better man than he is. So he just kills the villain. Vimes explicitly thinks that a bad man will gloat, but a good man will not, and so will just kill you without any fanfare if he has come to the conclusion he has to do the deed.
- Vimes would later go on to use his lack of taunting a victim to prove to himself that he's a good man - after (necessarily) killing an utterly loathsome villain in The Fifth Elephant, he notes in an internal monologue all the Bond One-Liner comments he could make. He makes none of them, because if he did "then he'd know that what he had just done was murder."
- Draco Malfoy and the other Slytherin kids constantly get Harry Potter and the other Gryffindors into trouble by provoking them, helped along by Professor Snape's double standard.
- Also that they time it just right so that Snape only sees the retaliation.
- Or so Snape claims.
- Of course, in the first book Dumbledore acts rather cruel by setting the Slytherins up to think they'll win the house cup, and yanks it away right afterward. Then he talks about needing to unite the houses. It's a perfect ending by having the bad guys defeated and the good guys victorious, but how do you think the bad guys feel about their casting? When you feel the rest of the world is against you, you lash out.
- Also that they time it just right so that Snape only sees the retaliation.
Live Action TV
- This is a common trope in the Star Trek series- many alien races will needle Federation ships about their morals and values in an effort to see the Federation betray them by acting in a way that's the least bit undiplomatic. Apparently the Federation has to respect everybody else's morals, values, and cultural practices, but nobody else is ever expected to honor the Federation's back.
- Somewhat averted in the Buffy episode, "Fear Itself". Giles tells Xander to stop mocking the (pint sized) demon.
Xander: He can't hurt me, can he?
Giles: No - it's just tacky!
- Done on Taxi - a snobby hairdresser (Ted Danson!) deliberately gives Elaine a frightful haircut. She vows revenge, going back with her friends, and is just about to dump a bowl of some viscous goo on him, when Alex tells her "You do that and you're no better than him!". She agrees and they start to leave. Louie excuses himself, turns back and dumps the stuff on him, saying "She may be better than you, but I ain't!"
- Happens far too goddamn often in Professional Wrestling. What makes it worse is that if the face attempts to choose option two (taking the high road) he will get booed by the fans in attendance for being a wuss. Failure Is the Only Option, it seems.
- Truth in Television, as any victim of social bullying can attest.
- In Knights of the Old Republic, the Sith on the planet Manaan relentlessly taunt and provoke Republic soldiers (including the player character). Anyone who responds in kind ends up being jailed. The only way to get around them is to ignore them. (Except in one case where you can actually threaten the Sith; when she calls over a nearby Selkath official, you can Force Persuade the official to believe she was the one responsible.)
- In one Allied mission in Red Alert 3, the Soviet commando is constantly taunting your own unit about how superior she is. Pleasingly, if you do well enough in the mission your own commando bites back with some serious verbal smackdown.
- The Nostalgia Critic and The Angry Video Game Nerd had a hell of a lot of fun with this one. First, the AVGN plays it straight by "taking the high road" and actually complimenting the Critic. Then it's subverted when the Critic suspects that he's being passive agressive, leaving a hidden insult in his response. It's then subverted again when the Critic's Da Vince Code-esque attempts to "translate" the post leaves him with nothing but jibberish. Heh, looks like the AVGN really was taking the higher road when he...Wait a tic, doesn't it kinda look like "LICK MY SHIT NOSTALGIA CRITIC" backwa-GOD DAMMIT, NERD!
- This was made even better when the Nerd admitted to planting that message.
- The red-headed Jerk Jock in Batman Beyond spits on Terry during a wrestling match to provoke him into throwing a punch, getting him in trouble.
- Justice League President? Do you know how much power I'd have to give up? I spent 75 million dollars on a campaign just to tick Superman off. Worst part? it works, but Superman destroys Luthor's city instead, and makes Captain Marvel quit the League.