Red Herring Shirt
Basically, when someone looks like a Red Shirt, a Mook, or even just an Innocent Bystander, but turns out to be a Mauve Shirt, or even The Hero or the Villain, with few or no clues beforehand. Often involves Mook Promotion. Compare Ascended Extra (where the promotion in importance happens in an adaptation), Chekhov's Gunman (where a character is introduced in passing, but is deemed unimportant until later), The Dog Was the Mastermind. If the supposed Red Shirt is a well-known actor, this may overlap with Narrowed It Down to the Guy I Recognize. Compare Non-Protagonist Resolver. Contrast Decoy Protagonist, Disc One Final Boss. This is a Red Herring trope so all examples will be spoilers.
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- The Young Conducter / Claire Stanfield / Vino / Rail Tracer of Baccano!. The audience is led to believe that he died in the second episode, and has no reason to suspect otherwise until the ninth episode, despite his heavy involvement in between. To really get the point across, he's one of the 23 characters who appear in the opening credits, but he isn't one of the 17 identified by name. The entire Martillo family appears to be dead after being gunned down by Szilard. A few episodes later, it is revealed that nothing could be further from the truth.
- The first episode of HeartCatch Pretty Cure! introduces the Victim of the Week, Erika. Hey, wait a minute, why is she so prominent in the opening credits?
- In the second chapter/movie of Kara no Kyoukai, a seemingly random student at Shiki's school makes a cryptic statement to her in the hallway. Kokutou soon mentions he was at a party for a student named Lio Shirazumi, who was dropping out of school. Neither the name nor the person are ever mentioned again. You later realize that the random student was Shirazumi and that he is actually the murderer behind the events of both the second and seventh chapters. Somewhat less of a surprise in the movie, because Shirazumi is voiced by Soichiro Hoshi, so you figure he's going to show up again and be important later.
- Mikael from I'm Gonna Be an Angel!. In the first season he was nothing more but a background character, sometimes appearing only at the very end of episode or not appearing at all. In the second season, it was revealed that he is one of the three main individuals important to the plot, then he got promoted to a final villian and at the end, it turned out that he, in fact was the main hero of the show — confirmed by Word of God.
- Angela from Black Butler appears as the maid to the Big Bad of Episode 7. She's "beautiful" (which is standard fare) and a domestic servant — that was pretty much it. The Stinger, however, is ominous enough and subsequent episodes make it obvious that she's the Big Bad of the season.
- In One Piece, Whitebeard is first introduced during a scene in which a new recruit of fellow Yonko Shanks boards his ship to discuss a meeting between the two. The first crew member to speak to the recruit (who had been bragging about his fame) is a lazy-looking blonde man who mentions that he's never heard of the recruit before. This crew member only has the one line, and is even drawn in a generic, sloppy way in the anime adaptation (complete with incorrect color palette). Several hundred chapters later, and the crew member is revealed to be Marco "The Phoenix", Whitebeard's first mate, and a pirate strong enough to fight two admirals to a standstill!
- This was a somewhat popular technique in The Golden Age of Comic Books, and was usually Played for Laughs. In one of the earliest Justice Society of America stories, for example, the heroes take down a nationwide crime syndicate whose leader turns out to be an Expy of Newspaper Comic character Casper Milquetoast who had popped up as a bystander in each prior chapter of the story.
- In Watchmen, a short, redheaded man who holds a sign that says "The End is Nigh" is often seen in the backgrounds. He blends in with many of the recurring faces, seemingly just another part of the city's colorful population. He is actually Rorschach with his "face" off to observe without revealing his costumed-vigilante identity.
- The Dark Knight begins with a bank robbery in which disposable thugs kill each other one after another. Finally just two are left, and one is Genre Savvy enough to realize the other guy probably has orders to kill him, so he tries to strike first. Unfortunately for him, this other mook is The Joker, and he was already expecting it and planning to kill the NEXT guy who was coming to kill this guy for him.
- Happens in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, when the two robed executioners turn out to be So-crates and Mr. The Kid in disguise, and they rescue Bill and Ted.
- In The Three Musketeers (1993), when D'Artagnan is led to the chopping block, two of the execution personnel turn out to be Porthos and Aramis in disguise, and they're there to rescue him with help from Athos (who takes care of the escape transportation by appropriating the Cardinal's carriage).
- Happened in Mortal Kombat near the end, when Shang Tsung was doing some kind of ceremony with the kidnapped Sonya. Some random "evil" cloaked dudes turn out to be Johnny Cage and Liu Kang in disguise. Cue butt kicking.
- The "two weeks" scene in the original Total Recall (1990). Averted in the 2012 remake. The "two weeks" lady is normal. She repeats the phrase but only because she was thinking of something else when asked, then corrects herself. The guy after her, though...
- In Star Trek Into Darkness, Chekov has to put on a red shirt to take the resigned Scotty's place as Chief Engineer. He's even visibly distressed when ordered to do so. Fortunately, he lives. In addition, Kirk orders two unnamed crewmen to take off their red shirts and don more casual clothing for their undercover mission to capture John Harrison. In the film, they live. In the novelization, they don't. It does help that one of the redshirts is in fact the previously-established "Cupcake" who partook in Kirk's "Epic Beating" in the first film and later threw him off the ship on Spock's orders.
- The Worker from Atlas Shrugged. He is, of course, John Galt.
- Tigerclaw was a random prologue character in the first Warrior Cats book. Fans now know him as the Big Bad.
- Galaxy of Fear likes these. Wedge Antilles is not a minor pirate but a major Rebel, though any reader who recognized his name would guess that. Domisari seems like an affable bystander and is Vader's assassin.
- City of the Chasch by Jack Vance introduces the command staff of a starship. They send a pair of scouts to explore the mysterious planet below. The reader is likely to assume the scouts are doomed (and one of them is), but one becomes the main character of the novel and its three sequels. The starship explodes in the first chapter.
- Rashim Anwar joining the team in Gates of Rome was completely unexpected. He seemed to just be another One-Shot Character until he was dragged off by the team back to the archway (and into subsequent books).
- Angel: Angel encounters each one of the members of The Circle of the Black Thorn separately throughout Season Five.
- John Sheppard in the Stargate Atlantis pilot. When the famous O'Neill is flying in a helicopter to meet Weir and company, you pay little attention to his pilot, even when he's given a name. Then he wanders into the Antarctic outpost and activates the control chair by accident, and presto! He's The Hero, ready-made. However, Sheppard has already distinguished himself by managing a High-Speed Missile Dodge in an ordinary helicopter, which is why O'Neill gave him top clearance in the first place.
- At the end of the first series of Blackadder, two servants standing in the background turn out to be Percy and Baldrick, who proceed to rescue Edmund... almost.
- Jonathan from Buffy the Vampire Slayer starts out as just a generic Sunnydale High Student/Monster Fodder, being used pretty much as scenery. Then he gets a handful of episodes where his insignificance is played up for all it's worth. Then he becomes a major character. Then he's murdered by one of his best friends. Joss Whedon has his obligations to keep up.
- Seska from Star Trek: Voyager. She was originally just a red shirt that appeared in a couple episodes as a member of Voyager's crew. As it turns out, she is the main antagonist of the first two seasons.
- Megan from Mad Men. For over half the season, she's just a secretary/receptionist at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, albeit one who was more stylish than the others. By the end of the season, she's Don Draper's fiancee.
- "Jim from IT" in BBC's Sherlock, who appears as Molly's boyfriend, and whom Sherlock quickly dismisses as gay after Jim gives him his number. Turns out he's actually Moriarty himself.
- Taken to the extreme in the first chapter of Shin Angyo Onshi. The main character of the series appears only as some henchman of the unknown evil lord of the city. In chapter 2, after it turns out that the supposed hero from chapter 1 was the evil lord all along, the true main character reveals his identity and kicks some ass!
- Often, Professional Wrestling does this, with a Jobber that scores a fluke victory and goes on to make something of himself. See: The 1-2-3 Kid (later known as X-Pac) and Barry Horowitz in WWE, Goldberg in WCW (who actually started his win streak with his first televised match, despite getting the Jobber Entrance), Mikey Whipwreck in the original ECW, and Colin Delaney in the WWE revival thereof. Another popular bit is a fan that somehow gets involved in the action and ends up wrestling; WWE did this bit with Steve Blackman, Zach Gowen, and Santino Marella, as well as having "celebrity guest" Lawrence Taylor get involved this way.
- This trope is what makes the Imperial Guard campaign of Dawn of War II: Retribution so satisfying. The faction universally considered the weakest and the biggest joke in the entire setting, usually existing only to be utterly crushed to display how awesome the opposing group is, can go on to single-handedly defeat fallen Space Marines, escape a planet undergoing Exterminatus, survive a Space Hulk, and finally wind up defeating a demon.
- In Final Fantasy VII, one of the Shinra guards in some flashbacks turns out to have been Cloud the whole time.
- Marx from Kirby Super Star, who at first glance appears to be nothing more than a generic resident of pop star. Turns out, he was actually the Big Bad who staged the whole thing, and was manipulating Kirby into awakening Nova so he could use its power to seize control of pop star. Especially since unless you waited at the title screen, he doesn't even appear in the game proper beforehand.
- In Mortal Kombat 9, Johnny Cage is one of the few characters who doesn't die, a total inversion of the character's role in the original trilogy.
- Thor "Lemon Boy" Herring (whose name is probably not related to the trope) in Backyard Sports.
- In Persona 4, the Sorting Algorithm of Evil runs: Mitsuo, a creepy kid who shows up once on your first day of school and appears in the shopping district every now and again, Namatame, a character mentioned in the throwaway news reports near the beginning of the game and sometimes shows up around town, Adachi, Dojima's bumbling Plucky Comic Relief of a partner, and Izanami, the gas station attendant who greeted you at the beginning of the game.
- When the Fold take over the nanite-controlled supervillains in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, Bullseye kills a large number of Red Shirts with his lethal playing cards. The only one that gets back up? A disguised Nick Fury (who turns out to be an LMD, as per usual).
- Professor Layton Vs Ace Attorney features a new "Mob Trial" system, where Phoenix has to cross-examine several witnesses at once. To keep this from being too overwhelming, the individual witnesses in each "mob" are generally flat, generic characters with very basic portraits and personalities. Of course, in the first trial involving the system one of the seemingly generic witnesses turns out to be the real killer. They get a lot more expressive after you start to Pull the Thread.
- Played with in The Order of the Stick, where two Samurai holding off bad guys for the heroes turn into supporting characters as soon as we learn their names. In fact, one of them had been mortally wounded just as he was about to introduce himself, and as he lay dying, he happened to mention his first name, then immediately realized it was Only a Flesh Wound. He decided to save revealing his last name for an emergency. Also, O-Chul.
- In Errant Story, an inept and cowardly guard from the Veracian Church, named Sandel, suddenly turns out to actually be an undercover spy for the Ensigerum Time-Ninja-Monks! Still only a Mauve Shirt, but that's a hell of a lot better than being an NPC Guard.
- The French webnovel Les Aventures de Morgoth has a secondary character named Tiberius Kenny Redshirt, who not only survives but becomes quite a badass.
- This trope is almost universally played straight in Slender Man stories. Notable instances include Tim from Marble Hornets, who is secretly Masky, Brian from the same series who is secretly the Hooded Man, and also totheark, and much more surprisingly Kevin from Tribe Twelve, who turns out to be none other then the Observer, the series's secondary antagonist and primary selling point alongside Visual Effects of Awesome.
- In many Looney Tunes and Tex Avery cartoons, a silly character keeps appearing out of nowhere as a Running Gag. At the end, the villain gets fed up and demands the character tells him who he is. He responds, "Don't you know? I'm the hero", then dispatches the villain with a Hyperspace Mallet.
- In Star Wars: Clone Wars Shaak Ti is introduced as a member of the squad of Jedi that Grievous soundly defeats. She survives, and goes on to play a major part in the Battle of Coruscant, protecting Chancellor Palpatine. Not only that, she survives for another 17 years after Order 66, when the vast majority of the Jedi (including all Jedi except Shaak Ti who were present in the Jedi Temple at the time) were killed. This is especially notable, as one of the deleted scenes from Revenge of the Sith would have shown her being killed by Grievous before Order 66 was ever executed.
- Used in the Ĉon Flux episode "War"; each time one kills a Decoy Protagonist and becomes a Decoy Protagonist him/herself.
- By their nature, a lot of Murder Mysteries' culprits.