"There's a voice, that keeps on calling me.
—The Littlest Hobo theme song
Like a gust of wind, The Drifter quietly blows into a troubled town. He's low key, and usually The Quiet One that's not looking for trouble. He'll rarely raise the interest or curiosity of the townspeople or the Big Bad that's been slowly draining the town of all life and money. Usually, he just wants an odd job to make ends meet before leaving again, the implication being that he's either running from someone or Walking the Earth for the fun of it. Occasionally The Sheriff and his deputies, or a Quirky Miniboss Squad of the Big Bad (sometimes one and the same) will visit the Determined Homesteader employing the Drifter or him directly, to try and lay down the law and extort some money.
Then the gloves come off.
By this point, he's either got a personal stake in helping the meek townsmen chase off the Big Bad, like saving a hostage or other love interest, or will do it just because it's the right thing to do. An interesting twist on the above is that The Drifter is not just pretending he is Not Left Handed in terms of martial skill, but is also hiding his true purpose: to depose the Big Bad and his goons. Hiding in plain sight as a mere Muggle to get information to bring him down.
In some variants, he'll be approached by the meek townsmen and appointed The Sheriff (the previous one having been run off or killed). He usually requires some convincing, in which the Big Bad helps out by kicking a few nearby dogs in The Drifter's presence. Once the Big Bad is defeated, expect him to lay down his badge, perhaps passing it on to one of the townspeople who showed some backbone in the fight. This is a hero who often faces the Leave Your Quest Test, and agonizes over it each time.
He's a strange combination of traits: A Guardian Angel come to help a town that can't help itself, rarely grim but usually has a bit of The Stoic in him, or at least values few words. Sometimes a Technical Pacifist and former Gunslinger Walking the Earth. Though he's not a Knight in Shining Armor, he's usually several clicks above an Anti-Hero or Ineffectual Loner, being motivated by more compassionate standards than the Well-Intentioned Extremist. Once he's done, he'll probably have to go.
Also known as the Stranger archetype, from Joseph Campbell's "Hero With A Thousand Faces" 
See also Western Characters. Fairly common in After the End settings, where he'll get a scavenger sidekick. Occasionally joins up or becomes the leader of a band of Hitchhiker Heroes. Closely related to the Knight Errant, who wanders the land actively seeking wrongs to right. The Flying Dutchman is often pressed into this role (though not always as a protagonist) by means of a curse.
- Van from Gun X Sword is this, both pre-series and during.
- Kenshiro of Fist of the North Star fits this trope to a tee, especially at the beginning of the series. He wanders the post-apocalyptic landscape from town to town looking for his kidnapped lover, has his sidekick in Bat, is theoretically not looking for trouble, and yet somehow always leaves behind body counts that range from dozens to hundreds.
- The protagonist, Ginko, from Mushishi (a sort of mononoke-ologist)
- Dr. Tenma from Monster (slightly subverted as any troubles are almost always connected with the "monster" Johan).
- Raven Tengu Kabuto, from the anime of the same name. The above description is almost a plot synopsis.
- Vash The Stampede of Trigun has this as pretty much his whole thing, except he's also a wanted outlaw and an immortal mutant freak.
- Since his setting is Western-inspired and he has mad gun skills, Chronic Hero Syndrome and multiple issues with settling down, he does a lot of this, especially in the anime which put of the Cerebus Syndrome a lot longer, although most of the story is consumed by the plot happening.
- He only stops the drifting thing during his Ten-Minute Retirement after he inadvertently shot the moon, when he grows a Beard of Sorrow, changes his name, and doesn't kick the asses of the creeps who come to his new hometown and start killing everybody who annoys them. Which is kind of extreme restraint, given the town couldn't build enough coffins to house all their dead.
- Interestingly, that situation gets resolved by Wolfwood drifting into town looking for him the same day Vash's adopted family member is kidnapped, and then both of them kick ass and walk off into the sunset. Vash's But Now I Must Go costs him a lot more than usual this time.
- Ran from Kazemakase Tsukikage Ran.
- Rurouni Kenshin: The titular character purposefully became this after the war and settled down starting on the first episode. We see him comment that with the friends he makes, he may stop wandering. Also, "Rurouni" can be translated as wanderer. So Yeah.
- In the Jinchuu arc, Sanosuke decides to leave the main cast temporarily and relieve some stress, which he does by becoming one of these. He then takes this time to save a town, beat the shit out of two hundred men, and terrorize the local yakuza. His stress being relieved, he then leaves town and returns to Tokyo. And nobody even knew his name.
- Except his dad. That was his hometown, though he hadn't been there in over a decade.
- Amusingly, the fallout from this adventure later causes him to need to flee Japan, so given his temperament he probably goes around being this in countries where no one can understand a word he says. Everyone understands when you punch a wall and the house shatters, though.
- While he's mostly a Wise Prince, Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke has shades of the Drifter, as he becomes entwined with and takes a stake in the outcome of the conflict between the various factions he encounters during his travels.
- As Eboshi says when asked if she saw him come around: "Came, and went."
- Kanbe in Samurai 7 shows signs of being this, although the town actively recruits him and he puts up a lot of resistance.
- The titular Kino of Kino's Journey, travelling the world on her talking motorcycle, with a strict rule to never stay in one country for longer than three days.
- Naturally, it happens in Preacher (Comic Book). Jesse Custer indulges in this trope when he drifts into the town of Salvation.
- The comic books spun off of the original The Legend of Zelda give this sort of backstory to Link, who happens to wander into Hyrule from his native Calatia just as Ganon is starting to wreak havoc.
- Miyamoto Usagi. Also Inazuma and Chizu.
- Groo the Wanderer. Slightly subverted in that he's always looking for a fray.
- Douwe Dabbert always ends up helping and protecting people wherever he goes.
- In Nomad, Darca Nyl ends up giving this impression. He's actually trying to track down the man who killed his son, but along the way people keep thinking that he's a Jedi, and needing his help. And he gives it, and it's the only good thing he's felt in a long time. In the end, once he kills the man, he decides to take up this trope/become a Knight Errant.
- The heroes in Sin City have the demeanor of the driufter (quiet loners with troubled pasts), even if they tend to stick to the city limits of Basin. Wallace might be an aversion since his story seems to indicate that he is relatively new in town. He doesn't seem to grasp how corrupt the city is and despite his deadliness, he is a relative unknown.
- John J. Macreedy in the classic film Bad Day at Black Rock, although he arrives in the titular town with a specific purpose in mind (which is not to clean the place up.)
- The first paragraph describes fairly accurately John Rambo in First Blood, right down to being harassed by the law. Only his subsequent actions are not to help the town at all...
- Max from the Mad Max films. Shane in black leather.
- Many Clint Eastwood characters, most notably The Man With No Name.
- Note also that one of the films he directed is called High Plains Drifter.
- High Plains Drifter plays with the conventions of this trope a bit, mainly in that The Stranger (as he is credited) is hinted at being the ghost of a man murdered by the townsfolk (indirectly) years prior and thus brings on a little vengeance by turning the town's folk against each other, manipulating and scaring them into giving him absolute power and pretty much ruining the town's economy (by blowing up the hotel, tearing down the barn and not paying for any of the many goods and services he takes advantage of, such as buying everyone in town a drink from the bar at the bartender's expense. In fact, he's barely in the town for ten minutes before he kills three men, drags a woman to the barn and rapes her.
- Note also that one of the films he directed is called High Plains Drifter.
- Indiana Jones acts somewhat this way in Temple of Doom.
- Sanjuro, in Kurosawa's Yojimbo (the prototype for For a Fistful of Dollars) and Sanjuro.
- Also Zatoichi, hero of a long-running series of Japanese films. In each film, he wanders into a new Adventure Town, where he at first pretends to be a simple itinerant masseur and gambler. But when some local yakuza boss or corrupt official threatens him or the group of innocent commoners he's befriended, he reveals himself to be a master swordsman and all-out badass. Oh, and he's blind, too.
- The animated film Kung Fu Panda starts off with a dream sequence where Po fits this trope PERFECTLY. Of course, this is just his dream self, but it does seem to show how Genre Savvy he is. Two tropes for the price of one?
- Shane, of course.
- The aptly named The Drifter from Bunraku.
- Comrade Sukhov from White Sun of the Desert. A retired soldier who just wants to go home, he walks the sands of Turkestan and gets into trouble.
- Joe Christmas in A Light in August
- Bill Door, aka Death, in the Discworld novel Reaper Man.
- Made famous in literature, and later in film, by Shane.
- Roland, Stephen King's Gunslinger, especially in The Wolves of the Calla.
- The Jon Shannow/Jerusalem Man series by David Gemmell personifies this trope, often three or four times a novel.
- Malik ibn Ibrahim, the protagonist of the ebook anthology Wandering Djinn, never actually looks for trouble during his wanderings, but will do what he knows is right if necessary.
- Frank Chambers of The Postman Always Rings Twice starts out as a drifter who gets work at a small California diner/gas station. He is far from heroic, however.
- Ex-MP Major Jack Reacher, lead character of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels.
- Jimmy Hedgecock from Gunfighter's Ride helps people while he delivers the mail.
- Etienne Lantier is the catalyst for the events of Emil Zola's Germinal.
- Ben Snow is a wandering cowhand looking for work who keeps stumbling into mysteries. It doesn't help that he is sometimes mistaken for Billy the Kid.
- In Devon Monk's Dead Iron, Cedar. He's been around this particular town long enough that he thinks it may be safer to move on.
- The Doctor in Doctor Who does this throughout time and space.
- The Fugitive
- The TV version of The Incredible Hulk.
- Caine from Kung Fu.
- The unnamed hero of The Littlest Hobo is essentially a drifter version of Lassie.
- Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap.
- The Sliders.
- This is an absolutely perfect description of Cheyenne Bodie from Cheyenne.
- Bronco Layne from Bronco, a Spin-Off from Cheyenne.
- The Westerner
- The A-Team
- Then Came Bronson: Michael Parks and a Cool Bike.
- Eiji Hino is only said to be a drifter before Kamen Rider OOO starts, since he stays in the same general area for most of the series, but he goes back to that lifestyle in the end - only now he has a group of friends to stay in touch with.
- Nick does the same thing as OOO in Power Rangers Mystic Force; blow into town as the Naive Newcomer in the beginning, leave again at season's end with a new set of True Companions to show for it.
- Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive
- The Winchesters (and other hunters) in Supernatural.
- The Winchesters more than most, because they have less of a home base than the majority of hunters, and are unusually kind and personable...even if they are violent maniacs with no respect for the law who lie like they breathe.
- It might take a bit longer than other examples, but Immortals in Highlander: The Series have to move around every decade or so when people begin to notice that they don't age.
- This is a typical trait for Prometheans. If they settle in any one place for too long, Disquiet starts to take hold in the townspeople and Wastelands bloom up under their feet. Hence, they're constantly on the move, only staying long enough in any one town to enjoy contact or refresh supplies without polluting the land or warping people's minds.
- One of the playable archetypes in Feng Shui is The Drifter. He even has the ability to show up exactly where and when he is needed. In game terms, he announces he wants to show up, and everyone picks a reason how he got there. He picks the one he likes the best.
- One of the sample supers in GURPS International Super Teams is codenamed "Drifter", an appellation he picked up because he looks like one.
- The new Prince in Prince of Persia ends up in Elika's kingdom while caught in a sandstorm.
- Sundown, from Live a Live. Also an example of a Gunslinger, both Type A and B.
- While they be called Dream Chasers, Mercenaries, Wanderers, or yes, Drifters, these make up most of your PCs in the Wild ARMs series.
- build up foundation indeed
- Adol from Ys series is this trope.
- Bartz from Final Fantasy V starts off as one of these, with his pet Chocobo, Boco. This was actually his deceased father's last request.
- Shadow from Final Fantasy VI actually has a chance to just take off and leave your party after every battle.
- Nearly every Fallout game has you playing some variant on this character type.
- Similarly to Fallout, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion allows you to wander the countryside, picking up whatever quests you want, joining any/all of the five main factions, or whatever else you can think of that has nothing to do with the main story.
- Shiren the Wanderer fits this well. All of the Wanderers (not just Shiren) are always on the move. In fact, its a gameplay feature: if the player stays too long in a single floor they hear a gust of wind, telling them to move on or suffer a Nonstandard Game Over. Also, backtracking is rarely a good idea, because no items spawn in the level and you end up fighting more monsters. It's all there to ensure that you always keep on the move...
- Medoute in Blaze Union. She winds up settling down with the rest of the party for a while after realizing she needs to take responsibility for influencing some of their important decisions, but towards the end of the game she remembers that the whole point of her journeying was because she didn't want to have to deal with responsibility and starts chafing. In most of the endings of the game, she leaves and goes back to Walking the Earth.
- You're pretty much this way in the Rune Factory games even with your monsters and friends and neighbors. But when you wnat to go beat the snot out of wild monsters who helps you out? No one.
- Subverted during the first part of Tides of Destiny because Sonja is in Aden's body, you can hear her adding comments when you're fighting and also the changes of the day.
- The episode "Zuko Alone" of Avatar: The Last Airbender pegs Zuko squarely into this role, or at least when he's not busy interrupting the above mentioned plot with flashbacks about his tragic past. In a subversion, the inevitable I Am Not Left-Handed moment reveals to the rescued townsfolk that said drifter is Fire Nation and they promptly shun him, leaving him to thanklessly drift on.
- Samurai Jack.
- Played straight in an episode of Thundercats.
- well, quotes from "Hero With A Thousand Faces" from the Star Wars exhibition catalogue anyway.