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Usually a Mysterious Waif shows up to develop the plot of an adventure story. For some reason they draw the eye and attention. Often it's because they are The Woobie and so the Hero decides to protect her or help her on her quest. She often serves as a Call to Adventure
Most often she's of royal birth, or a goddess in disguise. Sometimes unknowingly. But occasionally you'll just have a common birth waif.
There are two key parts.
First, she's a "waif". It's usually a she, but sometimes a young boy might fill the role- in this case the hero is likely a heroine.
To quote the other wiki: "The word waif (from the Old French guaif, stray beast) refers to a living creature removed, by hardship, loss or other helpless circumstance, from his or her original surroundings. The most common usage is to designate a homeless, forsaken or orphaned child, or someone whose appearance is evocative of same."
So she's somehow been removed from her normal routine and can't go home for some reason. (This is where The Woobie bit comes in).
The second is that she's mysterious. We (and the hero) usually don't know much about her past, at least until The Reveal at the end. But for some reason we are drawn to her. She's mysteriously alluring- partly because of the mystery around her. Where did she come from? Why can't she go home? Why won't she tell us about these things? (She's usually scared and doesn't want to talk about her past). A Mysterious Waif is very frequently also a Strange Girl (or Strange Boy), visually distinct from the other characters in some way and likely to double as an Oracular Urchin because odd, fey personalities are common with this trope and making cryptic remarks that only raise more questions goes hand in hand with the Mysterious part of Mysterious Waif. Outright Psychic Powers, or being so good at reading people that you might think they're psychic, are also frequently found in Mysterious Waifs.
Before you know what is happening the hero is getting caught up in trying to help her without really knowing what is happening or what he's getting into. (Expect him to have a serious moment of doubt once he discovers he's gotten into something big and dangerous.) Often involves a Big Brother Instinct aspect.
Particularly common in the RPG genre for video games. This character often has other additional elements of appearance and gameplay. See the subtrope Mystical Waif for more details about this variant.
- Hotaru Tomoe/Sailor Saturn from Sailor Moon. She is mysterious, ready for a self-sacrifice, and wears unusually dark clothes; she also has several mysterious powers even outside of her Sailor Senshi identity (although many of the other girls did too). Her situation is somewhat different, as there are three sides involved: Sailor Moon, who wants to save her; the Guardians of the Outer Solar System, who want to get rid of her as she poses a threat to the world; and the evil Death Busters, who want to destroy the world with her help. A couple seasons later, she joins the main cast, and her powers overlap somewhat with those of the White Magician Girl Cool Big Sis, Sailor Pluto.
- Lala-Ru from "Now and Then Here and There" She may also count as a deconstruction of it, as being sought after by many corrupt people has left her incredibly bitter.
- Kari Kamiya/Yagami Hikari from Digimon Adventure and Digimon Adventure 02, the human lightbulb. Also an Ill Girl at times (really, she gets sick twice during the series and twice offscreen as backstory - a lot compared to the zero of most of the rest of the cast, but that adds up to a minuscule portion of her screentime - far from the invalid she's remembered as by fans.), she is the only one to have a Crest (Light) that doesn't refer to an innate virtue or trait. The powers of this Crest usually manifest themselves in weird ways, and she has been shown as both 1) unusually self-sacrificing and 2) drawn to the Dark Ocean, because of her powers and walled-in emotional problems. She's also empathetic to the point of being borderline psychic, which sends her into two Heroic BSODs in 02 (and during the last one, her best friend Miyako has to literally bitchslap her back to sanity).
- She can also be possessed by the mysterious whatevers that are running the digital world (apparently, in rank, they're the one step that exists between The Obi-Wan Gennai and The Four Gods.) And once talked like her possessed self while apparently not possessed, and could grant healing and a recharge by glowiness alone. She's got some serious clout, and we never get any kind of explanation for it, not even something like "Light is just that awesome a Crest trait."
- Kisara of Yu-Gi-Oh!, the white-haired and blue-eyed Egyptian and homeless, quiet, vaguely psychic, mysterious keeper of the spirit of the Blue-Eyes White Dragon who sacrificed herself to protect the only person who ever showed her kindness, High Priest Seto... even 3,000 years later.
- Only present day example would be against losing to Isis during Battle City. Otherwise, Kaiba typically sees Blue-Eyes White Dragon as his personal BFG.
- Clare from Claymore starts out like this, until it becomes obvious that she is seriously The Stoic mixed with Badass Abnormal, a Super-Powered Evil Side, Kuudere, and a bit of Deadpan Snarker.
- Ophelia at first appears like this, but she is just liberal amounts of Ax Crazy.
- Vivio of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, the main character's adopted 6-year old daughter who has Mismatched Eyes and was found trudging through the sewers while chained to a pair of cases containing Relics.
- C.C. from Code Geass. Personality-wise she's more of a Deadpan Snarker, though, and can't be considered exactly naive. Except when she loses her memory, then she fits the trope perfectly.
- Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion.
- Lucy/Nyuu from Elfen Lied.
- Alvis from Last Exile is a mini-version.
- Noir has Yumura Kirika, a melancholy and very cute protagonist who has no memory of her past. She also happens to be a deadly assassin.
- Tiffa Adil, the Mysterious Waif of Gundam X fits the psychic part of this trope to a tee. She is a Newtype with precognition that is used to find the others like her, how does she find them? Through drawing their potential location. In addition she has been show to be the most powerful newtype in Gundam X and has been mentioned via crossovers to potentially be the most powerful newtype in Gundam period.
- Ennis from Baccano is a more modernized example. She's kind of a subversion because her powers are nothing new in the series but other than that she has all the traits; Ethereal and beautiful? Check. Captivates the hero and the audience? Check. Is connected with the Big Bad against her will? Check. Is The Woobie? Checkity check check.
- Nia from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.
- Clear from Final Fantasy Unlimited.
- Miho in Sin City is a much more violent version of this trope.
- "I'm Layla Miller. I know stuff."
- Leeloo, the female lead of The Fifth Element
- A male example would be the titular Oliver from Oliver Twist.
- The kid in Road Warrior who never talks, but somehow grows up into the film's articulate narrator.
- An early example is the servant girl from The Seventh Seal. She is a mute that follows the knight and his squire after they save her from a rapist.
- Waterworld has Enola, an orphan with a map to dry land tattooed on her back.
- Flute, in the Elenium trilogy by David Eddings, is a small girl who is revealed, slowly, to have greater magical powers than anyone else in the party. She can control time and animals, among other things. Eventually they find out that Flute is actually the goddess Aphrael, which explains everything.
- Luna Lovegood in Harry Potter Last of her line. Mother died when she was 9. Orphan's plot trinket = Butterbeer cork necklace and Dirigible plum earrings. Also pure-hearted and kind, distracted at times, weird, persecuted, absolutely adorable!
- Neverwhere has Door, who falls at Richard Mayhew's feet on the street one night, bleeding and begging for help. He takes her home to clean her up and let her sleep, and suddenly, he finds himself neck-deep in trouble - being tracked by Croup and Vandemar, being dragged around by the Marquis de Carabas, and stumbling upon London Below.
- Crusade in Jeans has Mariecke, who is at the end of the book hinted to be the protagonist's ancestor.
- Sierva María from Gabriel García Márquez's Of Love and Other Demons, crossing with Wild Child and Creepy Child.
- Kes from Star Trek: Voyager though her past is well-explained (if not her subsequent Face Heel Turn) given that she's only lived a couple of years when the crew encounters her.
- River from Firefly, who was tricked into leaving home for the Academy and can't go back home because her rescue by her brother turned them both into hunted fugitives. She's now both psychic and insane, and she was already a genius polymath, so she definitely knows more about what goes on than anyone else but she's not equipped to tell anyone about it in a non-cryptic fashion. Also, she can shoot people dead without looking at them and take out entire rooms of enemies with Waif Fu.
- After Serenity, it seems she's getting better. Not 100% better (she still reads minds) but better than before.
- Natsuki in Go Go Sentai Boukenger has a couple of Spider Sense moments, so far a part you wonder if The Powers That Be forgot about the skull thingy way back in episode one, but when her powers are used against the Boukengers by bad guys, you get mass destruction. It's... really more trouble than it's worth.
- Freya from Merlin, a Druid runaway who is under a Curse.
- We might as well include a description for our Real Life Mysterious Waif who's pictured up there. She's the Afghan Girl, real name Sharbat Gula. She was photographed in an Afghan refugee camp. At the time the picture was taken, the photographer didn't know her name, and in 2002, she was successfully located and formally identified. Her photograph is the most recognized in National Geographic history.
- More than one young female Catholic saint is represented like this in media. A good example would be Saint Solange; she's depicted as a beautiful young shepherdess blessed by God to the point of having Healing Hands and exorcising demons with a sole touch. Too bad the poor kid ended up decapitated by a would be rapist... but then Solange performed her last miracle: calmly picking up her own severed head and walking back home.
- Fina from Skies of Arcadia.
- Luna from Lunar Silver Star Story Complete and Lucia from Lunar 2 Eternal Blue Complete.
- Machi Tobaye in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. Blind, can't speak English, and falsely accused of cold-blooded murder. Only the last's true, although his English is pretty awkward.
- Isabella/Catleia from Advance Wars: Days of Ruin. Moe, Laser-Guided Amnesia, found in wreckage and rescued by the main character, instinctively knows mysterious knowledge she shouldn't without explanation, and the Big Bad seems to know who she is and is unusually interested in her.
- Aerith Gainsborough from Final Fantasy VII.
- Dyshana of Record of Agarest War is so this.
- Rydia from Final Fantasy IV qualifies.
- A staple of Fire Emblem games:
- Genealogy of the Holy War has Deirdre, and her daughter Julia later.
- The Elibe games have Sophia in Binding Blade and Ninian in Blazing Sword.
- Myrrh in The Sacred Stones.
- Radiant Dawn has Micaiah, a rare occasion in which said waif is one of the Lord characters.
- Azura in Fates.
- Sothis in Three Houses, though she's much sassier than the usual.
- Princess Yorda of Ico definitely qualifies. Though the castle appears to be her home, it's more accurately described as her prison. She's utterly helpless (so much so that she has to be led by the hand by the player character) for most of the game, unintelligible, acts childlike, glows with an ethereal light, and has some kind of magical power. Oh, and the Queen has a particular interest in preventing her from leaving the castle.
- Ar tonelico has Aurica. Ar Tonelico 3 has Saki.
- Iris from Atelier Iris 2 The Azoth of Destiny is this to the degree.
- Fiona from Nostalgia is this trope to a T.
- Elh of Solatorobo fits as well, having a quiet, distant personality, MacGuffin amulet, and Doomed Hometown, though in this case the waif is a young male - or rather, is confused for one. Elh is really a girl, much to everyone's surprise. They just never asked.
- Played with in Shadownova. Iris is actually the main character and we know exactly why she can't go home but she does have some incredible and plot important powers that everyone either wants or wants killed. She's implied to have lost a lot of faith in humanity over some traumatic event in her past that she refuses to elaborate on besides hinting that it involved the death of her father.
- Rumors of War has three in the main cast: Elysia, Illyra, and Occela. All three have homes they can't return to; one's searching for her Missing Mentor, one pulls a double-shift as The Ladette, and the third's a Broken Bird.
- Our very own Mysterious Waif-tan.
- And in case you're wondering how being moderately famous improved her life...it didn't. At the time the picture was taken, Gula had just been driven from her home, so she was understandably pissed off. And when she was found in 2002 and asked how she felt about being famous, she found that it was hard to care when your husband was working for a dollar a day and your asthma made it hard to breathe within your own polluted city.