A basic plot that most likely originated with the story of Moses. It involves a character living in the lap of luxury, when suddenly he's forced to run away from home, usually due to murdering someone on accident (though sometimes the character is just sick of the people where he lives). The character exiles himself, and goes on to live a carefree life without much responsibility. That is, however, until their past comes back to bite them in the butt, and they are forced to return to their old home and save the day, usually by saving his people from either their evil rulers or a new evil that has come in his absence.
This story is usually An Aesop on growing up, facing the past, and taking responsibility, and goes to show the character transforming from someone who once ran away from his past returning to confront it. The original decision to leave may come from the realization that they were Moses in the Bulrushes.
This is an element of the traditional "hero's journey" (in literary classes you learn that the first step in the stereotypical "heroic arc" is the "refusal of the call"). Perhaps an incorporation of the hero's journey's stages as subtropes with some of the common subversions (such as Jumped at the Call).
Usually results in Rightful King Returns if the character was royalty, or A Protagonist Shall Lead Them if they were not (and if they are The Protagonist). Related to Charlie Brown from Outta Town, if they comes under a different (albeit similar) identity and costume. Compare / contrast Achilles in His Tent, Refusal of the Call.
Note that "prodigal" means "wasteful"; the correct definition is used in the biblical parable, but the word has come to be associated with exile and return.
- Piccolo from Dragon Ball Z may count, as he (or rather, his father) had been apart from Namek for years and only comes back when it's targeted by Frieza.
- The Avengers: The Enchantress used a love spell on Hercules to send him against the Avengers. Hercules broke free from the spell, but Zeus banished him from Olympus for making the forbidden journey to Earth. The Avengers welcomed him as a guest, and then made him a full member. And when the year passed, Hercules returned to Olympus, to request permission to stay on Earth (so it would be by choice rather than exile). However, when he returned, Olympus was empty: the titan Typhon broke free from his own exile of millennia ago, and sent the Greek gods to a dark dimension. Unable to kill Hercules, he sent him as well. But, as a demigod, Hercules could be sent back by Zeus. He defeated Typhon in battle, and forced him to undo the spell, returning the gods to Olympus.
- This was essentially Nightwing's character arc which was a decade in the making. In the early 1980's, Bruce and Dick started to drift apart; Dick was spending less and less time in Gotham as he dedicated most of his time to college and the Teen Titans. After a mistake involving Clayface, Bruce outright fired Dick from the role. Dick assumed his own mantle end drifted to his own city to become a protector. Years later, Bruce's back is broken by Bane, and after his first choice of successor proves to be a disaster, Bruce finally repairs his relationship with Dick and Dick takes up the mantle of Batman.
- Interestingly, the story of this break up differs drastically - pre-Crisis, it was very amicable, even allowing new orphan Jason Todd to take up the mantle of Robin. post-Crisis, Robin had screwed up and nearly got killed trying to ambush the Joker.
- The story of Sonic the Hedgehog character Elias Acorn is this. After being rescued by King Acorn's Secret Service, Elias was forced to be a king-in-intern after an assault on Robotropolis hospitalizes King Acorn, leading to Geoffery St. John to act as his adviser. Through Geoffery, Elias made a number of decisions which broke up the Freedom Fighters and put more emphasis on the Secret Service, which St. John was part of. These, along with his own doubts and fears, lead him to bail from Knothole and start a life away from being a member of the royal family. However, when Sonic discovered him and learned his sister Sally was being forced to marry Antonie, who was secretly his Mirror Universe Evil Twin Patch, Elias returned to the kingdom and took up the reigns once more
- Kingdom Come presents a dark version of this: Superman returns from his self-imposed exile after things have gotten entirely out of hand in his absence. However, given that the entire story is based around the trope of Beware the Superman, it is quickly made clear that his return isn't a good thing.
- Deconstructed in Kyon: Big Damn Hero. "Shinobu" left her traditional family after her "well-behaved" twin sister accepted an Arranged Marriage to Tsuruya's father. During her independent life overseas, she became an activist and fought for women's rights but her lack of political tact earned her and her closest allies some dangerous enemies. Without thinking of the potential consequences, Shinobu fled to Japan but her parents refused to give her shelter. In an unusual twist of this trope it was Tsuruya's mother, The Dutiful Daughter, who offered her sanctuary with her new family. Eventually, Shinobu's enemies caught up with her and decided that killing her sister made for a better revenge. They were right.
- All the Roofs of Uncertainty: Jason finally returns to the manor after trying to stop killing for a month and discovering it so hard that it convinces him he really needs to stop altogether, as he's realized he's just become another hypocritical murderer. Alfred even says "The prodigal returns, Master Bruce," when Bruce walks in and sees him. He manages to save Damian's life later on due to reforging his connections with his family and therefore being in the loop when Damian is in a collapsing building.
- The Lion King follows this with Simba, invoking Rightful King Returns since he was royalty before fleeing.
- The Prince of Egypt, being an adaptation of the story of Moses, tells this story, mixing both the accidental murder as well as disgust with the Egyptians' treatment towards the Jews.
- After Kubo inadvertently destroys his home village, he eventually returns to retrieve his father's helmet and face off against the Moon King.
- In Star Wars, Obi Wan Kenobi exiles himself to watch over little Luke Skywalker from a distance, and then returns to the first line to be his mentor.
- As the related trope of Rightful King Returns would suggest, Aragorn is an example of this, having fled from his duty and being forced to take on his destined responsibility as king. (Only in the movie; in the book he's accepted his destiny and has been working towards it for decades.)
- Preacher's Kid is an explicit retelling of the tale, including Bishop King ordering a robe and a ring for Angie's anticipated return although it turns out to be for his marriage to Sister Watkins.
- Loki in Marvel Cinematic Universe, over the course of four films. For centuries, he was living in luxury as a Prince of Asgard. Then he learns that he was adopted from a race of enemies, tries to commit both Fratricide and genocide, and by letting himself fall into the abyss goes into self-imposed exile. He lives a destructive life, is imprisoned, escapes, becomes an impostor who pretends to be the rightful king while taking no responsibility, is exposed, goes into hiding and leasuring around again... Until he returns to help Thor save the Asgardians from their evil ruler, Hela. The first thing he hears when he is back is "welcome home," from Heimdall.
- Arthur Curry / Aquaman in DC Extended Universe avoided returning to Atlantis for quite some time, until the day Steppenwolf showed up. Then Mera actively pushed him to reclaim the throne.
- Older Than Feudalism: The Bible appears to have originated this trope.
- The Trope Namer of sorts is Jesus' fable of the Prodigal Son, in which a boy leaves home, loses all of his money gambling, becomes a wreck, and finally returns home, only to be greeted with love and open arms. However, because the son has no real dire reason to leave, and because there is no conflict upon his return, this isn't exactly a straight version of the trope at work.
- A more direct version of the trope, however, comes from earlier in The Bible with the tale of Moses fleeing Egypt, living happily in the desert, and then returning to Egypt to free the Jews from the tyrannical Pharaoh.
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Harry Potter had to flee and hide all over England to stay a step ahead of Voldemort, but when the last Horcrux was hidden in Hogwarts and he found that out, he rushed to Hogwarts to find it, which sparked the Final Battle.
- Galadriel in J. R. R. Tolkien books The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. She was one of the leaders of the rebellion of the Noldor, and she fled the Undying Lands to Middle-Earth, desiring to rule her own kingdom. After the destruction of the Noldor, downfall of both Morgoth and Sauron, beginning of the Reign of Men and 7000 years of exile she finally returned back to home, albeit having lost everything she once had had.
- Dawn from BattleTech novel Star Lord, she was banished from Clan Steel Viper as part of Bret Andrews plan of getting rid of Warden minded warriors like her. She later returned to her Clan with the head of the last descendant of Amaris. A feat which is enough to get her back on her Clan.
- Jason was sent to train with Chiron when his Evil Uncle grabbed the throne. When he returned, his uncle sent him off to get the Golden Fleece in the hopes he would get himself killed. Unfortunately for his uncle, he succeeded and returned with a lot of powerful friends, popular support, and a sorceress girlfriend.
- According to Siddhartha's story, a pampered Indian prince one day saw suffering in the world (hunger, sickness, and death) for the first time (he was sheltered from it all his life). So he left the palace to seek an answer as to why people suffer. What he realized would later become the foundation of Buddhisim.
- Dart in The Legend of Dragoon has been off working as a soldier for several years, before he returns to his village to find it's been ransacked and his childhood friend (yup that sort) Shana captured by the Disc-One Final Boss' forces.
- The main character of the first Knights of the Old Republic game actually is referred to as 'the Prodigal Knight' in the Light Side ending. Since they were a member of the Jedi Order who left to fight the Mandolorians and became Sith, then eventually returned to the Jedi. They're not particularly wasteful unless you count the one million things sitting in your inventory.
- In Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, the main character is a broken, disgraced Jedi Knight who was exiled and stripped of her force power. She returns to the Old Republic to save it from a certain undesirable fate.
- Terranigma uses this.
- In the video game Assassin's Creed II, Ezio must flee Florence when his father and brothers are killed. He goes to his uncle's villa, learns to be an Assassin, and returns to Florence to investigate the conspiracy.
- CJ from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas does it twice: first time, at the beginning of the game when he returns from Liberty City, and second time, when Sweet gets arrested and spends most of the game in San Fierro and Las Venturas, only coming back to Los Santos near the end of the game.
- Subverted in Fallout 4 with the East Coast branch of the Brotherhood of Steel. Originally they broke off from the West Coast branch due to disagreements with their policies, and the West Coast branch was nearly annihilated a few years later. Now they've reestablished contact with the old leaders of the West Coast and are building a second generation Brotherhood of Steel out of Washington DC. However, though this saved the Brotherhood and did stop a lot of powerful tech ending up in the wrong hands, from the perspective of outsiders this made them more villainous. They now follow a mix of the West Coast and East Coast policies.
- Zuko of Avatar: The Last Airbender was forced to leave home, but otherwise fits here. More meaningfully for this trope is when he betrays Iroh, the only one who stood by him during his exile, and upon realizing his mistake abandons his father to rejoin Iroh's forces. He tries to give a clumsy apology speech upon seeing Iroh again, but it's cut off by Iroh giving him a hug, overjoyed that he didn't 'lose' Zuko after all.
- Aang fled his home after seeing It Sucks to Be the Chosen One. Returning after decades frozen in a glacier to discover that his people were wiped out and the world has been at war for a hundred years because he wasn't there. He continues to blame himself for this throughout the series until he finally stops the Fire Lord.
- In My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, Sunset Shimmer, a former student of Princess Celestia, fled Equestria after becoming cruel and dishonest in her search for power. Even after her reform, she doesn't feel up to the task of reconciling with her former tutor, but when events forced her to return, she learns that Celestia has already forgiven Sunset's misdeeds and missed her.