So you're reading a story featuring Alice, the obvious main character. Oh, she doesn't exactly have a flashing neon sign over her head that reads "HERO," but you've read a lot of this kind of story and you know what to expect. It's clear to you that Alice is predestined to save the day, get the guy (or girl!), and live happily ever a—
Alice just got bitten in half by a mutant T. rex?!
One reliable way to subvert the audience's expectations is to offer a Standardized Leader and then dispatch them just when everyone is convinced the story is going to be about them. This can be Played for Drama: there are few more effective ways to showcase Anyone Can Die than by taking out the apparent protagonist. (Plot Armor? What Plot Armor?) But it can also be Played for Laughs, revealing that the person who thought they were the protagonist was just a glorified bit player. Sometimes the Decoy Protagonist will even turn out to be the antagonist.
What happens next is the person we perceive as The Lancer, Sidekick or even a fringe loner takes center stage as the real protagonist (maybe even Hero). Usually they reveal a much greater level of personal integrity and strength of will than previously thought.
Note that this does not necessarily involve the death of the initial protagonist, although that is often how this trope expresses itself. If the target dies, they're often a Sacrificial Lion. If the character truly was The Hero (but not the protagonist, maybe), see Take Up My Sword. Also see Dead Star Walking. Compare Quickly-Demoted Leader, when the secondary character does the heavy lifting only for the hero to take control.
In video games, this can overlap with And Now for Someone Completely Different; compare First-Person Peripheral Narrator, where the narrator is obviously not the protagonist. For the villainous version of this trope, see Disc-One Final Boss. If the Decoy Protagonist was more interesting than the person that replaces them, expect to hear people say that they were Too Cool to Live and that They Wasted a Perfectly Good Character.
As this is frequently a Death Trope, beware of spoilers.
- Anime & Manga
- Comic Books
- Fan Works
- Films — Live-Action
- Live-Action TV
- Video Games
- Western Animation
- Sistine Chapel: A casual viewer of “The Temptations of Christ” would have you believe the beautiful young man in the center would be, well, Christ. But turns out that viewer's less observant than a blind corpse, because everything surrounding the center of the painting shows Jesus in the background refusing old man Satan and his advances. (The person in the foreground is a healed leper, showing himself to the Jewish High Priest in order to certify the cure.)
- In the first episode of the children's audio series, The Hanna Jo Stories, it appears that Edward is being set up as a potential main character for the series. But at the end, it turns out that it is actually Edward's brother Allen (who had only a small part in the first episode) who ends up traveling with Hanna Jo and becoming the series' second lead. Edward remains simply a recurring guest star.
- A deleted opening for Atlantis: The Lost Empire was actually going to make a team of Vikings the main characters of the movie. Cue the Leviathan sinking their ship, killing said Vikings, and causing the Shepherd's Journal to float away into the Atlantic Ocean...
- Batman: Soul of the Dragon is a downplayed example. Batman is still an important character to the film and he gets top billing in the promotional art and has his name in the movie title. However, Richard Dragon is the one character who takes center stage in the narrative, being the first of the heroes to be introduced and being the only one of the four to defeat a possessed O-Sensei in the final battle. At the end of the day, Batman: Soul of the Dragon could be more accurately described as a Richard Dragon movie with Batman as a supporting Deuteragonist.
- From the beginning of the The Croods, we're led to believe Eep is the main protagonist, as she is the one who narrates the intro, features most in the marketing, and the only one in the family who wants more to life than just day-to-day survival. However, the story gradually shifts to her father, Grug, as the main protagonist for the majority of the film.
- The first few minutes of Delhi Safari follow Sultan and his family of leopards. But he's killed off very quickly by hunters, which triggers the real protagonists into heading to Delhi.
- The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part: Emmet actually spends this movie playing The Dragon to the real Big Bad, Rex Dangervest, with Lucy/Wyldstyle being the one who brings about Finn's own Heel–Face Turn and finally overcomes the negative Opinion Myopia elements of his imagination that Rex represents In-Universe.
- My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Rainbow Rocks appeared to have Twilight Sparkle as the focus, both for the film's promotional material and in-universe to other characters. However, the film ultimately follows Sunset Shimmer, who saves the day in the end. Sunset would go on to be the focal point character for the remainder of the Equestria Girls franchise. This is joked about in the film's commentary, where the writer notes that earlier drafts gave Sunset little importance before she realized Sunset's character arc would be more interesting than a standard "Twilight saves the day" story.
- Cars: Lightning McQueen gets this in the Cars sequels.
- Cars 2 kicks off with Lightning taking his talents to global levels with the World Grand Prix, however it's all too clear that Tow Mater is the real protagonist when he gets caught up in an unexpected spy mission regarding a grander scheme.
- Cars 3 gets a little more dramatic with Lightning, who despite trying so hard to reclaim his glory by beating the up-and-coming Jackson Storm, eventually gets surpassed by his trainer, Cruz Ramirez. Accepting his inevitable fate and wanting to give the younger Ramirez a chance to follow her dreams, he installs her in the race and becomes her crew chief; Ramirez becomes the one who beats Jackson Storm (albeit not without Lightning's help), and ultimately becomes Lightning's successor as the face of the Dinoco-acquired Rust-Eze.
- Incredibles 2: One would quickly assume that Mr. Incredible would be the protagonist once again, considering he was The Hero of the last film, and is the face of the Parr superhero family. Then Winston Deavor chooses Elastigirl on the mission against Screenslaver and Bob is mostly regulated to parenting duties. You get the idea.
- Cars: Lightning McQueen gets this in the Cars sequels.
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: The original Spider-Man of Miles' universe. He starts off narrating the movie, and a portion of the first thirty minutes of the film involves him, but he ends up killed in action, setting up Miles's heroics later, and the alternate Peter's entrance in the plot.
- Both Tom and Jerry in Tom and Jerry: The Movie. Their new human friend Robyn Starling is the actual main character.
- The Transformers: The Movie:
- The first act of begins with a focus on the '84 cast. Then Optimus, Megatron, and many others are destroyed in the Battle of Autobot City. The rest of the movie and following season then follows the characters introduced in the movie.
- On his deathbed, Optimus Prime chooses Ultra Magnus as his successor to carry the Matrix of Leadership and thus become the new Autobot leader. Ultimately, Magnus finds himself incapable of activating it, and the Matrix ends up being carried by The Chosen One, young Autobot Hot Rod.
- Jaller was one of these twice in BIONICLE—once for Takua/Takanuva (in-universe more than to the audience, since everyone else thought that he was The Chosen One aside from himself and Takua), and the other for Matoro. The first time, he got killed (but got better), and the second time was something of a subversion as Matoro performed a Heroic Sacrifice, causing the real hero to die instead of the decoy.
- The music video for "Weird Al" Yankovic's "White and Nerdy" (parody of Chamillionaire's "Ridin'") started out with two black gangsters riding a car (in reference to the music video of "Ridin'") before they meet a nerd mowing his lawn. From there, the focus was on the nerd.
- The promotional video for Orange Range's "O2" (the first opening of the second season of Code Geass), is also this. The story follows a Samurai in love with his lord's Geisha and having a secret relationship with her, with the band members guest starring as a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits just going about their everyday lives. The samurai saves her the first time from a group of thugs through some quick thinking, but when actually forced to fight, he didn't possess the strength to save her. It fell onto the band to save them ala Big Damn Heroes and using a variety of skills from their careers (Hiroki's a thief with Super-Speed, Yoh's a skilled ronin, ect.) The video ends with Orange Range as the heroes and implies that the geisha broke it off with the samurai afterward since he wasn't her Knight in Shining Armor after all.
- The first two verses and choruses of "Sk8er Boi" by Avril Lavigne center on a girl that rejected the titular character, but when the bridge comes around, it's revealed that the singer is actually the protagonist and also the boy's girlfriend.
- Jay-Z's "The Story of O.J." isn't a narrative directly about O. J. Simpson, but it starts off referencing his infamous claim of "I'm not black, I'm O.J.", in turn his well-documented proclivity to disavow his black heritage in light of his rise to superstardom, treating his race as shameful. Jay uses this as a springboard to discuss how black communities further categorize and segregate themselves, which he then transitions into a discussion on generational wealth, advising listeners to spend and invest wisely.
- The Bible:
- Adam and Eve were supposed to be this for the entire Bible, a given as they were the first humans created by God in the Book of Genesis. Then, they disobey God by following the serpent, and it all goes downhill from there. A series of events following up in the Old Testament leads to the coming of Jesus, and Romans 5 even goes all the way to express how Jesus succeeded what Adam failed.
- Acts of the Apostles at first focused on the Apostles, particularly Peter, before switching to the exploits of Paul in chapter 13.
- There are two Books of Samuel, which feature the prophet Samuel. He dies before the first one is over; the books are mainly about King David, whom Samuel appoints on God's command.
- In the Irish mythological text The Wooing of Étaín, the early part of the story is primarily concerned with the upbringing of Óengus, son of The Dagda, who preforms great feats of strength and industry in order to win the hand of Étaín for his foster father Midir. Once Étaín is transformed into a fly and spirited away by the witch Fuamnach, the focus shifts to Midir himself, although Óengus remains in the story as a minor character.
- Very common in the assorted SOTF Mini universes, as due to the game's function a character may end up dying abruptly even if they've been built up as a big deal and actually originally intended as a protagonist, but invoked specifically and intentionally in the second version of SOTF-TV with Davis Todd, whose story goes out of its way to set him up as a prospective hero only for him to get maimed in his first fight, and then finished off a short while later as the very first death of the game.
- In general, sometimes a Player needs to go through multiple low-level Player Characters (especially in Paranoia) before they find one that is skilled, lucky, and won't be abandoned by their Player for being unlikable. And the player needs to live and learn enough of the game that they stop making stupid mistakes.
- The D&D adventure Vecna Lives! famously pulled this one. The players start in the roles of the Circle Of Eight, the most powerful archmages in the world— guys who have spells in the rulebook named after them. But the very first encounter is a Hopeless Boss Fight, all the archmages end up dead, and the players must switch to a less-powerful backup team and still save the day.
- Lead actors in ancient Greece often preferred to show off their versatility by switching among multiple roles, so there are many Greek tragedies in which a particular character is at the center of the action for the first third or half of the play, only to die or disappear and be replaced by a new character (who would have originally been played by the same actor in a new mask).
- In the classic Greek Antigone, the titular character seems to be our main until... Well, she is a Tragic Hero. Creon, the only character to have appeared in all of the Theban plays, takes the spotlight. Ergo, the trope is Older Than Feudalism.
- The Book of Mormon begins with charming, handsome Elder Price setting off to change the world with Elder Cunningham as his Plucky Comic Relief sidekick. By the end of Act 1 Price has abandoned his mission and Cunningham decides to step up and lead the people. Price still remains a main character, but the action is more focused on Cunningham's actions from then on.
- While the first 30 or so minutes of Ang Huling El Bimbo focus mainly on Emman, Anthony, and Hector, Joy is the true protagonist of the musical, as the main theme is how she went from a sweet, innocent teenage girl to a single mother who, as she nears middle age, still prostitutes herself and works as a drug mule in order to provide for her aunt and daughter.
- In Alphabet, G rallies the other letters into stopping F, gains a Love Interest in P, and is the most proactive character outside of F in the series. Then focus is put on N's insecurities of being the weakest in his group, he gets a flashback explaining his backstory, and is revealed to have a past with F. The last few episodes incapitate the surviving letters, leaving N alone to have the final showdown.
- Etra-chan saw it!:
- This video starts from Akane's perspective in regard to being estranged from her husband Kuroki, but switches to Kuroki's within seconds, as he deals with her going insane from her guilt for cheating on him.
- This video starts off with Kuroki as the main character having to put up with his bad-tempered boss, Akamatsu. Later, the focus shifts to Hiiragi's perspective when he takes Akamatsu to a ramen place and tricks him into insulting the owner, leading him to getting beaten up by the offended gang members, all as revenge for splashing his mother with hot tea. The episode even ends with Hiiragi's character intro like it did for Kuroki at the beginning.
- This story starts from Yuri's perspective about how she sees her emotionless husband Tachibana and son Kuroki who was bullied by Akamatsu until the latter was admitted into a hospital because he was attacked by someone else, causing her to worry if Tachibana was the culprit when he was questioned by the police. Then, the perspective switches to Tachibana as he witnesses Akamatsu being beaten up by Hiiragi, an unemployed man who got rejected from various universities. However, he decides to not save him because he thinks he deserved it for bullying Kuroki.
- This story starts from Karin's perspective as she is forced to meet Hiiragi who has a lot of expectations for her to become his wife. Unsurprisingly, she rejects him for his unrealistic expectations. One year later, Karin finds out that Hiiragi is marrying Yuzuriha, though she doesn't care much about them. Later, the perspective changes to Yuzuriha when she accepts Hiiragi's marriage proposal so she can force him to change himself for the better, although it is also because she is after him for his money.
- Aurora begins by presenting Vash, the god of the city bearing his name, as the hero of the story. This is quickly subverted when his soul is sucked out of his body. The real protagonist turns out to be the guy inhabiting his body after this, a consciousness who spontaneously comes into existence in the absence of Vash's soul.
- Cashmere Sky: The story starts with Abram Cashmere, who is even featured on the cover, and is presented as the protagonist who is most connected to the main plot involving Lockridge's conspiracy. He gets killed right before the end of Volume 1 and the focus shifts over to his two children post-Time Skip, Enzo and Arlo.
- Dracula Everlasting: The story starts with Nicholas, until Dracula takes control of him via vampirism. After that, the perspective shifts between Jill, Kate, and Dracula. Subverted Trope when Nicholas regains control, allowing him a Heroic Sacrifice to eliminate Dracula.
- The first chapter of Furry Fight Chronicles makes it seem like Fenny would be the protagonist of the story or a mentor figure to Muko. In reality, her purpose was just to inspire Muko to take furry fighting by showing how one match looks like.
- In the first chapter of Gosu, a martial artist (who looks strikingly similar to Gang Ryong) is released from prison for an impressive feat and continues to be the focus of the chapter until he gets taken out by the leader of a group of bandits. Cue the revelation that it was the tubby delivery boy who is actually Gang Ryong! A curb-stomping quickly ensues.
- Even though the focus of the story changes constantly and John is absent through most of the story (as the focus shifts to other characters or even his own companions), later events in the story have put him back in the spotlight, and characters will often refer to him as the de facto protagonist of the story even though he keeps getting put in the background of everyone else's plans and actions that drive the story.
- Played straight with Jane, who was set up to be the Tritagonist of the post-Scratch session. In the end, though, the one who ends up being more involved with the main plot is Roxy.
- For only the first panel of Legend of Legendary Mighty Knight, to be exact- a finely clothed knight is shown parading before an adoring crowd on a horse-like mount, with the heads of several monsters skewered on their sword. Given the title, one is led to believe that this is the eponymous mighty knight. But below the bridge that the knight is riding on is another knight, a smaller individual wearing only a helmet atop their giant slug-cat mount, the cat balanced in the gorge beneath the bridge so the knight can reach some berries. It is this smaller knight who appears alongside the title card.
- In Mitadake Saga, we're initially led to believe that Zaraki Yagami is the protagonist. He's the first character we focus on, and the first chapter is about him getting a weapon to defend himself with. Then, just as he's done so, he suddenly drops dead of a heart attack, showing the real protagonist, Zero Nanaya, the true weight of the situation.
- Shin-Wu from Noblesse plays a red herring until the supporting protagonist Raizel shows up. While Shin-Wu is still prominent in the Noblesse S lite novel, he has been relegated to the background of the comic as comic relief and Distressed Dude.
- While Schlock Mercenary is named after Schlock, and he's usually involved, he's receded a fair bit into the background, with the actual protagonist role typically going to a human character (Tagon, more often than not). It's notable that on the comic's Character page, he's something like a third of the way down the page, despite, again, being the title character!
- By all initial appearances and the conventions of the Magical Girl Warrior genre, Tessa is the protagonist of Sleepless Domain; she's The Leader of Team Alchemical, is color-themed bright pink, and wields the Infinity +1 Element aether. Then a monster abruptly kills three of Tessa's teammates and mortally wounds the fourth, Undine, and Tessa Depowers herself with the energy expenditure required to heal her. From then on, Undine has to set out and fight monsters on her own, eventually befriending (and eventually smooching) another solo magical girl, Kokoro (aka Heartful Punch). While most chapters after focus on Undine (featuring water-themed titles to match) and Kokoro (featuring heart-themed titles), Tessa remains the tritagonist, receiving a later chapter focused on her (Chapter 12, Penumbra), while Chapter 18 (Distributary) involves both Undine and Tessa's perspectives. (At the end of Chapter 18, Tessa fuses with The Purple One as the result of a Despair Event Horizon, becoming a Dark Magical Girl and likely antagonist.)
- Invoked in Sluggy Freelance here. A Captain Kirk parody claims that he will be the last one standing and the one to stop the alien's rampage, boasting that he's "the handsome masculine lead." When Torg, the actual main character of the webcomic, insists that he and Riff are more interesting characters compared to the Captain's "shallow stereotype," the Captain asks if they think it's "a sci-fi thriller or some goofy buddy movie." The alien later known as Aylee then eats the captain, who's promptly forgotten about.
- In Sonichu, it seems like Sonichu would be the main character, but the attention quickly shifts to the creator Chris Chan himself. Almost every adventure Sonichu and his friends go on is something that happened in Chris's life. The comic is basically a big metaphor for how Chris wishes he could go back and do things differently.
- Played straight in Tails Gets Trolled. Sonic the Hedgehog shows up as the friend of the title character, as one might expect, just as one might expect. The story is mostly told from his perspective, and four chapters later, he gets his head ripped off.
- Welcome To Spud: The first comic stars Tag Positron (whose name is an anagram of “protagonist”). He, being too cool to wear a hazmat suit on a planet where the environment is naturally toxic, shortly dies from internal bleeding.
- White Angels Have No Wings: Downplayed with Song Ayeon. She features heavily on the cover arts of the manhwa and is focused on in the first few chapters as the object of Baek Yeonhwa's affections. However, while she is a major character, the central conflict mostly involves how Yeonhwa interacts with Yang Dahye. Dahye herself is closer to a protagonist than Ayeon is since her character arc gets more attention. The cinching factor is the fact that Dahye is the protagonist of the sequel series White Angels Get No Rest in which Ayeon does not appear and is barely mentioned except in passing.
- In the first episode of Wonderlab, we're presented a team of newly-introduced personnel. Parker, The Leader, ends up being lured into the Containment Unit of an Abnormality known as "Dingle Dangle" by the end of the episode, where they are killed by Catt, the true member of the comic's Power Trio, in an attempt to suppress Dingle Dangle. The episode after introduces Narae, an Agent who is in charge of another Abnormality called "My Sweet Home", along with their counselor, Taii. An episode after that, Narae is consumed by My Sweet Home and Taii becomes part of the main cast.
- In Just Another Fool, there is Logan. After a while, he goes missing and his friend Josh takes over the blog. Then Logan returns... but now, he's gone just a little unhinged.
- The prologue chapter of The Pirates Covered in Fur takes place on an island away from the story's main setting and follows a goat who's trying to prevent Captain Lyle and his pirates from stealing a dangerous weapon. She's killed at the end, and the pirates acquire the weapon despite her efforts.
- The first entry in the Smirvlak Trilogy, Smirvlak's Stone, mostly focuses on Nickolas Corveel as he tries to strengthen his bond with his estranged brother, Gnekvizz. Along his journey, Nick learns how to be a Combat Pragmatist, he grows closer to his brother, discovers that the world can be both beautiful and despairing, and even goes as far as killing the Disc-One Final Boss. Then it's revealed that Gnekvizz was Evil All Along, and shortly afterwards, he murders Nick, thereby illustrating that Nick had no bearing on the trilogy as a whole.
- The first chapter of T.O.T. focused entirely on Mark and Maximus Slade. Mark is also the one who informs his friends about the werewolf and that they're in trouble. Mark is also the one who got the police involved (or tried to at least). Mark is also the one who receives a large amount of development, and the story is written to set Maximus to be Mark's Arch-Enemy, and that he'll ultimately be the one who saves the day. Despite all of this, Mark is killed two-thirds of the way into the story and is surprisingly the first main character in the story to die.
- The sequel to Cool Guy Has Chill Day begins with new character Mr. Funk doing similar things to Cool Guy in the original, and plays a sweet saxophone solo... then Cool Guy shows up and kills him about halfway through the video, proceeding to bury his body to his Leitmotif.
- Hero House has an extremely elaborate example, with Nightwing serving as the main protagonist throughout all of season one. This all changes, however, due to his murder
- Marble Hornets had Jay, who was shown as the main protagonist for 80 out of the 87 entries. Wanna know what happened in the 80th entry? He was shot and killed by Alex. For the remaining entries, Jay's "sidekick" Tim had to take the reins and settle the conflict once and for all.
- hbomberguy believes this to be a failing of Fallout 3 (relevant portion of his review): both the pre-game hype and in-game narrative holds the player up to be important (and their choices of great consequence), but in the end they end up being more of a spectator to the player's father, and he feels annoyed at having been lied to.
- Smosh's series, Part Timers, began with the manager, Lori, introducing the newly hired ascended fanboy Scooter to his new job at Pork E. Pine's. Scooter gives a small speech about how he's thrilled to be working there... And then he is very promptly killed when Ian accidentally hits him in the head with a ski ball. The next scene has Lori bringing in the new employee, Pete, who becomes the main character throughout the series.
- Viral Texts: Sally appears to be the protagonist in the first part of this story, however the real protagonist is actually her ex-husband, Dave.