In the world of fiction, life and death aren't always black and white, there's a very large and very varied grey area, one aspect of which is characters that aren't dead so much as corporally challenged. The Disembodied was once human but lost his body through a bizarre accident without actually dying. Compare with Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence and Virtual Ghost.
Examples:Anime & Manga
- Fullmetal Alchemist: Alphonse Elric lost his body due to a botched attempt at human transmutation and ended up as a soul stuck inside a suit of armour.
- In Darker Than Black, a "Contractor" is a Differently Powered Individual who has to perform a Renumeration for every use of their power. The only exception are Contractors who have "fully paid off their contract." One of the only ways this is shown is when a character who has the ability to take over someone else's body has their original body destroyed while they're in someone else's.
- Hellboy: Johann Kraus was a German psychic whose body was destroyed due to a psychic disaster. His ectoplasmic form 'survived', but needs to be constantly contained to prevent it from dispersing.
- The Legion of Super-Heroes' Wildfire, sort of like Johann Kraus, is a being of pure energy who needs to wear a suit to survive.
- A minor student at the Xavier academy in the X-Men comics, Dummy, was also basically a suit with sentient gas inside of it.
- A variation appears in ElfQuest. Unfortunately, it needs a lot of spoilers because it happens late in the story. Winnowill chooses to die in order that her disembodied malevolent soul can destroy her enemies and wreak havoc. Instead, Rayek absorbs her soul and holds her captive in his own body. It's an endless, bitter struggle and we haven't seen the end of it yet.
- Holocaust from Marvel Comics' Age of Apocalypse and Exiles.
- Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen had this as part of his backstory. He was completely torn apart at an atomic level due to a Freak Lab Accident, but his consciousness remained and very gradually was able to piece together a body.
- Voldemort in Harry Potter, following a backfired curse. He can't die as long as at least one of his Horcruxes exists, but actually reincarnating himself takes quite a bit of effort and an entire book's worth of convoluted scheming.
- In the German pulp sci-fi magazine series Perry Rhodan, a man named Ernst Ellert was among the first generation of known "mutants" (people with psychic powers) and was a member of the first Mutant Corps; his power was the ability to separate his mind (or astral body, or soul, whatever you want to call it) from his physical body and travel through time and space along temporal strands. He could travel to the past, or could select the statistically most probable future among several potential futures and follow the strand to see where it led. He died a heroic death in 1972 in an accident with high voltage, but the shock of dying completely separated his astral body from his body and he was hurled through time and space. After a long odyssey (during which he learned that his astral body could enter and control the bodies of physical beings), he eventually managed to return to 21st century Earth. For a short time, he was even forced to "possess" his own preserved dead body, until the deteriorating state of the body put it beyond his powers. In the year 4013, Ellert was given a new material body, created by advanced alien technology out of billions of sentient nanomachines. The new body was humanoid, although Ellert's control over the nanites allowed him to transform his body into a cloud of nanomachines and solidify it again at will, i.e. if he wanted to walk through walls.
- General Zod in Smallville until the events of "Dominion".
- Earlier in the series, the episode "Spirit" had Dawn Stiles, who crashed her car into an area full of Kryptonite. Dawn blurs the line between this trope and An Astral Projection, Not a Ghost since while her spirit is around possessing people, her body is alive until she possesses a nurse and kills her own body.
- Doctor Who has Omega in "The Three Doctors" (he's been so eaten away by anti-matter that only his will exists) and, most recently, Dr. Simeon, aka The Great Intelligence.
- Allen the Amorphous Cloud of Gas in Dilbert was so uncommitted that eventually the particles that make him up became bored and stopped binding. Now he exists only as a faint odour near the copy room.
- In City of Heroes, Positron was a guy who was essentially converted completely into antimatter. He was stuck permanently inside his armor, and when it was damaged, he actually started leaking out. At one point, Badass Normal Manticore successfully scares off a whole group of powerful supervillains by threatening to put an arrow through Positron, turning the guy into an antimatter bomb. One of the comic storylines ended with Positron having a wish for a regular human body granted, with his character in-game changed to reflect this.
- The ghosts in Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures are technically not completely dead in the sense, as they were stripped of their corporal bodies as punishment for trying to take over Pac-World.