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Helpless Observer Protagonist

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"I was helpless. Powerless. Unable to move an eye. Unable to lift a finger. Unable to speak. Unable to alter a facial expression. To smile. Frown. Give any sign that I was alive within my own body, a captive inside my own brain."
Tobias' narration, Megamorphs #4: Back to Before

A Helpless Observer Protagonist is Forced to Watch the story unfold in front of them, powerless to interact with anyone or anything. They're a witness to events so far beyond their control that they can't even influence the outcome in minor ways such as giving someone advice. They may be a ghost, intangible, trapped in an And I Must Scream situation, watching a recording of past events, or heavily oppressed. In prose, they're usually a first-person narrator.

Compare Useless Protagonist, Pinball Protagonist, First-Person Peripheral Narrator, "Rear Window" Witness, Innocent Bystander Series.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In the first episode of Digimon Tamers, Takato witnesses Ruki and Renamon battling a Lynxmon during a dream sequence. Not having a digimon of his own yet, he is unable to do anything but watch.
  • Most of Uzumaki consists of Kirie watching as her town is consumed by the Spiral Curse.

    Comic Books 
  • Kingdom Come is viewed from the perspective of Norman McCay, a disillusioned pastor chosen by the Spectre to accompany him and serve as a human perspective to help him judge impending apocalypse.

    Fan Works 
  • Eleutherophobia: City of Lost Children is told from the perspective of Tom while he's a Controller, so he can do nothing but watch as his mother and brother argue with each other. His only act of agency is a brief moment of Fighting from the Inside.
  • The Fullmetal Alchemist fanfic I'm Still Here is told from the perspective of Alphonse, whose soul was separated from his Animated Armor and is desperately trying to reach out to Edward despite being invisible.
  • Volpimania has Rena Rouge Forced to Watch as poor ChloĆ© is ambushed and has their throat slit in front of them.
  • What Tomorrow Brings:
    • Chapter 6 is told from the perspective of Tom, who's used to being helpless as Temrash 114 mercilessly tortures him. Fortunately, he gets better at the end.
    • Chapter 33 ends with another Controller's point of view: Alloran. After he dies of old age in the original timeline, the Drode brings him to the splinter universe, where he's promptly re-infested by Visser Three.

    Film - Live-Action 
  • Au Hasard Balthazar: Balthazar is the viewpoint character and is stuck in the role of observer since he's an animal that can't communicate with the humans, who drive the story, around him.
  • Flyora Gaishun of Come and See, an ordinary teenage boy in occupied Belarus in World War II who is dragged against his will into the war and can only bear witness to the most depraved atrocities of Nazi Germany while powerless to do anything. He is held at gunpoint and Forced to Watch as the SS burns down a church full of women and children.

  • Several Animorphs books have a viewpoint character temporarily be infested by a Yeerk, which leaves them trapped inside their own minds. They can try to talk to and argue with their Yeerks, but the Yeerks don't have to pay any attention to them.
    • Jake spends the last third of The Capture mentally arguing with a Yeerk named Temrash. At first, he tries to fight back and warn the others, but he can't. Fortunately, Ax Spots the Thread, so his friends tie him up in the woods and constantly monitor him until Temrash dies.
    • Cassie allows Aftran into her brain The Departure to stop the Animorphs from killing Karen (Aftran's previous host), though it doesn't last for long and the book switches to Jake's perspective for the next few chapters.
    • In Back to Before, the alternate timeline's Tobias joins The Sharing and becomes a full member, not realising what he's getting into until it's too late. He spends the rest of his pagetime first panicking, then filled with despair and self-loathing.
  • Cool! is about a boy in a coma reminiscing upon the events leading up to him being hit by a car, while his family try everything to make him wake up.
  • I Stop Somewhere: Since her murder, Ellie has haunted her small town, but can't interact with anyone or anything. Nobody sees her and she repeatedly tries to catch the attention of others, whether it's Caleb and Noah's other victims or her father Alex, but never does.
  • Overlapping with Posthumous Narration, the narrator of The Lovely Bones is Susie Salmon, a fourteen year old girl who was horribly murdered by her neighbor shortly before the story begins. She narrates the story from the afterlife (she hasn't quite reached true Heaven yet). Although she can interact with the living world a little bit, it's extremely limited and Susie is mostly relegated to watching as her family and friends each deal with their grief in their own way. The only time she actively influences anything is when Ruth, a young woman with extrasensory abilities, temporarily swaps bodies with her so Susie can experience life again for just a few hours.
  • Shellpeople in The Ship Who... books have paralyzed human bodies locked into life support shells and installed into brainships, hospitals, and space stations, which they regard as their bodies. Normally they're quite able to influence the story, but their ships and stations are fallible as are their connections to them. With the right damage or exploits, shellpeople can be rendered unable to sense the world outside their shells, or still able to use sensors but helpless to do anything.
    • In Partnership, Nancia is depressed starting her first assignment, and disgusted to see the pack of sloppy Royal Brats she's got to transport spilling alcohol in her nice new interior, so she doesn't address them and lets them think she's a drone ship. Feeling unobserved, they then openly plot horrific abuses of power. Nancia can't tell anyone legally because it's entrapment and given how well-connected they are it might actually count as treason.
  • Patroclus in The Song of Achilles becomes one at the end of the book, dying in battle and being forced to watch as a spirit as his lover Achilles goes mad with grief and fulfills the prophecy that leads to his death. He then sees Achilles' sociopathic son come in, kill Patroclus' friend Briseis, and disrespect Achilles' final wishes by refusing to put Patroclus' name on their grave, keeping Patroclus from joining Achilles in the Underworld. He is still able to communicate with Achilles' mother, the sea nymph Thetis.
  • Tales of Pirx the Pilot: In Albatross, two spaceships are lost due to a nuclear reactor explosion in full view of Pirx, and he can do nothing at all to help. First, he is currently flying as a passenger and not as a pilot, second, the ship he is on is a luxury liner and the crew can't risk the passengers' safety by getting closer to the disaster, so the space traffic controller commands them to leave.

  • The First-Person Peripheral Narrator of The Mechanisms' Rock Opera The Bifrost Incident is a detective watching a recording of something that happened 80 years ago. Said recording eventually reveals that the eldritch apocalypse is imminent, and since it was set in motion so long ago, there's nothing the narrator can do.
  • The lyrics of Brick Shithouse by Placebo is about a ghost that can't do anything but bitterly and hopelessly watch his lover having sex with the man who killed him.

    Myths & Religion 

  • Season 1 of Archive 81 is about Daniel Powell, an archivist digitizing the tapes of an oral history project about the Visser apartment building, collected by Melody Pendras. It quickly becomes clear that something is deeply wrong with Visser and Melody's in danger—but that all happened in 1994, and Dan's working on the tapes in 2015. Even worse? He's not actually entirely helpless; he is in fact affecting events. Listening to the tapes is the final component of the Visser cultists' ritual... and by the time he realizes, it's too late.
  • The Magnus Archives: There's nothing Jon can do about the often-horrific fates of the people whose stories he's recording for the Magnus Institute, as by the nature of the format they all happen before he learns about them. Taken to even worse extremes once he gains his powers as the Archivist. If Jon personally takes a statement from someone, that person is forced to relive their horrible experience every night in their dreams, and Jon is forced to watch.