You're at your fairly mundane job, which isn't anything martial (military, police, security guard, etc), doing your job, when all the sudden there's an explosion, or gunfire, or someone shouting that you're now a hostage. The professional Badasses who'd normally kick ass and Chew Bubblegum, in that kind of situation, are not available, for whatever reason (slow to respond, killed, corrupted, etc).
So what do you do? Do you hide in a closet or something, and hope the bad guys pass you by or otherwise don't notice you while your friends/coworkers/family possibly face a Fate Worse than Death?
Hell, no! You're a man, not a mouse! (Unless your name is Mickey, and if it is you're unlikely to be in that situation in the first place - but we've gotsources that say you'd kick ass if found in it anyway.)
You step up to the plate, and start kicking ass. Sure, you might die in the process, but at least you went down swinging, instead of cowering in fear.
Often these characters are either long lost ex-military or scientist working on the latest Phlebotinum.
Related to Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass, but the character isn't bumbling or otherwise incompetent, they're just not specifically competent or trained in the situation in question. Sometimes can also be a Badass Bookworm. The Right Man is often The Only One who can save the day, for whatever reason. If not the protagonist, they may be a Badass Bystander.
A type of Action Survivor. On the TV Tropes power scale, these usually rate as Muggle Weight or Iron Weight. Compare Falling into the Cockpit and It Began with a Twist of Fate, and compare/contrast Unlikely Hero and Heroic Bystander.
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Anime and Manga
Medical student Otonashi, in Angel Beats!, winds up in an underground train accident that left only a handful of badly wounded survivors in a blocked subway tunnel. Otonashi was able to keep most of the survivors alive for an entire week; he himself died just minutes before rescue crews finally arrived. This also counts for the main story, in a way; ordinarily Otonashi would never have made it to Purgatory, as he died fulfilled. His amnesia got him in, and only someone who knew what fulfillment felt like would be able to help the SSS accept their former lives and move on to new ones.
In the anime of Golgo 13, Duke Togo is on an airliner that's hijacked for ransom. A British intelligence officer recognises his name on the manifest. The problem then becomes finding an unobtrusive way to let Duke know they want to hire him to take out the hijackers, as Duke doesn't do good deeds for free.
Almost every hero in Sin City has a habit of fitting this trope, Marv and Dwight stories especially. They almost always start off with the protagonist stumbling upon a crime for which they have to take action.
President James Marshall, from the movie Air Force One (like Jack Ryan, below, he's long-retired military, in this case Vietnam experience courtesy of the Army), is forced to step up when his Secret Service security detail is overpowered while aboard the titular aircraft.
Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise, particularly in Aliens (the closest to the classic action format). A cargo officer on an interstellar tug with no previous martial experience, she nonetheless manages to destroy alien menaces that claim the lives of fellow crewmen, superhuman cyborgs, and heavily armed space marines alike. Seems like the only ones she can't defeat are the producers.
The essential premise behind John McClane of Die Hard. Except for the third movie, he always stumbled into a position to not only kick ass but save the day, but if not he would be okay with someone else doing it. He says so repeatedly. Die Hard 2 had the tag line, "John McClane is back in the wrong place at the wrong time!" While he is a policeman (though always off-duty when the actual excitement happens), he is not a trained counter-terror expert or anything. A line in one of the trailers for the second movie, unused because Trailers Always Lie, has McClane himself lampshading his situation. As he is running through the tunnels under Dulles Airport, he pauses for a seconds and mutters, "How can the same thing happen to the same guy, twice" and then runs off again.
Dr. Phil Grant, from the movie Executive Decision, finds himself thrust into fighting a terrorist hijacking of an aircraft, instead of just lecturing on terrorism.
Many Jackie Chan movies have Chan playing an ordinary guy forced into heroism by extraordinary situations.
Stanley Goodspeed in The Rock is an FBI biochemist with no field training, and the only man who can disable a set of nerve bombs. He's forced to take the Action Movie Guy role, when all the other soldiers end up dead.note On the other hand he does have Sean Connery to help him...
Father Brown: One can sometimes do good by being the right person in the wrong place.
In the Tom Clancy novel Red Storm Rising, one of the protagonists of the Iceland situation, Lt. Michael Edwards, is forced into the role when he's (apparently) the senior surviving officer after the Soviet missile attack on the US military facilities located there. Prior to the events of the novel, he's just a USAF weatherman, whose only claim to martial fame is being a marathon runner. It eventually got to the point that he was given a Navy Cross and when he protests that he's Air Force, a Marine general's only response is "this here says you're a Marine. note The navy cross can indeed be awarded to any personnel serving in the Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard during times of war, making the award entirely within official regulations.
The main protagonist of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels and related movies. At one time he was a US Marine, but that's years behind him, and at the beginning of his debut in the novel The Hunt for Red October, he's a historian and an intelligence analyst for the CIA. From there, he gets shoved into the role of Hero because he's the only one on the scene with all the information needed to complete the mission.
Travis S. Taylor's The Quantum Connection stars an semi-suicidal electronics repairman/programmer who, on contract from the government, figures out the purpose of some alien hardware, then gets kidnapped by said aliens and proceeds to hack his way into ownership of their ship, then goes on to save the world.
Lieutenant Commander Colin MacIntyre is just an astronaut on a routine training exercise in David Weber's Mutineer's Moon who ends up, consecutively, as captain of the ancient warship Dahak in order to save the planet from the Ancient Conspiracy, then Planetary Governor of Earth to prepare humanity for the return of an ancient enemy, then Emperor of Humanity...
The title Midshipman of the Seafort Saga is on a routine space flight when disaster removes the entire chain of command down to him, leaving him in charge. He has no leadership or officer skills and gets by on the fact that he must be the Right Man In The Wrong Place and that he is willing to take responsibility for making horrible choices for the right reasons. He does what it takes first to keep order on his ship, and eventually to save the human species from being wiped out by Starfish Aliens.
Stephen Swain in Matthew Reilly's Contest. He is just a radiologist at a hospital before fighting deadly aliens in a life and death contest.
Symbologist Robert Langdon, star of Dan Brown's books Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol, is a life-long tweed-wearing academic and Harvard professor who has claustrophobia. He is thrown into larger-than-life and often very dangerous situations where a lot is at stake, and only he has the expertise to get to the bottom of many a Conspiracy Kitchen Sink. Langdon has survived shootouts, car chases, pursuit by the police, attempted drownings and much more.
The hero of Terry Pratchett's Johnny Maxwell books is constantly described as being nobody special, so ordinary that people don't notice him. ("I was in the shop with my mates." "I remember a black boy and a fat boy, I don't remember anyone else." "That was me!") He becomes a hero because he does what needs to be done, when other people would walk away and leave someone else to do it.
In Lois McMaster Bujold's novel The Warrior's Apprentice, Miles Naismith Vorkosigan has flunked the physical part of the entrance exam to a military academy. He leaves his planet and due to this trope, winds up the admiral of a mercenary fleet, at the age of 18, among other things.
Barbara Everette, in Princess of Wands, finds herself battling an Eldritch Abomination when on vacation in Louisiana, triumphing over it even though she's completely unaware of the supernatural world at the time due in part to her unwavering faith in God, and in part to her father insisting that she be able to take care of herself in any situation.
24: Jack Bauer keeps trying to get away from CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit), yet at the beginning of every season, he always somehow ends up being the one person in place to stop a major terrorist attack. For example:
At the beginning of season 4, he's an assistant to the Secretary of Defense in Washington, DC, in a desk job. He has to go to the CTU office in Los Angeles to do a review of their work—on the same day that a major terrorist attack in Los Angeles launches.
At the beginning of season 8, he's in New York City planning to move to Los Angeles with his daughter, but then when an ex-contact shows up at his doorstep, he finds himself dragged into a major terrorist attack in New York City.
Firefly's Malcolm Reynolds was very much the right man to take on a very wrong pair of passengers, which ultimately ended in the events of Serenity.
On more than one occasion Bulk and Skull have managed to save the Power Rangers when they were in trouble. And every single time, it is awesome, and completely surprises the villain.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: All poor Mike Nelson wanted to do was have his time card signed and get paid for his job. Instead, he gets shot up into space and forced to watch bad movies when the last guy bailed.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Commander Benjamin Sisko expected that he was receiving an essentially administrative and diplomatic job in the ass-end of nowhere. What he got was serving as commander of one of The Federation's most important strategic outposts, plus, you know, the whole "Emissary" thing...
The Sentinel: Blair Sandburg, M.A., anthropologist; "strictly an observer." Tell that to Garrett Kincade, among others.
In Doctor Who, the episode "The Doctor's Wife" confirms the Doctor's long-held suspicion that the TARDIS purposely lands him in places where disaster is about to strike, so he can become this.
Doctor: You didn't always take me where I wanted to go! TARDIS: No, but I always took you where you needed to be!
The Everyman Hero archetype from Feng Shui was built with this kind of character in mind.
The protagonist in Doom isn't exactly a civilian bystander, but the only reason he was in a position to foil the demonic invasion is because he was reassigned to a middle-of-nowhere security detail after assaulting a superior officer.
A common thread in the Fallout and and The Elder Scrolls games. The player character is usually a normal vault dweller or prisoner thrust into legend. The Fallout 3 classes, in particular, tend to be especially harmless, like the uber deadly Marriage Counselor. Of course, you don't have to be a badass to save the world. Or at least, you don't have to start out that way.
Gordon Freeman from the Half-Life franchise is the Trope Namer, from the G-Man's quote about him above. Ordinary scientist of theoretical physics, forced to become a One-Man Army against a horde of alien gribblies. And not only does he kill the aliens, he also kills most of the military force sent to contain the situation. Interestingly enough, in Half-Life 2, the situation is a subversion, as the G-Man himself has purposefully left Gordon at a specific place and time, rather than Gordon falling into it by accident or chance. He's still really not supposed to be there and not at all prepared for the situation — thus The G-Man's quote. Then again, if you think of it as Gordon just continuing where he left off, the trope is still being played as straight as before.
The origin stories in Dragon Age: Origins all have the right person in the wrong place at the wrong time, although for gameplay reasons every character has at least some training in combat.
Hawke of Dragon Age II rose to prominence and played a key role in one of the most important events in Thedas's history almost totally unintentionally. The plot of the game explains how s/he managed to find themselves in these situations. This is stressed more than in the first game; the Framing Device consists of a borderline conspiracy theorist who thinks Hawke planned almost everything from the start, and Varric, who was actually there and has to explain how much more complicated it was.
The Security Officer from Bungie's Marathon series. He (may have) just happened to be the one Durandal roped into his schemes, and as a result saved the human race from alien slavers and a chaos god.
In the first group of games in the .hack franchise, the main character Kite only got the power to Data Drain because his friend Orca (who was originally supposed to receive it) fell into a coma as he was about to receive it. Because of that, Aura had to give Kite the power because he was the only one there.
Isaac Clarke of Dead Space and Dead Space 2, an engineer who survives two necromorph outbreaks and beats insanity. Played straight then subverted by Isaac in the third game. He eventually decides to STAY and fight instead of just walking away from the situation which, at the time, was very easy to do.
Jason Brody was just some guy on vacation when he was captured by Vaas's pirates.
Despite the baggage on his family name, all TRON 2.0's Jet Bradley wanted to do was program video games and stay the hell out of corporate intrigue. But when a phone conversation with his father is interrupted by intruders in the laser lab, he runs in to see what's going on and ends up zapped to cyberspace to fight a computer virus and a very hostile corporate takeover.
Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider 2013 reboot. While it was her theories about Yamatai that led to the crew heading for the island and getting shipwrecked, she certainly didn't expect it to happen. And once she's there, her inner badass starts to wake up (or more accurately, the exterior it's buried under gets forcibly ripped away). She's one of two actual archaeologists in her team, and the only one with actual competence, seeing as her mentor Whitman is just a narcissistic self-promoter and she's ultimately the one left to piece solve a centuries-old mystery and upset the plans of the local psychotic cult.
In a sense, the Hero in Quest for Glory IV is this. In all the other games of the series, the Hero has gone to the current setting specifically to either make a name for himself (Quest for Glory I) or to investigate the problems there (the rest). The Hero did not intend to make his trip to Mordavia, and instead was shanghaied by the Big Bad and unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the Cave of the Dark One when the teleport spell fizzled out. With absolutely no knowledge of what the hell is going on, he jumps right into doing what he does best: Spanning the Works one minor problem at a time.
In Dawn Of The Dragons, the player character was a farmhand enjoying a perfectly normal day picking turnips when an army of beastmen attacked.
In Kingdom Hearts, Sora wasn't supposed to get the Keyblade of World's Hearts. That was supposed to go to Riku, but he had turned to Darkness already, denying him a keyblade from the Relm of Light.
Schlock Mercenary: This Qlaviql ore freighter captain is in command of the only ship able to respond to an attack on his homeworld by a frigate armed with a powerful plasma lance. With guts and a "dream mess" created from the ore mined from asteroids, the frigate is destroyed. This ultimately results in his being declared the leader of the planet.