Pinball Protagonist

"That’s literally all they do. Maya and Joey are observers in Maradonia while Sagitta and a couple other magical beings do all the fighting and bail them out when they get themselves into shitty situations. And, of course, in the process Joey starts a couple forest fires. That’s it. The entire effect of The Encouragers in Maradonia was to slightly damage the environment. These are our heroes."
— Impishidea Maradonia Sporkings, part 31.

The protagonist has spent a significant portion of the story bouncing around the tale like a pinball. He provides no plot impetus in and of himself, and has essentially spent the entire story thus far in a reactive state.

Whatever is going on in the world, be it war or intrigue, it just drags him along in its wake.

This is not a Designated Hero. Designated Heroes actually do things. The things they do may not be considered heroic, but they still do things and thus have an impact on the world around them. Eventually they pick up the Plot Ball and move it around. Even the Little Hero, Big War still has the hero do something important to affect the larger mess around him. The Pinball Protagonist spends a decent amount of time failing to actually have any effect at all. They aren't even lucky enough to be the Plot Ball.

If the writing and tone of the tale all imply that the character is the protagonist, and yet they can be lifted right out of the story and have little to no impact on anything that has or will happen: then they're just a little silver ball in the cosmic pinball game of life.

Why in the hell is this character the protagonist, the reader might be wondering? Perhaps the protagonist is like a vehicle or a touchstone for the reader, a way of exploring some strange new world or meeting interesting characters.

Many characters will have pinball episodes where they are simply overloaded with too many problems in far too short of a time frame to do anything effective.

Compare The Watson and First-Person Peripheral Narrator. Also compare the Waif and Persephone archetypal characters, both defined by the ability to bear up under hardship (an undervalued heroic quality often Flanderized into a passive characterization). This can be seen as Villains Act, Heroes React taken to an extreme. Not to be confused with Useless Protagonist, where the main characters make no attempt to make themselves seem important, although these tropes may overlap over time. Contrast with a Young Conqueror Hero Protagonist, who actually drives the plot and makes the villains react to them.

For a detailed overview on the use of passive heroes who get tossed about between situations with little control over their external destiny, try The Seven Basic Plots, especially the Rags to Riches plot and Voyage and Return; the passive hero is supposed to be undergoing Character Development, of course.

Not to be confused with Bouncing Battler or Be the Ball, where the protagonist fights by acting like a pinball.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Until the climax of OsamuTezuka's Metropolis, Kenichi and Tima spend most of their time wandering from one Scenery Porn locale to the next, occasionally getting shot at. Tima may also qualify as a walking MacGuffin.
  • Natsuru in Kämpfer gets dragged around by other people and he just goes along with them in the end anyway. Much worse in the anime than in the manga and light novels, although its still pretty bad in the latter two. The main difference is, in the latter, s/he at least tries to make a token effort to undermine the Kampfer War and learn the truth behind it, whereas in the anime, s/he just sorta stands there with a confused expression.
  • Kyon of Haruhi Suzumiya spends a lot of time mostly just watching things happen and doing whatever people tell him. That isn't to say that he's boring or without personality, however, and his apathy is a source of frustration to other characters, which is amusing.
    • He becomes a much more active protagonist after the fourth book.
  • Ichigo from Bleach is like this in a way. He does have an impact on the story but only due to reacting to his newfound duty as shinigami or rescuing his friends from the Big Bad. Since he is not under the direct influence of Yamamoto or Aizen, he never really confronts the Big Bad directly until said Big Bad threatens to annihilate his hometown.
  • The titular Steam Boy spent the majority of the movie doing whatever grandpa, Scarlet, father or Mr. Stephenson wanted. To his credit, when circumstances finally did leave him alone for a moment, he quickly came up with a plan of his own, rejected the Bastard Understudy's advice and became the hero of the day.
  • Brandon Heat all throughout Gungrave is a quiet and obedient henchman. He initiates nothing, suspects nothing, and says almost nothing. Even his undead rampage is less roaring than sedate.
  • Ichise of Texhnolyze. There doesn't appear to be much consideration of his actions, reacting like a rabid animal when he's not simply following orders.
  • Madoka spends most of Puella Magi Madoka Magica like this, not becoming a magical girl until surprisingly late in the series. An unusual case in that Madoka being this way was intentional on the part of one of the other characters, Homura, who was attempting via time travel to protect her from the horrifying true nature of magical girls.
  • Renton of Eureka Seven actually spends a great deal of the series completely in the dark and out of control of the events that transpires around him. He doesn't even come face to face with the Big Bad of the series despite being the protagonist.
  • Shu from Now and Then, Here and There attempts a lot of heroic stuff, but his actions have little to no effect on the series' plot or resolution. Remove him and the same things would have happened.
  • Shiro from K seems to be this initially, but is eventually subverted later as he starts actively searching for the answers to the mystery surrounding his situation, and then even more when it's revealed that he's actually the Silver King, and thus, essentially the person single-handedly responsible for setting the entire series in motion.

  • In the Doctor Who audio "The Holy Terror", the movers in the plot are the TARDIS itself, various characters in the Deadly Decadent Court, and the rules of the intensely ritualistic society that the story is set within. Frobisher is the viewpoint character and creates plot development by total accident, the Doctor is absent from large chunks of the plot and the one-shot companion Eugene is explicitly unable to intervene in events, being as he is a scribe whose job is to write down everything that happens. Frobisher briefly becomes king but is powerless to do anything, especially once the Goo Goo Godlike character shows up and starts killing people. The Doctor's only helpful option is telling Eugene what he has to do to the child at the end. This is all very intentional, as the characters are trapped in a Theory of Narrative Causality-based simulation (intended as an Ironic Hell for one of the characters) and their lack of influence on the plot just emphasises how strong the story is.

    Comic Books 
  • There's a comic book where Sherlock Holmes meets The Phantom of the Opera; it follows the original Leroux book, with Holmes tacked on to watch the show.
  • In several issues of Venom's first limited series, Spider-Man actually got more screen time. The subsequent ones fixed this problem.
  • Spider-Man himself tends to turn into this in any multipart story in his own series that has lots of guest stars. He's always been a guy who works best alone, and quickly takes a back seat as part of a team. The biggest example was the Maximum Carnage storyline; the cover of one issue even lampshaded the trope by having Spidey shout, "Hey! Whose mag is this, anyway?!" Fortunately, he was indeed the star at the climax, both defeating Carnage himself and preventing Venom from killing him to show he'd still hold onto his principles, despite all that had happened.
  • Batman in The Long Halloween. He spends most of the story chasing around after whatever supervillain is around for each chapter. He doesn't save any of the victims from the Holiday killer, he doesn't save Harvey Dent from becoming Two-Face and he only catches the killer by getting Sal Maroni killed by him.
  • Thanos in the his backstory comic Thanos Rising spends much of each issue acting on suggestions from Death who is constantly nagging to commit murders. Even when he becomes a space pirate captain it's because he accidentally won a duel with the old captain. He swings a sword with his eyes shut and kills him without meaning to, and so gains authority by sheer accident.

    Films — Animated 
  • Because of Disneyfication, Mowgli in Disney's The Jungle Book spends all his time reacting to the other characters and doesn't instigate any plot events; he does resolve the plot in the end, but he needs Baloo's help to do so. This is totally ironic if you know the character from Rudyard Kipling's original stories.
  • Aurora of Sleeping Beauty, despite being the titular character. The only thing she does of her own volition is run into Phillip; everything else she does is at someone else's order or suggestion. She has a total of eighteen lines of dialogue in the entire movie. Phillip doesn't do a whole lot, either, as even in the final battle, the fairies are clearly doing most of the work.
  • The titular unicorn from The Last Unicorn leaves her forest to find the rest of her kind...and does practically nothing else for the rest of the story. She falls asleep on the side of the road and is captured by a Wicked Witch who knows where the rest are, she is freed by one of the witch's magician assistants - who knows how to get there. He also ends up accidentally changing her into a human so she can reach King Haggard. Though she finally does something in the climax.
  • The narrator of Waltz with Bashir is a decidedly tragic example. When his commanding officer is killed he doesn't rise to the occasion and completely fails to get any of his squad mates out alive; afterward he bitterly realizes that there was a lot more he could have done but was just a confused kid who got in over his head.
  • Tack the Cobbler from The Thief and the Cobbler is a Cute Mute who spends the first two-thirds of the movie largely being dragged around by other characters. He undergoes no notable character development or Hidden Depths, which makes his burst of heroism in the movie's final act come across as an unexpected Ass Pull.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In '71, Pvt. Gary Hook spends most of the movie fleeing from people trying to kill him, or relying on locals willing to help him. He begins to use some initiative when he decides to leave Eamon and Brigid's flat to escape on his own.
  • Forrest Gump just does whatever he feels like doing at the time. At one point, he becomes sort of a running guru and unintentionally leads a group of literal cross-country runners for months. At one point he stops running ("Listen, he's about to say something!") and he just says "I'm kinda tired. I'm going to go home now," and just walks home (to Alabama, from the Nevada desert!)
    Runner: "What are we going to do now?"
  • The Big Lebowski: The Dude just wants to bowl and smoke weed when his life is interrupted by a case of mistaken identity, resulting in the ruining of his rug. His attempt to obtain a new rug leads him down a twisted path of mystery and intrigue that he ultimately has no control over.
  • The Beatles for much of Help! This is even plot relevant: Ringo Starr is told he can remove his Clingy MacGuffin if he commits one courageous act—and when he does, much later, it's the end of the film.
  • The protagonist from the 1966 B-movie The Wild World of Batwoman is a perfect example of this. The protagonist is like Charlie from Charlie's Angels. She does show up from time to time, but she has her batgirls do all the work. An Agony Booth recap can be read here.
  • Slevin Kelevra from Lucky Number Slevin is apparently this during the beginning of the film, before the Kansas City Shuffle and Slevin's true intentions are revealed
  • Brad and Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Though Janet does get up to do something halfway through the plot - that 'something' being Rocky.
  • Jen of The Dark Crystal spends much of the film's first and second acts commenting on how he has no idea where he is going or what he is looking for as various characters comment on prophecy and destiny and the like. In an example of this trope being done well, it serves to show the audience the wonderfully imaginative world of the movie, and the fantastic special effects of Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
  • Movies based on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:
    • Charlie Bucket from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Once he gets to the factory, the only notable things he does is to steal a Fizzy Lifting Drink (which disqualifies him from the promised lifetime supply of chocolate) and return the Everlasting Gobstopper to Mr. Wonka rather than give it to a rival competitor (negating the disqualification and becoming the owner of the factory in the process), and so he wins. This is still an improvement on the original book, in which Charlie does almost nothing upon arriving at the factory. His only act of any significance is at the end, when he informs Mr. Wonka that he is the only child left. Mr. Wonka then immediately announces that Charlie has won by default. However, given that Charlie is exceptionally well-mannered, this makes sense given the fates of the other children — he gets it for just being nice.
    • In the second film version Charlie regularly questions Mr. Wonka, triggering most of his flashbacks, and then outright defies him at the end, forcing him to seek out his estranged father.
    • The 2013 stage version puts its own, smaller twist on the whole business by giving Charlie a highly imaginative, creative streak in addition to his kind nature, which affects the plot in that a certain someone, upon realizing his potential, makes sure that he gets a Golden Ticket — and a chance to prove himself a kindred spirit. Charlie and the audience are kept in the dark about this until the end.
  • Szpilman from The Pianist, who manages to survive the Holocaust only through the goodness of strangers and sheer dumb luck. Of course, this is totally justified considering it's based on a true story, and the real Szpilman's real experiences.
  • It doesn't much matter what the human protagonists do in any of the Jurassic Park movies, because no matter what they do, the dinosaurs are the true stars here.
  • In the movie Inferno, the main protagonist Mark does absolutely nothing to defeat the villain. He does not even aware of most of the events going on in the film. The villain was defeated by her own actions and not by anything Mark had done during the film. His only victory is surviving by the end of the film.
  • The title character of Barbarella fits this perfectly. The entire movie consists of her repeatedly getting into trouble through her own stupidity, being rescued by some guy, and then having Rescue Sex with her savior. The only reason she managed to find the man she was looking for at all was because Duran Duran accidentally stepped on the device she had been given to track him down (which she had not once even thought of turning on since receiving).
  • Test pilot Lance Schroeder in the original House on Haunted Hill (1959) doesn't do anything particularly heroic throughout the movie. He's attacked in the dark at one point and thinks he hit his head. (The RiffTrax crew constantly joke about him being trapped in closets and bumping his head.)
  • Once The Pagemaster becomes animated, it's a bunch of encounters between Richard, his book companions, and various literary characters on the way to the exit. Richard and the books at times change the things happening, but at most it's just them meeting people - not that different from Alice, Dorothy and Wendy, listed below.
  • When you examine too closely the plots of Goldfinger, you see James Bond is this. Ignoring the Cold Open, he causes the death of two sisters on the way to know the villain's plan - which only occurs after he's captured by the villain, and his attempts to both escape and warn his allies of the scheme fail. The only things Bond do that help foil Operation Grand Slam are seducing Pussy Galore and killing The Dragon. Even when the villain returns, he's killed by accident.
  • Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away: While Mia and the Aerialist are seeking each other, they spend most of the film getting caught up in and reacting to the events taking place around them. They rarely affect said events and are offscreen for significant stretches of time.
  • In The Damned 1947, a film about a group of Nazis and Nazi collaborators fleeing to South America aboard a U-boat at the end of the war, the protagonist is a French doctor who is kidnapped and forced aboard the sub. He does nothing through the course of the movie and has no influence on events.
  • In Barry Lyndon, Barry goes through his life simply having things happen to him, such as being robbed, or being press-ganged, or having his child die. Even his initial action, shooting an officer in a duel, turns out to have been a fake duel, planned all along by his friends. Despite his attempts to gain agency over his life, at the end of the movie, he's just as much a victim of fate as he was in the beginning.
  • Theseus from Immortals fails at doing anything even remotely successful throughout the film. He fails to protect his hometown or his mother and he is the reason the Epirus Bow falls into the hands of the Big Bad. The one successful thing he does is kill King Hyperion, but this is after the guy has accomplished everything he set out to do (like releasing The Titans). Yet the Athena tells his father Zeus to have faith in Theseus.

  • Since he serves as the First-Person Peripheral Narrator, in A Prayer for Owen Meany, Johnny Wheelwright is this. Owen is the driving force of the plot. Johnny is there for the ride.
  • Another good Sherlock Holmes example (see above) is one of his most well-known cases, The Hound of the Baskervilles. There's a large gap in the novel where Holmes is not present, the story being dictated to Holmes by Dr. Watson via letters describing his experiences.
  • The main character/narrator in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is essentially there just as an observer, (similar to Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby), who goes to the town to write an article for a house and garden magazine, and then decides to stick around when a murder happens and the main suspect is on trial. He doesn't influence the trial in any way, or have anything to do with the murder - he could just as easily have been left out, and the story written in third person, and while the feel of the story would be different, the plot wouldn't change at all.
  • Richard from Neverwhere. It takes him over half the book before he really does anything terribly useful, and it wasn't exactly proactive on his part, either. He finally does start to take more initiative down the road, but for most of the story he is merely a vessel for viewing London Below and the events unfolding around his companions.
  • Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (Meggie spends a lot of her time just reacting to things the adults do. On the rare occasions she tries to affect things her plans are thwarted, stalled, or rendered useless.)
  • In Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Ali Baba is the protagonist at first, but he stops being such after he recovers Kasim's body from the lair of the Forty Thieves; at that point, the role is taken over by Morgiana, with Ali Baba now a supporting character.
  • The entirety of The Crying of Lot 49 is like this, although that is because it is about a person just exploring a secret organisation, being told to go to another part of the organisation, and then going there - she only begins to take initiative right at the end, with the eponymous auction of the title.
  • Fanny from the Jane Austen novel Mansfield Park, due to the emotional abuse she's suffered for eight years living with her rich aunts and uncle, basically feels she has no right to her own opinion or happiness and thus lets her aunts and cousins push her around for most of the novel. Naturally, this makes the two times she stands up for herself all the more impressive and the other characters all the more shocked.
  • This accusation is often thrown against those three classic young heroines of literature: Alice, Wendy and Dorothy. Susan Sto Helit is described as an aversion of this... and then came Thief of Time. Dorothy gradually averts this trope in later Oz books, and all three strongly avert it when featured in the webcomic Cheshire Crossing. A Spear Counterpart is Charlie Bucket from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; see above under Film for how adaptations handle this issue.
  • In The Island of Doctor Moreau, Richard Prendick does nothing but get thrown overboard, land on an island and watch more interesting people do experiments.
  • Terisa Morgan of Stephen R. Donaldson's Mordant's Need novels (The Mirror of Her Dreams, A Man Rides Through) acts this way through most of both books. (This is deliberate. She has a cripplingly low level of self-confidence thanks to an oppressive father and passive mother; the narration makes an analogy to a princess imprisoned by a curse.)
  • Shasta in The Horse and His Boy, has very little control over the plot, being surrounded by stronger personalities (including the titular horse) for most of the tale.
  • In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Arthur Dent started out as this. It's made explicitly clear that he's the main character early on, yet it takes awhile for him to take an active role and not just react to events around him.
  • The Doctor Who Past Doctor Adventures novel Independence Day is noted for having the Doctor spend the whole novel wandering about with a bunch of minor characters, then just as it seems he's about to do something he swallows a toxic worm and spends the climax comatose in a mass grave while a rebellion started by someone else defeats the Evil Overlord.
  • Both Bella and Wanderer tend to fall into this during periods of action (which admittedly are in the minority in the slow, conversation-heavy books.) They're both Extreme Doormats, so it makes sense from an in-story standpoint, but it's one of the reasons Stephanie Meyer's works are so polarizing.
  • Beverly King in L.M. Montgomery's The Story Girl is there purely to observe the more interesting characters around him. Then again, they are very interesting characters.
  • Kino from Kino's Journey tries to be this type of character; being a Traveller, one is not supposed to pass judgment or meddle in the affairs of the places they visit and is only there to observe objectively. However, various circumstances typically get Kino wrapped up in the affairs of the places she comes to and forces her to act, whether she wants to or not.
  • Both the book The Manuscript Found In Saragossa and the movie adaptation: Alphonse van Worden has various bewildering or scary things happen around him and to him, and is told lots of stories. Most of it turns out to be a show staged for van Worden in an attempt to convince or convert him.
  • In Excession, most of the plot is driven by starship AIs and other superpowerful Minds while the protagonist, diplomat Byr Genar-Hofoen is sent by his mysterious bosses on a journey to the GSV Sleeper Service to find the one person who may have knowledge of the Excession, but it becomes apparent that she isn't even there, and his whole trip occurred because the Eccentric ship wanted him to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend, which has no impact on the story. And then the Excession leaves with no real explanation.
  • The main character of The Sharing Knife. In terms of plot, almost everything that happens is because of her primary love interest, with her dragged along for the ride. When fighting starts, said love interest is impressive even for a member of the resident Superior Species, whereas she's physically unsuited to combat and tries to stay out of the way. However, as the series progresses she learns more self-confidence. To the point that when her husband is threatened, she defies an entire camp of sorcerers to ride out and rescue him.
  • The protagonist and narrator of Iain Bank's A Song of Stone is an aristocrat called Abel living during in a civil war. He starts the novel trying to escape from the country with his wife/sister Morgan but gets caught up with a group of soldiers and has very little control over the plot from that point onwards.
  • Older Than Steam: The 1554 Spanish picaresque novel, kicked off by Lazarillo de Tormes, is the Trope Maker: the protagonist is almost always a circumstance- and happenstance-dependent drifter through life, with very little proactive situations. In the 1700's, English picaresque fiction (such as Tom Jones or Peregrine Pickle) inherited the trope.
  • Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman has a justified example that's probably impossible to top. The main character can't control his muscle movements enough to communicate in any fashion, and it's commonly assumed by those around him that he doesn't even have a mind. The "plot," such as it is, is his commenting on how his life is and how people react to him, with him unable to change anything even to save his own life.
  • Nick Carraway does absolutely nothing in The Great Gatsby. He is, however, an outside view of rich people screwing up the lives of themselves and everyone around them. He does organise that meeting between Daisy and Gatsby, but that's about it.
  • The Stand may or may not have this trope, depending on what you see the main plot of the book as being. In terms of rebuilding society in the wake of an apocalyptic event, the Main Characters actually do quite a bit. In terms of fighting Randall Flagg, the Big Bad of the story, though, they accomplish virtually nothing; at best their role is to serve as witnesses to his defeat by the Hand of God (with a little help from the Trashcan Man).
  • Tyrone Slothrop of Gravity's Rainbow, who never solves the mystery he's after, spends his time on various sidequests instead, avoids death only by accident and eventually simply goes mad, gives up and disappears from the story.
  • The Doc Savage novels pulled in involved bystanders to their plots to act as first person narrator protagonists assisted by the titular Man of Bronze.
  • Lampshaded in Terry Pratchett's Guards! Guards!. Although Sam Vimes and company play little part in the successful resolution of the novel as the dragon is defeated by Errol the Swamp Dragon, the Patrician specifically states that people need to see there are heroes and so rewards Sam Vimes and the Night Watch accordingly. It is also implied that the Night Watch are heroic, merely because they actually did something to stand up to the dragon, even if unsuccessfully. Vimes did also stop Wonse from killing the best Patrician the city had ever had and looked after the dragon that eventually saved the day.
    • Vimes ends up thinking this about himself in Night Watch. As the revolution enters into full swing, all he wants to do is keep some well-meaning but foolish comrades from dying unpleasantly; he's staunchly uninterested in any of the so-called changes the rebels think they want. (He knows better.) He is however bitterly aware that everyone else in the narrative thinks he's the hero, and realizes that he assumed Keel — whose role in events he is now occupying — was a genuine rebel, and now he wonders if Keel just wanted the same thing he did.
  • Bernadette Manuelito is this in the murder mystery The Sinister Pig. She asks interesting questions as a Border Patrol officer and talks to a variety of people, but the murder mystery is solved by other officers Chee and Leaphorn; the whole plot is resolved when Bernadette walks straight into a trap, and a different character (who's been developed in other parts of the book) solves everything.
  • In this review of Brazilian novel Twelve Fingers, it's even stated that the Forrest Gump-like protagonist "bounces around like a ball in a pinball machine, occasionally disappearing from view entirely for longer periods of time."
  • Carnelian is like this for incredibly long stretches of The Stone Dance of the Chameleon. In the first book, the only instance of him taking matters into his own hands ends in disaster. Only at the very end of the trilogy does he finally step up.
  • Nora from Hush, Hush. She spends most of the book going about her daily life, reacting when something or someone tries to kill her, then promptly forgets about it in favor of going back to her daily routines.
  • This sums up Zoey Redbird from The House of Night. If something isn't directly affecting her right then and there, she'll forget about it. In some cases, she forgets about it right after it happens.
  • Discussed in The Pinballs, where Carlie's speech about the three protagonists being pinballs evokes a very dark interpretation of this trope. Justified since she's an abused child, also she ultimately renounces her claim.
  • The Magic: The Gathering novel Prophecy is largely told through the perspective of an enslaved soldier who has next to no impact on the plot of the book.
  • Out of all the point of view characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, Sansa Stark stands out as being the most reactive and passive, spending much of her early page time being pushed around by other characters. This is justified — she's a naive preteen girl, and unlike the others, she's in no position t be proactive. Part of her storyline is shedding this trope and gaining her own agency.
  • Shane Schofield spends the first few chapters of every book he's in in this state, usually because he's reacting to whatever group is trying to kill him this time and finding out what they want. Then he starts hitting back.
  • 11/22/63 has this to an extent due to the Time Travel aspect of the story. Jake Epping, a man from 2011 living incognito in the late 50s and early 60s on a mission to prevent the Kennedy assassination, has to study Lee Harvey Oswald's actions to make sure that he is in fact acting alone, but he must also be extremely careful not to alert Oswald to his presence. In other words, Oswald's actions drive the plot of the book for the most part, and Jake just has to follow him around and actively avoid doing anything important until he's positive that killing Oswald will in fact save Kennedy.

    Live-Action TV 
  • There was a long period when virtually everyone on Lost was like this. They'd have little fits of trying to do something, only to be completely stymied, and then they'd go "Oh... no..." and sink back into frustrating helplessness. Early on, the show was mostly about introducing the various... erm... pinballs and the Island and there were many pinballs in play. Later on, the show began to conform to this trope less and less.
  • Doctor Who: While he is generally a major player in most stories, this has been known to happen with The Doctor on occasion. The companions sometimes get this too, even in A Day in the Limelight:
    • The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve has the Doctor go missing early on, leaving his companion Steven stranded in sixteenth-century Paris. Steven spends the story as main protagonist, but he completely fails to change events in the slightest, and has no real idea what is going on. He only just finds the Doctor in time to escape Paris and avoid the impending atrocity.
    • The Celestial Toymaker involves the crew being trapped in a parallel dimension run by a godlike immortal who just wants to play Deadly Games with them, and demonstrates his power by phasing the Doctor out of existence and forcing him to play "the Trilogic Game". This means that the Doctor spends the whole plot able to do little other than argue with the Toymaker in ADRed lines, and even Steven and Dodo have no real agency except to win the games the Toymaker set out for them until the Toymaker just gives them the TARDIS back.
    • The Tenth Planet plays with this trope in an interesting way. The Doctor has only very few lines in the story because William Hartnell's health was failing, and even spends a whole middle episode asleep (apparently for no reason); and his plan for dealing with the evil planet draining the Earth's energy is incredibly passive - simply to wait for it to die, which he says it will do in a couple of hours. Unfortunately, his expansive apparent knowledge followed by his sudden absence ramps up the paranoia among the humans to fever pitch to the point where everyone turns against him and the General even accuses him of killing his son. Even after his prediction turns out to be right and the planet dies, it's a hollow victory, as the Doctor's unconsciousness is revealed to be a Chekhov's Gun foreshadowing a majorly controversial plot decision.
    • In "The Space Pirates", the Doctor is barely in the first and last episodes. His only action that really affects the plot is increasing the power of the electromagnetism on the satellite segment, with most of the other victories being the payoffs of other cast members with Chronic Backstabbing Disorder.
    • The Doctor spends most of "The Horns of Nimon" fighting the Negative Space Wedgie while stuck in the TARDIS while Romana does the stuff the Doctor would normally do. He does help create a device for affecting the gravity problems but it's clearly shown Romana could have done it just as easily on her own and would have done it without his help. He is present while the Anethians get out of the labyrinth but K-9 is the one who actually does all of the work, and the Doctor even argues with K-9's solution and is proven wrong. Even getting Romana and K-9 there in the first place can't be attributed to him, since they all got pulled down there by the gravity device. The only things he does that affect the plot are getting K-9 back from Soldeed and discovering the Nimons' ship. This was likely an intentional attempt to control Tom Baker's level of involvement, as he'd been getting very controlling and unstable at the time.
    • "Logopolis". The Doctor only does three things in the story that affect events at all, two of which are just landing the TARDIS in the first place (one to fall for the Police Box trap, and the other to go to Logopolis). The third is sending the Charged Vaccuum Emboitment into Cassiopeia.
    • Infamously in the case of Revelation of the Daleks, where it takes over half the story for the Doctor to even meet anyone involved in the main plot and, believe it or not, the Daleks save the day by swooping in and carrying Davros off as a prisoner. Orcini completes the job by blowing up Davros' new Dalek army, something he could have done without the Doctor's assistance, and the Doctor's sole contribution is to prevent collateral damage by helping evacuate the area first.
    • Sylvester McCoy's Doctor was, with some justification, accused of "wandering through a series of encounters in which he plays no essential part"note . The writers appeared to take this the heart, turning him into the Chess Master in his later stories.
    • One criticism levelled at Planet of the Ood is the fact that it ends with the Ood thanking the Doctor and Donna for saving them when they've spent most of the episode wandering around doing nothing after blundering into two plans set in motion before their arrival (Ood Sigma dosing Halpen's hair tonic to turn him into an Ood and Ryder powering down the restraining field around the Ood brain in order to restore their free will). The Doctor does deactivate the explosives Halpen had set up to destroy the Ood brain but he's a very minor player in events.
    • Asylum of the Daleks mostly has Oswin moving the plot along, while the Daleks set up events and the Doctor concludes them. Rory is used as the viewpoint character for much of the episode and doesn't influence events at all beyond being a prop through which Oswin can interact with the plot. Amy, meanwhile, is only there for some rather contrived Can Not Spit It Out romantic drama, and has even less to do with anything that happens.
    • In In The Forest Of The Night, the Doctor, Clara, Danny and the children have little effect on the overall course of events except for broadcasting a plea (which is ignored) not to defoliate the trees.
  • In the Torchwood episode "Small Worlds", the antagonists have supernatural powers which Torchwood have no ability to counter. As a result, throughout the episode Torchwood can do little more than rush to the site of the latest manifestation and helplessly watch events unfold.
  • This happens quite frequently to Arthur on Merlin, particularly in the later seasons. In one notable example The Eye of the Phoenix, Arthur has a vision that instructs him to seek out the Trident in the lands of the Fisher King. He wanders all the way to the Perilous Lands where he's promptly knocked unconscious by a spirit-destroying bracelet given to him by Morgana. Merlin follows in his wake, meets the Fisher King, retrieves the true McGuffin (the trident is useless) and is told that the entire journey was for his benefit. Arthur was just the catalyst for getting him there, and one can't help but wonder why the vision wasn't just sent to Merlin in the first place.
  • This trope is discussed in an episode of The Big Bang Theory, in which Amy points this out in regards to Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of Sheldon's favorite movies. She argues that Indiana Jones is completely irrelevant to the plot: with or without him, the Nazis would have still found the Ark, opened it, and been destroyed. Sheldon can't find any flaw in this logic, which causes a temporary Heroic B.S.O.D.; he spends the rest of the episode watching Little House on the Prairie, Amy's favorite TV show, in an attempt to find flaws in it and get revenge on her.
  • On the Criminal Minds episode "North Mammon", the team is called in on a case. After chasing various red herrings, the perp, independent from the actions of the team, lets go of some of the victims. Since the victims at this point can simply identify the man who captured them, any policeman could have made the arrest.

  • Fans of the NFL, when discussing which quarterback is better than another, tend to fall into two distinct categories. One school believes that a quarterback's statistical achievement determines his greatness. The second cares less about the stats and more about his leadership—the best quarterbacks are the ones who win games and bring home championships, even if their stats don't always impress. When the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001, it was due almost entirely to a defense of almost legendary repute. Their quarterback that year was Trent Dilfer, who bounced around from team to team his entire career and was never any better than strictly average throughout. He 'won' the Super Bowl that year and was unceremoniously dumped by the team soon after. Because of this, Dilfer embodies the Pinball Protagonist trope among NFL fans, and if the topic is ever brought up for any reason, Dilfer's name inevitably follows as an example. Saturday Night Live even drew attention to this, apologizing to TV viewers on the NFL's behalf for the MVP award not going to linebacker Ray Lewis and flat-out stating: "Trent Dilfer sucks."
  • Gene Chizik coached Auburn to the 2010 college football national championship...officially. But the most important factors that led to the championship (a powerful offensive scheme, great recruiting, and signing Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton) happened because of his offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn. Two years later Malzahn left to become the head coach at Arkansas State, and Auburn promptly stumbled to a 3-9 record. The school bought out Chizik's contract and replaced him with...Gus Malzahn.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Pinball Protagonist can often be the end result of a Railroading. As a result, some railroaded adventure modules in tabletop roleplay games, such as Ravenholm, are accused of leaving the players as mere observers to the events pinballing around them.

  • Oliver!: Oliver's an orphan, gets passed from orphanage, to a funeral home, then gets kicked out and gets picked up by the thieves guild, then is taken in by a rich old man. It's a musical, and the characters mostly sing around him as well.

    Video Games 
  • Pick an FPS. Any FPS. The main character is just there obeying orders with no personal entanglement with the plot. Provided there is a plot beyond "go shoot some designated baddies", that is. The FPS mentioned below are subversion, aversion, or deconstruction.
  • Many story-heavy games with scripted events and heroic mimes.
    • Jack from BioShock is an excellent example — not only does he rarely speak, he also plays a nearly negligible role in the story for most of the game. It turns out to be a deconstruction, however. Jack is literally mind-controlled. And he ends up killing not only Andrew Ryan, but Fontaine as well. And saves the little sisters, or damns them! Pretty good, and the last one is up to the players which.
    • For many players, games with excessive amounts of Follow the Plotted Line, Railroading, Evil Plan, Mission Control and Stop Helping Me! can rob them of all Suspension of Disbelief about their and their Player Character's creativity and initiative, causing them to feel like a complete nonentity even if "their" successful execution of goals make a huge difference in the events of the plot.
    • Most however just accept it as a simple narrative convention and focus on the gameplay.
  • Likewise, many games set during wars with a modern military influence, particularly combat simulators like MechWarrior and FreeSpace. Even if you have a character with a personality, you're still one small speck of a very big situation, and the important decisions just aren't up to you.
    • Averted in the Wing Commander series, as the overall progress of the war depends on your performance in certain key missions; later games in the series give you the opportunity to make decisions and influence the story with dialogue options.
  • The protagonists in Studio Key's visual novels are justified in their general pin-ball status in the games, because that's the whole point of the genre. But as these games were turned into Anime series en masse by Kyoto animation, the fact that the boys simply bounce from girl to girl helping them resolve issues can be bothersome.
  • In Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)... Sonic himself is this. He has an entire "storyline" to himself being the main character and all, but he doesn't actually affect anything. Some of the side characters (Knuckles and Tails mainly) are even worse so. That, and he's literally a pinball in some games.
  • Allegretto from Eternal Sonata is a Jerk with a Heart of Gold with little connection to the main plot, yet acts as the player's avatar for most of the game.
  • Alex from Street Fighter III coined the Japanese counterpart of the trope, "main character (lol)." He was meant to be the next hero of the series representing a new generation of fighters. But with no projectile and two command throws, he fit the grappler image better. Which would have been fine except combined with his all-rounder stats, nothing about him really stood out. Worse, Ryu was still where the Player 1 cursor started and Alex's ending had him losing horribly to said previous protagonist. Not fitting the main character mold was one thing but becoming completely overshadowed as well sealed it.
  • The Ace Attorney series by its nature falls into this as the games all star criminal defense lawyers and prosecuting attorneys and follows them through their work on individual murder cases. In other words, they have nothing of relevance in the plot until someone drops dead and they get pulled in to defend them/prosecute them and they must rely on other people a good amount of the time to get all the information they need to win their case. That said, while the protagonists often have a reactive nature to the cases themselves, they still have their own individual character plots that play out during the game to ensure they remain a central part of the story. They're not so much irrelevant to the story (no, not even Apollo, who gets played like a puppet in his self-titled entry) as they are required to wait for something to happen so the player will have something to do.
  • The playable duo from Resident Evil 0, Rebecca and Billy don't do a whole lot over the course of the game. The only character interaction that isn't between them or other S.T.A.R.S. members is running into the final boss of the game. Any plot developments happen in cutscenes, involve Wesker and Birkin, and are completely separate from what the protagonists are doing.
    • This is true of all Resident Evil games until the fourth came along. Typically the plot involves running around just trying to stay alive amidst odd enemies and even odder puzzles while the plot works independently of you. All those storylines would have had the exact same outcomes had Chris, Jill, Claire, Leon, Carlos, and the rest died within the first 30 seconds.
  • Dragon Age II: Hawke is the main character, but for most of the story is just reacting to the events that occur around him/her, with Isabella and Anders being the main driving forces in the plot. Despite it being the major plot point of the game exploring the Man vs. Fate conflict, many players weren't sold on it and viewed it as a step back from the first game, where they could make some pretty world-changing choices. The third game returned to the old formula as a result.
  • Hisao, the viewpoint character of Katawa Shoujo, starts out like this thanks to being jaded by losing all his old friends and thoroughly unenthused with the idea of attending Yamaku Academy. Shizune reveals in her route she recognized this and make it a goal to set him straight, and succeeds no matter who he ends up chasing, since at least he's showing an active interest in something.
  • In Zone of the Enders, Leo starts out as this as some random kid who finds the all important mech for a resistance movement. However, thanks to Viola, he eventually becomes emotionally involved with the story and becomes a more important character.
  • Subverted in Spec Ops: The Line, where the main character constantly asserts that everything he's doing, no matter how horrible, is because Konrad keeps forcing his hand. Then it turns out Konrad was a hallucination the entire time, and he could've easily stopped at any point.
  • Luke from Tales of the Abyss is this trope for the first part of the game. He's just a sheltered noble who by circumstance ends up kidnapped and dragged halfway around the world and back by others. When he DOES try to take an active role and be a hero, it ends VERY badly. Throw in the resulting dose of Character Development and he becomes much more proactive for the rest of the game.
  • The main character of Hotline Miami goes through the whole game simply following orders from his answering machine (until his Roaring Rampage of Revenge in Part 4,) and consequently both he and the player never learn anything about what's going on behind the scenes. Richard even tells him in Part 4 that nothing he does from that point on will mean anything. The Biker, on the other hand, is much more proactive, with his storyline revolving around figuring out who's pulling the strings.
  • Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. The player has a few different paths to choose from but the Nazis are almost always one step ahead and they reach Atlantis and it's god-making machine regardless of Indy's actions. The machine doesn't actually work so the antagonists would have presumably killed themselves with it or given up even if Indy had never got involved. In fact, the final puzzle is to convince the Big Bad to (fatally) use the machine on himself instead of the player. All Indy really manages to do is rescue Sophia. Unless he doesn't.
  • In Eternal Eden, Noah is a mostly passive character who was forced into the conflict by his best friend's actions. Ultimately subverted since the best friend in question is really a manifestation of himself, created by his subconscious to cover up his own misdeeds.
  • Samus becomes this in Metroid: Other M. Apart from defeating the Metroid Queen, retrieving Adam's Helmet, and clearing out a lot of the monsters on the Bottle Ship, she doesn't really accomplish a great deal and most major issues or plot points are given to other characters.
  • In Gems Of War, the plot is linear, and the protagonist only speaks in the form of short sentences which fit on what is effectively a "continue" button. As such, the player character comes across as very laid back and obliging to whichever character is serving as Quest Giver. ("Can I join you?" "Okay." "Will you help me?" "Sure, why not." "We must attack immediately!" "All right.") There are occasions where the player character attempts to point out the silliness of certain decisions, but he/she almost always gets carried along anyway.
  • Halo usually manages to avoid this. In Combat Evolved, had MC not been there, the survivors of the Autumn would have been slowly picked off by Covenant forces, the ring would have remained intact and ready to fire, and Cortana wouldn't have been able to get the Index, which she needed in Halo 3. Halo 2 has Master Chief killing the Prophet of Regret early on, and the Arbiter was the only Elite capable of defeating the super-charged Tartarus in time to stop the ring from firing. In Halo 3, Chief was the only reason the Halo Array stopped firing after Truth forced Johnson to activate it, and was instrumental in activating the incomplete Halo with Cortana. Noble 6 in Reach appears to be this for a while, but towards the end of the game he/she becomes more integral to Noble Team's success, and is the reason Master Chief makes it to the first Halo. In Halo 4, Chief's pursuit of the Diadact is the only thing that saves Humanity from being wiped out by the Composer. Halo 5 is where the series finally lapses into this trope: If Blue Team and Fireteam Osiris had just stayed home that day, the titular Guardians would still have been dispersed through the galaxy, hundreds of AI would have still defected to the Domain, and the Infinity would still be on the run.

  • Rice Boy. The titular Rice Boy is kind and meek, so when he's told that he's fated to fulfill a prophecy and save the world, he has little problem stepping up. But he's ignorant about the larger world, and has no idea how he's supposed to do the job, so he spends the majority of the story bouncing from one source of exposition to the next, following their instructions.
    • No really, he bounces a lot
    • At least until he Takes A Level In Badass by the end of the story.
    • Shockingly, it's a subversion: Rice Boy and every potential prophesied one before him are just diversions, and the real hero is TOE, who has been proactive with tough decisions through the entire story.

    Web Original 
  • The Pooh's Adventures series on YouTube. Pooh doesn't do anything to change the plot of whatever movie he is in. He just spouts off random comments. In fact, when it does come time to fight the villain, it's usually someone else who vanquishes the villain.
  • Lampshaded (like everything else) in Freeman's Mind. Gordon mentions at various points that he's "just a rat in a maze...with no cheese", and that he's "caught in the middle of some cosmic politics."
  • Most of the cast of Red vs. Blue falls into this, especially in the first five seasons. Calling the Blood Gulch crew "reactive protagonists" would be stretching for a compliment, honestly. When left to their own devices, the most they'll instigate by themselves is childish bickering.

    Western Animation 
  • Omar of Rock & Rule just sits back and look petulant while his sidekicks take the initiative to find Angel. Once he realizes what kind of danger she's in he turns around and actually comes off as quite heroic.