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Puppet King
What happens when the nominal leader of a nation (most commonly some form of royalty) is secretly a figurehead controlled by elements within his or her government. Usually the real power will be a Regent for Life, a Government Conspiracy, or a particularly skillful Evil Chancellor; the general populace will think that the nominal ruler is really the one in charge, and the ruler themself can have a variety of reactions — they may be trying desperately to get power back, may be content with the status quo as The Way Things Are Meant To Be, may be too busy having fun to care, or in some extreme cases may not even know themselves the extent to which they're being played. In some cases this will be built right into the system of government, though only the highest officials will know that. Often the protagonists will help open the Puppet King's eyes and help him take his government back.

Does not apply to cases like the modern British monarchy, where the monarch's limited powers are something everyone knows and accepts. The government has to at least make a show that the ruler is calling the shots to qualify for this trope. Has nothing to do with the Teen Titans villain Puppet King, who is an Evil Sorcerer with the body of a literal puppet, or puppets used that play the part of kings in Puppet Shows, or King Friday XIII from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Also not to be confused with Puppeteer Parasite or People Puppets.

Compare Shadow Dictator and Decoy Leader. An Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster is a subversion (looks powerless, but isn't, and takes advantage of that perception).

Examples

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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Naruto it was eventually revealed that Yagura, the Fourth Mizukage and ruler of the Village Hidden in the Mist, was mind-controlled by someone who claimed to be Madara Uchiha. The extent to which he was aware of his control is unknown.
    • After what's shown of Yagura's true personality, it can be assumed that he was probably under complete and utter control of Tobi.
  • The Earth Alliance in Gundam SEED and Gundam Seed Destiny is made up of several of the world's most powerful nations, including The Atlantic Federation, Eurasia, and other major power blocs in Easa Asia, Africa, and South America. Yet despite that, the agenda is really being controlled by Blue Cosmos, and several other major anti-Coordinator lobby groups, headed first by Murata Azrael and later by his successor, Lord Djibril. It's Blue Cosmos who pulls the strings; the Earth Alliance just follows along.
    • Actually, the first Mobile Suit Gundam series has this too. By the time the action rolls, Sovereign Degwin Zabi's power over Zeon was heavily disminished due to his old age and his son and heir Gihren's manipulation. And it gets worse after Degwin's youngest son, Garma, dies; the old man's thrown across the Despair Event Horizon, Gihren plots more and more, and then...
    • This was also used in further Universal Century installements, specially in the case of one Mineva Lao Zabi. She's a seven-year-old girl and the last descendant of the Zeons, but the one truly in command is her tutor and the governor of the Axis, a Dark Action Girl known as Haman Kahn.
      • And according to other sources, Haman herself was this close to play the trope straight at age fifteen-sixteen, after her father and former leader Maharajah died and she was appointed as the Axis governor by the Zeon military, who hoped that she'd be easy to control. She was NOT.
    • Other Gundam examples include Queen Maria of the brutal Zanscare Empire, who is on the whole a very kind and decent woman who is painfully aware of her lack of real power. Mobile Suit Gundam Wing had Duke Dermail attempt to make Relena Peacecraft into one of these when he gave the the title "Queen of the World", but she went and turned that into a truly authoritative position and ended up reforming the Rommefeller Foundation into a benevolent pacifistic state.
  • Fuhrer King Bradley of Fullmetal Alchemist and he knows it. He is the Homunculus Wrath and only the figurehead to the real leader, Father. For his entire life he served Father's will and had very little freedom of his own. It is why he cherished his wife, as it was the ONLY thing he willingly chose with that very freedom he had.
    • Similarly, in the 2003 anime version, Bradley is the Homonculus Pride and is controlled by Dante in her never-ending use of the Amestris military as a tool of despair to make people create Philosopher's Stones. However, since Dante couldn't care less about day-to-day issues of the nation, Bradley has a lot more autonomy in this version than his original counterpart and seems to take an inordinate amount of, well, pride in his own leadership.
  • Opfus, the official leader of Chaos Brigade is this in High School D×D.
  • Youko of The Twelve Kingdoms realises she is one of these sometime after her coronation, because the court ministers had become accustomed to power over the long absence of a monarch, and use her inexperience to easily keep her from making any significant decisions. So she goes incognito to learn about her own country. This leads to her becoming involved in a rebellion against the corrupt portion of her government, which in turn results in her taking direct control of the army, thus solving that little problem.

    Comics 
  • The comic book series Fables has a literal puppet emperor. Gepetto, who's still playing humble woodcarver, is actually in charge.
  • The V for Vendetta comic had a puppet dictator. The dictator was a symbol and figurehead, one of his ministers is the one really in control of the government.
  • In the Archie Comics Sonic The Hedgehog series, Elias just can't help but be controlled by someone. The first time, it was Geoffry St. John, who tried to make it so that him and his Secret Service was a much better choice than Sonic and the Freedom Fighters. Second time, Elias' own father, Max, attempted to be this way, refusing to give up the past.

    Films — Animation 
  • The Sultan in Disney's Aladdin is completely under the control of Grand Vizier Jafar, thanks in large part to a Hypno Ray staff.
  • It is implied that Emperor Kuzco's narcissic/self-absorbed behavior was due to Yzma's influence when growing up, meaning she most likely attempted to control Kuzco while on the throne. Unfortunately for her, this backfires, resulting in wanting to directly taking the throne for herself by murdering him.

    Films — Live Action 

    Literature 
  • Gilthas from Dragonlance looks like this (in fact, he was derisively nicknamed "the Puppet King", controlled by the Dark Knights and a succession of Quisling Evil Chancellors, but he's actually one of the secret leaders of the resistance against his own rule, and his wife is the military leader of said resistance. Needless to say, the ones who thought they had him under control were not happy about this.
  • Literally built into the Terran Hansa Charter in The Saga of Seven Suns. The Great King is a monarch who acts as the Hansa's public face and is a focus for loyalty, but the Hansa Chairman (a career politician publicly seen as the king's assistant) is the one really calling the shots behind the scenes, and the king has no influence over policy.
  • Some of the Galactic Emperors from Isaac Asimov's Foundation books were like this. During the timeline of the main series, the position had degenerated into being almost all figureheads, with a couple of exceptions.
    • Also King Lepold of Anacreon, whose government is really controlled by Prince Regent Wienis.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The President of the Galactic Empire has no actual power, and exists to distract the public from the real leaders. The Emperor is even more useless, being kept in suspended animation for the last ten thousand years so they can still call it an empire. The galaxy is really "ruled" by the decisions of a delusional old man in a hut who refuses to believe in anything he doesn't experience empirically.
  • King Théoden of Rohan had effectively been turned into this during The Lord of the Rings until Gandalf snapped him out of it. In the movies this was due to literal Mind Control, while in the books Evil Chancellor Wormtongue was "just" a very Manipulative Bastard who used mundane means and the king's advancing age to get actual control of the government handed over to him.
    • Wormtongue uses dark magic on Theoden in the book too; it's just not as overt as in the movie.
  • God-King Susebron from Warbreaker is an example of one who knows and accepts his own role as a symbol and his priests' role as the actual administrators — at least, until his young wife Siri convinces him otherwise.
  • The White Vampire Court in The Dresden Files, Lara controlling her father, the King, after the book Blood Rites.
  • Queen Victoria is in thrall to the title character in Anno Dracula until her Heroic Sacrifice.
  • In Mercedes Lackey's Dragon Jousters series the two sets of royalty in the opposing kingdoms are under the control of the same group of evil magicians determined to keep the war going to they can harvest the life energy of the slain soldiers.
  • In the Discworld novel Guards! Guards! the goal of the Elucidated Brethren is to set up one of these with themselves holding the reins. The idea is that they will get a chap with the usual characteristics (noble, not too bright, does what he's told) have him slay a dragon they summoned and reap the rewards. Unfortunately the dragon turns out to be Not Quite Dead, and then things get interesting...
    • Also, according to Unseen University's Bursar, all of the Archchancellors are supposed to be this. Seeing almost all of them get killed off by Klingon Promotion before doing anything important, the only thing they needed to do was sign papers. That all came to an end when Mustrum Ridcully was put in charge...along with the Bursar's sanity.
  • In Robert E. Howard's "The Scarlet Citadel", the villains want to replace Conan the Barbarian with one; Conan scorns them for needing an excuse.
  • In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows we have a Puppet Minster of Magic, Pius Thicknesse, who is being controlled by Yaxley via the Imperius Curse, who in turn answers to Lord Voldemort. In the movie version, Thicknesse seems to be an active Death Eater himself rather than just a pawn, though the hierarchy of him-Yaxley-Voldemort is otherwise intact.
  • Days Of Infamy a Harry Turtledove alternate timeline series features Japan invading Hawaii following the Pearl Harbor attack. Mirroring the establishment of the puppet emperor Puyi of Manchukuo the Japanese military places a local noble with a dubious pedigree as the new King of Hawaii.
  • Emperor Sarabian starts the Tamuli as one of these. He has the prestige and the perks, but his Vast Bureaucracy appropriated all the power generations ago. By the end of the trilogy, his new Elene friends help him take his power back.
  • His Dark Materials: The Authority is too senile to rule the multiverse at the time of the story, so Metatron does instead.
  • In Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, Buzz Windrip is a puppet dictator, with his right-hand man Lee Saranson really pulling the strings. Saranson's lust for power drives him to exile Windrip after an aborted assassination attempt.
  • Subverted in A Song of Ice and Fire
    • Joffrey is installed as one of these. Unfortunately, he is still officially the king, and consequently if he gives an incredibly stupid order in public, and indeed he does so several times, they can't just countermand him.
    • Young King Tommen is a puppet for his mother the Queen Regent Cersei. She actively discourages him from developing a backbone by making him beat his whipping boy when he tries to argue with her. Unfortunately Tommen is betrothed to Queen Margaery from the rival House Tyrell, leading to both seeking to exert control over the boy.
    • Robert Arryn is nominally Lord Paramount of the Vale, but is young, sickly and childish. The real power is with his mother Lysa, and later and more prominently, his stepfather Petyr 'Littlefinger' Baelish.
    • If Littlefinger's drunken ramblings are to be believed, he is grooming Sansa Stark, his newly adopted daughter, to be this for the North, the Vale, and the Riverlands, and possibly even all of Westeros if his plan is indeed to covertly take over the whole continent using their combined might.
  • In The Wheel of Time series, this is what the rebel Aes Sedai faction intend when they summon Egwene Al'Vere to become their version of the Amyrlin Seat. Because she is so young and not even completely trained, they assume they will have no trouble pushing her to any aim they have in mind, while presenting the image of a united group. What they don't consider is that she has unbreakable Heroic Willpower and takes Siuan's lessons in political maneuvering to heart, so within a book or so she has them dancing on her strings and becoming the strongest Amyrlin in centuries.
  • Garrett, P.I. has a Puppet Kingpin in Chodo Contague, who suffers a debilitating stroke in Dread Brass Shadows. His co-Dragons take over the Outfit for a time by putting words in his mouth; when his daughter Belinda figures it out, she ousts them from power and exploits her comatose father in the same way.
  • War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches: in the story "Foreign Devils", The Guangxu Emperor starts out as this. Officially, he is the leader of China, but in reality prince Tuan has all the power because of his many allies and formidable army. The Martian invasion, which cripples Tuan’s army, provides the emperor with a chance to finally take back power however.
  • Dunevon, four-year-old king of the Copper Isles in Daughter of the Lioness. Rubinyan and Imajane are his regents and take the opportunity to be even more tyrannical than their father was. Later they kill him so Rubinyan can just take the throne outright. This is defied on the raka side—after Sarai elopes, Dove takes her place in their plans but makes it very clear that she is not going to be one of these.
  • In The Stormlight Archive Alethkar was multiple nations until it was united by Gavilar. Unfortunately he was killed, a lot of the people currently ruling parts of Alethkar used to rule nations in their own right, and his son Elhokar doesn't have nearly the strength of will his father did. As a result he's fairly ineffective. In the second book Gavilar's brother Dalinar starts trying to make the king more of a uniting figure. But between Dalinar's forceful personality and Elohkar's indecision and general lack of competence, even people who like Dalinar think it just makes the king look like his puppet.

    Live Action TV 
  • The head of Global Dynamics on Eureka is apparently assumed to be this for the Department of Defense. In season 4, this is subtly hinted at being the reason Fargo landed the job in the altered timeline.
  • In Babylon 5, Cartagia was intended to be a Puppet Emperor for Lord Refa and his conspiracy. It... Didn't really work out (Or maybe it did while Refa was alive. He didn't actually appear in the series until after Refa was assassinated). Londo Mollari later becomes a Puppet Emperor for the Drakh, literally.
  • Arthur is seriously flirting with this territory in 'Merlin'' due to the constant influence of and his desire to not tick off Agravaine.
  • In My Name Is Earl, Darnell is in Witness Protection for refusal to kill one of these. The puppet king in question was a child, and Darnell secret agent Harry Munroe couldn't bring himself to harm a child.
  • Parodied in the Angel episode "Smile Time", where the creator of a kid's puppet show is a human being controlled by the literal demonic puppets that act in the show.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series. What happens when a Starfleet historian ignores history and tries to bring back the Nazis for a Planet of Hats. He ends up giving drugged speeches for an Evil Chancellor.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Exalted features Regent Fokuf, the only person to sit on the throne of the Realm since the Scarlet Empress disappeared — the main reason being that everyone wanted a witless fool who could easily be bent to their whims. Fokuf basically spends his days rubber-stamping documents and wanking to the Immaculate Texts, and it's stated that if the Scarlet Empress returns, she'll likely destroy him for the insult of daring to sit on her throne.

    Theater 
  • In Pacific Overtures, the Emperor of Japan, when the real power was wielded by the Shogun, is literally played by a Bunraku puppet. The musical employs this trope to ingenius means toward the end when a full bodied actor literally emerges from the puppet as the Emperor grows out of this trope and commands the superior power.

    Video Games 
  • Speculation is that Jin and Ragna's sister Saya, now the the Imperator of the NOL, in BlazBlue: Continuum Shift has been turned into this by Terumi. It wouldn't be the first time he's mind raped somebody into pulling a Face-Heel Turn.
    • In Chronophantasma however it's played straight for Jin but Subverted by Saya who is revealed to be Izanami the Goddess of Death possessing her and she had been playing Terumi and Relius the entire time.She later backstabs them after they became useless to her.
  • Played with in Final Fantasy IV. Cecil and the party think this is what's going on in the kingdom of Baron, with the king being manipulated by Golbez, the new leader of the Red Wings armada, in order to steal all the crystals with the kingdom's military strength. However, the ''real' king of Baron has been dead since before the game even started, and has been replaced by Cagnazzo, the Fiend of Water, who is under Golbez's command.
    • Another Final Fantasy example: Final Fantasy II had Emperor Mateus, the ruler of Palamecia. The novelization of the game implies that that he and all of the previous Emperors of Palamecia were the puppet kings of Satan.
  • The Empire attempt to do this with the female lead Princess Ashe in Final Fantasy XII. Let's just say that the Empire give up on this plan real fast.
  • Ar Tonelico 2's Cloche is officially the Holy Maiden of the Grand Bell, leading the people of Metafalss in the War Against the Goddess Frelia. In truth, she starts as an isolated young woman closely monitored by the Grand Bell's upper crust, especially Alfman Uranous. Then you find out her Back Story, and It Gets Worse....
  • Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater had Volgin intending to place Brezhnev and Kosygin in the place of Khrushchev so he could manipulate them behind the scenes. On a related note, it is implied in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty that every single President of the United States since William Taft was used as Puppet Kings by the Patriots (in the case of the early formation, the Philosophers.).
  • In Pokémon Black and White, N is implied to be this, as while he was officially the leader of Team Plasma, a group of Well-Intentioned Extremists who intended to separate Pokémon from Humans under the belief that the latter group abuses Pokémon, Ghetsis was secretly manipulating N and by extension the entirety of Team Plasma so he could take over the planet by being the only one allowed to own Pokémon.
  • The Nameless Mod: The nominal leader of Planet Deus Ex is Despot, but ultimate authority actually lies with an entity of which most civilians - and officials - aren't even aware.
  • Blackhand from Warcraft: Orcs and Humans and Rise of the Horde is the warchief of the Horde, but the real power is between the hands of Gul'dan and the Shadow Council. Blackhand himself knows it, but doesn't care as long as everybody thinks is is the most powerful orc around.
  • The King of Enrich from Shining the Holy Ark is being controlled by his Evil Chancellor (via evil spirits) into reviving her race of people.
  • In Heroes of Might and Magic III: The Shadow of Death, Sandro forms an alliance with an ambitious but foolish necromancer named Finneas Vilmar. He acts as Finneas' top advisor and helps him secure the throne of Deyja so he can rule it in secret. Sandro even refers to Finneas as his puppet king in his narration. In the end of the last campaign "Specter of Power" Finneas cuts his strings by tricking Sandro into attacking an innocent Deyjan lord and Sandro is imprisoned by the angry Deyjan court.
  • This is what the position "King of Morrowind" essentially had been in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The Tribunal Temple, Great Houses, and the Empire held any and all real power. King Helseth then comes along with plans to change that...
  • The Mongols use this in Medieval II Total War. When the Golden Horde rolls in from the east, you'll find stack after stack of elite horse archers and heavy cavalry led by Dreaded Four Star Badasses... but the actual Khan and Khanzada are pathetic nobles with little to no command skill. This makes wiping out the Mongols by killing their nobles all the more difficult, since if you kill this Puppet Khan, the title will eventually pass to a more qualified ruler, who then gets the boost to command afforded by being the faction's leader.

    Web Comics 
  • Lord Shojo of The Order of the Stick is an insane old man who listens only to Mr. Scruffy, his cat. He really cultivates the image so that people don't kill him — if you're being manipulated, there's no point in killing you.
    • The Empress of Blood is expected to be this. As it turns out the rulers of the Empires of Blood, Sweat, and Tears are all puppet rulers each controlled by two members of Tarquin's old adventuring party. They absorb countries one by one while pretending to protect them from the other empires. To stop anyone realizing the pairs exchange members, they depose the figurehead, and they rename the countries on a regular basis.
  • Queen Breznial in The Dementia Of Magic. Very angry about it.
  • Played with in Drowtales in the Vloz'ress clan. Kharla'ggen has the mind of a child and is mostly just content to play with her dolls, and when Sene'kha, the woman holding the leash, dies everyone starts to scramble to gain control of her, but Kiel'ndia has other ideas. It's also been indicated that Kharla may have desires of her own.
    • Ironically enough their greatest enemy, the Kyorl'solenurn, may be very similar to them in that regard. Shimi'lande is eventually revealed to answer to a council of Judicators who briefly discuss replacing her before deciding against it. This becomes much more obvious in chapter 42, title "Schism" when Shimi'lande is assassinated, and it's heavily implied it was the Judicators themselves, specifically Judicator Kyuusei, who were behind it.
  • In Glorianna, the senile King Arven is manipulated by his brother Vasgor. And Duke Thanaktos is literally a zombie puppet, controlled by the wizard Zorko.

    Web Originals 
  • King Jeffrey from Dragomirs Diary is known for his stunningly-amoral decisions and general stupidity. Yet as his time as a king draws to a close it becomes apparent that he's not fully in control of himself, and the true mastermind behind his idiocy may, in fact, be the player who controls the video game he inhabits.

    Western Animation 
  • The Earth King from Avatar: The Last Airbender was so completely controlled by Evil Chancellor Long Feng and his Dai Li that he didn't even know he wasn't really in control, until the heroes helped set things straight.
    • In the finale, Fire Lord Ozai grants his position to his daughter Azula, right before turning it into a puppet position by naming himself Phoenix King. This comes as a slap in the face to Azula and exacerbates a Villainous Breakdown that's been brewing for a while.

    Real Life 


Prussian KingsRoyalty and Nobility TropesRags to Royalty
Mister Rogers' NeighborhoodImageSource/Live-Action TVModern Family
Princesses RuleAuthority TropesRegent for Life

alternative title(s): Puppet Queen
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