Ah, the Innocent Bystander: where would Villains be without them to use as Human Shields and the heroes to rescue in a Hostage for MacGuffin? This noble profession has been much maligned by its incredibly high mortality rates and penchant for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a setting where being the hero is a major pain in the rear, these characters have a rare talent for making things more difficult for the hero. Bonus points if these bystanders are super unappreciative.
Though similar to Muggles, the main difference is that the Innocent Bystander is not necessarily clueless or mundane (superheroes, wizards, or mutants can be innocent bystanders in the right, or wrong, circumstances), they just happen to be near a situation most qualified heroes would be hard pressed to escape alive. Essentially, they are those who must be protected, rescued or saved from a villain who will eat, kidnap, torture, or kill them. Since they're pretty expendable, it's even odds a few will be killed just to show how evil the bad guy is.
Not surprisingly, these folks are often the crux for heroes having to operate with a No-Harm Requirement. Stomping the bad guys would be a cakewalk for our heroes...if only it didn't mean that their efforts would result in unfathomable amounts of Collateral Damage and threatening the lives of the very bystanders they're trying to save. If you often find yourself wondering why the hero has to hold back against evil doers all the time, this trope is often why. Often the heroes' go-to solution is to take the fight AWAY from the helpess innocent folks and their property so that they can finally go all out.
If the Bystander gets dragged along for the ride (be it as a hostage or a press-ganged helper for the hero), they may get upgraded to Mauve Shirt. If a Running Gag is made of how the same Bystander(s) keep running into the heroes, it's an example of a Yuppie Couple. If there's a whole bus full of these, it's a Bus Full of Innocents. Despite their squishiness, they may use a Defiant Stone Throw in the hero's favor.
Quite a few series start with this premise. Arthur Dent of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is essentially an Innocent Bystander caught up in events he can't understand. By the end of the series he becomes something of a Heroic Bystander, though. They do get a chance at the spotlight sometimes though; check out Innocent Bystander Series, and its cousin trope the Lower-Deck Episode.
Innocent Bystanders are often the targets of:
- Cower Power
- Foe-Tossing Charge
- Friendly Target
- Hostage for MacGuffin
- Human Shield
- Sadistic Choice
- Tested on Humans
- Okajima Rokuro in Black Lagoon — who just so happens to be the main character.
- Subverted in the first episode of Elfen Lied where The Ditz secretary Kisaragi, is beheaded and used as a body shield by the main character Lucy, possibly showing how ruthless and sadistic she is. Then again, it's Lucy we're talking about. The same Lucy who ruthlessly murders whole families simply because she needs a place to sleep. Even if you can get her doing it to the cruel orphanage kids as she both gets broken and finally gains access to her powers, the Kisaragi deal and the families are... not as justified/understandable/ whatever. Even more so when this also includes Kouta's father and sister.
- Akumetsu, no matter how extreme his plans get, will never let the innocent become involved. It's part of what keeps him from Jumping Off the Slippery Slope.
- Rushuna's first run-in with the Jester in Grenadier is a straight example, with the Jester even doing a bit of Lampshade Hanging as he notes that while Rushuna can dodge the blasts of his gun, her less-than-super friend sure as hell can't.
- These sorts of characters are often used in Chrono Crusade to show just how dire the situation has gotten—or how badly the heroes have screwed up. Near the beginning of the series, innocent bystanders are caught in the rubble after a fight Chrono and Rosette have with demons — luckily, Azmaria has healing powers. Later in volume 5 of the manga, several civilians are caught in a battle between Aion, Viede, and Chrono in the middle of an Unstoppable Rage. Many of them are killed because of CHRONO'S actions, and not the bad guys as much.
- Winry's parents in Fullmetal Alchemist. Winry nearly becomes one of these herself when she overhears that Scar killed them.
- Poor, poor Rangyaku and Keikei in The Twelve Kingdoms.
- Saji Crossroads and Louise Halevy from Mobile Suit Gundam 00 are cruel deconstruction of this trope.
- Penguindrum has Asami Kubo, a young girl whom Kanba meets up with in episode 4. She's pushed down a metro escalator. She lives to tell, but ends up being given Laser-Guided Amnesia.
- Urusei Yatsura had Mr. Noodle and Miss Soup, who were always trying to have a romantic moment, but were constantly interrupted by aliens, demons, monsters, and teenagers rampaging through.
- In the Astro City story "Pastoral", the villains menace the people attending a carnival in an attempt to draw out local hero Roustabout.
- Red Daughter of Krypton the Red Lanterns fight back against an alien invasion in planet Grax, and Supergirl saves an innocent little girl who was about to be killed. Later on, Supergirl enemy Worldkiller-1 threatens with body-snatching an innocent bystander unless Kara lets it take over her body.
- In Supergirl Volume 2 #23, when Supergirl fights a mutant, the super-villain shoots at random bystanders to keep her distracted.
Supergirl: Good Lord! Don't you care what happens to these people?
Barry: Frankly... NO!
- Bizarrogirl: After arriving in Metropolis, Bizarrogirl tears up the place. Her rampage killed one person and hurt plenty more. Once she understands human concepts of "right" and "wrong" she is devastated and falls apart.
- In that same story, Kara feels guilty about the thousands of innocent people killed by Zod and his army during the climax of New Krypton.
Supergirl: I didn't tell her that's exactly how I felt after New Krypton. After my people killed thousands of innocent bystanders.
- In Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' on Heaven's Door, a convenience store robber takes an elderly customer hostage and demands that Spike and Jet drop their weapons. In an Establishing Character Moment, Jet drops his gun, Spike doesn't, takes aim at the robber and shoots him.
- Flushed Away: When Roddy first meets Rita and is nabbed by Spike and Whitey, he tries to paint himself as one, stating the trope word for word. Unfortunately, the thugs misunderstand this as him introducing himself as "Millicent Bystander" and refer to him as such for the rest of the film.
- In Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), John mentions that he's killed fifty or sixty people (though he doesn't keep track), and asks his wife not to be intimidated. She interrupts that she's killed three hundred and twelve.
Jane: Some were two at a time.
John: Are you counting innocent bystanders?
- Todd and Margo in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation may be a couple of obnoxious jerks, but are just going about their lives when, due to their crazy neighbor, their carpet is ruined, their window gets broken, and the police invade their house by mistake.
- Harry Potter:
- In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it's revealed several Muggles were killed in an explosion during a confrontation between Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew. It turns out the explosion was caused by Peter, to frame Sirius and fake his own death.
- In the climactic scene of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Cedric Diggory is murdered simply because he happened to grab the Portkey at the same time as Harry (at Harry's behest). "Kill the spare" is one of the most chilling sentences in the entire series.
- In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the character of Jonathan is the go-to innocent bystander whom Buffy saves several times per season until he decides to become a super-villain himself.
- Subverted in Prison Break when Michael and Lincoln's father appears to be an innocent bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time when Paul Kellerman is about to try to kill Lincoln. Kellerman gets ready to kill the old man, but can't even turn around before copping a shovel to the back of the head.
- Happens in Doctor Who on occasion, with some random civilian getting dragged into the villainous plot of the moment. A typical example is Arthur Ollis in "The Three Doctors", who ends up getting teleported away along with the various Doctors and their companions. At least his job as a wildlife warden means he's got a shotgun with him...
- MAD once did a superhero parody with a character named, literally, Innocent Bystander, something along the lines of: "Officers! The jewel thieves went down that alley! You can easily head them off!" "You've saved the day again, Innocent Bystander!"
- An early Peanuts strip had Linus (then a baby who couldn't walk or talk) getting blamed for something, and another character protesting, "He's just an innocent by-sitter!"
- You do not want to be an Innocent Bystander in Fate/stay night. While the more "good" characters will fight at night and in remote locations to avoid involving you, if you do happen to catch them fighting and threaten to break their Masquerade? They'll kill you. Even if they aren't villains.
- Civilians in most open-world games can be this, if they get caught in the middle of a mission, a car chase or violent rampage.
- Grand Theft Auto, Crazy Taxi, Saints Row, Postal, Bully... Some get it worse than others. You'll probably be alright in Bully and Crazy Taxi, but if you're a pedestrian in Postal and Grand Theft Auto, and the player's a cruel dick with a love for wanton destruction... well, nice knowing you.
- inFAMOUS 2 takes this to the next level, with the evil perk "Bystander Bonus" — each pedestrian takedown gives you a small amount of XP, making collateral damage quite rewarding in the long run.
- Tourists in Evil Genius. If they see something incriminating or get trapped inside your base, they'll panic and raise the international heat on your operations if you don't... pacify them (said pacification can involve killing them, or simply pampering them until they're too confused to know which way is up).
- Purple shape people in The Adventures of Square are innocent citizens of Shapeland. They will run away if attacks hit them. You can protect them from enemies if you want to, but you can also choose to murder these poor people. You won't receive any penalty.
- The creator of Union of Heroes once invited his readers to become Innocent Bystanders of his photocomic by sending him portraits which were later included in the story.
- In Sluggy Freelance the Main Characters are actually responsible (though usually accidentally) for quite a few Innocent Bystanders biting the dust. In fact, once two fans of the strip won the right to have a cameo appearance in the story. Pete Abrams, the writer/artist, honored this agreement, and had them crushed to death by Aylee.
- Waterworks: The workers of the eponymous facility, which was invaded by a gang of thugs, are initially this, but they provide the characters with increasing amount of help throughout.
- The Yuppie Couple of Gargoyles, Margot and Brendan were frequently made innocent bystanders. It happened so often they even began getting snippy at each other when their ideas for a quiet getaway turn into a run in with monsters or kidnappers or robots or what have you.
- In the Darkwing Duck episode "Planet of the Capes" exactly one person on a certain alien planet isn't a superhero; he's named Normal Guy and the planet's superhero population devote themselves to protecting him. And only him. In the end, he becomes a supervillain just to get them all off his back.
- This trope is what signaled the eventual doom of the cigarette industry. When the health threat of second hand smoke was proven by the 1980s, it was a fact that no PR firm could spin about the need to restrict smoking. After all, the tobacco companies could manipulate their addicts to ignore scientific evidence, but there was no way they could do the same to non-smokers.