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Doomed Protagonist

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There are no winners in a nuclear war.
"When I am taken, all my memories will fade, crowded out by eternal suffering. My imagination takes over and I see myself struggling through the body of the King, wracked with agonies and unable to remember any other existence. I know that I will have no more thoughts of freedom or safety or home because my very understanding of the concepts will be lost to me and it hurts. it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts"
— The protagonist of Yahtzee's "The Expedition"

Let's say a character comes across something that Was Once a Man and, after discovering the source of The Virus that made it that way, looks in the mirror to find that he shows all the signs of being infected with it.

Or perhaps he learns that everyone who's come before him to a certain Eldritch Location, looked at a particular Brown Note, or touched the Artifact of Doom he's just tucked in his pants pocket has suffered a horrible and irreversible fate.

Or could be that he's adrift in the remotest part of the Pacific Ocean with a storm coming; buried alive in an airtight coffin; has a badly-infected wound; or he's just been diagnosed with stage four testicular ligma and given three months to live. Either way, Downer Ending, huh?

—Wait, why's the progress bar only halfway through the movie?

That's because the rest of the plot is going to be about screwed this guy is, and unless he can Find the Cure!, fight off his fate, or have some miraculous Deus ex Machina save him, it's gonna be a long, slow, death march. In most cases, he's not going to find the cure or get rescued. (Except maybe in Fan Fic. By aliens. Or wizards. Or wizard aliens.) But this does not preclude moments of false hope.


The story almost always ends just short of his final transformation or death, and sometimes begins with a later scene that shows him doomed. It is also almost always told from the first person. These stories are usually Apocalyptic Logs.

This may happen because of a Viral Transformation, The Virus or The Corruption. Compare Tomato in the Mirror, when the character was that way all along. Contrast And Then John Was a Zombie, when this is used as an ending twist. Also compare Heroic Willpower, which particularly special heroes can use to resist their fate. Not related to Doomed by Canon or Foregone Conclusion, although they can cover protagonists who are doomed. May lead to acting like a Sheep in Wolf's Clothing.


Since this is a form of foreshadowing and an Ending Trope, unmarked spoilers abound!


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Misuzu from AIR. In fact, this spread like a virus.
  • At this point in time, Eren and the rest of the current titan shifters in Attack on Titan. A shifter will die 13 years after inheriting their titan powers if they're not passed down beforehand. This is known as the Curse of Ymir, after the first person to wield titan powers died 13 years after acquiring them: the idea is that nobody can possess the powers for longer than Ymir did.note  The plot currently involves trying to save Eldia and Paradis Island before Zeke's term is up. Currently, there's no cure.
  • Guts from Berserk has been heavily implied to eventually become this. The manga is still ongoing, so this hasn't happened yet, but Guts is a person who was "Born to fight against Causality", but he is unable to keep it up indefinitely.
  • All the kids in Bokurano, due to the way that mecha battles in this series generally work — if you win, you die. If you lose, everybody in your universe dies.
  • Light Yagami of Death Note is confirmed by Word of God to have effectively ruined his life the moment he picked up the titular Artifact of Death. That Ryuk told Light as early as their first meeting that he would be the one to ultimately kill him should be more than enough indication of this.
  • Seita from Grave of the Fireflies: The first scene is him dying in the streets and then it flashes back to the past.
  • In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, the magical girls are doomed to become witches — if they don't die first.
    • According to Word of God Sayaka is doomed to become a witch in every timeline that she makes a contract.
  • Hibiki of Symphogear is going to die. The opening scene of the show is Miku visiting her grave. The rest of the show is functioning as a How We Got Here to this. And then it's subverted when we get past that point.
  • Chtholly's fate in WorldEnd: What Do You Do at the End of the World? Are You Busy? Will You Save Us? had already been sealed since the first episode's Cold Open, and one of the series' whammies after The Reveal only hammered the point further, as fitting for the series' tragic genre.

    Comic Books 
  • The Mask had Stanley Ipkiss turning more psychotic as a result of all the murderous release the evil alter-ego brought by the mask gave him. His girlfriend doesn't like it, and eventually kills him to stop him from continuing his killing spree (this was changed in the movie, as Stanley's inhibitions lost by wearing the mask are much less evil).
  • The comic version of Sin City: The Hard Goodbye shows Marv realizing that he was going up against the Roark family: a powerful crime family with many connections and no morals. Marv realizes that he's as good as dead but soldiers on anyway. He even surmises that he'll probably end up strapped to the electric chair, which is his inevitable fate — but not before he takes down both Kevin and Cardinal Roark, the ones responsible for Goldie's death.
  • The Bloggses from When the Wind Blows are basically already dead once the nuclear war happens. After that, they slowly succumb to radiation poisoning, not realizing what's happening to them until it's too late.

  • At the end of 1984, Winston and Julia are slated for execution by the Party, and they know it.
  • Several stories by Clark Ashton Smith including: The Double Shadow, Genius Loci, The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis, and The End of the Story.
  • Flowers for Algernon implies that Charlie will eventually die as a result of the intelligence-enhancing operation he underwent, as Algernon and other lab animals died after having the operation.
  • Commonly used by H. P. Lovecraft. For example, at the end of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the protagonist realizes that he shares ancestry with the people of Innsmouth, and is destined to eventually turn into a Deep One.
  • Roald Dahl concluded The Witches with a more bittersweet form of this trope. The hero is permanently turned into a mouse, shortened lifespan and all. He doesn't mind because he wouldn't want to outlive his grandmother, with whom he plans to spend his remaining years hunting witches. The Witches (1990) made the ending more unambiguously happy, a change which angered Dahl to the point where he stood outside his local cinema with a megaphone urging moviegoers not to see The Witches ([1], [2], [3], [4]). Mind you, this was mere months before the man died; that's how pissed off he was.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Part of the premise of Breaking Bad is this, as the protagonist is dying of cancer.
  • Chernobyl starts with the protagonist Legasov's suicide. It's later revealed that he didn't have long to live anyway, because he spent too much time near the destroyed reactor helping with the cleanup.
  • Invoked in one episode of The Mentalist, where Jane and Lisbon appear to be this after they're supposedly exposed to the lethal virus that killed the Victim of the Week. The audience knows it's just another Batman Gambit from Jane, but Lisbon doesn't, and is furious when Jane finally tells her.


    New Media 
  • Two of Yahtzee's Fully Ramblomatic stories, The Hopeless Endeavour and The Expedition, end this way: one with the main character discovering that he's the latest in a series of thousands of clones infected with a terminal disease that will kill him within a few days and cause him to be replaced with another clone and the other with the main character becoming a prisoner of Chzo.
  • At the end of the uncensored version of SCP-835's uncensored after-action report, it's revealed that the hero has been infected with The Virus and will soon go into containment with the other victim.

    Web Original 
  • Stand Still, Stay Silent: In that universe, Plague Zombie bites can take anything from a few days to a couple weeks to start showing consequences. The small chance of not being infected after all means it's worth waiting to see if symptoms appear or not, but once they do, the only possible outcomes are being killed by The Plague or becoming a zombie. This "showing symptoms" scenario eventually happens with Tuuri.
  • Four out of the six members of the Lambsbridge Gang in Twig are human experiments created with an intended expiration date in their early twenties at the latest, where their bodies and minds will break down under the strain and the scientists maintaining them can move on to new and improved iterations of their projects.
  • Watermelon: A Cautionary Tale: Jimmy is explicitly told if he eats watermelon seeds he will grow a watermelon in his stomach. He does it anyways and slowly becomes a watermelon over the course of a day.

Alternative Title(s): Infected Protagonist