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Useless Protagonist

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Well you might as well have been!

A Useless Protagonist is exactly that: a Point of View character who can only watch as more capable supporting characters bust their asses saving both them and the world. They may become more badass later on, but they always start as something of a pansy.

This may seem similar to First-Person Peripheral Narrator, but it's not quite the same. The First-Person Peripheral Narrator isn't the most key player, but can still be useful, often as the Sidekick. A character falling under this trope might really be the center of attention but is simply incapable of doing anything useful.

Think of it this way: Arthur is The Chosen One, but he is utterly powerless on his own and isn't even a Badass Normal, so he sits around doing nothing. Fortunately, he has Bob and Charlie to protect him, with Bob being the most important heroic force both in combat and in planning, and Charlie acting as his sidekick and, though not being as awesome as Bob, still being very useful. Think of Bob and Charlie as Batman and Robin, and Arthur as some poor schmuck in the story they have to save because he is the living descendant of Jesus, and poses a threat to the Catholic Church simply by existing.

If Charlie is the narrator, then he is the First-Person Peripheral Narrator, because, even though he's incredibly useful, this obviously isn't his story. If Arthur is the narrator, then he is this trope, because he doesn't do anything useful at all. He is not the First-Person Peripheral Narrator, however, because he is The Chosen One and the focus of the plot and action and this is ostensibly his story, even if Bob and Charlie do all the work.

Note that this is not a one-time uselessness due to strange effects, or a long-term effect on someone who requires protection. It's a healthy character with no good excuse for cowering behind their constant savior. The literary term for this is "agency": a character has agency when they act rather than react, when the story proceeds because of their actions rather than through the actions of others. A character with little to no agency has the plot happen to them, with little control over the outcome, while a character with a lot of agency drives the plot: their actions force other characters to act or react.

Another thing to think about is that this is not a place for "weak" protagonists. "Useless" entails someone who is completely ineffective in all story-important aspects. Some protagonists that lack physical strength are useful by being brilliant in some other fashion, a la The Chessmaster.

Contrast Pinball Protagonist where a character does have useful skills, but is incapable of acting on their own initiative because stronger characters have set the plot on rails. Not related to a Spotlight-Stealing Squad taking focus from the lead. Compare Helpless Observer Protagonist.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Zig-zagged in Cells at Work!. The red blood cell is hopeless at fighting the various pathogens that threaten the body, but she's useful as a framing device for said fights. Several chapters/episodes also focus on her actually doing her job... not that she's much better at it (having No Sense of Direction is a very bad thing when you need to navigate something as complicated as the human body), but it's something.
  • Hiro Hiyorimi of Princess Resurrection - much more so in the anime version, where he's generally completely incapacitated while Hime and the others take down the Monster of the Week.
  • Yukiteru of Future Diary frequently slipped into this, often sitting back and letting Yuno or someone else (like Akise) solve his problems for him for entire arcs at a time. He got better once he was broken and subsequently Took a Level in Badass.
  • Defied in Fate/stay night, where Shirou constantly tries to be important to combat even though Saber is clearly far stronger. He eventually succeeds in all three routes, and in one timeline becomes Archer (though not without cost).
  • Ai and Yu in Final Fantasy: Unlimited often find themselves overmatched by the sorcerers and monsters in Wonderland.
  • The main character in the anime adaption of Agatha Christie's works rarely has any important roles beyond finding Red Herring clues. She does get A Day in the Limelight when she substitutes a one-shot character who plays a crucial role in the novel that arc was based on.
  • Minato of Sekirei starts out this way, but later on begins to be a bit of a planner. It can't really be helped considering he is the heart in a series of super powered Action Girls. He also winds up taking notes from Seo and accompanies his Sekirei in their missions as support. Plus, as an Ashikabi, if he dies, so do all 6 of his Sekirei.
  • Madoka Kaname from Puella Magi Madoka Magica until very late in the series, despite being the main character mostly seems to around to be tortured and for other characters to rescue. As in, the very last episode. In the previous timelines, however, she kicks massive amounts of ass. Note that she's being kept in this role by Homura Akemi, who has very good reasons.
  • Yuri from Alien Nine. She really only cries and has nightmares during the whole series.
  • Italy from Hetalia: Axis Powers. So much. Germany acts as his baby sitter. Lampshaded as the title Hetalia comes from the Japanese words for 'useless' and 'Italy'.
  • Played with in Neon Genesis Evangelion. Shinji isn't a Useless Protagonist but a number of other characters, including Shinji himself, view him as this. It's a major part of the crippling inferiority complex Shinji has.
  • Remove Misuzu from AIR and all it would do is remove her arc.
  • In defiance of the Harem Anime convention, Issei Hyoudou of High School D×D quickly realizes how useless he is compared to the rest of Rias' team and how his Sacred Gear is more valuable than he is, resulting in a minor breakdown and some early Character Development. Over time, he eventually becomes The Champion to Rias, and a much more competent individual with a personal stake in the plot.
  • Mobile Suit Gundam AGE: Kio Asuno, the protagonist of the third story arc. His constant pleas for understanding always fall on deaf ears, his refusal to kill enemy pilots enables them to go on and kill supporting characters, and he refuses to ever see the writing on the wall. In the end the only time Kio manages to convince someone to see things his way involves Mind Rape.
  • Hero Union BBS:
    • One story has a hero end up Overshadowed by Awesome in his own party-an Old Master who can One-Hit Kill everything, the son of the demon lord he needs to defeat, etc.
    • Another has the hero stuck with four attractive women. As the other posters pour their scorn on the hero complaining about being stuck in a harem situation, it then turns out the only thing the girls hate more than each other is the hero (and not in the Tsundere way), and the hero is actually a girl. The posters quickly find a way to help the poor girl escape her predicament after that.

    Comic Books 
  • DC Comics' Major Bummer - he's the protagonist but he doesn't really do anything.
  • Superman in a story with Waverider and the Linear Men does nothing but try to talk reason with the other characters as they feud with each other, as Superman himself is dragged into the mess by Waverider himself.

    Fan Works 

  • Mystery Science Theater 3000 featured films with characters who would qualify.
    • The Pumaman: While the title character does fight a number of villains, he's aided by his Hypercompetent Sidekick, Vadinho the Aztec priest, a Badass Normal who tells him what to do and holds his own without any of Puma Man's super powers. This aspect of the film was highlighted by the related episode.
    • Mark English, the protagonist of Devil Doll. After spending the entire movie investigating the proceedings, the situation resolves itself without his help.
    • Agent for H.A.R.M.'s protagonist Adam Chance's main contributions to the narrative are killing Mooks, getting tricked, and failing to save the day. In the end his greatest contribution was taking out the villain's mooks so that the aging elderly scientist could finish the villain off himself.
  • Jason from The Forbidden Kingdom. He's the protagonist of a Kung Fu film—starring alongside Jackie Chan and Jet Li—yet even after his Training from Hell, he's only capable of beating enemy mooks. That's what happens when you're the stand-in for the priest in a retelling of Journey to the West...
  • Buscapé in City of God. Though he meets and talks to several of the characters (and get in danger more than once) he doesn't interfere in any ways with the conflicts of the gangs, or even in the plot. He is meant to be nothing more than a witness of violence, and a narrator. His character is completely neutral: he doesn't act violent, but doesn't do anything against Ze Pequeno either.
  • Tragically justified in Leaving Las Vegas. Ben Sanderson, after losing everything thanks to his alcoholism, decides to drive out to Las Vegas and drink himself to death. While there, he befriends a kind prostitute named Sera, who's wrapped up in a situation with her pimp and the gangsters sent after him. The whole film, Ben's too drunk and suicidal to improve his or Sera's circumstances, not even after she ends up gang-raped. After he finally dies, she's left all alone.
  • Finn during most of The Force Awakens. Though the majority of the film is focused on him, he doesn't do anything that makes him the protagonist. He spends most of that screen time following behind the other two characters whose actions better fit the role, and that's when he's not trying to run away from the First Order. Poe, the ace pilot for the resistance, has more of a presence in the beginning, and later Rey - who is revealed to be the real protagonist, making Finn a Decoy Protagonist - fills the role as the next powerful Jedi in the sequel trilogy.


  • Ivanhoe in Ivanhoe. For most of the book, he’s bedridden because of his wounds and takes practically no part in the action. Then he recovers just barely to participate in Rebecca’s trial by combat – only for the combat not to take place because Bois-Guilbert drops dead.
  • Sheriff Bell in No Country for Old Men. In both the book and film, he serves more as the role of narrator than a protagonist.
  • Winston Smith of Nineteen Eighty-Four is a brutally justified version of this trope. All he gets to do as the hero of the piece is keep a diary and have an affair before being arrested, tortured, and brainwashed, but the Totalitarian state he lives in considers these very serious offences.
  • Bella Swan from The Twilight Saga. What little actual action there is is performed by other characters; Bella mostly just hangs out and watches as people compete for her attention, fight each other, debate whether or not to fight each other, etc. Bella doesn't even watch that much.
  • Wilbur from Charlotte's Web. His job is to get his life saved by Charlotte. (Later, however, he takes steps to preserve Charlotte's eggs, acting as a surrogate parent to three of her children and many subsequent descendants.)
  • Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory does nothing to earn his happy ending except not be as awful as the other four kids. Adaptations of the book recognize this and try to flesh out his character and give him more to do.
  • There may very well be no more useless a protagonist than George Dower of K. W. Jeter's Infernal Devices. His very existence is what kicks the plot in motion, as his father, a Legacy Character that George himself barely knew, was apparently a mad genius who devised all manner of clockwork wonders, many of which are highly sought after by numerous parties. His father now dead, George has inherited his watch shop, despite being no good at mending watches, and because of this, he becomes the target of, among others, the crazed remnants of Cromwell's "Godly Army", a strange race of fish-like creatures, a prostitution ring, a pair of thieves, a mysterious dark-skinned man, an elderly mad scientist who literally wants to destroy the world, and multiple lascivious women. All while doing absolutely nothing except what he can to preserve his life. Rarely does he show any pluck, and at no point does he morph into a noble hero. He never does anything to help anyone else, except very reluctantly, and usually because he hopes it will help to save him, as well. He is, from beginning to end, The Millstone.
  • Xuanzang from Journey to the West. While he's technically the main character, most of the legwork is done by his escorts, as Xuanzang himself is completely incapable of combat. Not surprisingly, most adaptations focus on Sun Wukong the Monkey King rather than the relatively dull Xuanzang.
  • The works of Franz Kafka make such a brutally effective use of this that he might as well be the trope namer. His stories often have protagonists who have next to no agency in how the events unfold. This is not even necessarily because they actually lack any real power, but because they are unwilling to take action due to fear, uncertainty or (misplaced) faith in organizations and proper procedure.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Revolution: Charlie Matheson is supposed to be the hero of the story, but for a while, she didn't really do much except to get Miles Matheson back into the game of fighting. In fact, Miles has had to save her several times. Justified Trope, because she is only a twenty-something-year-old with no real combat training. She did receive combat training in the episode "The Song Remains the Same", and she led a mutiny to help a scientist and his family escape from the Monroe Republic and the Georgia Federation in the episode "The Love Boat". It remains to be seen if and when she'll turn this into a Subverted Trope.
  • The main character, Todd, from Todd and the Book of Pure Evil is this in season 1. He joins the gang solely to try and bang Jenny, and spends the season getting stoned, being a jerkass, and contributing absolutely nothing while his friends save the day. He gets a lot better in season 2.

    Video Games 
  • Vaan and Penelo from Final Fantasy XII come across more as the story’s Tag Along Kid duo compared to the central story of Ashelia’s quest to save her kingdom and her romance with Baltheir the sky pirate.
  • Snake from Metal Gear Solid 4. When you think about the story as a whole in the game, most of what he tries to accomplish ends up failing and when he does succeed, it's only because someone else planned it and did all the actual heroics, reducing Snake to nothing but a glorified delivery boy. This, in fact, was always his role, from start to finish, from the first game onwards. Snake was never intended to have agency, but to follow orders...which is what he does. It's when he accomplishes things in spite of outside machinations that he's at his most heroic: seemingly killing Big Boss in Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2, for example, and frustrating the Patriots in Metal Gear Solid 4.
  • Dave in Maniac Mansion leads the charge to rescue his girlfriend Sandy from Dr. Fred's clutches, but all he is is an Item Caddy. Every other character has a skill they can lend to the cause on top of carrying items, even Jeff with his measly ability to repair the telephone.

    Western Animation 
  • In Jonny Quest, evil foreign governments, multi-national corporations, and billionaire supervillains send henchmen in droves to steal from Benton Quest... there's not much that protagonist Jonny, a young child, can actually do about any of this. He's pretty worthless in most episodes, sometimes making things worse; but one way or another, it's either Benton Quest or Race Bannon who saves the day. Later adaptations would avert this trope, however.