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Arnold: Grandpa, I have a problem.

Grandpa: Let me guess — you saved some guy's life, and he's trying to make it up to you by being your slave.

One day, our main character is strolling down the lane minding his own business. Bang! Suddenly one Diving Save later, you have some guy pledging his loyalty to repay you for saving his life.

The concept of owing one's life to another is simple. Someone saves your life and you must repay them, especially if you live by a strict honor code. Often it is the case that the person who saved you doesn't want someone tagging along or that the person you saved didn't want to be saved and therefore indebted to you.

Most times the person you saved becomes part of your traveling party or group of friends, and he'll stay around even after repaying you for saving him. The easiest way to repay this debt is saving your savior's life, but sometimes you can instead do something like help them get home, defeat the villain, or serve them for a period of time.

If the rescued was formerly a villain in a series with a somewhat serious tone, expect them to cash in the debt in the most literal way possible, because Redemption Equals Death. A rescued animal might pay its debt back too, in fiction.

When two characters owe each other their lives like this, they often become Blood Brothers. Often source of Ho Yay.

Sometimes the rescuer will take advantage of the debt that is owed by the rescued, milking the situation well past the point where a fair and reasonable person would consider the debt repaid. Alternatively, the saved person's attempts to make it up to the saver can be so annoying to them that they desperately try to find some way to get rid of them. This often overlaps with Disproportionate Reward, as they can see True Heroism in the smallest kindness.

Sometimes, the Slave Owner gets used to it, and even makes some extravagant demands, and then the Slave realizes that He didn't save his life. This never ends well.

See also: Embarrassing Rescue, Pillars of Moral Character, Rescue Romance and Defeat Means Friendship.

Examples of I Owe You My Life include:

Anime and Manga

  • Pretty much how the Sket Dance trio were formed, by way of Magnetic Hero Bossun.
    • Himeko and Switch will do just about anything for Bossun as their way of showing gratitude for his guidance, although he's largely unaware of it.
    • And we now have Katou Kiri (who is a ninja) pledging his loyalty to Tsubaki and insisting to help him in absolutely everything. Needless to say, Tsubaki finds this extremely irritating.
  • Space Pirate Ryoko Balouta from Tenchi Muyo! GXP, blackmailed into trying to assassinate the protagonist Seina, swears to serve him after he saves her life (and her crew's families, who were held hostage, are freed unharmed). The crush on him doesn't hurt, of course...
  • In Claymore, Jean was on the verge of Awakening (losing control of her power and mutating into a monster), but Claire helped her revert back to humanity. As becoming an Awakened One is considered by Claymores to be a Fate Worse Than Death, she vows to protect Claire until the debt is repaid.
  • Ciel of Black Butler owes his butler Sebastian his life - literally. At ten years old, Ciel was tortured and used as a sacrifice to summon a demon. Said demon offered Ciel his services until Ciel exacts revenge on the people responsible for destroying his life and his family... in exchange for Ciel's soul.
    • Agni owes Prince Soma his life. He had him spared when he was about to be executed. In reverse of the above, Agni become's Soma's servant, and the two become fast friends.
  • During the Soul Society arc in the Bleach anime, Ichigo says that the reason he's trying to rescue Rukia is because she saved his life from the Hollow in the first episode.
    • Also, Shuihei Hisagi's main motivation to become a Soul Reaper was to show his gratitude to then-captain, now Visored Kensei Muguruma, who saved his life when he was a young boy.
  • Tsujido, Makabe and Niihari from Speed Grapher decided to become Suitengu's henchmen after he rescued them from the corrupt rich people who tortured them almost to death.
  • Played very darkly in Monster, where Johan feels he owes a life-debt to Temna, which he repays in various interesting fashions, the likes of which only Johan can do. The primary means is by 'fixing' Tenma's promotional woes — by killing everyone who was keeping him down. The good doctor is not particularly pleased.
    • Worse was the fate of General Wolf, who also saved Johan's life. After finding him on the Czech/German border, he asked Johan how the boy was feeling. Johan said, "You'll see." And proceeded to kill everyone who knew General Wolf, so Wolf could properly understand Johan's sense of isolation from humanity.
  • A young military officer is about to be executed for theft by a bunch of Evil Chancellors that oppress his country. However, the child Empress orders to spare the man's life and free him. He's so genuinely touched by the young girl's kindness that he swears to repay the favor by taking her out to see the world and giving her the power to properly rule China... This is the story of Li Xingke (the officer) and Tianzi (the empress) in Code Geass.
  • Wizardmon's Undying Loyalty to Gatomon started after she saved him from the brink of death.
  • In Gundam Wing, Quatre Raberba Winner had a Freak-Out and went in a Roaring Rampage of Revenge after his father and his older sister's deaths. However, his friends Heero Yuy and Trowa Barton fought him, and Trowa pulled an Heroic Sacrifice to make the guy snap out of it (He got better, though). Then, Quatre spends the rest of the series as The Atoner, lampshades the present trope often by telling that Trowa was his savior, and finally repays the favor by snapping Trowa out of his own Freak-Out and Roaring Rampage of Revenge. Cue to lots of happy slash fangirls (and having some non-slash fan considering the couple to be quite plausible, heh)
  • Upon saving the life of Hayato Gokudera, (who had been trying to kill him), Tsuna gains his first (and most enthusiastic) member of the Vongola Family in Katekyo Hitman Reborn.
  • A variant shows up in The Cat Returns. Haru saves the life of a cat that turns out to be Prince Lune, son of the Cat King, but it's the rest of the cat court that showers Haru with unwanted gifts... including nearly forcing her to marry Prince Lune. As it turns out, Lune had nothing to do with the wedding, had actually been preparing to propose to a girl cat from his homeland, and ends up helping Haru escape back to the human world.
  • This is effectively the entire setup for Hayate the Combat Butler.
    • This is an interesting example as both Nagi and Hayate are indebted to each other. Hayate saved Nagi from kidnappers, and Nagi paid off the Yakuza Very Nice People, so they'd stop trying to sell Hayate into slavery or sell his organs.
  • Sorata's entourage in Mouse. That's what you get for curing one's mental illness, rescuing one from an abusive guardian, and helping one get over Arrheophobia.
  • Terry Sanders Jr. in Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team is fiercely loyal to his commander Shiro for not only saving his life the last time his "curse" kicked in, but also for helping him break said curse when it should have fallen on him again.
  • Naruto: Zabuza saves Haku's life as a child, and in repayment Haku happily spends the rest of his life as the ninja equivalent of a slave. In the end, he even dies for him, causing Zabuza to realize just how much he owed Haku, and not the other way around.
  • In Captain Harlock, Miime is "the woman who gave her life to Harlock" ever since he saved her life from a giant carnivorous plant.
  • Mahou Sensei Negima: This is the reason Fate's group of female subordinates are so fiercely loyal to him. They are all war orphans whom he took in and cared for following the last war. He offered them the chance for a normal life, with enough money to put them through good schooling, and they refused, preferring to aid him directly in his own plans.
  • Soi has this bad for Nakago in Fushigi Yuugi. Her parents sold her into prostitution, and Nakago rescued her from a pimp who was smacking her around. She became completely devoted to him, even giving her life to save his near the end of the series. Unfortunately for her, he couldn't love her back until after this fact.
    • Ashitare, too, because Nakago rescued him from a cruel freak show. Too bad that with the way Nakago treated him from there on out, he'd probably have been better off staying there.


  • In LightningOnTheWave's 'Saving Connor' AU Harry Potter cycle, the centaurs wind up kidnapping Draco Malfoy during the first year and threatening to kill him unless Harry can break a rock with his mind. He succeeds, and then when Draco insists he owes a life debt for this, Harry says he should pay it off however he likes. Draco uses this to force Harry to come to his house for Christmas.
    • Proving Harry is a terrible Slytherin and AU Draco is a pretty good one.
  • In Sinnatious' 'The Fifth Act,' this trope is used more subtly than usual but has an incredible impact on the plot. Accidentally-time-traveling Cloud Strife reflexively gives Genesis Rhapsodos some of the magic water from Advent Children and cures his...genetic deterioration, thereby throwing off the plot of Crisis Core entirely, since the Commander then has his life back and doesn't mount a rebellion against Shinra or leave Sephiroth even more emotionally isolated and prone to going nuts. For the rest of the story, Genesis is guided by his awareness that he owes Cloud his life.
    • And they all save the world with the Power of Friendship. And some strategically placed bullets and Firagas and Vincent's political pull with the Turks. But mostly friendship.
  • Cloud Kicker to Fluttershy. It helps they are both members of a team comprising the main heroines.


  • Star Wars and the Star Wars Expanded Universe is rife with examples:
    • Chewbacca to Han Solo.
      • For that matter, Wookiees in general. For example, Zaalbar in Knights of the Old Republic. The Wookiees even have a term for it: a Life Debt.
    • The Noghri to Darth Vader, a debt that Leia to inherits/earns by virtue of being his heir.
    • Jar Jar Binks to Qui-Gon Jinn. Unfortunately.
  • Azeem, the Moor in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
  • In The Fifth Element, Bad Guy Zorg was giving his Hannibal Lecture to Father Cornelius when he begins choking on a cherry. Father Cornelius takes a few seconds to give a smug Hannibal Lecture of his own before saving him. Zorg throws him out, saying that Father Cornelius' saving of his life cancels out any obligation to kill him today.
  • Subverted in the 1994 movie The Shadow, in which the title character conscripts people he saves into his network of informants and assistants.
  • In Little Big Man, the life-saving action of the eponymous character just amplifies Younger Bear's hatred of him, though he cannot do anything till he repays the debt.
    • Classic line: "I have saved your life. Now, the next time we meet, I can finally kill you without becoming an evil person. YAHOO!!"
  • The Beast of War. A Jerkass soldier knocks out an Afghan rebel as he's pointing his musket at the protagonist and says, "You owe me." The protagonist doesn't bother telling him the rebel had pulled the trigger a second before.
  • In Kingdom of Heaven, Balian spares Nasir's life in the desert and, once Nasir has guided him to Jerusalem, Balian lets him go, with a sweet horse to boot. Nasir says "I am your prisoner — your slave if you wish it" but Balian still lets him go. This comes in handy later, at the battle at Kerak, where Nasir turns out to be a general in Saladin's Army, not some guy's servant after all. He spares Balian's life.
  • This is how Puss in Boots joins the gang in Shrek 2. But if you think about it too hard, it seems a little strange: Puss feels in debt because Shrek had him at his mercy and didn't kill him, when a few seconds earlier Puss had had Shrek at his mercy and paused to gloat and carve his initial into a tree. He didn't really look like he was about to kill anyone. If that isn't enough to discount the incident, Shrek and Donkey were contemplating doing something to him until he talked his way out of the situation, and then (much to Donkey's disgust) Shrek got distracted by the cute, so it wasn't really a straight out sparing of his life. But it all gets resolved by the end.

 Shrek: Aww, look, he's purring!

Donkey: Oh so now it's cute!

  • Toy Story 2: Three alien toys that Mr. Potato Head saved spend the rest of the movie endlessly expressing their gratitude to him.
    • Echoed in Toy Story 3 when those same alien toys save the main Nakama and the Potato Heads tell them "You have saved our lives." "We are eternally grateful."
  • The main character of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, who sees himself as a follower of Bushido, swears allegiance to a mobster who saved his life in the past, and currently operates as an assassin for that mobster.
  • In Film/Mulan, Mulan/Ping saves Captain Li Shang when s/he causes an avalanche on the mountain pass to destroy the Huns. A few minutes later on in the movie after it is revealed that she is a woman, and any woman pretending to be a member of the Imperial Army must be killed. Captain Li refuses to kill her as he is saving her life, and thus, his debt is repaid.


  • In the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn books Simon saves the life of a Sitha. The Sitha, Jiriki, gives him a white arrow as a token of debt, which Simon later tries to return after Jiriki saved him. But by then Simon had saved Jiriki's hide a second time and gets told to still keep the arrow. In the Grand Finale the arrow burns up and afterwards they agree to forget the life owing business and just be friends.
  • In the C. K. Kornbluth science-fiction story Two Dooms, a Los Alamos scientist trapped in a possible-future version of California saves a drunken peasant from drowning in a ditch. The man announces him to be the scientist's slave, later dying from a sword-stroke meant for his "master".
  • The Alien series novel Music of the Spears has an interesting subversion of this, with a Japanese hitman who feels he owes his life to the Yakuza boss who killed his parents in front of him when he was a kid, because the boss decided not to kill him and his sister. Instead, the boss raised the guy as his hitman and the sister as his concubine. And, in Japanese tradition, they hold nothing but feelings of gratitude to him for his big box of "I Didn't Kill You".
  • In JRR Tolkien's The Silmarillion, Finrod Felagund gives Barahir a ring to symbolise the fact that Barahir saved his life, and swears an oath to return the favour sometime in the future (including Barahir's descendants).
  • When Tristran saves the star Yvaine's life after she escapes from his possession in Stardust, Yvaine declares that she hates him even more for it because the rules of her species dictate that she must now follow him wherever he goes, which means that she can no longer flee from him even when given the opportunity to do so. She begins hating him less and less as the novel progresses, until her feelings become something else entirely.
  • In Stephen King's The Long Walk, Peter McVries saves Ray Garraty from execution, and Garraty later returns the favor. Still later, McVries saves Garraty a second time, and Garraty is shamed by this because he has no intention of again repaying the debt.
  • One of the rules of magic in the Harry Potter universe is that saving a magic-user's life creates a "life debt" which they're obliged to repay if the opportunity arises. This is an important plot point at several points in the books.
  • In Edgar Rice Burroughs's The Gods of Mars, when John Carter is prisoner to the black pirates, Xodar is willing to aid him and make his life more bearable, because Carter had spared his life when he could easily have taken it.
  • This trope is a very common theme in many old stories about kindhearted people acquiring fantastic wives by helping various animals in distress.
    • For example, a farmer who ended up marrying a beautiful girl who was actually a crane whose life he saved.
  • In the Parrish Plessis series, the Cabal Coomera take this very seriously. If any member of the Cabal saves your life, you owe the entire Cabal goma — blood debt. And in their eyes, goma can never be fully repaid, meaning you'll owe them favors for the rest of your life.
  • Played with in (what else?) A Song of Ice and Fire: Arya Stark is given three "lives" in exchange for saving a skin-changing assassin along with two other dangerous murderers. She manages to waste the first two for petty reasons but cleverly uses the third by asking that he kill himself, and promising to revoke this request if he can free her from the castle she was imprisoned in.
    • A careful reading might show that Arya wastes the third as well; plans to take over the castle were already underway.
  • D'Nal Cord in the Prince Roger series becomes the eponymous prince's asi after Roger saves him from one of planet Marduk's many (many) dangerous monsters. This is standard when someone saves a Mardukan's life without some tie obliging him to do so. He also serves the role of Old Master, aiding in Roger's Character Development. Later, he winds up getting an asi of his own in Pedi Karuse, whom he saves from pirates. They eventually get married.

Live Action TV

  • Played with in The West Wing episode "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen"-

 Sam: I didn't want you to feel beholden to me. I didn't want it to be like an episode of I Dream of Jeannie where now you gotta save my life and the time-space continuum...

C.J.: Sam?

Sam:...with you following me around with coconut oil and hot towels.

C.J.: Coconut oil?

Sam:: I'm just saying....

C.J.: Sam, I don't feel beholden to you.

Sam: Why not? I saved your life!

C.J.: Can I have my necklace back?

  • The Brady Bunch - In the episode "My Brother's Keeper", Bobby "saves" Peter from a falling ladder and subsequently exploits the latter's sense of indebtedness.
    • An episode of Family Guy subverts this by having Stewie help Brian out of a tight spot, remind him of this episode... and ask him to tape it for him.
  • Mash - In the episode "Operation Friendship", Klinger saves Winchester from an exploding steam generator and does the same thing Bobby Brady does.
  • In The Fugitive episode "The Evil Men Do", Kimble rescues a stable owner from an out-of-control horse, and the owner - a former Mob hitman - attempts to repay the debt by killing Lt. Gerard.
  • An episode of of The Odd Couple has Oscar saving Felix from falling out their window. Guess what happens next.
  • In a Season 3 episode of Greatest American Hero, Ralph saves a waiter in a Japanese restaurant from kidnappers. Throughout most of the episode, the waiter becomes a servant for Ralph and Pam, even though the kidnappers weren't even going to kill him. Later in the episode, Ralph saves the man again, but whether or not he becomes Ralph's servant again goes unresolved at the end of the episode.
  • A final-season episode of Gilligan's Island is a great example of this trope. Gilligan saves a drowning native girl, who becomes his slave in return for saving her life. Our asexual little buddy isn't happy with the situation, so he fakes his own death in a "duel" with Mr. Howell to be rid of her.
  • In the pilot of Star Trek: Voyager Tom Paris saves Chakotay and jokes that his life belongs to Tom now. Chakotay repays the favor by keeping the rest of the Maquis from harassing Tom.
  • In season one of The OC, Jerk Jock Luke starts being nicer to Ryan after Ryan saves his life.
  • We find out on The Big Bang Theory that the main reason Leonard puts up with a lot of Sheldon's demands is at least in part because Sheldon saved Leonard from being blown up in an elevator with a canister of poorly mixed rocket fuel.

Tabletop Games

  • In Traveller Aslan have an intricate web of customs regarding gratitude. In the volume Sword Worlds, an Aslan clan is too busy with a war to defend one of its client clans against aggression. A group of human political refugees provided assistance to the client. As the patron could not provide protection and the humans could, the patron had to arrange passage through Aslan space. This is more "I owe you my honor". But to a proper Aslan honor is more then life.

Video Games

  • Zaalbar to the main character in Knights of the Old Republic.
    • For the evil players, Zaalbar's life-debt is, in fact, a form of slavery, as he will do anything you tell him to if you remind him of the life-debt. This includes killing Mission if she angers you or gets in your way, even though he's extremely protective of her.
      • However, he won't do it unless you use Force Persuade on him, and if you take him on the Star Forge afterwards he'll attack you.
    • Hanharr in Knights of the Old Republic II is a subversion, or possibly Deconstruction of this trope: he despises the Wookiee tradition of life-debts but feels obliged to honor it, so he seeks to kill anyone who saves his life to relieve himself of the debt.
  • Sten in Dragon Age, who swears himself to your service after you rescue him from a cage where he was locked up to starve or die when the Darkspawn invasion arrived.
    • This is a subversion, as Sten believes that your mission is doomed to fail. But he would rather atone for his crimes by falling in battle than starving to death or serving as bait for the darkspawn.
    • This specific subversion turns up a number of times in Origins and even more in Awakening, with multiple characters receiving the Joining in lieu of an execution. The logic is that the Joining has a reasonable chance of killing you immediately, will slowly kill you otherwise, and being a Grey Warden carries an obligation to fight the Darkspawn in every way possible. The Warden invokes this version of the trope with Duncan, and Loghain, Anders, Nathaniel, Sigrun, and Velanna all invoke it with the Warden, taking induction to the Grey Wardens over an execution for their past crimes. Though not all of them are particularly grateful about it.
  • In Planescape: Torment, a past incarnation of the protagonist deliberately indebted both Morte and Dak'kon in this way... with the added twist that he himself can't die, so there's no way to repay the debt.
    • It gets worse, as Dak'kon's debt also flies in the face of the tenet of both his culture and their Evil Counterpart: never be enslaved again. Oh, and The Nameless One's former self knew all this and orchestrated said life debt for his personal gain.
  • Played straight in Beyond Good and Evil. After Jade rescues Double H from an alien torture chamber, he pledges his loyalty to her and becomes one of her sidekicks.

  Double H: All I know is that in another ten minutes, I was a goner. I owe you my life. Hence: You can count on me, Miss Thyrus! At your service!

  • Final Fantasy Tactics plays with this one when siblings Rapha and Marach argue over whether or not they owe anything to the nobleman who took them in after they were orphaned. Marach argues that they do, since he saved them from starving to death or living in poverty. Rapha, on the other hand, thinks that any obligation they might have is negated by the fact that he was the one who burned their village down and killed their parents in the first place. Oh, and it's heavily implied that he raped her. Marach eventually comes around, but it takes longer than you'd think.
  • Subverted in Neverwinter Nights 2; after rescuing Neeshka from the soldiers, there is the conversation option of "I saved your life - that means I own you." However, the game doesn't allow the player to follow through with this statement. Of course, since the player (not the main character) can take full control of party members, it could be considered as no subversion at all.
  • Somewhat darkly inverted in Raven's case in Tales of Vesperia. It's less "I Owe You My Life" and more "You Owe Us Your Life".
  • Fire Emblem has many examples of this:
    • Soren to Ike in the Tellius games, because Ike was the only person to accept Soren for what he is after Soren's hellish childhood.
    • Niles from Fates has this attitude towards Prince Leo of Nohr, due to the latter sparing his life when Niles was abandoned by his companions and suffered a Despair Event Horizon. He asked Leo to kill him, but Leo instead made him his retainer.
    • Dedue Molinaro in Three Houses has this for Prince Dimitri of Faerghus, because Dimitri saved his life during the Fareghus's subjugation of Duscur.

Web Comics

  • Parodied in Cwen's Quest when a passing stranger Riddly Lancer saves the main character's life and quickly declares her his life slave. When asked if the life slave concept should be part of his slaves personal code of honor/culture he responds "We wouldn't get any life slaves that way". [1]

Western Animation

  • Hey Arnold, as demonstrated by the above quote.
    • Played with a little, because Arnold eventually decided to give in and just enjoy all of the work that Sid was doing for him. Sid was the one that decided they should break things off.
  • There was an episode of Doug based around this.
  • The Rugrats episode "Driving Miss Angelica".
  • Dinobot joins the Maximals through an odd combination of this and Defeat Means Friendship in Transformers: Beast Wars.
  • In The Powerpuff Girls, Big Billy of the Gangreen Gang does this when the Girls save him from being run over by a subway train during a brawl. Things do not go well.
  • After Mulan saved Shang's life, he in return spared hers.
  • Phineas and Ferb "The Bully Code", Bajeet saves Buford from choking, and thus according to the Bully Code Buford has to be Bajeet's slave. A musical number lampshades it as "A '70s Sitcom Cliche". It isn't until the end that Bajeet comes to realize the potential of ordering his sometime nemesis/ sometimes love interest around.
  • Donkey Kong Country in the episode "Get A Life, Don't Save One!"
  • The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: Piglet accidentally saved Tigger's life while drowning in a shallow puddle which made Tigger becoming a servant for Piglet. Piglet gets tired of this and tries to set himself in danger to make Tigger saving him and become even.
  • An episode of Recess had Vince catch the baseball that was going to land on Mikey's face. Mikey kept telling Vince he saved his life who he later admires and wanted to become like Vince.
  • An episode of Jimmy Two-Shoes has Jimmy saving Lucius' life with a very casual You Owe Me. Since no Heinous has ever owed anyone anything, Lucius desperately tries to pay him back for the rest of the episode.
  • The Rainbow Fish episode "Bodyguard" featured this: Rainbow saved the life of an older fish, who repaid him by becoming his bodyguard. Unfortunately, he was a Knight Templar who did things like attack Rainbow's school friends when they're roughhousing in the schoolyard. Rainbow eventually got rid of him by setting up a situation in which he could save the other fish's life.
  • In a Totally Spies episode, Sam releases Mandy's hair from a clay pot.

 Mandy: Sam, you saved my life!

Sam: I saved your hair.

Mandy: My hair IS my life!

  • An episode of The Amazing World of Gumball, titled "The Debt", revolves around this. Mr. Robinson "saves" Gumball (stops his slow-moving car when Gumball was too busy panicking to get out of its path) and Gumball decides he has to save Mr. Robinson in return, nearly killing him several times. Given Gumball had just shown to be a rather dedicated fan of Mr. Robinson, the whole thing may have just been an excuse to follow him around.
  • Inverted in a SpongeBob SquarePants episode. Spongebob and Patrick accidentally kill Squidward. (No, not really, they just destroy a lifesize sculpture of him.) When Squidward's ghost appears (Squidward comes out of the shower in a cloud of steam, wearing a white bathrobe) the terrified boys pledge to serve him as payment for killing him.
  • In Garfield's Halloween Adventure, after Odie saves Garfield from drowning, Garfield thanks him by giving him his fair share of the candy. Garfield had only brought Odie along for trick-or-treating in order to get more candy for himself, but as he puts it, "Seeing as how you saved my life about eighteen zillion times tonight, I figure it's the least I could do."
  • In the American Dad episode, "You Debt Your Life," it is revealed that Roger lives with the Smith family that he lives with them because he has saved Stan's ilfe.