Follow TV Tropes


Unexpected Successor

Go To

Lee "Apollo" Adama: How far down?
Laura Roslin: 43rd in line of succession. I know all 42 ahead of me from the President down. Most of us served with him in the first administration. Some of them came with him from the Mayor's office. I was there with him on his first campaign. I never really liked politics; I kept telling myself I was getting out, but... he had this way about him. (The pilot appears with a piece of paper.) Just couldn't say no to him. (He hands her the paper.) Thank you. (She sits up, puts her jacket back on.) We'll need a priest.
Battlestar Galactica (2003), Miniseries pt I.

A character is way down in the line of succession for some political office, to the point where it's reasonable to assume that they're never going to actually take it. Then everyone ahead of them dies or is otherwise disqualified.

Usually this is either because

  1. some giant disaster occurs
  2. the character in question is evil and killing everyone ahead of them
  3. a Succession Crisis throws the process into disarray
  4. The country has VERY strict succession rules, and there are barely any successors to begin with.

In a monarchy, this often means that some distant or estranged relative of the previous monarch is ascending the throne, frequently leading to a great deal of Fish out of Water humor, as the Unexpected Successor has not received the extensive preparation for power usually given to an heir apparent. Also note that, due to the generally predictable nature of royal succession, it's possible for someone to start their life rather far down the line of succession and still be expected to become monarch someday. For example, Queen Victoria was born fifth in line to the English throne, but everyone ahead of her was at least a generation older than she was and unlikely to have more children. So she grew up expecting to be queen and being groomed for the role, and thus would not be a Real Life example of this trope.


Also contrast Offered the Crown, where the monarch is selected, and Succession Crisis, where ambiguity about who the rightful successor is causes problems.

This can happen in democracies as well, if the elected leader suddenly resigns or is incapacitated and someone has to take their place until new elections can be held. While most countries have established lines of succession to make this as orderly as possible, the person who rises to the top of the list can be surprising... such as an Agriculture Secretary who must go from teaching farmers how to grow peanuts to running a country as Hilarity Ensues. In the United States, rules for succession beyond Vice President -> President are set by Congress, not the Constitution. The Speaker of the House and President pro tempore of the Senate are next, then Cabinet secretaries in order by age of office. In fiction, the Speaker of the House of Representatives is almost always a member of a different political party than their predecessor. Usually the Speaker resigns their seat in Congress (as required by the Presidential Succession Act of 1947), but for added turmoil, they won't.


See also Twenty-Fifth Amendment. Supertrope of Spare to the Throne and Hidden Backup Prince.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Code Geass:
    • Lelouch, who was originally 17th in line for the throne, becomes emperor of Britannia after killing his father and using his Geass to force people to accept him as emperor.
    • And at the very end of the series, his sister Nunnally becomes Empress of Britannia, and she was 87th in line! Although, considering that Lelouch was the last emperor would change things around a bit. Nunnally would likely have become first in line simply because she was Lelouch's closest living relative. Both Schneizel and Cornelia (who both survived the end of the series and were originally ahead of Nunally) would have had a lower standing as they were only half-siblings.
    • A more bureaucratic version of this is averted when Guilford steps into command after the Black Knights kill Viceroy Calares in the first arc of R2, and everyone else in that line of succession down to a civil servant who would not have been able to govern in a situation like that.
  • Reborn! (2004). After retiring to Japan, the first Vongola boss had a family there. In the present day, the oldest three of the current generation of Vongola heirs die separate bloody deaths, while the youngest heir turns out to be illegitimate as he was adopted. The only descendant of a Vongola boss left is Tsunayoshi Sawada from the Japanese family, getting an ordinary Japanese kid into a Mafia family he didn't know he was related to. Tsunayoshi's father Iemitsu could have also succeeded the Ninth, being a member of the bloodline, and was far more qualified than Tsunayoshi, being actual Mafia, but since he commanded the CEDEF, the Vongola's outside advisory group, it took him out of the line of succession as well, leaving his son as the next boss.
  • Shi Ryuuki in Saiunkoku Monogatari unexpectedly became the imperial Crown Prince at age eleven, during a civil war in which four of his five older brothers killed each other trying to lay claim to the succession. In the process, Ryuuki moved from the bottom of his family's pecking order to his father's anointed successor. The only other surviving heir, Prince Seien, was already in exile when the civil war began because his mother's kin had made a power play too early. Ryuuki — who isn't interested in being The Emperor, believes himself to be incapable of ruling well, and wants nothing more than to see his favorite elder brother again — stubbornly resists ruling and plays dumb in hopes that his courtiers will give up and offer the throne to Seien. As Ryuuki's advisers eventually point out to him, recognizing his own shortcomings and trying to avoid making worse proves him smarter and more grounded than anybody else in his family and thus the Closest Thing We Got to a decent heir.
  • Among the background events in Highschool of the Dead, Presidents of the United States keep getting infected. Each time someone new ascends to the office, he asks himself, "Should we nuke China before our government totally collapses?" One of them decides he should.
  • Friedrich IV, The Emperor in Legend of Galactic Heroes, was fourth in line to the Imperial Throne, with the three in front of him being much better politicians and much more ambitious. Friedrich, believing that he'd never get anywhere near the throne, spent his youth being a wastrel and a careless hedonist until events in the Decadent Court made all prior claimants unsuitable. Even as Emperor, his lack of preparation or even desire for the throne colours much of ruling decisions.
  • Natsue Hatamoto from Detective Conan. Sure, her Disappeared Dad was the eldest son of the Hatamoto family, but it was expected that the second son/Natsue's uncle Jouji or her uncle Kitarou (as the eldest daughter/Natsue's aunt Mariko's husband) would get the family riches, or even her older sister Akie...
    • Also, in the Yabuchi family case, everyone was shocked to know that Carlos, supposed to be a mere Scary Black Man working as a bodyguard, was taking the place of his dead father Yoshifusa among the inheritors. The dead patriarch Yoshichika did know, but he didn't tell anyone — except for signaling it in the tape that was his last will. (Oh, and the old man whom everyone thought he was Yoshifusa? He was Yoshifusa's best friend Dickson Tanaka, who pulled a Dead Person Impersonation to protect Carlos.)
  • In the Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth manga, Charles Toynbee is the second son of the president of Toy-be, but drops down to third after his half-brother Brodie appears and inherits the presidency after the death of their father. After Brodie's death, Tucker, who's between Brodie and Charles, and next in line for the presidency, relinquishes the position, fearing a "curse". It turns out that Charles killed Brodie and was almost certainly counting on Tucker to get scared and run away.
  • Ooku: The Inner Chambers
    • Tokugawa Yoshimune was not only from a minor branch of the Tokugawa dynasty, but was the third daughter of said branch, so it was considered unlikely that she'd even become the head of her family, much less shogun. Her older sisters were poisoned to remove them from the succession, and the sickly nature of the direct line meant that the last two members both had short reigns, so she took advantage of the Succession Crisis and proclaimed herself shogun. Which was in fact lampshaded by Ten'ei-in, the consort of a previous shogun:
      "Now here we sit in the sun, enjoying tea together, with one whom nobody e'er thought would become the supreme leader of this land, at the time of her birth."
    • The only time they met, the elderly Shogun Tsunayoshi noted to Yoshimune that she was herself an Unexpected Successor, being the third daughter of Iemitsu the Younger, and had only inherited the throne after her oldest half-sister Ietsuna died without issue. By primogeniture, her middle half-sister Tsunashige should have been the successor, but her mother Iemitsu preferred Tsunayoshi's father over Tsunashige's and seems to have favored his daughter in the order of succession.
    • Now the ultimate example: Harusada abdicates her claim to the throne in favor of her son Toyochiyo, making the now Shogun Ienari the first male shogun in generations.
    • With the male population slowly getting back to normal levels (due to an effective Redface Pox vaccine) and Ienari himself being succeeded by his son Ieyoshi, it was a big surprise when Ienari declared Ieyoshi's daughter Iesada next in line. Ienari did so because Iesada was the only one of Ieyoshi's children to show anything resembling competence.
  • Bleach: Although Yhwach doesn't have a named successor, the Stern Ritter are convinced that Haschwalth is his successor in all but name. Until Yhwach randomly announces his successor's identity. To say the army's upset that it's not Haschwalth is an understatement. Yhwach reveals Uryuu Ishida's existence and names him successor at the same time. It's done to sow dissent and confusion among his men, to isolate Uryuu from plotting betrayal, and to nurture Uryuu's secret (and potentially superior; even the nigh-omniscient Yhwach isn't sure how Uryuu managed to survive the Auswählen) power for mysterious ends.
  • Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha ViVid reveals that the last Sankt Kaiser, Olivie Sägebrecht, was this. When she was born, her constitution was deemed too weak to succeed as the next King, so she was instead used as a political hostage for the kingdom of Shutra. However, her combat and magical prowess grew under the tutelage of Wilfried Jeremiah, until she gained a reputation as a warrior deemed second to none. Thus, when the time came, she was called back to her home country to become the next, and ultimately last, King of the Cradle.
  • In Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, among Jigoro’s students there was a clear divide between the eldest disciple Kaigaku and the youngest Zenitsu; Kaigaku was a seen as the much stronger one, who was keen on being Jigoro’s successor, while Zenitsu had no expectations on being Jigoro’s chosen one at the time, as the boy seemed to lack talent and any drive to push forward. However, throughout the series Zenitsu slowly but surely grows past his limitations, and Kaigaku turns out to be a nasty traitor who becomes a demon, who Zenitsu then kills. In the end Zenitsu wears Jigoro’s haori, being his sole successor, Zenitsu himself never thought he would be the one to succeed his master.
  • Overlord (2012): The kingdom puts together the biggest army they've ever had for its yearly skirmish against the Empire. Unfortunately, that year was also the one Ainz chose to ally with the Empire, and he plows through half their army without effort. As a result, the kingdom's nobility is decimated, leading to second or third sons (in some cases, spares to the Spare to the Throne) finding themselves in positions of power they never trained for and certainly never expected to have.
  • Fairy Tail: After Master Makarov and all of his potential successors (along with a good chunk of Fairy Tail's aces) were presumed dead after Acnologia seemingly blew up Sirius Island, minor Fairy Tail member Macao Conbolt ended up being sworn in as the guild's Fourth Master and led them over the seven year Time Skip. While Macao is a veteran member, it's clear it was a position he never imagined he'd have nor one he ever wanted, especially given the circumstances. To emphasize how far down the ladder Macao is, Makarov decides to let him keep the position for a laugh while he looks for a more suitable successor when they finally come back, which Macao himself is all for.
  • Kenshiro of Fist of the North Star was a distant third to inherit the Hokuto Shin Ken style of martial arts from his teacher/adoptive father. But when leading candidate Toki was stricken with a fatal case of radiation poison that sapped his strength and Raoh left to form his post-apocalyptic army, the title of 64th master fell to a surprised Kenshiro.

    Comic Books 
  • The miniseries Give Me Liberty. After the death or incapacitation of everyone higher up in the line of succession, the Secretary of Agriculture, Howard Nissen, assumes the presidency.
  • Margaret Valentine in Y: The Last Man was the US Secretary of Agriculture. When all the men suddenly died, she was suddenly promoted all the way to President because everyone ahead of her in the succession was either male or died in the ensuing chaos.
  • In The Ultimates, in retaliation for a full-scale nuclear attack by the United States on his City (which he created overnight by expanding it over most of Europe, killing most of its inhabitants. Yeah it's complicated), Reed Richards launches an anti-matter attack on Washington D.C., killing almost the entire U.S. government. The Secretary of Energy survives because he was away reviewing windmills, so he becomes the new President. Justified in this case because U.S. Government policy is to always have one of the officials in line of succession out of the city in case of a massive attack that destroys the government.
  • In V for Vendetta, following massive social upheaval, the monarch of Great Britain is "Queen Zara." When the first issue was released, Zara Phillips (now Zara Tindall) — the eldest granddaughter to Queen Elizabeth II via her daughter Anne, Princess Royal — was a child of about seven and seventh in line for the thronenote .
  • In American Flagg!, Flagg's friend Bill Windsor-Jones is the rightful King of England (most of the royal family having been killed by a German nuclear strike on London at some unspecified point in the past, and Britain subsequently becoming a communist puppet state of the Pan-African League.)

    Comic Strips 
  • An arc in Doonesbury had the characters (during the Reagan administration) playing a computerized war game. Overreaction to a "Soviet provocation" results in nuclear war. In one of the last strips, the line of succession has resulted in Secretary of the Interior James Watt being President — with nothing much left to preside over. Watt's perceived anti-environmentalism is referenced with the remark, "Guess he got rid of all those trees."

    Fan Fiction 
  • Marissa Picard and her best friend Clara Stutters discovered that they are princesses of the planet Essex.
  • In The Parselmouth of Gryffindor, lowly clerk Percy Weasley becomes the Acting Minister after Cornelius Fudge disappears, because, after pondering it long and hard, Hermione and Slughorn decide that no other person in the Ministry is both qualified and willing to take the job.
  • In Black Sky, no one would have thought the Prince of Sabina able to father a son due to his obsessive mourning for his late wife. The Zabini are not happy with him when they discover that yes, he did have a bastard son but never acknowledged him, and now they have to find the kid.
  • Prince Vegeta in A Glad Day plans to throw a wrench in political schemes and protect his lover Bulma by naming Romayn (a third-class child) his heir. Ironically his half-breed son Trunks winds up holding the title of king until Vegeta turns out to not be dead.
  • The epilogue of The War of the Worlds: Gravity Falls Edition establishes that in the aftermath of the Martian invasion, a UN-backed provisional American government is set up in Honolulu, with the role of acting President falling to the Secretary of Veteran Affairs — a footnote by the author makes a point of explaining just how far down the line of succession that position is (second to last, in fact).
  • one day at a time:
    • It's outright stated in the summary that Jason Todd was never supposed to be Batman. According to Word of God and the story itself, he only got the job after Dick Grayson's death due to Tim Drake (the presumed successor after Dick) outright refusing the mantle for his own reasons. Even then, it was supposed to be temporary — Damian Wayne wanted it, but he was too young and inexperienced at the time to take it up properly. Then they both ended up dying a mere two years later, making Jason Batman permanently.
    • This also applies to Wayne Enterprises and the Wayne fortune in general. Jason was forced to succeed his younger brother Tim as CEO to the former after his death, and the death of Damian left Jason and their sister Cassandra Cain the only known heirs to the latter until their younger sister Helena Wayne showed up. As Jason was a Street Urchin that only met and was adopted by Bruce due to chance, he's just about the last person anyone expected to be Bruce's ultimate successor in the end.
  • God Save the Esteem does this with the Lawndale High social structure. All of the popular girls go to war with each other, spreading vicious rumors until all of them have reputations as frigid sluts who have abortions and are riddled with ST Ds. By the time it's over the boys at school are too afraid to date any of them. Instead they start to gravitate toward Cindy, an O.C. Stand-in who was apparently the cutest/most popular girl who wasn't cute/popular enough to be a target of anyone's wrath.
  • A Diplomatic Visit: Chapter 2 of the sequel Diplomat at Large reveals Thorax is this. He's the first normal drone to ascend to Royal status since the last of the original generation of Queens did so; Chrysalis had no Royal offspring to take her place, so there wasn't much of a choice.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • The main character in Kind Hearts and Coronets becomes a duke after the deaths of the eight people ahead of him, all of whom are played by Alec Guinness. (He murders most of them, though a couple save him the trouble by dying on their own initiative, such as an elderly man who dies of shock when hearing he has been made duke.)
  • This is the entire plot of King Ralph. In this case, it involves the British Royal Family, and the person selected had no idea he was in line in the first place. (His father was the product of a brief affair between an American woman and a prince.)
  • Shanghai Knights had a noble who was way, way far down the line of succession hatch a conspiracy to kill everybody ahead of him so he could ascend to the throne.
    Roy O'Bannon: Aren't you, like, the twentieth to the throne?
    Lord Rathbone: (annoyed) Tenth.
  • By Dawn's Early Light, an adaptation of Trinity's Child below.
  • Eagle Eye. ARIIA, The Pentagon's supercomputer, attempts to assassinate the president, vice president, and the entire line of succession (except for the Secretary of Defense, to whom ARIIA plans to pass the presidency).
  • Mars Attacks!!. After the death of all top U.S. officials, at the end of the movie the President's daughter is apparently in charge of the government. Yes, it's a comedy.
  • xXx: State of the Union: The Secretary of Defense attempts a coup that will wipe out key members of the government during the President's State of the Union address, leaving him in charge.
  • In Johnny English:
    • Villain Pascal Sauvage gets the Queen to abdicate so that he, a descendant of William the Conqueror, is named her successor.
    • Also, Johnny English himself only gets promoted to field agent because every single other field agent gets killed. Because of him.
  • In Stardust, after the king dies, his sons kill each other so the remaining one can take the throne. They all end up dead, but Tristan's mother reveals that she is the king's only daughter, meaning that Tristan is the only surviving male heir and thus, the new king.
  • This is the fuel that drives the plot of Mr. Deeds (and by that virtue Mr. Deeds Goes to Town). Upon the untimely freezing-at-the-top-of-Everest of Preston Blake, the entirety of Blake Media and its vast fortune now belongs to the only known relative of Blake, Longfellow Deeds (played by Adam Sandler, or by Gary Cooper in the original film), a greeting card writer and pizza shop owner from a small town in New Hampshire. This is played twice, being that in the climax of the film, when Deeds gives up and leaves town, he leaves the company up to his crapsack lawyer, who tries to fire everyone (here meaning 50 thousand employees). Just before he takes control, Deed's girlfriend pops back up with Blake's diary and a worker's manifest, which points to... Blake's longtime butler, John Turturro, who may very well be his son!
  • In The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone always knew that his son Sonny would follow him into crime given his temperament, and he knew his son Fredo would fall in because there was nothing else he could do, but everybody expected Michael to be kept out of the business. Ultimately, it is Michael who succeeds Vito as Don of the family after Sonny is murdered during the mob wars, and Fredo is passed over because no one believed he could do it.
  • Used as a one-off joke/Take That! at the end of My Fellow Americans. Because they were corrupt and caught, The President and Vice President both resign. Former Presidents Kramer and Douglas (the protagonists) realize that that means the Speaker of the House is next in line, and Douglas remarks "Oh no, not him!". At the time of filming, the speaker was Newt Gingrich.
  • Kull the Conqueror starts with the eponymous barbarian (played by Kevin Sorbo) being denied in joining the king's army, as all of them are noble-born. Then the king goes berserk and murders most of his successors before being mortally wounded by Kull. While the captain of the guard and a nobleman bicker over who should claim the crown, the king decides that all three should be punished and gives the crown to Kull before dying. The priesthood approves, and, suddenly, the captain of the guard must bow down before a barbarian he has just rejected from the army.
  • In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale has the Kingdom of Ehb ruled by the wise King Conreid, whose wife and only son were killed in a raid many years before during the kingdom's period of strife. The only heir is the King's nephew Duke Fallow, for whom royalty is just a way to enjoy himself. Fallow may be good with a sword and a bow but is terrible at ruling a nation or waging a war. He is even willing to ally himself with the Big Bad in order to hasten Conreid's death. The Bid Bad poisons the King and, although the King's magus manages to remove the poison, Conreid's life is coming to an end. Meanwhile, Farmer is... well, a farmer, who was raised to value hard work and self-reliance. The King's magus brings the two together and reveals that Farmer is Conreid's lost son, saved from the raid by a stableboy and raised as his own. Just as Conreid dies (thanks to the poison and Fallow's arrow), Fallow laughs that he is now in charge and, even knowing about the treachery, the King's loyal general can't raise a hand against his lord. The magus then announces the existence of Conreid's son, and Fallow is arrested (or executed, in an alternate scene). Luckily for Ehb, Farmer, having grown up among the people instead of being pampered in the castle, shares his father's values.
  • In The Wolverine, Shingen Yashida thought he would inherit his father Ichiro's corporation after the latter's impending death. Then Ichiro snubbed Shingen by naming Shingen's daughter Mariko as his sole heir in a new will. Mariko isn't happy about this either, since she never wanted that much power and authority in the first place. Ichiro was plotting to cheat death all along by stealing Wolverine's Healing Factor. The reason he named Mariko his successor instead of Shingen was because Shingen would never be content to be a puppet with authority in name only.


By Author:

  • Michael Flynn:
    • In January Dancer, Hugh is the rightful head of government because he was out of town doing education stuff when the coup hit. He really preferred being in charge of education.
    • In On The Razor's Edge, Donovan reflects on the maxraj whose repression resulted in revolt and mutiny, and succession of his second cousin.

By Work:

  • In the Age of Fire series, the Copper/RuGaard is adopted into the Lavadome's Imperial Line as Tyr FeHazathant's grandson, a position solidified later by being mated with the Tyr's granddaughter Halaflora. However, he's still so far down the line (and disfavored for his various crippling injuries and personality quirks) that no one, least of all him, expects him to ever become Tyr... but by the end of his focus book, everyone higher than him in the line is either dead or in exile, allowing him to become Tyr.
  • In the novel Alas, Babylon the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare inherits the presidency after nuclear war.
  • In The Belgariad and related works:
    • In the prequel Polgara the Sorceress, the whole hidden Rivan line of succession Polgara spends half her life protecting flows from a youngest grandson, the sole survivor of a slaughtered royal family. Subverted in that he doesn't actually get to rule; they need to hide him and his descendants.
    • One could make a good case for Urgit being an Unexpected Successor to Taur Urgas. He's physically weak, in a country where killing those ahead of you in the line of succession is an accepted part of the succession code. Urgit just realized that there was no requirement that the wannabe heir kill his rivals personally, stole a key to the royal treasury, and hired killers.
  • Discussed in Lesser Evils, the second Brimstone Angels novel when Brin admits he's closely enough related to the royal family of Cormyr to officially be part of the line of succession. Havilar remarks that it puts her in minds of stories where entire royal families get offed in some catastrophe and, before you know it, "some swineherd's the king." Of course, Brin goes on to admit he's rather closer to the throne than that...
  • The royal family in A Brother's Price all sort of rules as a unit (especially after the last time they tried to "split" the royal family as some large families do, two generations back, led to civil war). Nevertheless, the Eldest of their family, like any other family in this setting, holds particular authority. When nine of her older sisters are killed in a theater explosion, Princess Rennsellaer is thrust into the role of Eldest without having been raised to prepare for it. Some drama stems from the fact that some people (including Ren herself, for a while) thought her younger sister Halley might have been a better fit.
  • Merlin, the protagonist of Roger Zelazny's second series in The Chronicles of Amber, ends the series by becoming the ruler of Chaos after everyone ahead of him kills each other off. Merlin's uncle Random, youngest of King Oberon's children, unexpectedly inherits the throne of Amber via Deus ex Machina (the Unicorn) in the final book of the first series.
  • In the Ciaphas Cain novella Old Soldiers Never Die, Jonas Worden's mother had renounced her place in Lentonia's ruling family decades before the story begins. But after the prior governor set a speed record for inciting a rebellion, and the rest of his relatives practically went to war over which of them would get the post, the Imperial generals stuck with cleaning up the mess drafted Jonas as the new governor specifically because he hadn't been involved.
  • The Dalemark Quartet:
    • Dagner Clennensson winds up Earl of the South Dales because his mother Lenina is the niece of a previous earl, and every other male heir dies in an attempted invasion of North Dalemark when Dagner's younger brother Moril closes the only pass with Magic Music. He'd much rather be a Singer.
    • Mitt winds up the King of Dalemark, to his extreme surprise, because he's descended in a direct father-to-son line from the last king, who ruled two hundred years before. Oh, and he's of the Undying, as well. The magical objects (a ring, sword and cup) that belonged to the last king recognize him as the rightful heir.
  • In the Daybreak series, a terrorist attack and technological apocalypse results in the U.S. presidency falling to the assistant secretary of the Department of the Future. She immediately resigns the office and with no one else left to become president, the United States ceases to exist.
  • The winner of the century-long three-way Succession Crisis known as the Time of Troubles in the Deverry novels was the prince of Pyrdon, a royal house that didn't exist when the war started (Back then, Pyrdon was a province of Eldidd, but they took advantage of the war to declare independence). Maryn married the last princess of the Cerrmor faction, and then conquered the Cantrae and Eldidd factions one at a time. This was generally accepted by the populace because outside the nobles (whose fortunes depended on those of the faction they backed), people had long since stopped caring who won the war so long as somebody did.
  • In Dirge for Prester John It's debated whether or not John should be allowed to take part in the Abir when he knows so little of Pentexore's ways, because what if he becomes someone important? And then he's the king.
  • Deep Six, a Dirk Pitt Adventures novel by Clive Cussler. The Secretary of State becomes the Acting President when the President, Vice President and Speaker of the House disappear. Then the President reappears, having been brainwashed into being a Soviet puppet. Then the Speaker is rescued, and starts efforts to remove the President from office, leaving the heroes scrambling to find and rescue the Vice President before the Speaker claims the presidency for himself.
  • In the Discworld novels, Mustrum Ridcully had actually retired from wizardry, and thus an unlikely prospect to become Archchancellor of the Unseen University. However, after the events of Sourcery, he was the highest ranking wizard still alive who had not been involved in the events of said novel, and thus could not be tied to the resultant scandals, and so he was offered the position - and managed to hold onto it for the rest of the series, despite centuries of tradition of Klingon Promotion within the University, by virtue of being unkillable.
  • The Dresden Files:
    • In Summer Knight, Harry Dresden must stop the insane Summer Lady Aurora from destroying the cycle of the seasons, which would either cause a new ice age if Winter came out on top, or an explosion of all forms of life if Summer won, and not just humans, animals, or flora, but bacteria and viruses. With this death, the Mantle of the Summer Lady flows into the next closest Summer-aligned being, a young changeling woman named Lily, who at the time had been carrying the mantle of the Summer Knight against her will, as part of Aurora's plans.
    • In Cold Days while Sarissa, daughter of Mab and twin sister to current Winter Lady Maeve, is trained by Winter Queen Mab, Queen of Air and Darkness, to be a Spare to the Throne for Winter Lady Maeve, the candidate is also this because Maeve killing the current Summer Lady Lily, when Sarissa is close by, forces the Mantle of the Summer Lady to find the next acceptable host. Sarissa is the next closest option and the Mantle forces itself into her, binding her to her mother's enemy court.
  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. Maia is an unfavored son of the emperor, raised in seclusion all his life until his father and three older brothers die in an airship crash. Fortunately, he's received some education, although he still knows very little about court life.
  • In I, Claudius, Caligula is dead, and some of the conspirators who killed him are killing every member of Caligula's family they can find. The last thing they expect is the Praetorian Guard to declare Caligula's harmless uncle Claudius emperor.
  • Inferno by Roger MacBride Allen. Political wags had joked that nobody would assassinate the governor of the planet, Chanto Grieg, because the designated successor to the office was widely expected to be the equivalent of the Speaker of the House in the USA: President of the Legislative Council Shelabas Quellam, a man widely known to be good-natured but completely ill-suited to the office of Governor were he to ascend to the office. But Governor Chanto Grieg of the planet Inferno is indeed assassinated. Imagine the look of surprise on everybody's face when Chanto Grieg's will is officially read by his lawyer. The next Governor of Inferno is actually Sheriff Alvar Kresh. Suffice it to say that Grieg knew what he was doing.
  • John Scalzi's The Interdependency: In The Collapsing Empire, Cardenia Wu-Patrick is the bastard daughter of Emperox Attavio VI. She spent much of her life with her mother, away from the palace, and was never meant to ascend to the throne. Her half-brother Rennered has always been groomed for that. Then Rennered stupidly dies in a race, and the dying Attavio decides to name Cardenia as his successor, despite the numerous cousins and nephews/nieces. Suddenly, with Attavio on his deathbed, Cardenia has to overcome the shock and take a crash course on what it means to be Emperox in a matter of months. After being crowned Emperox Grayland II, she has to face another crisis, this time to the entire Interdependency.
  • Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy's Ryanverse novels. He's only Vice President, meaning he is directly next in line, but a) he was explicitly told, and had it as a condition of accepting the post, that he would not have to do much of anything, b) he was not expected by anyone, readers included, to ever run the country, c) he was only going to be VP for a few months (it was an election year and Ryan wasn't going to be the VP candidate on the ballot), an unlikely time frame for an assassination, and d) he was only VP for an hour, tops, before becoming President.
  • In Long May She Reign, a YA novel by Rhiannon Thomas, main character Freya is a minor noblewoman twenty-third in line to the throne. She happens to leave a banquet early on the very night that someone poisons the food of the king and his court, making her queen.
  • In the backstory of The Lord of the Rings:
    • The second king of Gondor was Meneldil, the fourth son of the first king, Anarion. Anarion and his three elder sons all died in the wars of the Last Alliance.
    • Same for the kingdom of Arnor. Isildur died in an ambush (the one where the Ring was lost) along with his three older sons while he was returning from the war with Sauron. The only one to survive was Valandil, a child too young to participate in that war, who lived in Rivendell. That caused Gondor to become an independent kingdom — Anarion was officially Isildur's vassal, but Valandil didn't have enough authority.
  • The Nameless Queen is set in a kingdom where the lowest of their Fantastic Caste System are the Nameless, who remain unnamed in the magical system used and thus have few rights. This means when Nameless protagonist "Coin" finds herself with the magical tattoo meaning that she's the new queen, she's more than a little shocked as succession is determined by whoever the previous monarch spoke the name of in their last words, and if the dying ruler doesn't say a name, it goes to someone from the upper classes, never one of the Nameless... Coin turns out to be a Hidden Backup Princess, and was never technically Nameless to begin with.
  • ErmintrudeDaphne from Nation by Terry Pratchett spends her childhood being told by her grandmother that she needs to learn how to behave like a lady; if 138 people die, her father will become King of Great Britain and Ireland. One outbreak of Russian Influenza later, he is. When the Gentlemen of Last Resort arrive with the news, she asks nervously if her grandmother had done anything ... silly.
  • Garth Nix's Old Kingdom: In Sabriel, the Old Kingdom has been without the royal bloodline to protect it for a hundred years, since Kerrigor murdered his mother and sisters and used their blood to break the great Charter-stones. Politically and religiously beheaded, the only thing the Kingdom has on its side is that all other countries leave it alone on principle. Then Sabriel rescues a young guardsman who'd been transformed into the prow of a ship, and they go questing together. It turns out he was the illegitimate son of the Queen, an utterly improbable inheritor, but now the only member of the royal bloodline still living. He becomes King.
  • Prince Roger of the Prince Roger series is behind two siblings and his brother's kids in line for the throne. Then while he's marooned on a backwards planet all of them except his mother are assassinated and she's raped both physically and mentally until she can't carry out the business of government. By the end of the series, he takes the throne.
  • Orson Scott Card's Empire: Terrorists assassinate the President, Vice President, and the entire Cabinet, so the Speaker of the House is president until the next elections.
  • The Princess Diaries starts when Mia- the result of one of the young Prince of Genovia's many dalliances- is informed that her father was just diagnosed with testicular cancer. Suddenly the succession became a lot more shaky than everyone involved had thought it would.
  • In the The Riftwar Cycle series, Arutha starts the series as the lowest member of the royal family and was expected to become a minor duke, but in the first book alone so many nobles get killed off he becomes the second most powerful man in the Kingdom. He never becomes king himself, but that's because he renounced his claim to the throne in favor of his sons when his brother the king dies of old age on the grounds that he's too old for the job. In fact this trope is ever present in the series as nobles die and need to be replaced at a very fast rate.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin is rife with examples.
    • In the prequels Tales of Dunk and Egg, a little boy named Egg is a major character. In the main novels, we learn he became Aegon Targaryen, the Fifth of His Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, styled Aegon the Unlikely for assuming a throne no one expected he'd get as he was the youngest son of a king's youngest brother. He proved an excellent ruler though, and given the nature of most of his older brothers, the Seven Kingdoms came out lucky that time. It's generally accepted that he was the last decent one.
    • Aemon Targaryen, one of his older brothers, survives to the main stories as an old, old man who took the Maester's Chains and went to the Wall as a young man. He dies at 102 asking in his delirium for Egg. He tells a story to young Jon Snow that many years ago, before Egg was crowned King, the nobles and the maesters asked him to renounce his vows and take the throne. Egg was only crowned because Aemon took his vows seriously. He even joined the Night's Watch so he couldn't be used to dethrone his brother.
    • King Robert Baratheon hails from a cadet branch of the Targaryen line, so his succession was just as unlikely. By all accounts, he graciously accepted the position of King after he smashed the Targaryen dynasty, but before he could even be crowned, there were a few tense moments when just about anyone — Ned Stark, Tywin Lannister, or even Jaime Lannister — could have proclaimed themselves king, but didn't. Then there's also the unfortunate fact the legitimate successor he killed — Rhaegar Targaryen — would have been a perfectly decent king compared to his father Aerys, and even more so, Prince Rhaegar's children would have made good heirs, had Tywin Lannister not ordered them killed.
    • In the North, Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North at the start of the books, has five legitimate children, an illegitimate son and a younger brother. Both Eddard's younger brother and illegitimate son have taken the vows as members of the Night's Watch and are therefore removed from succession (Jon Snow, the illegitimate son, couldn't have inherited anyway). After Lord Eddard is executed, his oldest son Robb becomes King in the North (the old title his family held before the Targaryen conquest). Robb's younger brother Bran is his heir until he has children of his own. However, when Bran and Rickon are later presumed dead, succession passes to his first sister, Sansa, who's married (not at all willingly) to one of the Lannisters, the Starks' arch-rivals. His second sister Arya is considered dead by this point and his uncle went missing. To avoid the chance of Lannisters ruling the North and to ensure that a family member of Stark blood familiar with the North will be his successor in case he dies, Robb legitimizes his illegitimate brother Jon Snow and names Jon heir, who (while he was raised alongside Robb by their father as a son of a lord) never expected to inherit family lands himself due to his illegitimacy and never learns of Robb making him his heir. Robb later dies. Afterward, Jon repeatedly turns down Stannis' offers to legitimize him out of loyalty to his father's gods, duty to the Night's Watch, and because of Sansa's claim on Winterfell. All the while — since the whereabouts of Robb's will are unknown — Jon might be the claimant to King in the North and doesn't know it... Talk about unlikely. And now, one of the Northern lords, Lord Manderly, has discovered that Ned's youngest son Rickon is still alive and Manderly is plotting to make him Lord of Winterfell/King.
    • If Jon Snow is really the trueborn son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark ... he's the King of the Seven Kingdoms ...and neither he nor any big shot of the kingdom has the slightest clue about this. In any case, even if he survives the events at the end of A Dance with Dragons, Jon is still a Watchman and his default answer is refusal, the same as Maester Aemon's: "Sorry, guys, but no." Unless something happens that will make Jon change his mind and nullify his oath.
    • Daenerys Targaryen has taken to calling herself "The Queen Across the Water", and has assumed the mantle of the Targaryen heir apparent in exile after her older brothers and nephew are each killed before they could assume the throne from their father/grandfather, King Aerys Targaryen II. As Dany hasn't reclaimed the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros yet (the possibility of it even happening is still very much in doubt), she's more of an Unexpected Successor-in waiting.
    • In A Dance with Dragons, we learn that her nephew, Aegon VI Targaryen, son of Rhaegar, actually survived and has been living in hiding, which makes him first in line for the Targaryen succession... as the eldest male descent of the last Targaryen king... maybe. This all only makes Dany even more unexpected.
  • Tamora Pierce's Tortall Universe: The Balitang family in the Trickster's Duet — the line of succession in the Copper Isles goes as follows (based on the beginning of Trickster's Choice): Oron, Hazarin, Dunevon, Mequen Balitang. When Oron dies from old age and Hazarin becomes king, the fact that Mequen's in line to the throne becomes a lot more important. When Hazarin dies and Mequen is murdered, his (toddler) son Elsren becomes second in line to the throne, which is held by another toddler. Things go downhill from there.
    • It then happens again: Duke Mequen's two half-raka daughters, Sarai and Dove, are secretly descended from the Haiming family, the old raka royalty, as well as the Rittevons, making them the subjects of a prophecy about the twice-royal queen who will overthrow the Rittevon family. For most of the books, the rebels are preparing for Sarai, the elder sister, to inherit. However, partway through Trickster's Queen, Sarai, who had been Locked Out of the Loop, elopes to Carthak, leaving younger sister Dove, who was aware of the rebellion, to become queen. It's ultimately stated that Dove makes a better ruler, anyway.
  • Trinity's Child by William Prochnau. As the result of a nuclear attack on the U.S., the Secretary of the Interior assumes the Presidency. Later, the President is found to still be alive, and a power struggle ensues.
  • Undefeated Bahamut Chronicle has a double example with the royal family of the New Kingdom Atismata. Count Atismata was a noble in the country that preceded the New Kingdom, the Old Arcadia Empire. He had two daughters, the elder of whom was Lisha. The Count led a rebellion against the Empire, causing Lisha to be kidnapped as a hostage. He chose to continue his rebellion, with his younger daughter set to become princess of the royal family that he would establish. Although the rebellion was successful, both Count Atismata and the younger daughter was killed. As a result, the Count's sister Raffi became Queen, and she adopted Lisha as her own daughter and made her the princess.
  • Warday by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka. After a limited nuclear war, the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury (the highest ranking remaining official) becomes the self-described caretaker President.
  • Warrior Cats has a few examples.
    • While Firestar's ascension to the leader of Thunderclan itself was not unexpected, him becoming the next in line before said succession happened very much was. There is only one official warrior rank in the line of succession below leader, the deputy, and it almost universally goes to a senior warrior who has lived in the clan for many years and seen countless battles. Firestar was the youngest warrior at the time, was not born in the clan, and was quite the rulebreaker to boot, making him possibly the least likely candidate other than the apprentices and kits. He was only chosen because he saved Bluestar's life from her previous deputy, making him the only one she fully trusted due to her being shaken by her trusted deputy's betrayal.
    • Tigerstar's ascension to the leader of Shadowclan was especially unexpected, given that he wasn't even a member of the clan at the time. After being exiled from Thunderclan, he came across Shadowclan, which was being ravaged by a horrible illness. Both its leader and deputy had been killed by said sickness, and the rest of the clan were either gravely ill or too demoralized to step up to the position. Thus, when Tigerstar, a healthy, powerful, and well-respected cat showed up, they desperately begged him to take up the position of their leader.
  • In Wings of Fire: Darkstalker, the six-year-old princess Pearl escaped a killer's rampage through the palace by staying still and covering herself with blood. Since all the older heirs are dead or male, she is crowned queen.
  • Worldwar: Striking the Balance by Harry Turtledove. In an alternate history, Secretary of State Cordell Hull assumes the Presidency after Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death. Vice President Henry Wallace had been killed when Seattle was nuked by the Race, and the succession law of the time put the Secretary of State next in the line of succession.
  • In the novelisation of the TV show Yes, Prime Minister, the ruling political party has to decide — quickly — on electing a new Leader who according to the British constitution will relace the newly-resigned Prime Minister. The Home Secretary was expected to succeed but has just been forced to resign due to a drink driving scandal. Two strong candidates emerge, but each has the potential to split the party as both carry a massive Hatedom as well as enough supporters to make their candidacy plausible. The British Civil Service then manipulates things so that a third candidate emerges — a compromise candidate, a man thought so mediocre that nobody in the Party can be bothered to hate him very much. This is vital so as to maintain unity of Government and to give the Civil Service a jolly good chap as figurehead, who they think they can easily manipulate and hoodwink. Enter James Hacker, MP, soon to become Prime Minister...
  • The Fifth Elephant: The Low King of the Dwarves plays with the trope a bit, since the post is an Elective Monarchy. The appointment was rather hotly contested thanks to dwarven society going through some cultural shifts that not everyone was happy about (which would go on to drive the plot of Thud!), and the new Low King is said to have been from a small and not particularly significant clan that had barely been involved in the power struggle, and got the job largely because nobody disliked him enough to really oppose him as a candidate. If certain factions were hoping this would mean he was a biddable nonentity who'd sign what he was told to sign and not make waves, they were thoroughly disappointed.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Laura Roslin from Battlestar Galactica, who as the Secretary of Education was 43rd in line of succession. She became President after the Cylons' nuclear attack killed everyone higher-ranking than her.
    • She was actually asked to resign her position by the President a few days earlier, after going against his wishes when dealing with a teacher's strike. Her resignation would have been made official when she got back to Caprica from the Galactica.
  • Brazilian mini-series O Brado Retumbante tells the story of an honest congressman who is elected Speaker of the House with the aid of a corrupt senator looking forward to use him as a puppet. He then suddenly becomes the leader of the nation when both the President and the Vice President suddenly die in a helicopter crash (as a rule, heads of state and their immediate successors don't take the same transport IRL when it can be avoided, specifically to avert things like this).
  • Designated Survivor centers on this trope. After a bombing during the State of the Union address takes out all the higher-ranking members of government, Tom Kirkman, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is the only one able to take on the presidency. Taking the office amongst the ashes of the United States Federal government is only the beginning of his problems — amongst other issues, he had been asked to resign his cabinet post shortly before the bombing. In fact, he was named designated survivor precisely because President Richmond didn't want him at the address.
  • Doctor Who: In "Aliens of London"/"World War Three", the villains' plan revolves around this. They make the Prime Minister "disappear" and arrange for the Cabinet to be stranded outside London, leaving the most senior government Member of Parliament in the city to take the role of acting PM during a crisis involving an alien spacecraft crashing in the city a man who has been killed and impersonated by the villains' leader. When the crisis is over Harriet Jones, junior MP from Flydale North who is the only elected representative remaining in 10 Downing Street, ends up in the spotlight and is selected as the new PM.
  • In The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the episode "Nice Lady" sees Will acting as a guide for Lady Penelope Fowler, the daughter of butler Geoffrey's old employers; when Will states that Lady Penelope is "just a girl", Geoffrey responds with "Just a girl? Master William, if all 895 members of the Royal Family suddenly died, she would be the next Queen of England."
  • Game of Thrones:
    • Jon Snow, a bastard son who had previously forsaken all rights to own land and wear crowns, succeeds his brother Robb as the King in the North when the Northern lords proclaim Jon as their king. It's also revealed that he's the trueborn son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, meaning he's the rightful king of Westeros...if that knowledge becomes public.
    • Egg (King Aegon V Targaryen) was not the eldest son and was not expected to become king. Maester Aemon was not the eldest son either. But the heir to the throne died, and Aemon refused the throne due to his vows as a maester (and not wanting to fight his own brother) and left to join the Night's Watch to remove himself from court. Thus the crown passed to Aegon V.
  • Jericho. Nuclear attacks leave the Secretary of Health and Human Services as the highest surviving official. Some people do not agree...
  • On The Last Ship, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jeff Michener, normally number 12 on the Presidential line of succession (a fact he points out himself), is the only member of the line who happens to have a natural immunity to the Red Flu, leaving him the highest-ranking surviving member of the US federal government and default President. At the end of Season 2, a judge formally swears him in, making it official.
    • Season 3 reveals that for his Vice-President, Michener chooses Howard Oliver, the Mayor of St. Louis... mostly just because that happens to be the city chosen as the new capital, and because Oliver did a fairly decent job managing the quarantine there. Midway through the season, Michener is assassinated by The Conspiracy, and Oliver becomes President.
  • A sketch in one of Spike Milligan's shows had a Britain devastated after a nuclear war where the national anthem was "God Bless Mrs Ethel Stokes".
  • Red Dwarf plays with this trope, albeit with the role of captain rather than political office. True to the trope, Rimmer was very far from being captain and then everyone between him and the position was killed (as in, he was outranked by everyone except one person and that was the only person not killed). Rimmer likes to think of himself as being in effective command of the ship as the most senior crewmember. However, no one other than Rimmer seems to consider Rimmer the commanding officer.
  • Supernatural: In "Stuck In The Middle (With You)" it's revealed this is how Crowley became the King of Hell. Following the end of Season 5 Azazel, Lilith, and Alistair are dead and Lucifer is back in his cage leaving hell without leadership. Crowley Offered the Crown to Ramial the Prince of Hell, and not only did Ramial turn it down, he said the other Princes would all turn it down too. He suggests that Crowley take the crown before some other "young and hungry" demon does instead.
  • Joked about in the first episode of Taskmaster; during his introduction for Tim Key, one of the contestants and a performance poet, Greg Davies sarcastically notes that Key will one day be Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom "if there's some sort of massive poet disaster."
  • The West Wing:
    • During a kidnapping crisis, the President temporally steps down, and since there is no Vice-President at that moment, he appoints the Speaker of The House as the new commander-in-chief. Bear in mind, in this scenario a Democrat is passing the power to a Republican. And the Republican who gets the job? King Ralph, himself.
    • In another episode, the president meets with the Designated Survivor before a State of the Union and he advises him on what to do should the unthinkable happen (notably, in real life, the designated survivor is never briefed or advised on emergency procedures, presumably to prevent this second-rank secretary getting in the way of people who actually know what they are doing).
      President Bartlet: First thing always is national security. Get your commanders together. Appoint joint chiefs. Appoint a chairman. Take us to Defcon 4. Have the governors send emergency delegates to Washington. The assistant attorney general is gonna be the acting A. G. If he tells you he wants to bring out the National Guard, do what he tells you. You got a best friend?
      Roger Tribby, Secretary of Agriculture: Yes, sir.
      Bartlet: Is he smarter than you?
      Tribby: Yes, sir.
      Bartlet: Would you trust him with your life?
      Tribby: Yes, sir.
      Bartlet: That's your chief of staff... Oh, in the [White House] residence, in the second floor, the bathroom at the end of the hall. You have to jiggle the handle of the toilet door.

  • A major plot-point in 1865. Nobody, not even Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, expected Johnson to become president. Lincoln primarily took him on Vice President in hopes to keeping Boarder States from joining the Confederacy. Johnson becoming president at such a crucial times for America, and his opposition to many of Lincoln’s policies, forms the bulk of the plot and his conflict with Edwin Stanton.

    Video Games 
  • King Airyglyph in Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, who was known as Airyglyph the Unlikely.
  • Ashnard in Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance killed his father and everyone who was ahead of him in order to get the throne of Daein, starting from fairly far down the line of succession. The sequel claims he killed everyone else off by making his father sign a blood contract, then invoking it, everyone but his father died randomly in what people thought was a plague. This is unpopular among the fanbase as it seems to have been thrown in there to demonstrate the power of the blood contract (which was never mentioned in the first game), and takes away from Ashnard's personality of loving to kill people firsthand.
    • Also from Path of Radiance is Elincia, who was a Hidden Backup Princess that most of her country didn't know existed until word of her leading the Crimean army spread. The only reason she's next in line for the throne is that her father and uncle died. Actually, her uncle survived and is Brainwashed and Crazy, but same difference. And he lets her rule when he's cured in the sequel. This has repercussions in the sequel, where her first years as Queen are difficult due to many of the nobles disapproving of her.
    • And finally, Micaiah in Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn becomes Queen of Daein, despite having no ties to its royal family at all, due to Pelleas either dying, or being revealed to not be Ashnard's son. And Ashnard's real son isn't aware of his heritage and likely doesn't care.
    • A more positive example is in Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War. Erinys was just an elite Pegasus Knight from Silesse, but is not of any nobility nor did she possess a Holy Blood, but after the disastrous Battle of Belhalla, the supposed successor/Prince, Lewyn (canonically her husband) was killed, and then his mother Queen Rahna was also killed defending her home, and since her more capable sister Annand has been long dead, Rahna entrusted Erinys as the next Queen of Silesse. Erinys went on to be a loving High Queen popular amongst the population and her children looked up to her.
    • Hinoka in the Conquest route and Leo in the Birthright route of Fire Emblem Fates: neither of them expected to succeed to the throne cause they were third in line to their respective thrones, but both Hinoka's brothers died before her and Leo's brother died and his sister abdicated. Technically speaking, the Avatar becoming king/queen of Valla in Revelations also counts, first off because the country technically didn't exist or rather had been cursed into being forgotten, and second because Azura was the rightful heir, but she willingly gives it up in the Avatar's favor (unless they're married, in which case they're co-rulers).
  • In Betrayal at Krondor, this is part of Gorath's backstory. He becomes chieftain at the age of twelve when his tribe very nearly gets massacred, including the former chieftain, his father. Oh, and a dark elf like him would otherwise be expected to spend at least a century or two getting prepped for the position and would need to have lots of accomplishments to his name before being considered even marginally eligible.
  • GDI Director Redmond Boyle in Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars was originally the GDI Treasurer, and was the only ranking member of GDI government not on the Philadelphia when it was destroyed. However, it is revealed in the Expansion Pack that Kane purposely manipulated events so that Boyle would become Director.
  • This can happen to the player in the Total War series.
    • In Shogun: Total War, because of the way that births of heirs, aging, and succession are modelled, if you fail to manage your family properly, odd stuff can happen. Only the player's current character can die of old age or sire children, and the chance is random on any turn with penalties for age. For instance, the 90-year-old uncle of the current Daimyo, immune to age since he's not the head of the family, could be the only one left if the Daimyo's sons all die in battle or assassinations. He succeeds the throne when his 60-some-year-old nephew dies, and then himself dies the next turn on a random old-age roll buoyed up by 30 years of penalties, ending the game.
    • In later games in the Total War series, the game doesn't end, your country "merely" goes into civil war as any general with a drop of royal blood tries to claim the throne. The player is allowed to pick one of the claimants to make the de facto legitimate heir, and everyone else gets treated as a Rebel faction by the game. Players at risk of this have been known to marry a princess to their best general, which gives him a claim to the throne too. After all, if you're gonna have to fight your own guys, might as well do it with your best commander and biggest army. In in-game terms, this can result in a minor lord, knight, or even commoner being vaulted onto the throne. Which, considering how one of the three Great Unifiers of Japan was a peasant-born samurai, makes it a rather delicious bit of irony for a player.
  • Peony in Tales of the Abyss. He's the illegitimate son of the emperor, when his half brothers all die he ends up being shipped back to the capitol for Cram School a la governing, instead of going down a cadet line, or some other noble house. In this case, "unexpected" only describes an outside perspective, though: because The Score (the prophecy that controls the world's fate) is a completely accurate prediction of the future, Peony's father had been told that he would eventually ascend to the throne. That was why Peony was sent away from the court intrigues to live incognito, where he ran off from his guards to play with commoner children.
  • Tactics Ogre is in love with this trope. The previous monarch, King Dorgalua, was a commoner who managed to become the first king of Valeria by defeating his biggest rival, King Roderick, in the middle of a bloody ethnic civil war. Dorgalia has a legitimate son with a Bacrum noblewoman, but he dies at a young age and so does the Queen. This leaves Valeria in yet another civil war, which each one of the ethnic groups being led by a different pretender, all trying to become King. Ultimately it turns out that Catiua, the protagonist Denim's adopted sister, is the unknown bastard daughter of King Dorgalia, and thus the rightful Queen. Depending upon the ending, either she can be the Unexpected Successor, or it can be Denim himself if she gets killed. Denim's military might is really the only thing that holds together either crowning. Literally every other rival is dead by then. God only knows who will become King in the bad ending, where Denim gets assassinated on his coronation day. But Catiua becoming Queen seems to be the canon ending.
  • In Final Fantasy VII after the death of President Shinra and Vice President Rufus, the various less competent Shinra executives enjoy a brief stint running the show.
  • A Succession Crisis in Final Fantasy Tactics leaves nearly everyone with a semi-legitimate claim to the throne either dead or otherwise disposed of, paving the way for Delita, a once-poor stable boy who worked his way up through the military via masterful Xanatos Speed Chess, to take the throne of Ivalice by marrying Ovelia, the only surviving claimant just before her coronation. Ovelia's ascension was just as unlikely and just as masterfully orchestrated, only by powers beyond her own control. She too was a commoner who was switched at birth with the real Princess Ovelia, who had already died, and raised as the ailing king's younger sister.note  She was then used as a political pawn by Duke Goltana, who intended to place her on the throne, assume power as her regent, and then have her executed. Ultimately, Goltana is betrayed and murdered (by Delita), even though his faction wins the War of the Lions, so Ovelia ascends to the throne as a proper queen ... or would have, had Delita not married her and become king by default. He then goes on to kill her, but that's just because she went crazy and tried to kill him first.
  • Final Fantasy XII sees command of the Imperial army fall into the lap of Judge Zargabaath, the rarely seen low man on the Judge Magistrate totem pole simply because all the other Judges are either dead or have jumped ship.
  • In the Neverwinter Nights module The Bastard of Kosigan, your character is the illegitimate son of the present Count's younger brother; the present Count has two legitimate and one illegitimate son, and the elder legitimate son has a wife and son. Over the course of the game, all five people in line ahead of you (your father is already dead) get killed off by you/Alex/each other/French assassins, leaving your character with the best claim. The French plot initially involved killing you off as well, which would have left a French general with the title by virtue of being of a branch of the family that diverged several centuries ago.
  • In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, after The Emperor Uriel Septim was assassinated, along with all four of his sons, it turns out that he has an unknown illegitimate son — Martin Septim — who becomes Emperor after you deliver the Requisite Royal Regalia... and then deliver Martin. Though he has to make a Heroic Sacrifice before he is formally declared Emperor by lighting the Dragonfires, leaving the throne empty.
    • In Skyrim, this is the outcome of several major guild/faction questlines, where the Player Character starts off as a new recruit and running a few errands for higher ups. Before long they are getting involved in some larger crisis the group is dealing with, which inevitably leads to the death of the current leader (or in the case of the Thieves' Guild their exposure as a traitor). It falls to the player and some of their mentors in the guild/faction to resolve it, and at the end they are chosen as the new leader over several more senior members who have been around for years
  • According to pre-release articles, Ian Dresari from MechWarrior 4, due to being third in line of succession for his family, ended up becoming a lazy, party-loving Jerkass, so he was disowned and went to the military. Then the rest of his family is killed, so he suddenly finds himself as the apparently only heir and a resistance leader. Meanwhile, his cousin is installed as a Puppet Duke by the enemy.
  • Happens twice in the same country in Dragon Quest VIII. King Clavius of Argonia only became the king because his elder brother deserted the country. Then his useless son Prince Charmles is expected to be his heir, until the Rite of Passage ceremony, where he needs to get a jewel called an Argon Heart from an Argon Lizard. The heroes are sent to assist him, and get a decently-sized Heart after obtaining a bunch of small ones. Then he goes back to town and buys a larger one, which his father witnesses. In the Good Ending, the Hero is revealed to be Clavius's long-lost brother's son, making him a potential heir. And care to guess which potential heir produced a legitimately-obtained Argon Heart?
  • Happens at times in Crusader Kings and its sequel. There's a couple of major reasons. Firstly, because this is the Middle Ages, essentially anyone in the line of succession may abruptly die of pneumonia/assassinations/hunting accidents at any time. Secondly, some of the succession laws can be kind of hard to predict, specifically Elective, since in the first game it's largely based on the number of provinces and so can swap at any time, while in the second game it depends on how the vassals feel at the precise moment the previous ruler dies. Lastly and most importantly, sometimes the minor distant relation with no real expectation of getting the throne is in the player's dynasty, and the player will stop at nothing to make this trope happen.
  • The Reaper invasion in Mass Effect 3 leads to several of these happening:
    • General Adrien Victus finds himself promoted to Primarch of the turian race (essentially Commander-in-Chief of the entire military-structured Turian Hierarchy) in the opening days of the Reaper War. This comes as an extreme surprise to him: while he's a very competent military commander, the fact that he has a habit of ignoring standard military doctrine in favor of unorthodox tactics means that he's always been passed up for further promotion. The fact that he of all people has been promoted so high up is a sign of just how badly the war is going for the turians.
    • Later, it's possible for Shepard to tease Garrus about the possibility of becoming Primarch Vakarian, given his evident yet nebulous high position in the turian military (he has no official rank, but an impressive amount of resources were laid at his disposal a few months before the Reapers finally attacked). Garrus is unwilling to even discuss the possibility.
    • The Codex mentions in passing that Admiral Hackett, recently the commander of the Systems Alliance Fifth Fleet, is now the de facto leader of humanity as a whole, due to his rallying of surviving human forces after the initial Reaper assault, and his leveraging the surviving colonies to get support for the Crucible, while trying to delay the Reaper advance. By the end of the game, he is arguably the single most powerful organic being in the galaxy by right of his position leading the combined military forces of the entire Milky Way galaxy in the climactic battle.
    • If you completed the "Bring Down the Sky" DLC in Mass Effect, a sidequest reveals that Balak, the Big Bad of that mission, is currently the highest-ranking military officer in the batarian forces. This is a sign of just how badly the batarians were decimated during the initial invasion—Balak is a captain.
    • Mass Effect: Andromeda: Director Tann was eighth in line for leadership of the Andromeda Initiative (he was originally Head of Finances and Accounting), but an unexpected cosmic exploding spiderweb destroyed most of the ship and left the survivors ripe for lynching by rioting colonists, leaving the arrogant and hard-ass Tann in a position he was clearly never meant for.
  • Subverted in Knights of the Old Republic. Canderous seems an unlikely pick to become leader and de facto patriarch of the Mandalorian people. But the backstory and a few hints he drops in-game point to the fact he wasn't just a low-ranking Mook in Mandalore's forces; he'd merely fallen on hard times after his peoples' defeat. Revan sealed the deal by handing over his predecessor's mask and telling him that he's in charge now.
  • Star Wars: The Old Republic: Knights of the Fallen Empire: during the Eternal Empire Conquest of the galaxy, a rival Sith Empire has its ruling system decimated to the point that the highest official able to negotiate the treaty is the Minister of Logistics. In the aftermath, the only Sith of the ruling Dark Council not dead or in hiding is Darth Acina, an extremely minor character, who proclaims herself the new Empress.
  • Dragon Age:
    • Dragon Age: Origins: When King Cailan dies at Ostagar, the only member of the Theirin bloodline left is his half-brother Alistair, who is not only a bastard but a supposedly politically neutral Grey Warden. The only other viable candidate for the throne is Cailan's widow Anora, who is herself only second-generation nobility with no blood claim to the crown at all.
    • In Dragon Age II, meanwhile, the position of Viscount of Kirkwall is left vacant for years after the old Viscount and his son are killed, with Knight Commander Meredith seizing control and refusing to allow a new appointment to be made. After Meredith's downfall, the post can (briefly) be filled by Hawke, who soon disappears and leaves leadership of the city to Seneschal Bran and Guard-Captain Aveline. Eventually, once the main plot of Dragon Age: Inquisition has run its course, a new Viscount is finally named: Varric Tethras, an author and merchant who isn't even human.
  • In the backstory of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, Emperor Dreichels the Lionheart was the illegitimate son of a common-born mistress, and such wasn't technically in the line of succession for the throne of Erebonia at all. But after a five-way civil war left him the last man standing in the royal family, he was crowned anyway.

    Visual Novels 
  • Eva Ushiromiya in Umineko: When They Cry. More exactly, in the third arc. Although she's not actually that far down the chain, there was no reason to expect her brother Krauss to pass away, and after he does, the hope would be that Jessica's husband could succeed him. In addition, Eva has the Heir Club for Men baggage to deal with.
    • Kinzo Ushiromiya himself is one of these too.

  • Sil'lice Val'Sharen of Drowtales as a middle child of the queen Diva'ratrika, never really received much attention from her mother, who outright thought Sil'lice did not display traits worthy of being her heir. Then the Nidraa'chal war started and three of Sil'lice's sisters betrayed their clan, killed off their mother and successfully broke the will of the last daughter of Divaratrika, taking full control of their clan at the same time. Sil'lice was the only one who remained true to their mother and is the last true Val'Sharen and now hides among the Val'Sarghress, taking every effort to destroy her sisters and keep the Val'Sharen clan true.Diva, a former slave whose body now contains the soul of Diva'ratrika, is working alongside Sil'lice, well keeping the fact she is Diva'ratrika secret.
  • It's Walky!: Walky's mother becomes Big Boss after the previous one is killed and everyone ahead of her on the SEMME hierarchy is too old, crazy, or dead to take over.
  • As his Start of Darkness reveals, Redcloak from The Order of the Stick was the newest acolyte in the hierarchy of the Dark One's priesthood, and became the High Priest because the Sapphire Guard killed everyone else in the order except him.
  • Schlock Mercenary Book 15 ends up with Breya, previously kicked upstairs to the uneviable position of "lobbyist manager", effectively leading the UNS due to a Staged Populist Uprising killing most everyone above her. Ironically, the revolution was supposed to be kickstarted by her assassination, but the Toughs accidentally foiled that.
  • In S.S.D.D Robert gets unexpectedly promoted to 1st Engineer on the Britannia after a Killer Robot attack kills all his co-workers. Largely because he was a cyborg without a pulse.
  • In Legostar Galactica, Carl Weyland is introduced as the Minister of Restructuring, the man in charge of ensuring a smooth transition from one President to the next. Given that the Presidents and Vice Presidents he's serving under tend to be Sith Lords with the Chronic Backstabbing Disorder that comes with, he's got his work cut out for him. When the Sith are overthown wholesale, Weyland, suddenly without a new President to transition to, ends up stepping into the top spot himself. Fortunately for everyone, he's a far more Reasonable Authority Figure than his predecessors.

    Web Original 
  • Fear, Loathing and Gumbo on the Campaign Trail '72 is an alternate history story that kicks off with a Presidential succession crisis after a hung election. Through a series of complications, Spiro Agnew ends up as Acting President. He promptly restarts the Vietnam War, tanks the economy, and makes a lot of senior officials fear he'll kick off World War Three. Then his criminal history comes out and impeachment efforts start. Because he's technically still the Vice President, the Oval Office would fall into the hands of the Speaker of the House... who's a Democrat. Agnew assumes his own party won't hand the Executive over to the other side, regardless of what they think of his job performance, an assumption the Speaker shares. So the Congressional leadership exploits the loophole discussed at the top of this page: the Speaker of the House can be anyone. The House membership appoints the Speaker, but it's only long-standing tradition that the Speaker is a member of the majority party. Legally, any American citizen can be made Speaker so long as the House membership elects them to the office. Thus, the non-partisian retired Lieutenant General James "Jumpin' Jim" Gavin is appointed as Speaker, and Agnew is promptly kicked out of the White House.
  • This is how Donald Doyle became the General of the Federation of Chorus in Red vs. Blue. The civil war has been so brutal that the former secretary to the Brigadier is now the highest-raking person left. As such, he is the leader of the Federation, though he doesn't exhibit very good leadership skills, relying on the mercenary Locus to get things done.
  • Noob: The titular guild starts out with four members: Arthéon, Omega Zell, Gaea and a Stupid Good Manchild Sparadrap. In Season 4, by which the guild has two newer recruits, Arthéon takes time off to pursue other activities and makes Omega Zell acting guild master. Power struggles and personal ambitions cause Gaea and Omega Zell to leave the guild. When the holder of the acting Guild Master leaves, the seniormost of the remaining guild members gets it; now eveyone left has Sparadrap as their leader. And due to refounding the guild after Arthéon dissolved it in a fit of rage, his guild master office ends up permanent.
  • Featured in The Onion article "Secretary Of Interior Takes Presidential Oath Of Office." According to now-President Sally Jewel, "I still can't believe the President, Vice President, Speaker of the House, President Pro Tem, Sec. of State, Sec. of the Treasury, Sec. of Defense, and Attorney General were all in that hot-air balloon."

    Western Animation 
  • Used as a gag in the Animaniacs episode set in Anvilania. Yakko arrives to take over the throne, and sings a very complicated song explaining where he fits in the line of succession (extremely low), which ends with him noting sadly that everyone named in the song is dead, leaving him King.
    I'm the cousin to the sister of the son's niece's brother
    Of the uncle's daughter's father of the nephew's sister's mother
    And my grandpa's only cousin was the king's daughter's sibling...
    But they're all gone, so that is why...I am now your king!
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender:
    • Fire Lord Zuko, although he was technically Crown Prince for at least five years before gaining the throne. He'd been banished and then declared a traitor (twice), so he wasn't even in the running anymore. But when you and your friends oust the only two legitimate rulers with the support of a possible third, no one is going to say anything.
    • Zuko's father, Fire Lord Ozai, fits even better. He was either second or third in line after elder brother Iroh, and possibly his nephew Lu Ten. Then Lu Ten died in battle and Iroh fell into a deep depression just as the then-current Fire Lord, Azulon, died. Just before this, to punish Ozai for talking to Azulon about removing Iroh from the line of succession, Azulon ordered him to kill Zuko. Ursa found out and made a deal with Ozai: she would kill Azulon and leave the palace if Ozai doesn't kill Zuko. Ozai agreed. Ozai announced a very convenient deathbed wish by Azulon for Ozai to inherit, and Iroh, half a world away and still in mourning for his son, did not oppose him (and likely was unwilling to plunge the Fire Nation into civil war to wrest power away from his younger brother when he returned to the capitol).
  • DuckTales (2017): Only Scrooge McDuck's true heir can find the Papyrus of Binding. In the end it's not his nephew Donald, his niece Della, or any of the triplets, Huey, Dewey, or Louie, but Webby that is Scrooge's true heir. Not only does she embody all of Scrooge's best traits, and he considers her family, it's discovered in the Grand Finale she's his Opposite-Sex Clone, thus also a biological heir.

    Real Life 
  • The English and British monarchies have been practically defined by this since the Wars of the Roses, due to Chronic Backstabbing Disorder, low fertility, dissolution, and bad luck.
    • Richard III was not only the youngest of four surviving sons of Richard, Duke of York, making succeeding to the throne rather unlikely (though not impossible, given the turbulent nature of the Wars of the Roses) to begin with, but the rather large gaggle of children his eldest brother, Edward IV, produced and the existence of a male heir of his other brother, George, Duke of Clarence (he of malmsey butt fame) made accession almost impossible. Then George was attainted for treason, removing his children from the line, and it was revealed that the rather promiscuous Edward had made a precontract of marriage with another woman before marrying his queen, thus making all his children illegitimate and suddenly catapulting Richard to kingship.
      • Interestingly, some have postulated that the two events are not unrelated, since George had previously been pardoned for his rebellion in 1469-1471, meaning that he must have done something else to cause an execution (and one could be charged for high treason at that time for attempting to muck about with the succession) and furthermore, Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, was at that time imprisoned in the Tower for "uttering seditious words," under which charge the crime of revealing the existence of the precontract to George would have neatly fallen. All this is not to mention the fact that the queen, who came from a minor noble family whose members had been suddenly catapulted to prominence, certainly had reason to fear a loss of her and her family's royal power and prestige.
    • At the time of his birth, Richard III's successor Henry Tudor was second in line for the throne as the half-nephew of King Henry VI, although his claim was through his mother and came via a lineage that had been both legitimised by law and barred from future ascension by Richard IInote . He became a much more unlikely successor when Edward Duke of York killed the King and the crown prince, and installed his two sons and two brothers in the order of succession. No one thought Henry Tudor could beat those odds, but he emerged from the civil war as Henry VII and made sure of the throne by marrying the most plausible other successor, Elizabeth of York who as the eldest daughter and child of Edward IV with no surviving brothers had a strong claim which she passed to her children.
    • When Henry VIII died in 1547, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was 4th in line for the English throne, after Henry's three healthy legitimate children. It was considered very unlikely the Stuarts would ever rule England, especially considering that Margaret Tudor (who her claim came through) had relinquished her claim to the throne, making Mary's claims rather tenuous, Scotland and England were enemies for much of Henry's reign, and she was a Catholic (despite the increasing Protestantism of her people, particularly in the Lowlands) while England became increasingly Protestant. However, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I all assumed the throne and then died childless (Edward having died young before he could find a bride, Mary apparently having been infertile, and Elizabeth having refused to marry for political reasons). As Mary herself was also dead (executed after being caught in England after attempting to assassinate Elizabeth, no less) 56 years after Henry's death, Mary's son James VI of Scotland became James I of England, seen by Elizabeth and the English people as the best option as all others were either convicted for treason, too young, or Catholic (and James had been raised Protestant at the insistence of the powerful Lowland lords).
    • The successors to the Stuarts, the minor German princes of The House of Hanover, were more or less handed the British throne out of nowhere. Under the Act of Settlement 1701, all Catholics were excluded from the succession, and Queen Anne's heir was the junior Stuart line of Electress Sophia of Hanover. This is why George I and George II (Sophia's son and grandson) spoke little to no English: they were 41 and 18, respectively, when the Act of Settlement made them second and third in line, and 54 and 31 when the throne passed to their house. This accelerated the trend of direct governance by ministers instead of the monarch, and by the end of George I's reign, the general system used in Britain today had been developed under the guidance of the (unofficial) prime minister Sir Robert Walpole. So, indirectly, we have this trope to thank for the modern system of parliamentary democracy — used in some form by the vast majority of democratic states in existence today.
    • Queen Victoria was a subversion: she was fully expected to inherit the throne from the day she was born, but her existence only came about because Britain unexpectedly found itself without an heir. The previous heir, George IV's daughter Princess Charlotte, had died shortly after delivering a stillborn sonnote  even before her father became King. George IV himself was unlikely to produce a new heir, as he hated his wife so much that nothing could entice him to attempt to father a child with her—he kept trying to divorce her, in fact, though Parliament wouldn't let him—and in any case, by the time Princess Charlotte passed, he probably couldn't father a child if he tried. This led to a mad dash among George's brothersnote  to produce an heir. Victoria became heir because at the end of this race, her father, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, was the oldest son of George III to have surviving legitimate issue (i.e. her).note 
    • King George VI — then Prince Albert, Duke of York — was not expecting to become King, instead planning a naval career and a quiet life with his duchess and their two daughters. Then his older brother pitched a royal fit and abdicated. Cue a constitutional crisis, a world war, and a very uncomfortable King taking the throne of an empire he never expected to reign over. Which he did magnificently — George VI is one of the best beloved monarchs of British history—but at a terrible cost to his personal health. (Incidentally, his father, George V, had a similar trajectory, but since his older brother, Prince Albert Victor, died well before either of them would even get close to the throne, he had more time to adjust.)
  • In the early years, the United States Presidency took this trope to its Logical Extreme: how succession itself worked wasn't made clear, and the precedent set was quite unexpected. Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the United States Constitution did allow for a scenario in which the President died The actual text , but didn't explain if just the powers and duties of the Presidency or the office itself devolved on the Vice President should the sitting President expire before his term did.

    Then in 1841, President William Henry Harrison did exactly that.

    John Tyler's interpretation was that the office of President itself devolved onto the Vice President, not just its powers and duties.note  While it has rarely been invoked beyond Vice Presidents taking over for their late running mates, the US government has a defined line of Presidential succession that lays out who would become President in the event that multiple members of the administration were rendered unable to serve. Because this line of succession also puts a hard limit on how far down the governmental food chain the Presidency can fall, the Secret Service makes certain that one person in the line is not in attendance at any "all hands" event like the State of the Union Address, but instead in a safe house far enough away that no single plausible catastrophe could wipe out the entire succession.
    • Pundits brought this up in the aftermath of the 1981 assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan, where Secretary of State Al Haig told the press, "Pending the arrival of the Vice-President, I'm in charge here at the White House." While he only meant that he was in charge of the administrative staff until VP George H.W. Bush could return from his vacation in Maine, the pundits all ignored the context and treated it as if Haig was trying to stage a coup. Until Bush could be contacted, the acting President was actually Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill† , though his only real responsibility was command over the US nuclear arsenal.
    • The "Designated Survivor" rule has been unofficially extended by Congress to include at least one Senator and one Representative, so that in the event of a decapitation strike there would also be successors to the roles of Senate President Pro Tempore and Speaker of the House.
    • The aforementioned line of succession is not immediately obvious based on contemporary priorities—in case of a decapitation terrorist strike, the Secretary of Homeland Security is last in line. Currently, if something happens to Biden, the office passes first to Vice-President Harris, then Speaker Pelosi.note  If something happens to all three, next is line is Senate President pro tempore Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who holds his position solely by virtue of being the longest continuously-serving member of the majority party.note  The fourth in line is the Secretary of State, and then the other Cabinet Secretaries in order by age of office. Homeland Security is the newest department, and thus the last in line.
    • Also, this only applies during a President's term, and not during an election. If the President-elect dies after the electoral college votes, then the Vice President-elect would become President on Inauguration Day. If, however, the presumed winner dies before the electoral college actually votes, no one's quite sure what would happen as the electors could ignore the popular vote results or refuse to vote for a dead man, and throw the election to someone who wasn't even on the ballot or force the state caucuses in the House to vote instead.Fun Fact! 
    • It was disputed whether the Vice President would be "Acting President" or "President"… until William Henry Harrison died and John Tyler refused to even acknowledge anyone who called his position "Acting". Anyone below the VP, however, would be "Acting President" until the next presidential election, under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 3 USC § 19.
    • This plus appointment being used for mid-term VP replacementsnote  led to Michigan Representative Gerald Ford becoming the only truly unelected President of the United States. All arguments about contested elections aside (and there are plenty), Ford was appointed to the Vice Presidency after Spiro Agnew resigned over accusations of bribery and tax fraud, became president after Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal, then lost to Jimmy Carter in his first national election. This was just after Speaker of the House Carl Albert had passed up the opportunity to make himself Nixon's Unexpected Successor. As Speaker, Albert had the power to prevent Ford's nomination from coming to a vote, thus guaranteeing a VP vacancy after Nixon's by-then-inevitable impeachment or resignation. Albert declined to do so on the grounds that the American people had chosen to have a Republican as President and it would be something verging on a coup if he, a Democrat, arranged his own succession.
  • It should be pointed out that the rules of succession can skip lists based on the individual. The President of the United States must be a citizen by birth (or were citizens of one of the 13 colonies at the time of the country's formation, for you immortals out there) but that does not apply beyond the Vice-President in the succession line. It's entirely possible that a cabinet member or the Speaker could be a naturalized citizen, disqualifying them from becoming President, and thus their next in line is moved up in the line. These cases will never be the designated survivor, so it's very unlikely to be an issue beyond pundit speculation about who the designated survivor is prior to the State of the Union starting.
  • Possibly the greatest subversion of the trope was Ramiro II of Aragon. The fourth son of King Sancho, he wasn't expected to inherit or hold a political position at all and became a priest. However, all three of his elder brothers died without issue, two of them after having seized the crown. He was then literally taken from his abbey, given a Papal permission to abandon his vows so he could guarantee the survival of the dynasty, and crowned. He complied, married, had a daughter, abdicated to her, and had her married when she was 1 year old. With his duty accomplished in record time, he took the vows again and went back to his abbey.
    • Henry of Portugal started off in similar straits but wasn't able to follow through as magnificently—no one expected him to succeed to the throne when his eldest surviving brother became King John III, but during John's reign, their three other brothers died without legitimate issue and both of the king's sons predeceased him. He was succeeded by his infant grandson Sebastian, who died unmarried at the age of 25, leaving his great uncle Henry, by then a 66-year old Catholic cardinal, heir to the throne. Henry applied for papal dispensation to abandon his vow of chastity and father an heir. However, Philip II, the King of Spain, who was Henry's nephew through his older sister, stood a chance of inheriting Portugal were Henry to die without issue, and the Pope at the time, Gregory XIII (the one with the calendar) was (1) a good personal friend of Philip's from his time as Papal Legate to Spain and (2) needed Philip for several projects, including expansion of the Church in Asia and bringing England back into the Catholic fold (that's what the Spanish Armada was about). So the Pope refused to give dispensation, and when Henry died, still unmarried, two years later, there was a Succession Crisis from which Philip II emerged triumphant.
  • Invoked in the later two-thirds of the Qing dynasty of Imperial China. The Yongzheng Emperor had his legitimacy consistently questioned due to the Succession Crisis in 1710-1720s (in which his father deposed the crown prince, then died without naming a replacement), and decided that while the monarch had the power to nominate any successor, no one should feel overly confident of their place in the order of succession. His new succession scheme was thus: every moment the emperor was alive, he was required to have secured somewhere in the palace a sealed will and testament which would only be opened in event of his death. As a result, no heir would be publicly named, and while the emperor's personal preference might be apparent, it would never create a binding order of succession.
  • The French monarchy's application of Salic Law, which not only absolutely forbade female succession but also excluded any claim through female lines, has resulted in several Unexpected Successors when the direct male line has to backtrack quite far into cadet branches:
    • The primacy of Salic Law was established with the succession of King Philip VI. When Philip IV ("the Fair") died, he left three surviving sons (Louis X, Philip V, and Charles IV) and a daughter (Isabella), so his brother's son Philip of Valois was not expected to ever ascend the throne. However, Louis X and Charles IV's wives had recently been condemned for adultery, casting doubt on the legitimacy of their surviving children, all daughters. Then Louis X and Philip V both died in their early 20s, Louis X's posthumous son by his second wife died a few days after birth, and Charles IV died at age 34 in 1328. This left three candidates for the succession: Philip of Valois, Charles of Navarre (son of Jeanne, one of Louis X's daughters) and Edward III of England (son of Isabella). Ironically, the French nobility decided to settle the crisis based on direct male-line descent NOT primarily because of legal precedent from ancient Frankish custom (which was only RetConned into the story two generations later) but because there were strong political arguments against the two candidates with claims through female descent (the suspect legitimacy of Charles' mother and Edward's connections to hostile England—to say nothing of preventing the English monarchs, who were already Dukes of Aquitaine and held other French lands as well, from strengthening their position in France and threatening the power of the other nobles).
    • King Charles VII was unexpected for reasons unrelated to Salic Law. When he was born in 1403, two of his four elder brothers were still alive. Then they both died, leaving Charles the new Dauphin, but the invading English King Henry V forced Charles VI to name Henry successor to the French throne and exclude the Dauphin on the grounds of alleged illegitimate birth. Then against all expectations the apparently invincible Henry died before Charles VI, with the surviving English claimant being the infant Henry VI, and Joan of Arc showed up to help Charles rout the formidable Anglo-Burgundian forces and make good his claim to the throne.
    • King Henry IV. When Henry II of France was killed in a jousting accident in 1559, his dynasty seemed secure as he was survived by no less than four sons. But Francois II died childless in 1560, Charles IX's died in 1574 with his only legitimate child a daughter, and childless Henry III was assassinated in 1589, by which time the youngest brother, Francois Duke of Anjou, had also died unmarried and childless. This left Henry of Navarre as Salic heir, as he could claim direct male-line descent from a younger son of the 13th century King Louis IX.
    • While it was mostly a case of simply going down from father to son, the accession of Louis XV in 1715 was a case of an unexpected, or at any rate unexpectedly young successor. His predecessor Louis XIV had the longest reign of any French king and survived his only legitimate son to survive to adulthood, the Dauphin Louis (died of smallpox in 1711), the latter's eldest son, Louis, Duke of Burgundy (died of measles in February 1712), and the Duke of Burgundy's oldest surviving son Louis, Duke of Brittanynote  (died of measles in March 1712 aged 5). Which led to Louis XIV being succeeded by his great-grandson Louis, Duke of Anjou (younger brother of the Duke of Brittany), aged five years and a half.
    • The fear of an unexpected successor was a major concern for Louis XIV's House of Bourbon at several points:
      • After the death of Louis XIII, Louis XIV and his younger brother Philippe, Duc d'Orléans, were the only agnatic Bourbons. Had they both died, the Salic heir to the throne was the impoverished House of Courtenay, who had branched off the main Capetian line in the 12th century. For various reasons, nobody liked the Courtenays, least of all the Bourbons, and this appears to have informed the terms of the 1662 Treaty of Montmartre in which Louis XIV named the House of Lorrainenote  as heirs to the French throne, even though they descended from the French monarchy only in the female line. It also appears to have influenced great fervor with which the Bourbons went about having offspring. In particular, it seems to have informed Philippe's decision to not only marry a woman, but marry again after his wife had died, and have seven children by his wives, even though he was flamingly gay and might have otherwise been sent to join the Church or otherwise not required to produce children.
      • Philippe's substantial brood led to concern for Louis's line, as (after the Peace of Utrechtnote ) they were the next in line to the throne from the death of the Sun King clear through the 19th century. This was a problem, since the House of Orléans were notorious freethinkers and liberals who delighted in annoying the senior Bourbons. When The French Revolution hit, Philippe II, the Duke of Orléans at the time, sided with the Third Estate, leading to much talk on the Right that he had orchestrated the revolution to seize the throne for himself.
  • Alexander III of Russia is a particularly tragic example. His father, Alexander II, never thought that his son, Nicholas Alexandrovich, would have health problems until Nicholas died suddenly. The second son, Alexander, never was considered for the throne, so he never got the education of his brother and thus reversed many of his father's liberalizing reforms, pushing Russia down a more autocratic path.
    • Speaking of Alexander II, his own father Nicholas I was the third son of Paul I, but succeeded to the throne after his oldest brother Alexander I died without an heir and his second oldest brother Constantine renounced his right to the throne.
  • Very similarly to the above, the noted reformer Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt made sure both of his sons got his reforming outlook. One died before his father, and the other a matter of months later, leaving the country in the hands of the incompetent grandson, Abbas, who proceeded to undo Egypt's modern tax system and set the country towards its eventual domination by the British.
  • The papal succession is elective, not dynastic, but there have been some unexpected successors to St. Peter, especially when the conclave deadlocked over the most obvious candidates and compromised by plucking someone from obscurity. The most notable such case probably occurred after the death of pope Nicolaus IV in 1292, when the conclave was deadlocked for two years. The 85-year-old Benedictine monk and hermit Pietro di Morrone sent them a letter telling them to get along with electing a new pope, and shortly after found himself elected to the post. He at first tried to refuse his new office. Eventually he gave in, took the name Celestine V, but the strain proved too much and so a few months later he became the first pope (and the only one before Benedict XVI) to voluntarily resign from office.
  • Goodluck Jonathan, President of Nigeria 2010-2015, was elected to the largely meaningless post of Vice President under a fellow named Umaru Yar'Adua. When Yar'Adua died early in his term, Jonathan took over, and to everyone's surprise ran for election in his own right in 2011 – the Nigerian political parties had an informal agreement that Muslims and Christians were to take turns as president, but Jonathan, a Christian from southern Nigeria, had been filling the term of a Muslim from the north (Yar'Adua). The fact that Jonathan not only won, but won without serious objection from the predominantly Muslim north, was taken at the time as evidence that Nigeria's long sectarian struggle had, if not ended, then certainly died down. (It helped that Jonathan was acceptably competent as President—if highly corrupt.)
  • While there wasn't much left to take charge of by the time he came to power in May 1945, Großadmiral Karl Dönitz would in 1939 have been a million-to-one-against bet for "leader of Germany when the current hostilities end".
  • Read the summation above of how Jim Hacker actually got to be Prime Minister in Yes, Prime Minister, in both the TV show and the novel. Then fast-forward to real-life events in Great Britain in 1990, when the Conservative Party needed a new leader following Margaret Thatcher's loss of support and decision to withdraw her candidacy. Several strong candidates emerged, each with the potential to split the party into factions. Then a compromise candidate, the grey and relatively un-known John Major, emerged, a man hardly anybody either liked or hated, though he had recently become Chancellor of the Exchequer, often considered the de facto most powerful position after Prime Minister, though was considered quite young at the time for a PM, being only 47. The result was a completely surprising new PM, one tasked with stabilising the nation after the Thatcher years... Surprisingly enough, John Major won the next election, though at the following one lost by a landslide.
  • King William III of the Netherlands (1849-90) was also Grand Duke of the small independent Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Both the Netherlands and Luxembourg had semi-salic succession (meaning that women could inherit the throne only if there was absolutely no male-line heirs left), however, in the Netherlands only descendents of William's grandfather, the first king of the House of Nassau, counted as heirs. Therefore, when all William III's sons died before him, he was succeeded in the Netherlands by his daughter Princess Wilhelmina, and in Luxembourg by his closest male-line relative, Duke Adolph of Nassau-Weilburg — his 17th cousin once removednote . Their last common male-line ancestor was Henry the Rich, Count of Nassau, who had lived over six hundred years earlier (he died in 1250). Duke Adolph is generally considered the most distant "distant relative" to ever inherit a European throne.
  • It was not in the cards that Prince Christian of Glücksburg would inherit the Danish throne as King Christian IX (1863-1906) when he was born in 1818 as the fourth son in an obscure German sideline of the Danish Royal family. However, when it became clear in the 1850'ies that the main line of the Royal House would end with the death of King Frederik VII (1848-63), not only was Christian the only candidate to have spent extensive time in Denmark, he had also married King Frederik's closest female relative, which, due to some ancient and very complicated succession rules, gave him an edge over both his elder brothers, and the competing sideline, the Dukes of Augustenborg.
    • The current monarch of Denmark, Christian IX's great-great granddaughter Margrethe II (1972-), was not expected to succeed her father King Frederik IX (1947-72) at the time of her birth in 1940. However, when Frederik did not have any sons, the constitution was changed in 1953 to allow male-preference primogeniture. This, by the way, was not so much a question of equal rights as politics: The political establishment in Denmark had wanted a new constitution for a long time, however this required a very large level of public approval.note  By promising the people the popular Princess Margrethe as future Queen it was just possible to get the votes required for the new constitution.
  • The last emperors of the Achaemenid Empire were unexpected successors to the throne. The eleventh emperor, Artaxerxes III, came to power after one of his brothers was executed, another committed suicide and another was murdered. Artaxerxes III was then poisoned by the eunuch vizier Bagoas (or died by natural causes) and replaced by his son Arses, who was the youngest son of Arthaxerxes III and his wife Atossa. Arses - Artaxerxes IV - was then killed two years later (along with his family) by Bagoas. Arses was then succeeded by Darius III. And his successor could be the most unexpected of all - 'Artaxerxes V', in fact just a Bactrian satrap (province governor) known by the name of Bessus who killed Darius and attempted to usurp the throne (satraps of Bactria were considered next in line of succession to the royal dynasty though). It was not to be due to Alexander the Great (whose military victory over Darius III enabled the whole Bessus' attempted coup in the first place), and the entire Persian empire abruptly came to an end.
  • Pretty much the entire Julio-Claudian dynasty after Augustus were very low on their predecessor's list of preferred heirs, but wound up emperor after everyone ahead of them fell victim to freak accidents or familial scheming. Of particular note is Claudius, who was expressly forbidden from holding public office by both Augustus (his step-grandfather) and Tiberius (his uncle), only to be installed as emperor after the Praetorian Guard got sick of his nephew Caligula.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: