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Red Herring Shirt

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Basically, when someone looks like a Red Shirt, a Mook, or even just an Innocent Bystander, but turns out to be a Mauve Shirt, or even The Hero or the villain, with few or no clues beforehand.

Often involves Mook Promotion.

If the supposed Red Shirt is a well-known actor, this may overlap with Narrowed It Down to the Guy I Recognize.

Compare Ascended Extra (where the promotion in importance happens in an adaptation or in later seasons of a long-running series), Chekhov's Gunman (where a character is introduced in passing, but is deemed unimportant until later), The Dog Was the Mastermind, Non-Protagonist Resolver.

Contrast Decoy Protagonist, Disc-One Final Boss.

This is a Red Herring trope so all examples will be spoilers. You Have Been Warned.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Floch Forster in Attack on Titan. His first appearance is at the end of the "Uprising" Arc where he is stated to be former comrades with the main cast during the training years, thus showing how the main cast has grown and developed though the course of the story, and how they are experienced compared to their naive peers. He is later shown as a Cannon Fodder during the Battle of Shiganshina where he breaks down in Tears of Fear and participates in Erwin's suicide charge against the Beast Titan, only to end up the Sole Survivor (and one of the very few in the Survey Corps besides Hange, Levi and the 104th), where he drags Erwin's body and argues for him to be titanized and ressurected, and is seen later in the medal ceremony scolding the rest of the cast. Come the Time Skip and he is the secondary villain, as he forms a Renegade Splinter Faction (the "Yeagerists") in the military, assassinates General Zackly, organizes a coup d'etat against the military junta and becomes The Dragon for Eren Yeagar.
  • The Young Conducter/Claire Stanfield/Vino/Rail Tracer of Baccano!. The audience is led to believe that he died in the second episode, and has no reason to suspect otherwise until the ninth episode, despite his heavy involvement in between. To really get the point across, he's one of the 23 characters who appear in the opening credits, but he isn't one of the 17 identified by name. The entire Martillo family appears to be dead after being gunned down by Szilard. A few episodes later, it is revealed that nothing could be further from the truth.
  • The first episode of HeartCatch Pretty Cure! introduces the Victim of the Week, Erika. Hey, wait a minute, why is she so prominent in the opening credits?
  • In the second chapter/movie of The Garden of Sinners, a seemingly random student at Shiki's school makes a cryptic statement to her in the hallway. Kokutou soon mentions he was at a party for a student named Lio Shirazumi, who was dropping out of school. Neither the name nor the person are ever mentioned again. You later realize that the random student was Shirazumi and that he is actually the murderer behind the events of both the second and seventh chapters. Somewhat less of a surprise in the movie, because Shirazumi is voiced by Soichiro Hoshi, so you figure he's going to show up again and be important later.
  • Mikael from I'm Gonna Be an Angel!. In the first season he was nothing more but a background character, sometimes appearing only at the very end of episode or not appearing at all. In the second season, it was revealed that he is one of the three main individuals important to the plot, then he got promoted to a final villian and at the end, it turned out that he, in fact was the main hero of the show — confirmed by Word of God.
  • Angela from Black Butler appears as the maid to the Big Bad of Episode 7. She's "beautiful" (which is standard fare) and a domestic servant — that was pretty much it. The Stinger, however, is ominous enough and subsequent episodes make it obvious that she's the Big Bad of the season.
  • In One Piece, Whitebeard is first introduced during a scene in which a new recruit of fellow Yonko Shanks boards his ship to discuss a meeting between the two. The first crew member to speak to the recruit (who had been bragging about his fame) is a lazy-looking blonde man who mentions that he's never heard of the recruit before. This crew member only has the one line, and is even drawn in a generic, sloppy way in the anime adaptation (complete with incorrect color palette). Several hundred chapters later, and the crew member is revealed to be Marco "The Phoenix", Whitebeard's first mate, and a pirate strong enough to fight two admirals to a standstill!
  • Tokyo Ghoul:
    • The child-like Eto, a seemingly-minor member of Aogiri Tree that acts like a Tag Along Kid to the higher-ranking members. Instead, she's not only the true leader of the organization, she is the legendary One-Eyed Owl and the enstranged, Half-Human Hybrid daughter of Yoshimura. Come the sequel, she steps out of the shadows and begins manipulating people openly. Eventually, she even reveals herself to her followers.
    • Nimura Furuta, an easily-missed young Investigator introduced as the subordinate of the deranged, Obviously Evil Shiki Kijima. Once his superior is killed in action, however, he reveals himself to be one of the major players of the story — a Tyke Bomb in the service of the organization V. He's spent the last several years infiltrating various groups, posing as a ghoul named "Souta" in order to join the Ghoul Restaurant and the Clowns Gang. Under this guise, he dropped the steel beams on Rize and caused Kaneki's transformation into an One-Eyed Ghoul. While working for the CCG as an Investigator, he's been aiding Dr. Kanou in his experiments, and leaking sensitive information out to Aogiri. Suffice to say, it isn't clear where his true loyalties lie or what his real goals might be.

    Comic Books 
  • The Infinity Gauntlet: Nebula, who is a half-zombie for most of the story, grabs the Gauntlet for herself, shifting the position of Big Bad from Thanos to herself.
  • This was a somewhat popular technique in The Golden Age of Comic Books, and was usually Played for Laughs. In one of the earliest Justice Society of America stories, for example, the heroes take down a nationwide crime syndicate whose leader turns out to be an Expy of Newspaper Comic character Casper Milquetoast who had popped up as a bystander in each prior chapter of the story.
  • In Watchmen, a short, redheaded man who holds a sign that says "The End is Nigh" is often seen in the backgrounds. He blends in with many of the recurring faces, seemingly just another part of the city's colorful population. He is actually Rorschach with his "face" off to observe without revealing his costumed-vigilante identity.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Dark Knight begins with a bank robbery in which disposable thugs kill each other one after another. Finally just two are left, and one realizes the other guy probably has orders to kill him, so he tries to strike first. Unfortunately for him, this other mook is The Joker, and he was already expecting it and planning to kill the NEXT guy who was coming to kill this guy for him.
  • Happens in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, when the two robed executioners turn out to be So-crates and Mr. The Kid in disguise, and they rescue Bill and Ted.
  • In The Three Musketeers (1993), when D'Artagnan is led to the chopping block, two of the execution personnel turn out to be Porthos and Aramis in disguise, and they're there to rescue him with help from Athos (who takes care of the escape transportation by appropriating the Cardinal's carriage).
  • Happened in Mortal Kombat: The Movie near the end, when Shang Tsung was doing some kind of ceremony with the kidnapped Sonya. Some random "evil" cloaked dudes turn out to be Johnny Cage and Liu Kang in disguise. Cue butt kicking.
  • The "two weeks" scene in the original Total Recall (1990). Averted in the 2012 remake. The "two weeks" lady is normal. She repeats the phrase but only because she was thinking of something else when asked, then corrects herself. The guy after her, though...
  • In Terminator Genisys, Alex/Skynet can be seen standing among the watching Resistance fighters as Kyle Reese approaches the time machine. The camera does linger on him for a moment, but there's no reason to think anything of it. Until he attacks John Connor...
  • In Full Metal Jacket, Private Rafterman's insistance to follow Joker when the latter is sent to the field, and Joker's failure to convince Rafterman to not go with him, seem to foreshadow that Rafterman will die before the end of the movie. He's one of the named characters who survive the whole movie.note 
  • One of the party guests in the wedding at the beginning of The Godfather looks an awful lot like Frankie Pentangeli, a major character from The Godfather Part II. It's unconfirmed whether it's the same actor, and if so, this was still probably unplanned.

  • The Worker from Atlas Shrugged. He is, of course, John Galt.
  • In The Cosmere we have Hoid, a man who appears at least once in every series (which, mind you, all take place on different worlds and aren't aware of each other), and so far only plays a major role in one, who is introduced as, among others, a beggar, a storyteller, and an informant. His appearance in The Stormlight Archive shows that he is far more important than we are initially lead to assume, and since then, he starts playing more important roles, like in The Bands of Mourning. Hoid is even going to be the main character of a future Cosmere series, which will act as a prequel.
  • The Expanse: In Nemesis Games, the midpoint of the series, Alex briefly consults with a Martian Navy military analyst named Winston Duarte about the relatively minor issue of unaccounted-for ships and equipment — and then there's a Class 2 apocalypse event, and a space war breaks out, and there are more important things to worry about. The book's epilogue reveals that Duarte was a Greater-Scope Villain of the novel, with plans to set himself up as the Immortal Ruler of an evil galactic empire. He is the Big Bad of the final three novels in the series.
  • Rashim Anwar joining the team in Gates of Rome was completely unexpected. He seemed to just be another One-Shot Character until he was dragged off by the team back to the archway (and into subsequent books).
  • Planet of Adventure: City of the Chasch introduces the command staff of a starship. They send a pair of scouts to explore the mysterious planet below. The reader is likely to assume the scouts are doomed (and one of them is), but one becomes the main character of the novel and its three sequels. The starship explodes in the first chapter.
  • Star Wars Legends: Galaxy of Fear likes these. Wedge Antilles is not a minor pirate but a major Rebel, though any reader who recognized his name would guess that. Domisari seems like an affable bystander and is Vader's assassin.
  • Tigerclaw was a random prologue character in the first Warrior Cats book. Fans now know him as the Big Bad.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Andor: "One Way Out" reveals that the Resistance has a deep cover mole within the Imperial Security Bureau. The mole is a character who has often been seen in the background or in crowd scenes in earlier scenes set at the ISB, but never drawn attention to himself while the story focussed on different ISB characters.
  • Angel: Angel encounters each one of the members of The Circle of the Black Thorn separately throughout Season Five.
  • At the end of the first series of Blackadder, two servants standing in the background turn out to be Percy and Baldrick, who proceed to rescue Edmund... almost.
  • Jonathan from Buffy the Vampire Slayer starts out as just a generic Sunnydale High Student/Monster Fodder, being used pretty much as scenery. Then he gets a handful of episodes where his insignificance is played up for all it's worth. Then he becomes a major character. Then he's murdered by one of his best friends.
  • Doctor Who:
    • "Voyage of the Damned": Midshipman Alonso Frame is shot in the first act to reveal the captain of the Titanic's treachery. It turns out that he's still alive, and he's one of only a few characters to survive to the end of the episode.
    • "Deep Breath": Companion Clara is seemingly abandoned in the bowels of a spaceship by a manic and unreliable Doctor undergoing regeneration trauma. She is repeatedly menaced by one particular clockwork android wearing a skinned face resembling the previous actor to play the part of the Doctor, until the suspension has been milked dry, at which point the "android" rips its face off to reveal the new Doctor, with his wits about him for once.
  • Game of Thrones: When Bronn is first introduced, he looks like just another sellsword. The camera doesn't linger on him very much, and he doesn't even have any features or costumes to distinguish him from a commoner other than a dry wit. Then he offers to be Tyrion's champion at the Eyrie, and proves to be more than just a mook.
  • Megan from Mad Men. For over half the season, she's just a secretary/receptionist at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, albeit one who was more stylish than the others. By the end of the season, she's Don Draper's fiancée.
  • "Jim from IT" in BBC's Sherlock, who appears as Molly's boyfriend, and whom Sherlock quickly dismisses as gay after Jim gives him his number. Turns out he's actually Moriarty himself.
  • John Sheppard in the Stargate Atlantis pilot. When the famous O'Neill is flying in a helicopter to meet Weir and company, you pay little attention to his pilot, even when he's given a name. Then he wanders into the Antarctic outpost and activates the control chair by accident, and presto! He's The Hero, ready-made. However, Sheppard has already distinguished himself by managing a High-Speed Missile Dodge in an ordinary helicopter, which is why O'Neill gave him top clearance in the first place.
    • Halfway through Season One we get a two-part episode where the Genii invade the city. One of Kolya's mooks is given a handful of lines as an Atlantean tech specialist while Kolya the strike team leader and Sora, his second in command, get all the attention and 95% of the Genii lines. Sheppard could easily have killed him during his counter-attack but instead he just gets knocked out because Sheppard didn't want to give away his position, and he leaves along with Kolya. Fast forward to next season and he's become the leader of the Genii homeworld.
      • Inverted with Sora. At the end of the episode she had been captured on Atlantis by the heroes, and was clearly not comfortable with how Kolya had acted. Despite that and being a unique Fiery Redhead Action Girl with a lot of potential for story lines going forward, Sora is never seen again, gets one mention as still being captured months later with a second cut from an episode for time reasons, requiring Word of God to fill in the blanks. It takes a post-series Expanded Universe novel series before she becomes part of the story again.
  • Damar from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Introduced as merely one of Dukat's henchmen, he goes on to be one of the major drivers of the concluding arc of the show.
  • Seska from Star Trek: Voyager. She was originally just a red shirt that appeared in a couple episodes as a member of Voyager's crew. As it turns out, she is the main antagonist of the first two seasons.
  • Marlo Stanfield from The Wire. The first time viewers see him, he looks like an average corner hustler, and he's only shown for a couple of seconds. The first few times he's mentioned, the police on the detail immediately dismiss his crew as a low-tier outfit. Later, it becomes clear that Marlo's crew is actually extremely capable and becomes the dominant criminal force in Baltimore.

  • Taken to the extreme in the first chapter of Shin Angyo Onshi. The main character of the series appears only as some henchman of the unknown evil lord of the city. In chapter 2, after it turns out that the supposed hero from chapter 1 was the evil lord all along, the true main character reveals his identity and kicks some ass!

  • The Adventure Zone has Barry Bluejeans: first encountered as an irrelevant mercenary hired by Gundren and presumed dead in the destruction of Phandalin by the end of the first arc. Over fifty episodes later, he is revealed to be one of the most important characters in the entire show, having traveled to the current universe aboard the same IPRE ship as the protagonists.

    Pro Wrestling 

  • In The Gondoliers by Gilbert and Sullivan, the girls who will be the gondoliers' love interests are chosen by a game of blind-man's-buff. Before they are tagged in the game, the female leads of the play have no solos and are not distinguished from the rest of the chorus in any way. Some productions will give them differing costumes or choreography, though, which somewhat ruins the effect.

    Video Games 
  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II has Sergeant Major Rodolfo Parra, Colonel Vargas's second in command and playable character of the Borderline mission, who seemed to be set up to die in the same mission after Hassan injures him and burns down the house where he's in. However, the good Colonel manages to rescue him from the burning house in time. Later he also managed to evade Shadow Company's betrayal against all odds and provide important support for both Colonel Vargas's rescue operations and the reclamation of Los Vaqueros headquarters.
  • This trope is what makes the Imperial Guard campaign of Dawn of War II: Retribution so satisfying. The faction universally considered the weakest and the biggest joke in the entire setting, usually existing only to be utterly crushed to display how awesome the opposing group is, can go on to single-handedly defeat fallen Space Marines, escape a planet undergoing Exterminatus, survive a Space Hulk, and finally wind up defeating a demon.
  • In Final Fantasy VII, one of the Shinra guards in some flashbacks turns out to have been Cloud the whole time.
  • Marx from Kirby Super Star, who at first glance appears to be nothing more than a generic resident of Pop Star. Turns out, he was actually the Big Bad who staged the whole thing, and was manipulating Kirby into awakening Nova so he could use its power to seize control of Pop Star. Especially since unless you waited at the title screen, he doesn't even appear in the game proper beforehand.
  • In Persona 4, the Sorting Algorithm of Evil runs: Mitsuo, a creepy kid who shows up once on your first day of school and appears in the shopping district every now and again, Namatame, a character mentioned in the throwaway news reports near the beginning of the game and sometimes shows up around town, Adachi, Dojima's bumbling Plucky Comic Relief of a partner, and Izanami, the gas station attendant who greeted you at the beginning of the game.
  • When the Fold take over the nanite-controlled supervillains in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, Bullseye kills a large number of Red Shirts with his lethal playing cards. The only one that gets back up? A disguised Nick Fury (who turns out to be an LMD, as per usual).
  • Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney features a new "Mob Trial" system, where Phoenix has to cross-examine several witnesses at once. To keep this from being too overwhelming, the individual witnesses in each "mob" are generally flat, generic characters with very basic portraits and personalities. Of course, in the first trial involving the system one of the seemingly generic witnesses turns out to be the real killer. They get a lot more expressive after you start to Pull the Thread.
  • One of they playable characters in Return of Heracles is named Palaemon. Familiarity with Greek myth, however, will tell you long before the game does that the seemingly weak man initially trapped with two serpents is actually the titular Heracles as an infant, and he receives his more familiar alias as you progress.
  • The Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire remakes has Zinnia who had cameo appearances as a Team Magma/Aqua grunt before becoming important in the post-game Delta Episode.
  • On rare occasions, an orc captain in Shadow of Mordor or Shadow of War will show up already scarred and swear vengeance upon Talion, implying that he was one of the many rank-and-file grunts who was thought to be slaughtered by the undead ranger. Of course, he might just turn out to still be cannon fodder if he doesn't put up enough of a fight.

    Web Comics 
  • In Errant Story, an inept and cowardly guard from the Veracian Church, named Sandel, suddenly turns out to actually be an undercover spy for the Ensigerum Time-Ninja-Monks! Still only a Mauve Shirt, but that's a hell of a lot better than being an NPC Guard.
  • Played with in The Order of the Stick, where two soldiers holding off bad guys for the heroes turn into supporting characters as soon as we learn their names. In fact, one of them has been mortally wounded just as he is about to introduce himself, and as he lay dying, he happens to mention his first name, then immediately realizes it was Only a Flesh Wound. He decides to save revealing his last name for an emergency. Also, O-Chul.

    Web Original 
  • The French webnovel Les Aventures de Morgoth has a secondary character named Tiberius Kenny Redshirt, who not only survives but becomes quite a badass.
  • Meta Runner: In "Firewall", Masa has an annoying neighbor who barges in twice into his low-tier apartment, once asking Masa about some money he owes, and again asking to borrow something while Masa is in the middle of stating his distrust towards Tari and Theo following the revelations he learned in "Shutdown". In the stinger for "Fatal Error", it is revealed that said neighbor is none other than Dr. James Sheridan, who is also revealed to be alive while orchestrating events which climaxed in hacking Masa's arm to force him to shoot Lucks.

    Web Videos 
  • This trope is almost universally played straight in Slender Man stories. Notable instances include Tim from Marble Hornets, who is secretly Masky, Brian from the same series who is secretly the Hooded Man, and also totheark, and much more surprisingly Kevin from Tribe Twelve, who turns out to be none other then the Observer.

    Western Animation 
  • In many Looney Tunes and Tex Avery MGM Cartoons, a silly character keeps appearing out of nowhere as a Running Gag. At the end, the villain gets fed up and demands the character tells him who he is. He responds, "Don't you know? I'm the hero", then dispatches the villain with a Hyperspace Mallet.
  • In Star Wars: Clone Wars Shaak Ti appears as a member of the squad of Jedi that Grievous soundly defeats. She survives, and goes on to play a major part in the Battle of Coruscant, protecting Chancellor Palpatine. Not only that, she survives for another 17 years after Order 66, when the vast majority of the Jedi (including all Jedi except Shaak Ti who were present in the Jedi Temple at the time) were killed. This is especially notable, as one of the deleted scenes from Revenge of the Sith would have shown her being killed by Grievous before Order 66 was ever executed, while another one showed her being killed by Darth Vader during the attack on the Temple.
  • Used in the Æon Flux episode "War"; each time one kills a Decoy Protagonist and becomes a Decoy Protagonist him/herself.
  • During Book 3 of The Legend of Korra, Kuvira appeared in the background of many scenes as a common soldier in Zaofu, before she is introduced during the season finale. In Book 4, she is revealed as a charismatic tyrant who is determined to conquer the whole Earth Kingdom and eventually the world.