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What happens when the nominal leader of a nation (most commonly some form of royalty) is secretly a figurehead controlled by elements within his or her government. Usually the real power will be a Regent for Life, a Government Conspiracy, or a particularly skillful Evil Chancellor; the general populace will think that the nominal ruler is really the one in charge, and the ruler themself can have a variety of reactions — they may be trying desperately to get power back, may be content with the status quo as The Way Things Are Meant To Be, may be too busy having fun to care, or in some extreme cases may not even know themselves the extent to which they're being played. In some cases this will be built right into the system of government, though only the highest officials will know that. Often the protagonists will help open the Puppet King's eyes and help him take his government back.
Does not apply to cases like the modern British monarchy, where the monarch's limited powers are something everyone knows and accepts. The government has to at least make a show that the ruler is calling the shots to qualify for this trope. Has nothing to do with the Teen Titans villain Puppet King, who is an Evil Sorcerer with the body of a literal puppet, or puppets used that play the part of kings in Puppet Shows, or King Friday XIII from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Also not to be confused with Puppeteer Parasite or People Puppets.
Anime and Manga
- In Naruto it was eventually revealed that Yagura, the Fourth Mizukage and ruler of the Village Hidden in the Mist, was mind-controlled by Madara. The extent to which he was aware of Madara's control is unknown.
- The Earth Sphere Alliance in Gundam Seed and Gundam Seed Destiny is made up of several of the world's most powerful nations, including The Atlantic Federation, Eurasia, and other major power blocs in Easa Asia, Africa, and South America. Yet despite that, the agenda is really being controlled by Blue Cosmos, and several other major anti-Coordinator lobby groups, headed first by Murata Azrael and later by his successor, Lord Djibril. It's Blue Cosmos who pulls the strings; the Earth Sphere Alliance just follows along.
- Actually, the first Mobile Suit Gundam series has this too. By the time the action rolls, Sovereign Degwin Zabi's power over Zeon was heavily disminished due to his old age and his son and heir Gihren's manipulation. And It Gets Worse after Degwin's youngest son, Garma, dies; the old man's thrown across the Despair Event Horizon, Gihren plots more and more, and then...
- Fuhrer King Bradley of Fullmetal Alchemist and he knows it. He is the Homunculus Wrath and only the figurehead to the real leader, Father. For his entire life he served Father's will and had very little freedom of his own. It is why he cherished his wife, as it was the ONLY thing he willingly chose with that very freedom he had.
- Similarly, in the 2003 anime version, Bradley is the Homonculus Pride and is controlled by Dante in her never-ending use of the Amestris military as a tool of despair to make people create Philosopher's Stones. However, since Dante couldn't care less about day-to-day issues of the nation, Bradley has a lot more autonomy in this version than his original counterpart and seems to take an inordinate amount of, well, pride in his own leadership.
- Opfus, the official leader of Chaos Brigade is this in High School DxD.
- The comic book series Fables has a literal puppet emperor. Gepetto, who's still playing humble woodcarver, is actually in charge.
- The V for Vendetta comic had a puppet dictator. The dictator was a symbol and figurehead, one of his ministers is the one really in control of the government.
- In the Archie Comics Sonic The Hedgehog series, Elias just can't help but be controlled by someone. The first time, it was Geoffry St. John, who tried to make it so that him and his Secret Service was a much better choice than Sonic and the Freedom Fighters. Second time, Elias' own father, Max, attempted to be this way, refusing to give up the past.
Films — Animation
- The Sultan in Disney's Aladdin is completely under the control of Grand Vizier Jafar, thanks in large part to a Hypno Ray staff.
- It is implied that Emperor Kuzco's narcissitic/self-absorbed behavior was due to Yzma's influence when growing up, meaning she most likely attempted to control Kuzco while on the throne. Unfortunately for her, this backfires, resulting in wanting to directly taking the throne for herself by murdering him.
Films — Live Action
- The King of France in both the The Three Musketeers 1973 and The Three Musketeers 1993.
- Star Wars:
- The novelization for A New Hope initially cast Palpatine as this, stating that most of the power in the Galactic Empire was held by various senators and warlords (like Darth Vader). The Empire Strikes Back though made clear that this wasn't the case at all.
- Snoke in the Sequel Trilogy. A strandcast clone, he's the puppet that the alive but physically impaired Emperor Palpatine used to guide the Imperial remnants into the First Order.
- Evil Drug Lord to nominal President of fictional Banana Republic in the James Bond movie Licence to Kill: -->"Remember--you are only President... for Life."
- Pu Yi in The Last Emperor, specially as the ruler of Manchukuo under Imperial Japan's watch.
- The head of Global Dynamics on Eureka is apparently assumed to be this for the Department of Defense. In season 4, this is subtly hinted at being the reason Fargo landed the job in the altered timeline.
- In Babylon 5, Cartagia was intended to be a Puppet Emperor for Lord Refa and his conspiracy. It... Didn't really work out. Londo Mollari later becomes a Puppet Emperor for the Drakh, literally.
- In Game of Thrones Joffrey is installed as one of these. Unfortunately, he is still officially the king, and consequently if he gives an incredibly stupid order in public, they can't just countermand him.
- Arthur is seriously flirting with this territory in 'Merlin due to the constant influence of and his desire to not tick off Agravaine.
- Early Installment Weirdness in the Doctor Who episode "The Deadly Assassin" cast the President of the Time Lords as this, Engin saying that the role was largely ceremonial and that the High Council did the bureaucratic heavy lifting. Later stories about the Time Lords made clear that the opposite was true.
- Gilthas from Dragonlance looks like this (in fact, he was derisively nicknamed "the Puppet King", controlled by the Dark Knights and a succession of Quisling Evil Chancellors, but he's actually one of the secret leaders of the resistance against his own rule, and his wife is the military leader of said resistance. Needless to say, the ones who thought they had him under control were not happy about this.
- Literally built into the Terran Hansa Charter in The Saga of Seven Suns. The Great King is a monarch who acts as the Hansa's public face and is a focus for loyalty, but the Hansa Chairman (a career politician publicly seen as the king's assistant) is the one really calling the shots behind the scenes, and the king has no influence over policy.
- Some of the Galactic Emperors from Isaac Asimov's Foundation books were like this. During the timeline of the main series, the position had degenerated into being almost all figureheads, with a couple of exceptions.
- Also King Lepold of Anacreon, whose government is really controlled by Prince Regent Wienis.
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The President of the Galactic Empire has no actual power, and exists to distract the public from the real leaders. The Emperor is even more useless, being kept in suspended animation for the last ten thousand years so they can still call it an empire. The galaxy is really "ruled" by the decisions of a delusional old man in a hut who refuses to believe in anything he doesn't experience empirically.
- King Theoden of Rohan had effectively been turned into this during The Lord of the Rings until Gandalf snapped him out of it. In the movies this was due to literal Mind Control, while in the books Evil Chancellor Wormtongue was "just" a very Manipulative Bastard who used mundane means and the king's advancing age to get actual control of the government handed over to him.
- God-King Susebron from Warbreaker is an example of one who knows and accepts his own role as a symbol and his priests' role as the actual administrators — at least, until his young wife Siri convinces him otherwise.
- The White Vampire Court in The Dresden Files, Lara controlling her father, the King, after the book Blood Rites.
- Queen Victoria is in thrall to the title character in Anno Dracula until her Heroic Sacrifice.
- In Mercedes Lackey's Dragon Jousters series the two sets of royalty in the opposing kingdoms are under the control of the same group of evil magicians determined to keep the war going to they can harvest the life energy of the slain soldiers.
- In the Discworld novel Guards Guards the goal of the Elucidated Brethren is to set up one of these with themselves holding the reins. The idea is that they will get a chap with the usual characteristics (noble, not too bright, does what he's told) have him slay a dragon they summoned and reap the rewards. Unfortunately the dragon turns out to be Not Quite Dead, and then things get interesting...
- Also, according to Unseen University's Bursar, all of the Archchancellors are supposed to be this. Seeing almost all of them get killed off by Klingon Promotion before doing anything important, the only thing they needed to do was sign papers. That all came to an end when Mustrum Ridcully was put in charge...along with the Bursar's sanity.
- In Robert E. Howard's "The Scarlet Citadel", the villains want to replace Conan the Barbarian with one; Conan scorns them for needing an excuse.
- In Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows we have a Puppet Minster of Magic, Pius Thicknesse, who is being controlled by Yaxley via the Imperius Curse, who in turn answers to Lord Voldemort. In the movie version, Thicknesse seems to be an active Death Eater himself rather than just a pawn, though the hierarchy of him-Yaxley-Voldemort is otherwise intact.
- Days Of Infamy a Harry Turtledove alternate timeline series features Japan invading Hawaii following the Pearl Harbor attack. Mirroring the establishment of the puppet emperor Puyi of Manchukuo the Japanese military places a local noble with a dubious pedigree as the new King of Hawaii.
- Exalted features Regent Fokuf, the only person to sit on the throne of the Realm since the Scarlet Empress disappeared — the main reason being that everyone wanted a witless fool who could easily be bent to their whims. Fokuf basically spends his days rubber-stamping documents and wanking to the Immaculate Texts, and it's stated that if the Scarlet Empress returns, she'll likely destroy him for the insult of daring to sit on her throne.
- In Pacific Overtures, the Emperor of Japan, when the real power was wielded by the Shogun, is literally played by a puppet.
- Speculation is that Saya in Blaz Blue has been turned into this by Terumi. It wouldn't be the first time he's mind raped somebody into pulling a Face Heel Turn.
- Played with in Final Fantasy IV. Cecil and the party think this is what's going on in the kingdom of Baron, with the king being manipulated by Golbez, the new leader of the Red Wings armada, in order to steal all the crystals with the kingdom's military strength. However, the real' king of Baron has been dead since before the game even started, and has been replaced by Cagnazzo, the Fiend of Water, who is under Golbez's command.
- The Empire attempt to do this with the female lead Princess Ashe in Final Fantasy XII. Let's just say that the Empire give up on this plan real fast.
- Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica's Cloche is officially the Holy Maiden of the Grand Bell, leading the people of Metafalss in the War Against the Goddess Frelia. In truth, she starts as an isolated young woman closely monitored by the Grand Bell's upper crust, especially Alfman Uranous. Then you find out her Backstory, and It Gets Worse....
- Metal Gear Solid 3 Snake Eater had Volgin intending to place Brezhnev and Kosygin in the place of Khrushchev so he could manipulate them behind the scenes. On a related note, it is implied in Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty that every single President of the United States since William Taft was used as Puppet Kings by the Patriots (in the case of the early formation, the Philosophers.).
- In Pokémon Black and White, N is implied to be this, as while he was officially the leader of Team Plasma, a group of Well-Intentioned Extremists who intended to separate Pokémon from Humans under the belief that the latter group abuses Pokémon, Ghetsis was secretly manipulating N and by extension the entirety of Team Plasma so he could take over the planet by being the only one allowed to own Pokémon.
- The Nameless Mod: The nominal leader of Planet Deus Ex is Despot, but ultimate authority actually lies with an entity of which most civilians - and officials - aren't even aware.
- Blackhand from Warcraft: Orcs and Humans and Rise of the Horde is the warchief of the Horde, but the real power is between the hands of Gul'dan and the Shadow Council. Blackhand himself knows it, but doesn't care as long as everybody thinks is is the most powerful orc around.
- The King of Enrich from Shining the Holy Ark is being controlled by his Evil Chancellor (via evil spirits) into reviving her race of people.
- Monokuma in the Danganronpa franchise is a literal example of this, an animatronic controlled by Junko Enoshima and her followers. New Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, in particular has a double-dose of this trope; with not only Monokuma as usual, we have a more traditional Puppet Queen in Tsumugi "Ultimate Cosplayer" Shirogane, actually controlled by the offscreen Team Danganronpa if her words are to be believed.
- In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Princess Edelgard's father, Emperor Ionus IX of Adrestia, became this after the Insurerection of the Seven, where seven noble clans stripped him of all his power. His frail health does not help matters.
- After the Time Skip, in almost all the routes except Crimson Flower, the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus's Court Mage Cornelia is appointed as a mix of this and The Quisling after the Empire, now directed by Edelgard, takes over the Kingdom and Prince Dimitri, now framed for the murder of his regent and uncle Duke Rufus, must run away. Though it's all but shouted that she isn't the real Cornelia, but a member of Those who Slither in the Dark who murdered the woman and took her place.
- Guilty Gear: The president of A Country aka the USA, Erica Bartholomew, is a 17-year-old orphan girl who was handpicked by the Assassin's Guild to become this, and she's very aware and unhappy due to this. The plot of the Butterfly and her Gale novel is kicked off when she goes Plucky Girl and decides to stop being a pawn, but needs Chipp Zanuff's protection due to this. In GG Strive she has more or less gotten her wish and, while not the President anymore (that's Colin Vernon), she stays around as his Chief of Staff.
- In the games, Ky Kiske is elected as one of the three Kings of the recently founded United Kingdoms of Illyria. (The others are a Guile Hero Non Action Guy named Daryl and Ky's Friendly Rival Leo Whitefang). In practice, however, Ky has become this: he was chosen by the Senate / Conclave under threats of revealing that his girlfriend and the mother of his son, Dizzy, is a Gear woman. While he does his best to reign well and make sure both humans and Gears will coexist in peace, he's trapped in the role up until the Xrd games, where he can finally start fighting back.
- Lord Shojo of Order of the Stick is an insane old man who listens only to Mr. Scruffy, his cat. He really cultivates the image so that people don't kill him — if you're being manipulated, there's no point in killing you.
- The Empress of Blood is expected to be this. As it turns out the rulers of the Empires of Blood, Sweat, and Tears are all puppet rulers each controlled by two members of Tarquin's old adventuring party. They absorb countries one by one while pretending to protect them from the other empires. To stop anyone realizing the pairs exchange members, they depose the figurehead, and they rename the countries on a regular basis.
- Queen Breznial in The Dementia Of Magic. Very angry about it.
- Played with in Drowtales in the Vloz'ress clan. Kharla'ggen has the mind of a child and is mostly just content to play with her dolls, and when Sene'kha, the woman holding the leash, dies everyone starts to scramble to gain control of her, but Kiel'ndia has other ideas. It's also been indicated that Kharla may have desires of her own.
- Ironically enough their greatest enemy, the Kyorl'solenurn, may be very similar to them in that regard. Shimi'lande is eventually revealed to answer to a council of Judicators who briefly discuss replacing her before deciding against it.
- The Earth King from Avatar: The Last Airbender was so completely controlled by Evil Chancellor Long Feng and his Dai Li that he didn't even know he wasn't really in control, until the heroes helped set things straight.
- In the finale, Fire Lord Ozai grants his position to his daughter Azula, right before turning it into a puppet position by naming himself Phoenix King. This comes as a slap in the face to Azula and sparks a Villainous Breakdown that's been brewing for a while.
- After Zarkon's final death in Voltron: Legendary Defender, Haggar tries to set up Sendak as one for her to rule through and continue Zarkon's policies.
- Flashbacks in Season 5 of Steven Universe reveal that Pink Diamond was ultimately demoted to this by Blue and Yellow Diamond after she stepped out of line.