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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 Heel Face 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 Too Happy to Live 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.
Anime and Manga
- 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 Isayama Yomi.
- In 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.
- 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 perharps Killed Mid-Sentence). It's pretty much someone giving them the finger, and the now turned Anti-Hero blames God. Some other couples from the series chosen by The Earl may fit this, but most had a rather bad life before, so this one gets the cake.
- 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.
- In Neon Genesis Evangelion, it appears that the universe goes out of its way to horribly destroy anyone that even tries to be happier. For example, we have Kaworu Nagisa, the only person in the entirety of the series which is shown to love Shinji unconditionally. He doesn't even last the episode he appears in.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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? Starting 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.
- 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 recent 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...
- The Mothman Prophecies. John and Mary are ecstatic over their purchase of a new home, laughing on 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 has this one guy happily talking to his wife just before he went to fly. He never came back.
- Oh, it's better than that: 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 Stallag working on escape plans. Less than a minute later, he and all of the other recaptured prisoners present are murdered by the Gestapo.
- The Fellowship of the Ring: 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.
- 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 40000 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 and Annie in Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay.
- 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 it's all going to fall apart very soon.
Live Action TV
- In a late episode of The Commish one of the officers was promoted to detective. Cue Car Bomb.
- Marian from Robin Hood joyfully, fiercely, blissfully shouts: "I love Robin Hood! I'm going to marry Robin Hood!" A second later she's impaled on a giant sword and dies.
- Invoked in an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series. 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.
- The episode is "I, Mudd":
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]
- 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 Maynard 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. While singing "You are my sunshine", no less.
- Xander and Anya.
- Buffy and Angel. Relatively speaking, Buffy / Riley and Willow / Oz got off pretty easy.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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—before it was blown apart by his wife's murder and his subsequent wrongful conviction.
- 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. Then It Gets Worse.
- Max Payne pretty much says it all in the prologue to the first game, right before It Gets Worse.
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 will invoke this about herself if she romanced a male Shepard and dies as the second squad team leader.
Jack: Too many of them... I knew I'd get hit on this job. I was too happy... too happy with you.
- Mother 3 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.