Picture your favorite character in a crime drama and think of their backstory. Got it? Good.
Itís almost a certainty that they were abused as a child, probably by an alcoholic parent. Was the other parent dead? Maybe even both parents were dead. A stint in foster care is common. How about an irresponsible or troubled younger sibling that said character spent their earlier years taking care of? Do they have a history of failed romances and a fairly dismal personal life?
The probability of most of these criteria matching is higher than not. This is because on crime dramas, almost across the board, this backstory is used for at least
one of the lead characters.
The common backstory includes several of the following:
- Child abuse, usually, but not always, at the hands of a parent.
- An alcoholic parent.
- Missing Mom and/or Disappeared Dad. Bonus points if this is due to murder.
- A stint in foster care.
- Rape, in reference to either the character or someone close to them.
- Directly or indirectly, but never on purpose, caused a death.
- A close family member or friend who suffered from a mental illness and/or committed suicide.
- Very low family income, bordering on poverty.
- A troubled or irresponsible younger sibling that the character may feel responsible for or an angelic and perfect younger sibling who they feel responsible for or failed to protect.
- A dead spouse and/or child.
- A trail of failed romances, possibly even a Serial Spouse.
- Little to no personal life, often a result of the character being Married to the Job.
Some of these characteristics are more popular than others, and a character's backstory, by no means, needs to display all of them. It may only need to include two or three, depending on which two or three, to qualify.
This trope is used almost exclusively in straight dramas, where characters tend to have dark and troubled pasts
, as opposed to dramadies or comedies, though certain elements of the backstory, such as a dead parent, are not uncommon in dramadies. It is also seems to occur more often in lead characters, though it is not unheard of for a supporting character to follow the pattern. Additionally, the trope doesn't apply exclusively to law enforcement agents and is equally as common when a main character is a consultant for a law enforcement agency.
This seems to be a newer trope, as it was not apparent in crime dramas as recently as the 1990s.
May result in a Broken Bird
or Jerk with a Heart of Gold
. Perhaps because True Art Is Angsty
- Both Bud White and Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential: Bud's father was an abusive drunk who eventually murdered Bud's mother and chained him to a radiator next to her corpse, while Ed's father (also a cop) was murdered by an unknown assailant.
- In The Heat, Cowboy Cop Mullins is the one trying to look out for her drug-dealer little brother, and By The Book Special Agent Ashburn is the overachieving, friendless foster kid.
- Commander Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch in Discworld grew up in poverty, with a dead alcoholic father ("His mum told him that the man had been run over by a cart, but Vimes suspected that if this were true at all, then it was probably a brewer's cart, which had 'run him over' a bit at a time for years"). He has no personal life before meeting Lady Sybil, and even afterwards needs to remind himself to make time for his wife and son.
- In Death series: Eve and Roarke. Both of them suffered child abuse at the hands of their parents, had at least one alcoholic parent, their parents are missing, had little in terms of family income when they were young, and had little in terms of personal lives. In Eve's case, her father raped her more than once, she killed him in self-defence when she was 8 years old, had a stint in foster care, and had just one-night-stand before Roarke. Roarke had a younger angelic sister named Marlena who was raped and torture-murdered by a gang who had a grudge against Roarke. Roarke responded by going on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge and killed all six men. Honestly, it's like Nora Roberts was trying to hit as many items on the list as possible!
- On Bones, Brennan, Booth, and Sweets show this trope. All three of them have a history of abuse, Brennan and Sweets both spent time in foster care, and Brennan and Booth both have a dead parent and a string of failed romances.
- On Fringe, Olivia shows this trope, having lost both parents, been abused by her stepfather as a child, feeling responsible for her younger sister, and having no personal relationships with people that aren't related to her and don't work with her.
- On The Mentalist, Lisbon's backstory is an example of this trope. She was abused by her alcoholic father after her mother's death, and spent the rest of her childhood taking care of her three younger brothers.
- Jane is also an example of this trope. As a child, he was used by his father to con desperate people out of their money. His wife and daughter were also killed by a serial killer after he psychoanalyzed said killer on national television.
- Multiple characters on Criminal Minds have backstories that include elements of this trope, such as Reid's father's absence and his family's history of schizophrenia and JJ's sister's suicide, but the only character with enough of them to fit the trope is Morgan, who grew up in a low-income, inner-city neighborhood, lost his father at a young age, and suffered abuse at the hand of a leader in his community.
- Garcia's parents died when she was a teenager and she had to take care of herself. Rossi epitomizes failed relationships, having never been able to maintain a marriage. Hotch eventually falls prey to this and later to a dead ex-wife - they still loved each other, though. His technically isn't a back story though. Like most of the characters, his father did die when he was pretty young.
- Lilly Rush on Cold Case is a textbook example of this. Her father abandoned the family at a young age. She grew up on welfare with an alcoholic mother and an irresponsible younger sister. She has a history of failed romances and, outside of these failed romances, no personal life.
- It is hinted at in Veronica Mars that Sheriff Lamb suffered some child abuse. Very little else about his background is given, but he does seem to spend a lot of time in the office.
- Veronica herself fits a few of those points too.
- CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
- Until he hooked up with Sara Sidle, Gil Grissom was a workaholic with no personal life and hinted at an unhappy childhood -mainly the death of his father; things were ok with his mom. Asked what he was at high school, he replied "A ghost."
- Sara was basically his Distaff Counterpart. She had an abusive father and saw her mother kill him.
- Jim Brass had an affair, followed by a divorce from the wife who was also having an affair, and a daughter, Ellie, who went completely off the rails and turned to prostitution and drugs. It eventually turns out his daughter isn't actually his daughter. Oh, yeah, and he accidentally shot another policeman once.
- Nick Stokes was the victim of child abuse from a babysitter.
- Ray had an abusive father who was a war vet and lost his battle with his inner demons. He was divorced, but may have reconciled with his wife after being written out.
- Morgan didn't have much contact with her dad, Ecklie, after her mom took her and left. At least til she started working around him in Las Vegas.
- Warrick lost his parents as a young child and was raised by his grandmother. He had a hard time staying out of trouble.
- CSI: Miami
- Calleigh Duquesne has an alcoholic father
- Horatio and his brother Ray had an abusive father.
- CSI NY
- Lindsay witnessed several friends being murdered as a teenager.
- Also from NY,Don Flack has spent a lot of time trying to keep his troubled sister on the right track, even before the show started.
- Stella was an orphan almost from birth.
- Mac is a 9/11 widower who buried himself in work afterward to cope with the pain. He also had an incident as a teenager where he tagged along with a friend who had a delivery job and the friend's brother. The group was attacked, and Mac grabbed a nearby gun, but was too scared to fire it, and the friend's brother was killed. The now ex-friend still blamed Mac for it even as an adult.
- Jo-divorced,lost her sister to a drunk driver
- Hawkes' sister was murdered, and his former girlfriend was raped, resulting in Hawkes screwing up being there for her.
- NCIS: Gibbs has the dead spouse/child back story in spades. After that, it's failed marriage after failed marriage. Tony's father was a useless alcoholic who neglected him and sent him to live in boarding schools after his mother died. Ziva's sort of difficult to place. Her upbringing was rough; she grew up surrounded by violence, her father admitted to having "raised her to be a killer", and most of her immediate family had died by the time she joined the show. McGee's father, a Naval admiral, was absent during most of his childhood and a neglectful "Well Done, Son" Guy when he wasn't absent. McGee also has a troubled little sister.
- Fortunately, this is balanced out by several characters who seem to have had happy, normal childhoods, including Abby and Palmer.
- Dexter was present at his mother's murder and sat in her blood for three days. His brother turned out to be a serial killer and now, his wife is dead.
- Doakes was abused as a kid and has no social life. Deb really doesn't either (talk about failed relationship after failed relationship. She just cannot catch a break).
- From Reno 911!, Lieutenant Dangle's father abandoned his family when he was a child, and his mother committed suicide.
- While he is more of a vigilante than a cop, Michael from Burn Notice has most of these in his back story. His father was an abusive, alcoholic gambler, which caused his family to live in poverty (not to mention an irresponsible younger brother). Like the troubled cop character, Michael chose his career as a spy because it got him away from his old life.
- The main cast of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit goes right down the list:
- Detective Olivia Benson from believed for many years that she was a Child by Rape. Her mother was also an alcoholic, and her half-brother is an irresponsible Man Child she feels responsible for. She also struggles to have a personal life because of the nature of her job.
- Her partner, Elliot Stabler, had Abusive Parents including a mentally ill mother. He also has a troubled marriage and strained relationships with his children.
- John Munch's father committed suicide, and Munch himself famously has a string of failed marriages (albeit the latter is often Played for Laughs).
- Fin Tutuola has a strained relationship with his son Ken, partially because Fin's undercover assignments took him away from the family for long periods of time when Ken was growing up, and partially because of his own initial struggles to accept Ken's homosexuality.
- Nick Amaro's father was violently abusive toward his mother on a regular basis, and eventually abandoned the family. Amaro also takes it really badly when his own wife files for divorce.
- Amanda Rollins has an irresponsible (and eventually outright backstabbing) younger sister for whom she feels responsible, a father who ran up gambling debts and eventually abandoned the family, and a mother who subsequently dated abusive men. She was also sexually assaulted by an authority figure at her precinct in Atlanta, hence her transfer to Manhattan SVU.
- Ray Vecchio in Due South, who had an alcoholic, good-for-nothing father.
- Fraser lost his mother to a murderer when he was six, and for the next few months, his father was out of it.
- On Justified Deputy US Marshall Raylan Givens' father Arlo is an abusive career criminal who drunk too much and often beat up Raylan's mother, Francine. Francine died when Raylan was just a kid and Arlo had her buried in their front yard. Raylan's wife left him for another man and he has had a string of failed relationships that tend to end badly.
- Rayalan's fellow deputy US Marshalls have similar back stories. Tim also had an abusive father, drinks too much and is a Shell-Shocked Veteran from serving in Afghanistan. Rachell's younger sister was murdered by her abusive husband and Rachell's marriage is on the verge of collapse.
- Kate Beckett on Castle hits three parts: the string of failed romances (even during the show; we know of her failed tryst with Sorensen, then see Demming and Josh crash and burn), little to no real social life, and the Missing Mom (in fact, she would've been a lawyer, thus averting the poverty aspect, but for her mother's murder).
- JAG: Harm's father was missing in action for most of his childhood, and early seasons had Harm obsessed with finding out what happened to him. Bud's father was physically abusive, as was Mac's. Mac is also a recovering alcoholic and she and Harm both had several failed romances under their belts before their Last Minute Hook Up in the series finale.
- On Once Upon a Time, Emma grew up in foster care thinking she was abandoned by her parents. She suffered abuse at some of her foster homes. We don't know how many failed romances she's had, but the one we do know of had a pretty big impact. She also had absolutely no social life prior to her arrival in Storybrooke, due partially to the nature of her job and partially to the fact that she struggles to open up to people.