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Pinball Protagonist

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"That's literally all they do. Maya and Joey are observers in Maradonia while Sagitta and a couple other magical beings do all the fighting and bail them out when they get themselves into shitty situations. And, of course, in the process Joey starts a couple forest fires. That's it. The entire effect of The Encouragers in Maradonia was to slightly damage the environment. These are our heroes."
— Impishidea Maradonia Sporkings, part 31

The protagonist has spent a significant portion of the story bouncing around the tale (figuratively) like a pinball. They provide no plot impetus in and of themself, and has essentially spent the entire story thus far in a reactive state. Whatever is going on in the world, be it war or intrigue, it just drags them along in its wake.

This is not a Designated Hero. Designated Heroes actually do things. The things they do may not be considered heroic, but they still do things and thus have an impact on the world around them. Eventually they pick up the Plot Ball and move it around. Even the Little Hero in a Big War still has the hero do something important to affect the larger mess around him. The Pinball Protagonist spends a decent amount of time failing to actually have any effect at all. They aren't even lucky enough to be the Plot Ball. If the writing and tone of the tale all imply that the character is the protagonist, and yet they can be lifted right out of the story and have little to no impact on anything that has or will happen: then they're just a little silver ball in the cosmic pinball game of life.

Why in the hell is this character the protagonist, the reader might be wondering? Perhaps the protagonist is like a vehicle or a touchstone for the reader, a way of exploring some strange new world or meeting interesting characters. However, many characters will have pinball episodes where they are simply overloaded with too many problems in far too short of a time frame to be able to do anything effective. This does not make them a Pinball Protagonist.

Compare The Watson and First-Person Peripheral Narrator. Also compare the The Ingenue archetypal character, defined by the ability to bear up under hardship (an undervalued heroic quality often Flanderized into a passive characterization). This can be seen as Villains Act, Heroes React taken to an extreme. Not to be confused with Useless Protagonist, where the main characters make no attempt to make themselves seem important, although these tropes may overlap over time. Contrast with a Young Conqueror Hero Protagonist, who actually drives the plot and makes the villains react to them.

For a detailed overview on the use of passive heroes who get tossed about between situations with little control over their external destiny, try The Seven Basic Plots, especially the Rags to Riches plot and Voyage and Return; the passive hero is supposed to be undergoing Character Development, of course.

Not to be confused with Bouncing Battler or Be the Ball, where the protagonist fights by acting like a literal pinball.

Before adding an example: It is too easy to label a hero as a Pinball Protagonist when that is not the intent. The character must be completely (or nearly completely) superfluous all the time. Having an episode or two where s/he accomplishes nothing does not make an example. As mentioned above, a character is a Pinball Protagonist if and only if the character can be completely removed from the entire story, with little to no impact on the actual events or characters.

Also remember that not having agency (i.e. only does things because somebody else told him to) does not mean it's this trait. Even if he did things on other people's instructions, if the hero's actions impact the story, then he's not a Pinball Protagonist. Similarly, if the hero's actions have different outcomes than he wanted them to have, even making the situation worse, that's not this trope. That is Nice Job Breaking It, Hero.

Finally, keep in mind that Tropes Are Tools, and the title of Pinball Protagonist should not be automatically viewed as a bad thing. As mentioned above, it can be a deliberate tool to help explore a world or society, where the character is merely an observation point, or it can be that the character grows through his experiences.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Digimon Adventure tri.: The Chosen Children spend most of the movies not doing a lot about the problems facing them (save Izzy), preferring instead to sit around angsting. Most of the threats faced either get away or are resolved by outside intervention.
  • Renton of Eureka Seven actually spends a great deal of the series completely in the dark and out of control of the events that transpires around him. He doesn't even come face to face with the Big Bad of the series despite being the protagonist.
  • Shiro from K seems to be this initially, but is eventually subverted later as he starts actively searching for the answers to the mystery surrounding his situation, and then even more when it's revealed that he's actually the Silver King, and thus, essentially the person single-handedly responsible for setting the entire series in motion.
  • Natsuru in Kämpfer gets dragged around by other people and he just goes along with them in the end anyway. Much worse in the anime than in the manga and light novels, although it's still pretty bad in the latter two. The main difference is, in the latter, s/he at least tries to make a token effort to undermine the Kämpfer War and learn the truth behind it, whereas in the anime, s/he just sorta stands there with a confused expression.
  • Until the climax of Metropolis (2001), Kenichi and Tima spend most of their time wandering from one Scenery Porn locale to the next, occasionally getting shot at. Tima may also qualify as a walking MacGuffin.
  • Shu from Now and Then, Here and There attempts a lot of heroic stuff, but his actions have little to no effect on the series' plot or resolution. Remove him and the same things would have happened.
  • Strange Dawn: Eri and Yuko don't really do much throughout the story, except for just communicating with the other characters. This is one of the main criticisms the anime received from reviewers.
  • Ichise of Texhnolyze. There doesn't appear to be much consideration of his actions, reacting like a rabid animal when he's not simply following orders.

    Audio Plays 
  • Big Finish Doctor Who: In "The Holy Terror", the movers in the plot are the TARDIS itself, various characters in the Decadent Court, and the rules of the intensely ritualistic society that the story is set within. Frobisher is the viewpoint character and creates plot development by total accident, the Doctor is absent from large chunks of the plot and the one-shot companion Eugene is explicitly unable to intervene in events, being as he is a scribe whose job is to write down everything that happens. Frobisher briefly becomes king but is powerless to do anything, especially once the Goo-Goo-Godlike character shows up and starts killing people. The Doctor's only helpful option is telling Eugene what he has to do to the child at the end. This is all very intentional, as the characters are trapped in a Theory of Narrative Causality-based simulation (intended as an Ironic Hell for one of the characters) and their lack of influence on the plot just emphasises how strong the story is.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman: Batman in The Long Halloween. He spends most of the story chasing around after whatever supervillain is around for each chapter. He doesn't save any of the victims from the Holiday killer, he doesn't save Harvey Dent from becoming Two-Face and he only catches the killer by getting Sal Maroni killed by him.
  • There's a comic book where Sherlock Holmes meets The Phantom of the Opera; it follows the original Leroux book, with Holmes tacked on to watch the show.
  • Spider-Man: Spider-Man himself tends to turn into this in any multipart story in his own series that has lots of guest stars. He's always been a guy who works best alone, and quickly takes a back seat as part of a team. The biggest example was the Maximum Carnage storyline; the cover of one issue even lampshaded the trope by having Spidey shout, "Hey! Whose mag is this, anyway?!" Fortunately, he was indeed the star at the climax, both defeating Carnage himself and preventing Venom from killing him to show he'd still hold onto his principles, despite all that had happened.

    Fan Works 
  • In Chrysalis Visits The Hague, secondary protagonist Edith has all but become one. The story starts with her being dragged by Fighting Fit into an impromptu SAR mission, which leads to her being injured, forcefully reprimanded by Pierre, fired by the UN, recruited by Equestria, sent hunting after a mysterious piece of intel by Golden Dirk, locked in a burning building, and kidnapped by the Changelings.

    Film — Animated 
  • Because of Disneyfication, Mowgli in Disney's The Jungle Book spends all his time reacting to the other characters and doesn't instigate any plot events; he does resolve the plot in the end, but he needs Baloo's help to do so. This is totally ironic if you know the character from Rudyard Kipling's original stories.
  • The titular unicorn from The Last Unicorn leaves her forest to find the rest of her kind...and does practically nothing else for the rest of the story. She falls asleep on the side of the road and is captured by a Wicked Witch who knows where the rest are, she is freed by one of the witch's magician assistants — who knows how to get there. He also ends up accidentally changing her into a human so she can reach King Haggard. Though she finally does something in the climax.
  • Omar of Rock and Rule just sits back and look petulant while his sidekicks take the initiative to find Angel. Once he realizes what kind of danger she's in, he turns around and actually comes off as quite heroic.
  • Aurora of Sleeping Beauty, despite being the titular character. The only thing she does of her own volition is run into Phillip; everything else she does is at someone else's order or suggestion. She has a total of eighteen lines of dialogue in the entire movie. Phillip doesn't do a whole lot, either, as even in the final battle, the fairies are clearly doing most of the work.
  • The heroine of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is also an example of this trope. The dwarfs, the wicked queen, the huntsman and the prince are the characters who actively drive the plot, while Snow White's role is to inspire their actions and have things happen to her as a result of how the others feel about her. In the original Grimms' fairy-tale, the queen is essentially the Villain Protagonist, who takes the most action and gets the most attention out of all the characters in the text; while Snow White gets more emphasis in the Disney version, she's still mainly important for what happens to her, not for anything she does herself.
  • Wart spends most of The Sword in the Stone being turned into various animals and being dragged around by Merlin. He only comes across the titular sword by chance, and draws it in complete ignorance of the implications of doing so.
  • Tack the Cobbler from The Thief and the Cobbler is a Cute Mute who spends the first two-thirds of the movie largely being dragged around by other characters. He undergoes no notable character development or Hidden Depths, which makes his burst of heroism in the movie's final act come across as an unexpected Ass Pull.
  • Thumbelina's titular protagonist. She's found by a fairy prince, who takes her on a ride during which she's spotted by a toad who then steals her. The toads then just leave her on a lily pad, and she spends the rest of the movie bumping into various antagonists. The only proactive thing she does is to get Jacquimo to fly her to the Vale of the Fairies for the climax.
  • The narrator of Waltz with Bashir is a decidedly tragic example. When his commanding officer is killed he doesn't rise to the occasion and completely fails to get any of his squad mates out alive; afterward he bitterly realizes that there was a lot more he could have done but was just a confused kid who got in over his head.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In '71, Pvt. Gary Hook spends most of the movie fleeing from people trying to kill him, or relying on locals willing to help him. He begins to use some initiative when he decides to leave Eamon and Brigid's flat to escape on his own.
  • The title character of Barbarella fits this perfectly. The entire movie consists of her repeatedly getting into trouble through her own stupidity, being rescued by some guy, and then having Rescue Sex with her savior. The only reason she managed to find the man she was looking for at all was because Duran Duran accidentally stepped on the device she had been given to track him down (which she had not once even thought of turning on since receiving).
  • In Barry Lyndon, Barry goes through his life simply having things happen to him, such as being robbed, or being press-ganged, or having his child die. Even his initial action, shooting an officer in a duel, turns out to have been a fake duel, planned all along by his friends. Despite his attempts to gain agency over his life, at the end of the movie, he's just as much a victim of fate as he was in the beginning.
  • The Big Lebowski: The Dude just wants to bowl and smoke weed when his life is interrupted by a case of mistaken identity, resulting in the ruining of his rug. His attempt to obtain a new rug leads him down a twisted path of mystery and intrigue that he ultimately has no control over. The soundtrack likens him to a "tumbling tumbleweed," passively blown around by exterior forces.
  • Invoked in Bowfinger. When Hollywood star Kit Ramsay refuses to sign up for Bobby Bowfinger's Chubby Rain, Bowfinger decides to make the movie anyway by covertly following Kit, filming him in his everyday life and having him react to the other actors. Hence, Kit doesn't actually do anything in the story apart from delivering the Pre-Mortem One-Liner "Gotcha, suckas!" towards the end, and his "co-star" Daisy's character basically does all the heroics.
  • Movies based on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will usually try to downplay this trope in regards to Charlie Bucket:
    • In Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the only notable things Charlie does after entering the factory is to steal a Fizzy Lifting Drink (which disqualifies him from the promised lifetime supply of chocolate) and return the Everlasting Gobstopper to Mr. Wonka rather than give it to a rival competitor (negating the disqualification and becoming the owner of the factory in the process), and so he wins. This is still an improvement on the original book, in which Charlie does almost nothing upon arriving at the factory. His only act of any significance is at the end, when he informs Mr. Wonka that he is the only child left. Mr. Wonka then immediately announces that Charlie has won by default.
    • In the second film version Charlie regularly questions Mr. Wonka about his childhood experiences, triggering most of his flashbacks, and then outright defies him at the end, forcing him to seek out his estranged father.
    • The 2013 stage version puts its own, smaller twist on the whole business by giving Charlie a highly imaginative, creative streak in addition to his kind nature, which affects the plot in that a certain someone, upon realizing his potential, makes sure that he gets a Golden Ticket — and a chance to prove himself a kindred spirit. Charlie and the audience are kept in the dark about this until the end.
  • Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away: While Mia and the Aerialist are seeking each other, they spend most of the film getting caught up in and reacting to the events taking place around them. They rarely affect said events and are offscreen for significant stretches of time.
  • Come and See: The protagonist is Flyora, a kid excited about becoming a Child Soldier. However, he realizes early on that War Is Hell and becomes just a scared kid trying to survive the surreal randomness of the battlefield, getting swept up into one awful situation after another and only escaping some grisly fate through sheer luck.
  • Confess, Fletch: Fletch goes around looking for clues and stirring things up but is Entertainingly Wrong with his summation and needs the police to save his life.
  • In The Damned (1947), a film about a group of Nazis and Nazi collaborators fleeing to South America aboard a U-boat at the end of the war, the protagonist is a French doctor who is kidnapped and forced aboard the sub. He does nothing through the course of the movie and has no influence on events.
  • Jen of The Dark Crystal spends much of the film's first and second acts commenting on how he has no idea where he is going or what he is looking for as various characters comment on prophecy and destiny and the like. In an example of this trope being done well, it serves to show the audience the wonderfully imaginative world of the movie, and the fantastic special effects of Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
  • Drop Dead Gorgeous: Amber is the most sympathetic and likable pageant contestant, but aside from performing an impressive tap-dance routine and being able to list all 50 states alphabetically, she doesn't actually do anything that could dictate the course of the film's plot. Things just work out in her favor.
  • Fanny and Alexander: The titular characters are children who are entirely at the mercy of the adults in their life, who make the actual decisions, good and bad, that drive the story. Fanny and Alexander's roles are more observational than anything.
  • In The Foreigner (2017), Quan (played by Jackie Chan) turns out to be a very proactive version of this trope. After his daughter is killed by a bomb set off by terrorists claiming to be affiliated with the IRA, he sets his sights on Irish politician and former IRA member Liam Hennessy simply because of this connection. He subjects Hennessy to a campaign of psychological warfare, setting off nonlethal bombs around his properties and beating up his bodyguards in order to get the names of the bombers out of it. The thing is, Hennessy is already cooperating with the police in order to find the bombers, whose targeting of civilians horrifies him. By the time he knows the names and gives them to Quan, the police have already been informed as well. Quan finds the bombers and kills almost all of them, nearly causing even more deaths because the police (who had already gotten a raid ready to go when Quan showed up) needed to get the location of a final bomb out of the last surviving terrorist before it blew.
  • Forrest Gump just does whatever he feels like doing at the time. At one point, he becomes sort of a running guru and unintentionally leads a group of literal cross-country runners for months. At one point he stops running ("Listen, he's about to say something!") and he just says "I'm kinda tired. I'm going to go home now," and just walks home (to Alabama, from the Nevada desert!)
    Runner: "What are we going to do now?"
  • Godzilla: King of the Monsters! (1956) falls into this, due to the way its protagonist had to be inserted, after the fact, into a pre-existing movie. Raymond Burr's "Steve Martin" spends almost the entire film bouncing from one scene to the next, acting all the while as a Greek Chorus, simply because he cannot interact with the stock footage; the best he can do is, through dubbed dialogue, persuade other characters to take action.
  • When you examine the plot of Goldfinger too closely, you see James Bond is this. Ignoring the Cold Open, he causes the death of two sisters on the way to learning the villain's plan — which only occurs after he's captured by the villain, and his attempts to both escape and warn his allies of the scheme fail. The only things Bond do that help foil Operation Grand Slam are seducing Pussy Galore and killing The Dragon. Even when the villain returns, he's killed by accident.
  • The Beatles for much of Help! This is even plot relevant: Ringo Starr is told he can remove his Clingy MacGuffin if he commits one courageous act—and when he does, much later, it's the end of the film.
  • Test pilot Lance Schroeder in the original House on Haunted Hill (1959) doesn't do anything particularly heroic throughout the movie. He's attacked in the dark at one point and thinks he hit his head. (The RiffTrax crew constantly joke about him being trapped in closets and bumping his head.)
  • Theseus from Immortals fails at doing anything even remotely successful throughout the film. He fails to protect his hometown or his mother and he is the reason the Epirus Bow falls into the hands of the Big Bad. The one successful thing he does is kill King Hyperion, but this is after the guy has accomplished everything he set out to do (like releasing The Titans). Yet Athena tells her father Zeus to have faith in Theseus.
  • In the movie Inferno (1980), the main protagonist Mark does absolutely nothing to defeat the villain. He's not even aware of most of the events going on in the film. The villain was defeated by her own actions and not by anything Mark had done. His only victory is surviving by the end of the film.
  • Casey Brodsky in Irreconcilable Differences, up until the end of the last flashback when she finally decides to file for emancipation from her parents. Justified, as she is a child who has no say in how she's raised.
  • Jupiter Jones from Jupiter Ascending. The directors have stated that they wanted to have a female protagonist who didn't conform to Real Women Don't Wear Dresses. Unfortunately, Jupiter is merely swept up into a plot she has no idea of and nothing to do with. Other people help her and rescue her, and she's just along for the ride. She displays no special skills or knowledge to contribute anything. The first thing she does for herself is to agree to marry Titus in exchange for pardoning Caine and Stinger — which is over an hour into the film.
  • Slevin Kelevra from Lucky Number Slevin is apparently this during the beginning of the film, before the Kansas City Shuffle and Slevin's true intentions are revealed.
  • All but the first of the Mad Max films have Max being bounced around through the plot by the characters. Only Mad Max has Max as the undisputed and active protagonist of the film, which tells precisely his tragic origin story and how he became what he is in the sequels.
  • Monty Python's Life of Brian: Brian's only moment of true autonomy in the movie is to join the PFJ, but even that was an act of rebellion against his mother. He spends the rest of the film reacting to, and trying to run away from, the decisions of other people. His biggest part in the story is to be declared Messiah and become the focus of hope for the Jewish people, but by that point it's clear they're so desperate for a savior that any person would have sufficed and they completely ignore Brian's own attempts to stop or guide them.
  • No Country for Old Men: Sheriff Tom Bell spends the entire movie on the sidelines, being the one who observes the events of the movie play out, unable to do anything about it. The events prove too much for him to handle, causing him to retire.
  • Once The Pagemaster becomes animated, it's a bunch of encounters between Richard, his book companions, and various literary characters on the way to the exit. Richard and the books at times change the things happening, but at most it's just them meeting people — not that different from Alice, Dorothy and Wendy, listed below.
  • Szpilman from The Pianist, who manages to survive the Holocaust only through the goodness of strangers and sheer dumb luck. Of course, this is totally justified considering it's based on a true story, and the real Szpilman's real experiences.
  • Jack Sparrow falls into this in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Whereas in the previous three movies he had been largely pursuing Will and Elizabeth's agendas, and he still had motivations of his own in the first two, he's supposedly the central figure of these two movies. Yet he's still being dragged along and following someone else's agenda in both cases, and his contribution is largely limited to making jokes or being the butt of them.
  • It has been noted that in Raiders of the Lost Ark the hero Indiana Jones spends the entire film going head-to-head against the Nazis to find and recover the Ark of the Covenant. The film features the possession of the Ark changing hands repeatedly, to the point Indy was about to destroy it just so they don't have it, but relents because it is not in his nature. The actual climax of the film he is a passive figure as the Ark is opened and all the bad guys are immolated by the wrath of God. Viewing the events of the movie knowing that was going to happen, all of the hero's efforts seem to merely complicate a situation that was going to dispose of the bad guys eventually anyway. He does, however, save Marion, as the Nazis likely would have killed her to obtain the headpiece, and again at the end by making sure she didn't gaze upon the spirits as well.
  • Inspector Clouseau of The Return of the Pink Panther spends the entire movie causing massive amounts of accidental property damage while making a fool of himself as a result of his own clumsiness while following Lady Lytton in the hopes that she will lead him to her husband, who he thinks is a thief. This only works because Sir Lytton investigates the theft of the Pink Panther himself and confronts the real thief, his wife. If Clouseau had been cut from the movie entirely, the only part of the plot that would change is how the Lyttons escape a third party after the diamond, who is accidentally killed by Clouseau's boss, who had been driven insane from having to work with Clouseau and his bumblings for so long, tried to shoot him, and missed. Fortunately for the movie, even if the Inspector's actions are irrelevant from a plot perspective, they are entertaining to watch.
  • Brad and Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Though Janet does get up to do something halfway through the plot — that 'something' being Rocky.
  • Kate Macer in Sicario. She's told practically nothing about her mission and Matt and Alejandro do pretty much everything of actual importance to the plot. This turns out to be because the CIA is not allowed to operate on American soil except when working with a domestic agency, so literally her only purpose on the team is to be present and allow them to use the loophole.
  • Videodrome: Max has very little agency in his actions, even before becoming a Videodrome-programmed assassin with no free will.
  • The protagonist from the 1966 B-movie The Wild World of Batwoman is a perfect example of this. The protagonist is like Charlie from Charlie's Angels. She does show up from time to time, but she has her batgirls do all the work. An Agony Booth recap can be read here.

  • The 1554 Spanish picaresque novel, kicked off by Lazarillo de Tormes, is the Trope Maker: the protagonist is almost always a circumstance- and happenstance-dependent drifter through life, with very little proactive situations.
  • 11/22/63 has this to an extent due to the Time Travel aspect of the story. Jake Epping, a man from 2011 living incognito in the late 50s and early 60s on a mission to prevent the Kennedy assassination, has to study Lee Harvey Oswald's actions to make sure that he is in fact acting alone, but he must also be extremely careful not to alert Oswald to his presence. In other words, Oswald's actions drive the plot of the book for the most part, and Jake just has to follow him around and actively avoid doing anything important until he's positive that killing Oswald will in fact save Kennedy.
  • In Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Ali Baba is the protagonist at first, but he stops being such after he recovers Kasim's body from the lair of the Forty Thieves; at that point, the role is taken over by Morgiana, with Ali Baba now a supporting character.
  • In Anno Dracula, Charles Beauregard is assigned by the Diogenes Club to investigate the Jack the Ripper killings; however, by his own admission, he makes little progress in his investigation and his presence does nothing to deter the killer from his crimes. It turns out the Club are just setting him up to be the hero of the case so that he will be invited to meet the Royal family, for the sake of his real mission: mercy-killing the Queen to dissolve Dracula's claim to the throne.
  • The Kid from Blood Meridian, after running away from home at the beginning, drifts from place to place, seemingly only getting involved with Captain White's filibusters and Glanton's gang to get out of jail. There's chunks of the book where he's not even mentioned. This inactivity leads to one of the biggest questions the narrative raises, which is how much involvement the Kid may or may not have had in the slaughter of Native Americans the gang attacked throughout the novel.
  • Charlie Bucket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a particularly noteworthy example. He only ends up in Willy Wonka's factory to begin with out of sheer dumb luck. Once he's inside, the other characters promptly take over the plot, with Charlie being merely a passive observer to Wonka's zany antics and the other kids' downfall by their own hubris. The ending is particularly egregious, with Charlie being handed Wonka's factory by virtue of merely being the last kid left. The films partially attempt to rectify this by requiring Charlie to actually do something in order to get the keys to the factory, be it passing Wonka's Secret Test of Character or reuniting Wonka with his estranged father, but it doesn't change the fact that he still spends most of the story not doing a whole lot of anything in particular.
  • Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series: In "The Mule", Bayta eventually realizes that the way she, Toran, and Magnifico, three mostly ordinary people, keep going from one hotspot of Galactic conflict to the next, always there to witness the most dramatic moments of the war, but always escaping and finding themselves at the site of the next major Galactic event … that just doesn't happen in real life. Not unless one of them is actually the source of the conflicts ...
  • The entirety of The Crying of Lot 49 is like this, although that is because it is about a person just exploring a secret organisation, being told to go to another part of the organisation, and then going there — she only begins to take initiative right at the end, with the eponymous auction of the title.
  • Discworld:
    • Lampshaded in Guards! Guards!. Although Sam Vimes and company play little part in the successful resolution of the novel as the dragon is defeated by Errol the Swamp Dragon, the Patrician specifically states that people need to see there are heroes and so rewards Sam Vimes and the Night Watch accordingly. It is also implied that the Night Watch are heroic, merely because they actually did something to stand up to the dragon, even if unsuccessfully. Vimes did also stop Wonse from killing the best Patrician the city had ever had and looked after the dragon that eventually saved the day.
    • Vimes ends up thinking this about himself in Night Watch. As the revolution enters into full swing, all he wants to do is keep some well-meaning but foolish comrades from dying unpleasantly; he's staunchly uninterested in any of the so-called changes the rebels think they want. (He knows better.) He is however bitterly aware that everyone else in the narrative thinks he's the hero, and realizes that he assumed Keel — whose role in events he is now occupying — was a rebel, and now he wonders if Keel just wanted the same thing he did.
    • And then there's Rincewind. Barring situations where someone he reluctantly cares about is involved, such as Interesting Times, much of his life consists of being thrown into danger in distant lands, trying to run away, running into more danger, and saving the day either by accident or because running away no longer worked. For example, he spends more or less the entirety of The Last Continent fleeing, complaining, getting drunk, getting arrested, finding inexplicable sandwiches in the desert, arguing with a sarcastic kangaroo and running into chunks of satirical Australiana; he mostly ends up saving the day because people who went looking for him happened to find the magic day-saving thing, which he was idly fiddling with.
  • The Doc Savage novels pulled in involved bystanders to their plots to act as first person narrator protagonists assisted by the titular Man of Bronze.
  • The Doctor Who Past Doctor Adventures novel Independence Day is noted for having the Doctor spend the whole novel wandering about with a bunch of minor characters, then just as it seems he's about to do something he swallows a toxic worm and spends the climax comatose in a mass grave while a rebellion started by someone else defeats the Evil Overlord.
  • In Excession, most of the plot is driven by starship AIs and other superpowerful Minds while the protagonist, diplomat Byr Genar-Hofoen is sent by his mysterious bosses on a journey to the GSV Sleeper Service to find the one person who may have knowledge of the Excession, but it becomes apparent that she isn't even there, and his whole trip occurred because the Eccentric ship wanted him to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend, which has no impact on the story. And then the Excession leaves with no real explanation.
  • Most fans of Good Omens would describe Aziraphale and Crowley as the protagonists, but the pair only even get focus in the first third of the novel; they're barely in the middle section and accomplish nothing during the climax. The main plot is all about Adam accidentally starting and then preventing the Apocalypse, which Aziraphale and Crowley aren't even around to observe. The only plot-relevant thing either does is at the very beginning, where Crowley is the one to deliver Adam to his adoptive parents. The same could be said for the many side characters, most of whom have interesting personalities but basically just pad out the story.
  • Many, many Goosebumps protagonists. Most of them just stumble into otherworldly places and characters and spend more time trying to survive than actually being heroes or fighting monsters. Often enough the conflict is between different entities and is resolved regardless of the kids. One instance being the Mad Scientist who steals hands about to kill the hero...before the ghosts of his victims show up to drag him away while the boy just watches in confusion.
  • Tyrone Slothrop of Gravity's Rainbow, who never solves the mystery he's after, spends his time on various sidequests instead, avoids death only by accident and eventually simply goes mad, gives up and disappears from the story.
  • Nick Carraway does absolutely nothing in The Great Gatsby. He is, however, an outside view of rich people screwing up the lives of themselves and everyone around them. He does organise that meeting between Daisy and Gatsby, but that's about it.
  • In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Arthur Dent started out as this. It's made explicitly clear that he's the main character early on, yet it takes awhile for him to take an active role and not just react to events around him.
  • This sums up Zoey Redbird from The House of Night. If something isn't directly affecting her right then and there, she'll forget about it. In some cases, she forgets about it right after it happens.
  • Nora from Hush, Hush. She spends most of the book going about her daily life, reacting when something or someone tries to kill her, then promptly forgets about it in favor of going back to her daily routines.
  • Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (Meggie spends a lot of her time just reacting to things the adults do. On the rare occasions she tries to affect things her plans are thwarted, stalled, or rendered useless.)
  • In The Island of Doctor Moreau, Richard Prendick does nothing but get thrown overboard, land on an island and watch more interesting people do experiments.
  • Kino from Kino's Journey tries to be this type of character; being a Traveller, one is not supposed to pass judgment or meddle in the affairs of the places they visit and is only there to observe objectively. However, various circumstances typically get Kino wrapped up in the affairs of the places she comes to and forces her to act, whether she wants to or not.
  • The Magic: The Gathering novel Prophecy is largely told through the perspective of an enslaved soldier who has next to no impact on the plot of the book.
  • Fanny from the Jane Austen novel Mansfield Park, due to the emotional abuse she's suffered for eight years living with her rich aunts and uncle, basically feels she has no right to her own opinion or happiness and thus lets her aunts and cousins push her around for most of the novel. Naturally, this makes the two times she stands up for herself all the more impressive and the other characters all the more shocked.
  • Both the book The Manuscript Found In Saragossa and the movie adaptation: Alphonse van Worden has various bewildering or scary things happen around him and to him, and is told lots of stories. Most of it turns out to be a show staged for van Worden in an attempt to convince or convert him.
  • The main character/narrator in Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil is essentially there just as an observer (similar to Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby) who goes to the town to write an article for a house and garden magazine, and then decides to stick around when a murder happens and the main suspect is on trial. He doesn't influence the trial in any way, or have anything to do with the murder — he could just as easily have been left out, and the story written in third person, and while the feel of the story would be different, the plot wouldn't change at all.
  • Terisa Morgan of Stephen R. Donaldson's Mordant's Need novels (The Mirror of Her Dreams, A Man Rides Through) acts this way through most of both books. (This is deliberate. She has a cripplingly low level of self-confidence thanks to an oppressive father and passive mother; the narration makes an analogy to a princess imprisoned by a curse.)
  • Cosette in Les Misérables. She mostly exists as a catalyst to inspire other characters to do other things. Her existence is what drives her mother into prostitution to pay her evil foster parents to keep her — and her mother's death spurs Valjean into finding her and rescuing her. When she's all grown up, she then attracts Marius's attention. She doesn't actually do anything herself and she's mostly along for the ride when Valjean flees from the police. And she's one of the few characters to survive the book, presumably because she did so very little. Most commentators agree that she serves more as a symbol of hope, love and goodness than as an actual character.
  • In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie siblings come to Narnia during an Endless Winter—which is resolved by Aslan, off-page, before we meet him. Edmund betrays his siblings to the White Witch, but that doesn't actually help her catch them. The girls witness Aslan's death while the boys fight the final battle...which they lose, until a resurrected Aslan shows up to save the day. Basically, the Pevenies are just there to become the new rulers of Narnia after Aslan has already solved all of its problems.
  • Case in Neuromancer by William Gibson, it's difficult to name one decision made in the book that's solely his as the real chess game is played by two A.I.s, mostly offscreen. The adventure video game based on the novel inverts this and concentrates on hacking and finding equipment and software, very much abandoning the tone of the book.
  • Richard from Neverwhere. It takes him over half the book before he really does anything terribly useful, and it wasn't exactly proactive on his part, either. He finally does start to take more initiative down the road, but for most of the story he is merely a vessel for viewing London Below and the events unfolding around his companions.
  • Oliver Twist: Oliver is a helpless orphan boy who is pushed from one set of circumstances to another without any real power. In fact, his inaction is his greatest triumph, as he never gets corrupted by his ill fortunes.
  • Otto in Otto of the Silver Hand by Howard Pyle first is sent from the monastery to Castle Drachenhausen against his wishes, then is kidnapped by Baron Henry, then is rescued with no help from himself. The most active thing he does is probably right at the end, when he tells Emperor Frederick that he doesn't want revenge against the Roderburgs.
  • Discussed in The Pinballs, where Carlie's speech about the three protagonists being pinballs evokes a very dark interpretation of this trope. Justified since she's an abused child, also she ultimately renounces her claim.
  • Since he serves as the First-Person Peripheral Narrator, in A Prayer for Owen Meany, Johnny Wheelwright is this. Owen is the driving force of the plot. Johnny is there for the ride.
  • In Pariah, Beta spends most of the novel either fleeing from or captured by various groups that want to exploit her unique abilities. She tries to be proactive and assert her own agency, but seldom gets the chance, and her escapes are due as much to the intervention of complete strangersnote  as to anything she does.
  • In the Matthew Reilly books, Shane Schofield spends the first few chapters of every book he's in in this state, usually because he's reacting to whatever group is trying to kill him this time and finding out what they want. Then he starts hitting back.
  • The Gamebook The Secret of Phantom Island parodies this to an extent. The gimmick is the reader's been sucked inside a lost videogame, and the NPCs the player meets are just going through their prescripted motions. This means that no matter what the reader's character says to them, they only react to what the player's avatar is actually scripted to say. Likewise there are plot events they can't get out of doing, like stealing a treasure map from that avatar's girlfriend, because that's what the avatar character would do. No matter how much the player would rather not act like a bad boyfriend.
  • The main character of The Sharing Knife. In terms of plot, almost everything that happens is because of her primary love interest, with her dragged along for the ride. When fighting starts, said love interest is impressive even for a member of the resident Superior Species, whereas she's physically unsuited to combat and tries to stay out of the way. However, as the series progresses she learns more self-confidence. To the point that when her husband is threatened, she defies an entire camp of sorcerers to ride out and rescue him.
  • Leaphorn & Chee: Bernadette Manuelito is this in the murder mystery The Sinister Pig by Tony Hillerman. She asks interesting questions as a Border Patrol officer and talks to a variety of people, but the murder mystery is solved by other officers Chee and Leaphorn; the whole plot is resolved when Bernadette walks straight into a trap, and a different character (who's been developed in other parts of the book) solves everything.
  • In Ship Core, protagonist Alex spends the vast majority of the early chapters just being dragged to and reacting to one ship-wide crisis after another, rarely doing anything to try and improve her agency. Justified by the fact that she woke up on a failing spaceship in the middle of nowhere without even the means to call for help and the only source of information she has is an onboard AI that is ... less than cooperative.
  • Out of all the point of view characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, Sansa Stark stands out as being the most reactive and passive, spending much of her early page time being pushed around by other characters. The main reason she has a POV seems to be showing the politics of King's Landing from the perspective of an outsider, as she, being a political hostage, has a front-row seat view of them all (from the moment she arrives at King's Landing early in A Game of Thrones, she stays there until near the end of A Storm of Swords). This is justified — she's a naive preteen girl, and unlike the others, she's in no position to be proactive. Part of her storyline is shedding this trope and gaining her own agency, which ironically starts happening once she's under the guardianship of the biggest manipulator in the series. One notable thing she does accomplish is showing kindness to Sandor, despite his antagonistic nature. This has rippling effects down the line, including possibly affecting his decision to escort her sister, Arya.
  • The protagonist and narrator of the Iain M. Banks novel A Song Of Stone is an aristocrat called Abel living during in a civil war. He starts the novel trying to escape from the country with his wife/sister Morgan but gets caught up with a group of soldiers and has very little control over the plot from that point onwards.
  • The Stand may or may not have this trope, depending on what you see the main plot of the book as being. In terms of rebuilding society in the wake of an apocalyptic event, the Main Characters actually do quite a bit. In terms of fighting Randall Flagg, the Big Bad of the story, though, they accomplish virtually nothing; at best their role is to serve as witnesses to his defeat by the Hand of God (with a little help from the Trashcan Man).
  • Carnelian is like this for incredibly long stretches of The Stone Dance of the Chameleon. In the first book, the only instance of him taking matters into his own hands ends in disaster. Only at the very end of the trilogy does he finally step up.
  • Beverly King in L.M. Montgomery's The Story Girl is there purely to observe the more interesting characters around him. Then again, they are very interesting characters.
  • Stuck In Neutral by Terry Trueman has a justified example that's probably impossible to top. The main character can't control his muscle movements enough to communicate in any fashion, and it's commonly assumed by those around him that he doesn't even have a mind. The "plot", such as it is, is his commenting on how his life is and how people react to him, with him unable to change anything even to save his own life.
  • In this review of Brazilian novel Twelve Fingers, it's even stated that the Forrest Gump-like protagonist "bounces around like a ball in a pinball machine, occasionally disappearing from view entirely for longer periods of time."
  • Both Bella in The Twilight Saga and Wanderer in The Host (2008) tend to fall into this during periods of action (which admittedly are in the minority in the slow, conversation-heavy books). They're both Extreme Doormats, so it makes sense from an in-story standpoint, but it's one of the reasons Stephenie Meyer's works are so polarizing. Despite being the main protagonist and narrator, Bella does very little to move the plot forwards of her own accord, mostly just reacting to events around her whilst the others characters (mostly Edward or Jacob) resolve conflict for her. This may be partly justified in that she's human and so stands little chance against supernatural enemies; case in point, she only actively starts contributing to the plot of her own volition towards the end of Breaking Dawn, after she's turned into a vampire.

    Live-Action TV 
  • This trope is discussed in an episode of The Big Bang Theory, in which Amy points this out in regards to Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of Sheldon's favorite movies. She argues that Indiana Jones is completely irrelevant to the plot: with or without him, the Nazis would have eventually found the Ark, opened it, and been destroyed. Sheldon can't find any flaw in this logic, which causes a temporary Heroic BSoD; he spends the rest of the episode watching Little House on the Prairie, Amy's favorite TV show, in an attempt to find flaws in it (mostly historical inaccuracies) and get revenge on her. The guys later watch the movie again to see if there is any way around it, and the best they could determine is at least Indy was present to actually recover the Ark (but again point out that it was taken from him to a Secret Government Warehouse, so he couldn't even get it to a museum like he hoped).
  • On the Criminal Minds episode "North Mammon", the team is called in on a case. After chasing various red herrings, the perp, independent from the actions of the team, lets go of some of the victims. Since the victims at this point can simply identify the man who captured them, any policeman could have made the arrest.
  • There was a long period when virtually everyone on Lost was like this. They'd have little fits of trying to do something, only to be completely stymied, and then they'd go "Oh... no..." and sink back into frustrating helplessness. Early on, the show was mostly about introducing the various... erm... pinballs and the Island and there were many pinballs in play. Later on, the show began to conform to this trope less and less.
  • This happens quite frequently to Arthur on Merlin, particularly in the later seasons. In one notable example in the episode "The Eye of the Phoenix", Arthur has a vision that instructs him to seek out the Trident in the lands of the Fisher King. He wanders all the way to the Perilous Lands where he's promptly knocked unconscious by a spirit-destroying bracelet given to him by Morgana. Merlin follows in his wake, meets the Fisher King, retrieves the true McGuffin (the trident is useless) and is told that the entire journey was for his benefit. Arthur was just the catalyst for getting him there, and one can't help but wonder why the vision wasn't just sent to Merlin in the first place.
  • Oz: Justified with Augustus Hill. He actively tries to stay away from the crazy shit going on around him and keep a low profile, meaning he often has to be dragged into the plot kicking and screaming.
  • In the Torchwood episode "Small Worlds", the antagonists have supernatural powers which Torchwood have no ability to counter. As a result, throughout the episode Torchwood can do little more than rush to the site of the latest manifestation and helplessly watch events unfold.

  • Fans of the NFL, when discussing which quarterback is better than another, tend to fall into two distinct categories. One school believes that a quarterback's statistical achievement determines his greatness. The second cares less about the stats and more about his leadership—the best quarterbacks are the ones who win games and bring home championships, even if their stats don't always impress. When the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001, it was due almost entirely to a defense of almost legendary repute. Their quarterback that year was Trent Dilfer, who bounced around from team to team his entire career and was never any better than strictly average throughout. He won the Super Bowl that year and was unceremoniously dumped by the team soon after. Because of this, Dilfer embodies this trope among NFL fans, and if the topic is ever brought up for any reason, Dilfer's name inevitably follows as an example. Saturday Night Live even drew attention to this, apologizing to TV viewers on the NFL's behalf for the MVP award not going to linebacker Ray Lewis and flat-out stating: "Trent Dilfer sucks."
    • A variant of this "rings" Explanation for non NFL fans vs. "stats" is also at the heart of the debates whether Peyton Manning or Tom Brady was/is the better Quarterback. Manning has the better stats in almost any regard, but he has won "only" two Super Bowls (and lost another two) whereas Brady has won seven and taken his team to another three (two of them lost to Peyton's little brother Eli Manning and the Giants). While Peyton's teams did have traits of Every Year They Fizzle Out, it is hardly the fault of the quarterback when he leaves the field with a lead and the defense fails to make a stop and it's also rather hard to blame dropped passes on the throw, rather than the catch.
  • Gene Chizik coached Auburn to the 2010 college football national championship...officially. But the most important factors that led to the championship (a powerful offensive scheme, great recruiting, and signing Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton) happened because of his offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn. Two years later Malzahn left to become the head coach at Arkansas State, and Auburn promptly stumbled to a 3-9 record. The school bought out Chizik's contract and replaced him with...Gus Malzahn.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In "Crucible of God" for Vampire: The Masquerade, the module is up front about this: "The Player Characters become destiny's bitches." The active players are Antediluvians of such power that the PCs cannot affect them, and the player characters alternate between being minions of a more powerful vampire or simply surviving while the Ancients kill each other and ruin the world. The end game involves a blatant Deus ex Machina — the players have to ask God to personally destroy Tzimisce, and convince Him that their unlives had any value. If they don't make a leap of faith on Saulot's word, then the game explicitly states that nothing they do matters.

  • Oliver!: Oliver's an orphan, gets passed from orphanage, to a funeral home, then gets kicked out and gets picked up by the thieves guild, then is taken in by a rich old man. It's a musical, and the characters mostly sing around him as well.

    Video Games 
  • The Ace Attorney series by its nature falls into this, as the games all star criminal defense lawyers and prosecuting attorneys and follows them through their work on individual murder cases. In other words, they have nothing of relevance in the plot until someone drops dead and they get pulled in to defend them/prosecute them and they must rely on other people a good amount of the time to get all the information they need to win their case. That said, while the protagonists often have a reactive nature to the cases themselves, they still have their own individual character plots that play out during the game to ensure they remain a central part of the story. They're not so much irrelevant to the story (no, not even Apollo, who gets played like a puppet in his self-titled entry) as they are required to wait for something to happen so the player will have something to do. Though, really, this trope more or less comes with the territory of being an attorney, as proactive work usually isn’t in the job description. This does sometimes get Subverted in instances where the case involves them and their friends (such as 2-2, 3-5 or 5-5), resulting in the protagonists getting personally involved from the start, often even before the crime occurs.
  • Assassin's Creed: Desmond spends most of his time experiencing the memories of his ancestors, who avert this trope and become more active and influential in the narrative. By the time he gets the chance to be agent of volition, he dies. MojoPlays even calls him out on this.
  • Henry Stein from Bendy and the Ink Machine doesn't do much other than descend ever deeper into the studio in his quest for answers. Even when he manages to kill Bendy it turns out to ultimately be meaningless due to him being trapped in a time loop, and depending on how you intercept the ending, it's not exactly clear how much, if any control he had over his actions throughout the game. The only meaningful thing he does accomplish is writing secret messages for the other versions of himself in the loop. Justified in Bendy and the Dark Revival when it's revealed that the games setting is a cartoon world created by Joey Drew as an Ironic Hell for a cartoon clone of his former best friend and employee, thus confirming the story was never truly Henry's, but actually Joey's.
  • Jack from BioShock is an excellent example — not only does he rarely speak, he also plays a nearly negligible role in the story for most of the game. It turns out to be a deconstruction, however. Jack is literally mind-controlled. And he ends up killing not only Andrew Ryan, but Fontaine as well. And saves the little sisters, or damns them! Pretty good, and the last one is up to the players which.
  • Conker from Conker's Bad Fur Day is merely trying to find his way home. He has no idea whatsoever that the resident Panther King is currently hunting for him to use as a replacement table leg, a plot that ultimately matters nothing in the grand scheme of things considering the whole game is about him getting involved into various random escapades he has no real stakes over (besides a few cash rewards).
  • Thoroughly Played With by Deltarune as a central theme, in contrast to its more branching precursor. As of the two currently-released chapters, the central conceit is that no matter what you have protagonist Kris do, nothing will change except for a few lines of dialogue. Kris is even told at a few points that they have no choice but to keep going or do what someone else says.
    • At the conclusion of Chapter 1, in the middle of the night, Kris rips out their SOUL, the means of the player's control, pulls a knife and flashes an evil smile, implying that they are up to something sinister and important. However, the beginning of Chapter 2 reveals that all they did was eat a pie. Then, the end of Chapter 2 raises the question of whether or not Kris has been creating the Fountains while they are out of the player's control.
    • Separately from the above, Chapter 2 has the beginnings of a Subversion with the introduction of the Snowgrave Route, in which the player changes the course of the story for the worse by having Kris influence other characters in obscure ways, rather than directly influence events.
  • Dragon Age II: Hawke is the main character, but for most of the story is just reacting to the events that occur around him/her, while party members Varric, Isabella, and Anders are the main driving forces in the plot. This is part of the game's point - much of it is about exploring the Man vs. Fate conflict, and this trope is used to make Hawke out as more of a Cosmic Plaything than a hero.
  • In Eternal Eden, Noah is a mostly passive character who was forced into the conflict by his best friend's actions. Ultimately subverted since the best friend in question is really a manifestation of himself, created by his subconscious to cover up his own misdeeds.
  • Allegretto from Eternal Sonata is a Jerk with a Heart of Gold with little connection to the main plot, yet acts as the player's avatar for most of the game.
  • Final Fantasy:
    • Part of the reason in Final Fantasy VI why Terra isn't the protagonist (and the designers consider it to be an ensemble game) despite the story largely being about her is that she hardly does anything on her own initiative for most of the game and just goes along with what others want. In the latter half of the game, her actions and accomplishments are all for things outside the main plot, and are in fact the reason why she's hesitant to rejoin the main plot of the game.
    • Tidus in Final Fantasy X starts off the game as a Fish out of Water and while he can fight (and play blitzball better than anyone else), his ignorance of some of the most fundamental tenets of life on Spira grind rather heavily on his companions (such as his carefree talk of what they'll do after Sin is defeated, as he doesn't learn until a long while that Yuna is going to willingly sacrifice herself, as all Summoners do to keep Sin away). However, it turns into a subversion - said ignorance of Spiran life (and thus the willingness to question the calcified doctrines underpinning it) proves to be the key to undoing Sin once and for all.
    • For roughly three quarters of Final Fantasy XIII, all the party does is try to survive in a world where virtually everybody wants to kill them for being L'Cie, something that was done to them without their consent for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Most of the remaining quarter is their coming to terms with the fact that as L'Cie, they are little more than pawns in a centuries-spanning scheme that they have virtually no hope of stopping — even dying to spite The Chessmaster will just delay his plans until he can find a new batch of pawns to run through the same situation. The first thing they do that diverges from the Big Bad's plot takes place in the penultimate cutscene.
    • The Warrior of Light in Final Fantasy XIV is usually used as The Heavy for the Scions of the Seventh Dawn and their allies. Besides being a Heroic Mime for most of the story, the Warrior's main contributions are being pointed at whichever world-ending threat has shown up and kicking some butt. What dialogue choices the player has to choose from usually don't affect the story in any meaningful way, and what few moments of character focus the Warrior does get are passed over very quickly. This actually gets and examined now and then when other characters attempt to point out to the Warrior of Light they they're either being exploited or are too spineless to have a stance of their own; most of them don't seem to realize the Warrior of Light might actually be content with their lot as the Scions' muscle.
    • Zack Fair of Crisis Core and its 2022 HD remaster, despite being the sole playable character and ostensibly the star of this prequel, hardly stirs the story himself. Throughout most of it, he just bounces around doing whatever work Shinra points him to, ignorant of what's actually going on until the last stretch. The game's primary plot movers are in fact Angeal, Sephiroth, and especially Genesis, whose growing disillusionment of Shinra and subsequent rebellion provides the core conflict and character exploration, with Zack mainly reacting to their actions. He only starts being more proactive near the end, where he's forced to start thinking for himself to save his own life and that of his friend, Cloud Strife's, from Shinra's clutches. His final actions prove instrumental in neutralizing the lingering threat of Genesis and Hollander with Lazard's help, and his Heroic Sacrifice sets the stage for Cloud's own path to becoming the true hero of Final Fantasy VII proper.
    • The characters in Final Fantasy XV get bounced around very efficiently by the villains, and (due to their social position) they can only really continue to collect all of the Plot Coupons required to become the King, on a pilgrimage already laid out for them. Even the eventual victory is part of a "The Chosen One" prophecy and involves the payoffs of plans set in motion by side characters.
  • In Gems of War, the plot is linear, and the protagonist only speaks in the form of short sentences which fit on what is effectively a "continue" button. As such, the player character comes across as very laid back and obliging to whichever character is serving as Quest Giver. ("Can I join you?" "Okay." "Will you help me?" "Sure, why not." "We must attack immediately!" "All right.") There are occasions where the player character attempts to point out the silliness of certain decisions, but he/she almost always gets carried along anyway.
  • Halo:
    • The mainline games usually avoid this, as the Master Chief (and the Arbiter) almost always end up saving the galaxy (or at least a planet) in some way or another. However, Halo 5: Guardians falls pretty hard into this; if Blue Team and Fireteam Osiris had stayed home, the titular Guardians would still have been dispersed through the galaxy, hundreds of AIs would have still defected to Cortana, and the Infinity would still be on the run. That said, Osiris are able to make a difference in the war between the Covenant and the Swords of the Sanghelios by killing Jul 'Mdama and saving the Arbiter.
    • The Rookie of Halo 3: ODST spends most of his sections just searching for clues on what happened to the rest of his squad. It's only towards the very end that he steps into the main plot and helps the squad accomplish their mission.
    • Since the titular world of Halo: Reach is Doomed by Canon, Noble Six borders on this for awhile, but towards the end s/he becomes the reason why the Pillar of Autumn (and thus Master Chief and Cortana) are able to make it to the first Halo.
  • The main character of Hotline Miami goes through the whole game simply following orders from his answering machine (until his Roaring Rampage of Revenge in Part 4), and consequently both he and the player never learn anything about what's going on behind the scenes. Richard even tells him in Part 4 that nothing he does from that point on will mean anything. The Biker, on the other hand, is much more proactive, with his storyline revolving around figuring out who's pulling the strings.
  • Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. The player has a few different paths to choose from but the Nazis are almost always one step ahead and they reach Atlantis and its god-making machine regardless of Indy's actions. The machine doesn't actually work so the antagonists would have presumably killed themselves with it or given up even if Indy had never got involved. In fact, the final puzzle is to convince the Big Bad to (fatally) use the machine on himself instead of the player. All Indy really manages to do is rescue Sophia. Unless he doesn't.
  • Hisao, the viewpoint character of Katawa Shoujo, starts out like this thanks to being jaded by losing all his old friends and thoroughly unenthused with the idea of attending Yamaku Academy. Shizune reveals in her route she recognized this and make it a goal to set him straight, and succeeds no matter who he ends up chasing, since at least he's showing an active interest in something.
  • Raziel, one of two protagonists of the Legacy of Kain series, falls under this trope most of his screen time. He possesses an incredible power few characters in-story can match, but instead of completing his original quest, he tends to be unwillingly dragged in a Gambit Pileup by multiple Chessmasters at once, each of whom tries to use Raziel for their own agenda (while he's supposed to be the only person in Nosgoth to have genuine free will — as a walking paradox, he stands outside of fate's control — there are so many schemes going on that no matter what he does, he ends up inadvertently advancing somebody's plot), so he often ends up being a Sword of Plot Advancement of sorts, rather than actual character. This quote of his sums it perfectly:
    Raziel: What game was this, where every player on the board claimed the same pawn?
    • Kain himself also suffered from this in Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, his initial quest was set into motion by his assassination and then being resurrected by Mortanius as a vampire, leading him to take revenge on the Circle of Nine for killing him, all the while he's dragged into the fight against the Nemesis by the Oracle of Nosgoth. This reaches a greater level as the Oracle, the Time Guardian Moebius, used his assassination of King William by time travel before he became the Nemesis to instigate a new genocide against the vampires; Mortanius was revealed to be the one who assassinated him to set him against the other guardians and his Spirit Advisor Ariel only tells him at the end that he's the last guardian that needs to die to restore the Pillars and save Nosgoth. In that window of choice, Kain refuses to sacrifice himself, choosing to rule as its emperor at the cost of Nosgoth's ruin. Part of his Character Development in the series is finding a way to escape the various machinations across the years, which takes him centuries to do, and even then he's not able to do it at full.
      Kain: When I first strolled into this chamber centuries ago, I did not fanthom the true power of knowledge.
  • The second Mechwarrior game has story sections that are shown between missions. These sections do not change based on which side of the war you play on, giving the impression that the player's actions have no impact on the war whatsoever. As events are playing out by the canon of the tabletop game, any impact the player has is meaningless in the end, causing it to edge into Doomed by Canon territory.
  • X got shafted to this role during Mega Man X4 and Mega Man X5, as Zero got all the big plot points and backstory development. This was deliberate on Keiji Inafune's part, as he wanted to set up the Mega Man Zero series and make up for not getting to use Zero's design for X like he originally wanted. Fortunately, X took back the role of lead for Mega Man X6 and, a brief Demoted to Extra stint in Mega Man X7 aside, stayed there.
  • Samus becomes this in Metroid: Other M. Apart from saving Madeline Bergman from the Metroid Queen and retrieving Adam's Helmet, she doesn't really accomplish a great deal and most major issues or plot points are given to other characters.
  • The playable duo from Resident Evil 0, Rebecca and Billy don't do a whole lot over the course of the game. The only character interaction that isn't between them or other S.T.A.R.S. members is running into the final boss of the game. Any plot developments happen in cutscenes, involve Wesker and Birkin, and are completely separate from what the protagonists are doing. Though really, this is true of all Resident Evil games until the fourth came along. Typically, the plot involves running around just trying to stay alive amidst odd enemies and even odder puzzles while the plot works independently of you. All those storylines would have had the exact same outcomes had Chris, Jill, Claire, Leon, Carlos, and the rest died within the first 30 seconds.
    • You can honestly say this about the majority of Survival Horror protagonists, not just the ones from Resident Evil, where the biggest concern for the player characters is usually just staying alive long enough to escape from whatever horrific situation they've gotten into. It's right there in the genre's name, as a matter of fact.
  • Played with in The Silver Case, using Akira. Being a former member of Republic that's actually managed to survive an attack by the serial killer Kamui Uehara, he's left in a state of mental shock, unable to say much. As such, he is recruited by the HCU, and his main job is to help them with their investigations. While the player as Akira does most of the grunt work by exploring various locations and gathering up clues, the majority of plot-important actions are actually carried out by the other members of the HCU. Also, it's eventually revealed that Akira never really had free will in the first place, as he was mentally conditioned by the FSO syndicate to become a future iteration of Kamui Uehara. In the end, Kusabi encourages him to choose his own destiny and defy his programming.
  • In Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), Sonic himself is this. Sonic is a very reactive character, whose mission is to save Princess Elise from Doctor Eggman, "for no special reason". However, Sonic's storyline doesn't deal with the bigger picture of Mephiles who fooled Silver to kill Sonic, with Silver just appearing randomly to fight him and then deciding that "circumstances have changed"; nor Sonic ever finds out about the Solaris project that Shadow discovers as he fights with Mephiles, even when Shadow and Rouge just randomly appear in the future Eggman sends him in. The storyline purpose is to build Sonic's friendship/romance with Elise for the final story arc, which plays a role in Elise reviving Sonic with a kiss. This in turn is reflected on Sonic's "amigos", Tails and Knuckles, who like Sonic just appear out of nowhere in Soleanna to help him, but have no arc or plot to themselves, which is baffling for Knuckles as his role as the guardian of the Master Emerald is never acknowledged.
  • Subverted in Spec Ops: The Line, where the main character constantly asserts that everything he's doing, no matter how horrible, is because Konrad keeps forcing his hand. Then it turns out Konrad was a hallucination the entire time, and he could've easily stopped at any point.
  • The protagonists in Studio Key's visual novels are justified in their general pin-ball status in the games, because that's the whole point of the genre. But as these games were turned into Anime series en masse by Kyoto animation, the fact that the boys simply bounce from girl to girl helping them resolve issues can be bothersome.
  • Luke from Tales of the Abyss is this trope for the first part of the game. He's just a sheltered noble who by circumstance ends up kidnapped and dragged halfway around the world and back by others. When he DOES try to take an active role and be a hero, it ends VERY badly. Throw in the resulting dose of Character Development and he becomes much more proactive for the rest of the game.
  • Averted in the Wing Commander series, as the overall progress of the war depends on your performance in certain key missions; later games in the series give you the opportunity to make decisions and influence the story with dialogue options.
  • In Zone of the Enders, Leo starts out as this as some random kid who finds the all important mech for a resistance movement. However, thanks to Viola, he eventually becomes emotionally involved with the story and becomes a more important character.

  • Rice Boy. The titular Rice Boy is kind and meek, so when he's told that he's fated to fulfill a prophecy and save the world, he has little problem stepping up. But he's ignorant about the larger world and has no idea how he's supposed to do the job, so he spends the majority of the story bouncing from one source of exposition to the next, following their instructions. Shockingly, it's a subversion: Rice Boy and every potential prophesied one before him are just diversions, and the real hero is TOE, who has been proactive with tough decisions through the entire story.

    Web Original 
  • Lampshaded (like everything else) in Freeman's Mind. Gordon mentions at various points that he's "just a rat in a maze...with no cheese", and that he's "caught in the middle of some cosmic politics."
  • The Pooh's Adventures series on YouTube. The title character doesn't do anything to change the plot of whatever movie he is in, just spouting off random comments. In fact, when it does come time to fight off the major enemy, it's usually someone else who defeats the villain.
  • Most of the cast of Red vs. Blue falls into this, especially in the first five seasons. Calling the Blood Gulch crew "reactive protagonists" would be stretching for a compliment, honestly. When left to their own devices, the most they'll instigate by themselves is childish bickering. It gets to the point that by Season 15, the Blood Gulch crew are actively attempting to retire and stop getting involved in adventures, Grif in particular, only for crazy things to keep forcing their involvement. The only real exceptions to this are Agents Washington and Carolina, the former being the one who gets them involved in The Recollection, and the latter in the present segments of The Freelancer Saga. The two of them are in turn the ones most willing to get involved, though they weren't against retiring with the others. By Zero, the two of them are the only ones still in active duty, with the others officially entering retirement sans Tucker, who is acting as a drill sergeant for unexplained reasons.
  • RWBY: As students, the role the heroes play in the plot builds up slowly. The first three volumes are mostly introducing the audience and characters to their world and the lower level villains before the main plot kicks off, and Volume 4 is mostly about the heroes getting back to the main plot after the traumatic events of Volume 3. Only from Volume 5 do they become fully engaged with the main plot, and it's from Volume 7 that the heroes begin taking the lead against the Big Bad instead of the adults.