Pinball Protagonist

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

The protagonist has spent a significant portion of the story bouncing around the tale like a pinball. He provides no plot impetus in and of himself, and has essentially spent the entire story thus far in a reactive state.

Whatever is going on in the world, be it war or intrigue, it just drags him along in its wake.

This is not a Designated Hero. Designated Heroes actually do things. The things they do may not be considered heroic, but they still do things and thus have an impact on the world around them. Eventually they pick up the Plot Ball and move it around. Even the Little Hero, Big War still has the hero do something important to affect the larger mess around him. The Pinball Protagonist spends a decent amount of time failing to actually have any effect at all. They aren't even lucky enough to be the Plot Ball.

This character is also not a Narrator unless the tale is told from a first person perspective.

If the writing and tone of the tale all imply that the character is the protagonist, and yet they can be lifted right out of the story and have little to no impact on anything that has or will happen: then they're just a little silver ball in the cosmic pinball game of life.

If done badly, the reader is left wondering why in the hell the character is the protagonist. It can be done well. Perhaps the protagonist is like a vehicle or a touchstone for the reader, a way of exploring some strange new world or meeting interesting characters.

Many characters will have pinball episodes where they are simply overloaded with too many problems in far too short of a time frame to do anything effective.

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

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

Examples of Pinball Protagonist include:

Anime and Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Most harem-leading males are pinball protagonists. The main characters of Ah! My Goddess (though this depends on the arc and the adaptation), To LOVE-Ru, Rosario + Vampire, Sora no Otoshimono, Steel Angel Kurumi, Maburaho, and Rozen Maiden all have main leads with no ambition, aside from trying to live normally under ridiculous circumstances. To be fair, most harem shows don't have much plot to begin with, though. Princess Resurrection (at least in the anime) barely has the lead male do anything at all.
    • Hayate falls into this category until the time comes for Athena's reappearance, and he still has to be pushed into things even then, but he has drive.
  • Until the climax of Osamu Tezukas Metropolis, Kenichi and Tima spend most of their time wandering from one Scenery Porn locale to the next, occasionally getting shot at. Tima may also qualify as a walking MacGuffin.
  • Natsuru in Kämpfer gets dragged around by other people and he just goes along with them in the end anyway. Much worse in the anime than in the manga and light novels, although its still pretty bad in the latter two. The main difference is, in the latter, s/he at least tries to make a token effort to undermine the Kampfer War and learn the truth behind it, whereas in the anime, s/he just sorta stands there with a confused expression.
  • Kyon of Haruhi Suzumiya spends a lot of time mostly just watching things happen and doing whatever people tell him. That isn't to say that he's boring or without personality, however, and his apathy is a source of frustration to other characters, which is amusing.
    • He becomes a much more active protagonist after the fourth book.
  • Ichigo from Bleach is like this in a way. He does have an impact on the story but only due to reacting to his newfound duty as shinigami or rescuing his friends from the Big Bad. Since he is not under the direct influence of Yamamoto or Aizen, he never really confronts the Big Bad directly until said Big Bad threatens to annihilate his hometown.
  • The titular Steamboy spent the majority of the movie doing whatever grandpa, Scarlet, father or Mr. Stephenson wanted. To his credit, when circumstances finally did leave him alone for a moment, he quickly came up with a plan of his own, rejected the Bastard Understudy's advice and became the hero of the day.
  • Brandon Heat all throughout Gungrave is a quiet and obedient henchman. He initiates nothing, suspects nothing, and says almost nothing. Even his undead rampage is less roaring than sedate.
  • Ichise of Texhnolyze. There doesn't appear to be much consideration of his actions, reacting like a rabid animal when he's not simply following orders. Of course, given that the story is fairly bleak and hopeless overall that's arguably the point.
  • Touma from To Aru Majutsu no Index. For most part of story he has no motivation other then live as an Ordinary High School Student and help people around him. But the frequent stream of weirdness happening around him forces him to be in the center of a multi-sided ideological conflict. A sharp contrast with his Deuteragonist, who is much more pro active.
  • This is what the protagonist of any rape-themed Hentai anime or manga is if he or she isn't a Useless Protagonist or a Villain Protagonist. After spending most of the story trying ineffectually not to be raped, he or she will obtain or discover a power with which to take revenge on his or her tormentors, killing and/or raping them in return. (Soul Chain is a good example of how this plot typically goes.)

Comic Books[edit | hide]

Film[edit | hide]

  • Because of Disneyfication, Mowgli in Disney's The Jungle Book spends all his time reacting to the other characters and doesn't instigate any plot events. This is totally ironic if you know the character from Rudyard Kipling's original stories.
    • While he doesn't initiate anything, he does resolve the plot by frightening Shere Khan right out of the jungle, employing a tactic that King Louis (inadvertently) suggested to him earlier. In fact, that's pretty much the reason why he was so passive in the first place: he was a boy going to study with various teachers, and only after completing his "education" could he emerge as the hero.
  • The Big Lebowski: The Dude just wants to bowl and smoke weed when his life is interrupted by a case of mistaken identity, resulting in the ruining of his rug. His attempt to obtain a new rug leads him down a twisted path of mystery and intrigue that he ultimately has no control over.
  • The Beatles for much of Help! This is partially Lampshaded: Ringo Starr is told he can remove his Clingy MacGuffin if he commits one courageous act—and when he does, much later, it's the end of the film.
  • The protagonist from the 1966 B-movie The Wild World of Batwoman is a perfect example of this. The protagonist is pretty much like Charlie from Charlie's Angels. She does show up from time to time, but she has her batgirls do all the work. An Agony Booth recap can be read here.
  • Slevin Kelevra from Lucky Number Slevin is apparently this during the beginning of the film, before the Kansas City Shuffle and Slevin's true intentions are revealed
  • Brad and Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Though Janet does get up to do something halfway through the plot - that 'something' being Rocky.
  • Jen of The Dark Crystal spends much of the film's first and second acts commenting on how he has no idea where he is going or what he is looking for as various characters comment on prophecy and destiny and the like. In an example of this trope being done well, it serves to show the audience the wonderfully imaginative world of the movie, and the fantastic special effects of Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
  • Charlie Bucket from Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. Once he gets to the factory, the only notable things he does is to steal a Fizzy Lifting Drink (which disqualifies him from the promised lifetime supply of chocolate) and return the Everlasting Gobstopper to Wonka rather than give it to a rival competitor (negating the disqualification and becoming the owner of the factory in the process), and so he wins.
    • Note that this is an improvement on the original book, in which Charlie does almost literally nothing upon arriving at the factory; his only act of any significance is at the end, when he informs Wonka that he is the only child left. Wonka then immediately announces that Charlie has won by default.
    • The second version improved on this, and Charlie regularly questions Wonka, triggering most of his flashbacks, and then outright defies him at the end forcing him to seek out his estranged father.
  • Indiana Jones is this in Raiders of the Lost Ark after Marian's abduction: he chases the villains, kills a few henchmen and gets captured, failing to affect the plot in any substantial fasion until God steps in and kills off the villains.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (Meggie spends a lot of her time just reacting to things the adults do. On the rare occasions she tries to affect things her plans are thwarted, stalled, or rendered useless.)
    • But in the end, she saves the day by reading out loud a modification to the original story that turned the Big Bad's Dragon good.
      • Even so, her father could have done it just as easily.
  • Bilbo Baggins, in JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, initially is just reacting to what Gandalf tells him. He does do a few things later on that drive the plot a bit, so it's not a complete example. Frodo from Lord of the Rings can also at times be seen as this, though opinions differ.
  • The entirety of The Crying of Lot 49 is like this, although that is because it is about a person just exploring a secret organisation, being told to go to another part of the organisation, and then going there - she only begins to take initiative right at the end, with the eponymous auction of the title.
  • Fanny from the Jane Austen novel Mansfield Park, due to the emotional abuse she's suffered for eight years living with her rich aunts and uncle, basically feels she has no right to her own opinion or happiness and thus lets her aunts and cousins push her around for most of the novel. Naturally, this makes the two times she stands up for herself all the more impressive and the other characters all the more shocked.
  • This accusation is often thrown against those three classic young heroines of literature: Alice, Wendy and Dorothy. Susan Sto Helit is described as an aversion of this... and then came Thief of Time. Dorothy gradually averts this trope in later Oz books, and all three strongly avert it when featured in the webcomic Cheshire Crossing
  • Jurgis in The Jungle. To the point where nobody cared except about the meat stuff.
  • In The Island of Doctor Moreau, Richard Prendick does nothing but get thrown overboard, land on an island and watch more interesting people do experiments.
    • Heck, all of H. G. Wells's protagonists follow the "touchstone for the reader to explore a strange new world" mould. The vast majority don't even have names.
  • Terisa Morgan of Stephen R. Donaldson's Mordant's Need novels (The Mirror of Her Dreams, A Man Rides Through) acts this way through most of both books. (This is deliberate. She has a cripplingly low level of self-confidence thanks to an oppressive father and passive mother; the narration makes an analogy to a princess imprisoned by a curse.)
  • Shasta/Prince Cor in The Horse and His Boy, has very little control over the plot, being surrounded by stronger personalities (including the titular horse) for most of the tale.
  • In Hitchhikers Guide Arthur Dent started out as this. It's made explicitly clear that he's the main character early on, yet it takes awhile for him to take an active role and not just react to events around him.
  • Augusten Burroughs in Running With Scissors. Particularly the movie version. It's an autobiography, but still...
  • Both Bella and Wanderer tend to fall into this during periods of action (which admittedly are in the minority in the slow, conversation-heavy books.) They're both Extreme Doormats, so it makes sense from an in-story standpoint, but it's one of the reasons Stephanie Meyer's works are so polarizing.
  • Beverly King in L.M. Montgomery's The Story Girl is there purely to observe the more interesting characters around him. Then again, they are very interesting characters.
  • Cosette in Les Misérables. Yet Victor Hugo assures us that she has the soul of a gypsy.
  • Kino from Kino's Journey tries to be this type of character; being a Traveller, one is not supposed to pass judgment or meddle in the affairs of the places they visit and is only there to observe objectively. However, various circumstances typically get Kino wrapped up in the affairs of the places she comes to and forces her to act, whether she wants to or not.
  • In many ways, Richard Papen from Donna Tartt's novel The Secret History qualifies as this.
  • The Saragossa Manuscript (both the book and the movie). Alphonse van Worden has various bewildering or scary things happen around him and to him, and is told lots of stories. A number of critics have suggested that the entire seemingly-random plot is a show staged for van Worden in an attempt to convince or convert him.
  • Almost all of the main characters William Gibson writes would qualify, but Case in Neuromancer is a cut above the rest: it's difficult to name one decision made in the book that's solely his.
  • In Excession, most of the plot is driven by starship A Is and other superpowerful Minds while the protagonist, diplomat Byr Genar-Hofoen is sent by his mysterious bosses on a journey to the GSV Sleeper Service to find the one person who may have knowledge of the Excession, but it becomes apparent that she isn't even there, and his whole trip occurred because the Eccentric ship wanted him to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend, which has no impact on the story. And then the Excession leaves with no real explanation.
  • The main character of The Sharing Knife is somewhere between this and The Ishmael. In terms of plot, almost everything that happens is because of her primary love interest, with her dragged along for the ride. When fighting starts, said love interest is impressive even for a member of the resident Superior Species, whereas she's physically unsuited to combat and tries to stay out of the way. However, as the series progresses she learns more self-confidence. To the point that when her husband is threatened, she defies an entire camp of sorcerers to ride out and rescue him.
  • Geralt, in the saga. Mostly because the setting is populated with dozens of wizards, nearly all of them planners of various degrees. Hell, his person isn't even important to the plot.
  • The protagonist and narrator of Iain Bank's A Song of Stone is an aristocrat called Abel living during in a civil war. He starts the novel trying to escape from the country with his wife/sister Morgan but gets caught up with a group of soldiers and has very little control over the plot from that point onwards.
  • Older Than Steam: The 1554 Spanish picaresque novel, kicked off by Lazarillo de Tormes, is the Trope Maker: the protagonist is almost always a circumstance- and happenstance-dependent drifter through life, with very little proactive situations. In the 1700's, English picaresque fiction (such as Tom Jones or Peregrine Pickle) inherited the trope.
  • Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman has a justified example that's probably impossible to top. The main character can't control his muscle movements enough to communicate in any fashion, and it's commonly assumed by those around him that he doesn't even have a mind. The "plot," such as it is, is his commenting on how his life is and how people react to him, with him unable to change anything even to save his own life.
  • Nick Carraway does absolutely nothing in The Great Gatsby. He is, however, an outside view of rich people screwing up the lives of themselves and everyone around them.
    • He does organise that meeting between Daisy and Gatsby, but that's about it.
  • David Copperfield is a prime example from classical literature.
  • The Stand may or may not have this trope, depending on what you see the main plot of the book as being. In terms of rebuilding society in the wake of an apocalyptic event, the Main Characters actually do quite a bit. In terms of fighting Randall Flagg, the Big Bad of the story, though, they accomplish virtually nothing; at best their role is to serve as witnesses to his defeat by the Hand of God (with a little help from the Trashcan Man). To be fair, A sacrifice was needed.
  • Tyrone Slothrop of Gravity's Rainbow, who never solves the mystery he's after, spends his time on various sidequests instead, avoids death only by accident and eventually simply goes mad, gives up and disappears from the story.
  • The Doc Savage novels pulled in involved bystanders to their plots to act as first person narrator protagonists assisted by the titular Man of Bronze.
  • Lampshaded in Terry Pratchett's Guards Guards. Although Sam Vimes and company play little part in the successful resolution of the novel as the dragon is defeated by Errol the Swamp Dragon, the Patrician specifically states that people need to see there are heroes and so rewards Sam Vimes and the Night Watch accordingly. It is also implied that the Night Watch are heroic, merely because they actually did something to stand up to the dragon, even if unsuccessfully. Vimes did also stop Wonse from killing the Patrician. While it's not the stuff of legends, saving the only competent ruler the city has had for decades is pretty important.
  • Pretty much the whole human race and indeed nearly the entire biosphere in every adaptation of the War of the Worlds.
  • Harry Potter spends most of his namesake series Locked Out of the Loop regarding… well, practically everything, which results in him being continually used as a pawn (and sometimes as a walking MacGuffin) by both Dumbledore and Voldemort. He also ends up paralyzed, restrained or otherwise helpless at the climax of nearly every book, forcing him to simply watch as things happen to/around him.

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • There was a long period when virtually everyone on Lost was like this. They'd have little fits of trying to do something, only to be completely stymied, and then they'd go "Oh... no..." and sink back into frustrating helplessness. Early on, the show was mostly about introducing the various... erm... pinballs and the Island and there were many pinballs in play. Later on, the show began to conform to this trope less and less.
  • While he is generally a major player in most stories, this has been known to happen with The Doctor from Doctor Who on occasion.
  • In the Torchwood episode "Small Worlds", the antagonists have supernatural powers which Torchwood have no ability to counter. As a result, throughout the episode Torchwood can do little more than rush to the site of the latest manifestation and helplessly watch events unfold.

Sports[edit | hide]

  • Fans of the NFL, when discussing which quarterback is better than another, tend to fall into two distinct categories. One school believes that a quarterback's statistical achievement determines his greatness. The second cares less about the stats and more about his leadership—the best quarterbacks are the ones who win games and bring home championships, even if their stats don't always impress. When the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001, it was due almost entirely to a defense of almost legendary repute. Their quarterback that year was Trent Dilfer, who bounced around from team to team his entire career and was never any better than strictly average throughout. He 'won' the Super Bowl that year and was unceremoniously dumped by the team soon after. Because of this, Dilfer embodies the Pinball Protagonist trope among NFL fans, and if the topic is ever brought up for any reason, Dilfer's name inevitably follows as an example.

Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • Pinball Protagonist can often be the end result of a Railroading. As a result, some arguably railroaded adventure modules in tabletop roleplay games, such as Ravenholm, are accused of leaving the players as mere observers to the events pinballing around them.

Theatre[edit | hide]

  • Oliver!: Oliver's an orphan, gets passed from orphanage, to a funeral home, then gets kicked out and gets picked up by the thieves guild, then is taken in by a rich old man. It's a musical, and the characters mostly sing around him as well.
  • Raoul from The Phantom of the Opera, to the point where he has a sizable Hatedom and many wish that Christine and the Phantom would end up together. What does he do? Well...he gets captured by the Phantom. He has nice hair. And that's about it.... He is prepared to risk his own life several times to try and save the woman he loves from a known killer, but goes about it in a largely ineffectual manner.
    • Because Christine is the protagonist. Raoul is just the love interest.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Pick an FPS. Any FPS. The main character is just there obeying orders with no personal entanglement with the plot. Provided there is a plot beyond "go shoot some designated baddies", that is. The FPS mentioned below are subversion, aversion, or deconstruction.
  • Many story-heavy games with scripted events and heroic mimes.
    • Jack from BioShock (series) is an excellent example—not only does he rarely speak, he also plays a nearly negligible role in the story for most of the game. It turns out to be a deconstruction, however. Jack is literally mind-controlled. And he ends up killing not only Andrew Ryan, but Fontaine as well. And saves the little sisters, or damns them! Pretty good, and the last one is up to the players which.
    • For many players, games with excessive amounts of Follow the Plotted Line, Railroading, Evil Plan, Mission Control and Stop Helping Me! can rob them of all Suspension of Disbelief about their and their Player Character's creativity and initiative, causing them to feel like a complete nonentity even if "their" successful execution of goals make a huge difference in the events of the plot.
    • Most however just accept it as a simple narrative convention and focus on the gameplay.
  • Likewise, many games set during wars with a modern military influence, particularly combat simulators like Mechwarrior and Free Space. Even if you have a character with a personality, you're still one small speck of a very big situation, and the important decisions just aren't up to you.
    • Averted to at least some extent in the Wing Commander series, as the overall progress of the war depends on your performance in certain key missions; later games in the series give you the opportunity to make decisions and influence the story with dialogue options.
  • Vaan of Final Fantasy XII. Originally the viewpoint character was going to be someone else but Japanese focus groups preferred a Bishonen protagonist.
    • He even at one point admits, out loud, that he's not the important one of the group and that he's just tagging along on everyone else's quests.
  • The protagonists in Studio Key's visual |novels are justified in their general pin-ball status in the games, because that's the whole point of the genre. But as these games have recently been turned into Anime series en masse by Kyoto animation, the fact that the boys simply bounce from girl to girl helping them resolve issues can be bothersome.
  • Arguably, Kage was like this in Zone of the Enders Fist of Mars, until character development and plot events forced him to stop playing Naive Newcomer and actually do something constructive.
  • Snake, and more infamously Raiden of Metal Gear Solid are deliberately tragic examples.
  • In |Sonic 2006... Sonic himself is this. He has an entire "storyline" to himself being the main character and all, but he doesn't actually affect anything. Some of the side characters (Knuckles and Tails mainly) are even worse so.
  • Allegretto from Eternal Sonata is a Jerk with a Heart of Gold with little connection to the main plot, yet acts as the player's avatar for most of the game.
  • Alex from Street Fighter III coined the Japanese counterpart of the trope, "main character (lol)." He was meant to be the next hero of the series representing a new generation of fighters. But with no projectile and two command throws, he fit the grappler image better. Which would have been fine except combined with his all-rounder stats, nothing about him really stood out. Worse, Ryu was still where the Player 1 cursor started and Alex's ending had him losing horribly to said previous protagonist. Not fitting the main character mold was one thing but becoming completely overshadowed as well sealed it.
  • Apollo Justice skirts this trope because of Phoenix Wright doing most of the leg-work during the pivotal first and fourth cases, and him often needing help from the prosecutor Klavier Gavin. However, Apollo does do most of the work in the other two cases, and Phoenix wouldn't have been able to solve the cases without his help due to his special power and the fact the Phoenix is disbarred.
    • Phoenix can fall into this pattern himself, while you're controlling him. Cases tend to just fall into his lap, he often needs direct help from his mentor, Mia Fey, and he's often being pushed by circumstances beyond his control, both in and out of court. I blame it on the combination of first-person gameplay with a Visual Novel format.
      • The first game has Mia essentially solving the first two cases before you and giving out clues. After that, Phoenix gets less and less help from her, and generally averts this trope. He comes close to playing it straight again in the third game, to the point that the end of the final case is Godot's challenge to Phoenix to figure out the killer's identity without help.
  • Fairly much after the first point of no return in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, the protagonist party is Rail Roaded by the villains, and know that they're being used. It's pretty much brought up at every point that the antagonists show up. This is because the antagonists don't have the power to solve the puzzles of the game, needing the main party's full range of psynergies. After the final point of no return, the protagonists acknowledge that they've been railroaded for their entire journey and resolve to fix their mistakes. But, of course, they still end up doing exactly what the villains want them to do.
    • It's Alex! What do you expect!?
  • The playable duo from Resident Evil Zero, Rebecca and Billy don't do a whole lot over the course of the game. The only character interaction that isn't between them or other S.T.A.R.S. members is running into the final boss of the game. Any plot developments happen in cutscenes, involve Wesker and Birkin, and are completely separate from what the protagonists are doing.
  • Dragon Age II: Hawke is the main character, but for most of the story is just reacting to the events that occur around him, with Isabella and Anders being the main driving forces in the plot. Many fans felt this was a step back from the first game, where the player could make some pretty massive changes in the would depending on the choices they made.
  • Samus becomes one during the course of Metroid: Other M. The events on the Bottle Ship would have played out pretty much the same way if she hadn't been involved.
    • Your Mileage may vary there - without samus, The marines would never have been able to get into the ship and start disrupting MB's plans, and if Samus hadn't defeated both Ridley and the Metroid Queen then the chances of the marines stopping the Colony Drop would have been all but impossible. She also went there with a dedicated purpose, and stuck with it throughout the whole game; it's just the game was closer to being the story of MB/Adam, making Samus more of a Supporting Protagonist.

Webcomics[edit | hide]

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

Web Original[edit | hide]

  • The Pooh's Adventures series on YouTube. Pooh doesn't do anything to change the plot of whatever movie he is in. He just spouts off random comments. In fact, when it does come time to fight the villain, it's usually someone else who vanquishes the villain.

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • Omar of Rock and Rule just sits back and look petulant while his sidekicks take the initiative to find Angel.
    • Of course he also genuinely believes that Angel abandoned them to run off with the famous rock star (and it's not a conclusion that's all that hard to believe). Once he realizes what kind of danger she's in he turns around and actually comes off as quite heroic.
  • The narrator of Waltz with Bashir is a decidedly tragic example. When his commanding officer is killed he doesn't rise to the occasion and completely fails to get any of his squad mates out alive. Afterward bitterly releasing that there was a lot more he could have done but was just a confused kid who got in over his head.