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Circus Brat

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All in a day's work.

"She was born in the wagon of a traveling show
Her mama used to dance for the money they'd throw."
Cher, "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves"

The Circus Brat is someone who grew up in a traveling circus. Usually part of a long legacy of performers, and occasionally gypsies and mystics. This is becoming less used as traditional circuses become less popular, but it is useful for establishing a bunch of things about the character. Often, polar opposites of the Military Brat:

  • Having an upbringing that was very relaxed.
  • Being very liberal and accepting of differences and others, what with hanging around with the bearded lady and conjoined twins year-round.
  • Being especially good at reading people and looking through lies, manipulations, and various con games due to growing up around stage magicians and carnies who were proficient in both elaborate illusions and underhanded tricks.
  • Frequent moves have left the character highly street smart and savvy about traveling.
  • Character will have an excuse for knowing a variety of obscure but useful skills like juggling, sleight of hand, acrobatics, exotic animal care, performing and the like.
  • May be tired of being seen as a freak without solid roots and wish to be normal.
  • The circus brat sometimes has parents who work with the circus, but "running away and joining the circus" is also a trope, so there are also many runaways and orphans in the circus.

Sometimes, the portrayal is opposite to the above. Sometimes, the Circus Brat is forced to practice hours on end, painfully contort their body until it becomes accustomed to the stretch, and otherwise abused to enforce obedience and performance.

This is still a valid origin story in many fantasy settings pre-Industrial revolution, where television and video games haven't become wide spread.

This trope often applies to the children of carnies as well. Compare Wrestling Family. Also compare The Runaway, which often involves a child running away to the circus to become a Circus Brat. Subtrope of Raised by the Community.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Ashita no Nadja:
    • Rita Rossi. Twice, actually: the circus owned by her parents got burned down, and since they died in that same fire she was taken in by the Dandelion Troupe, the people that the Rossis entrusted her to before perishing.
    • Kennosuke and Nadja themselves. They weren't raised in the circus, but work there.
  • Claire in Baccano! grew up at a circus and worked as an acrobat, gaining a Charles Atlas Superpower in the process. He's also Ax-Crazy, but that's not connected to his background.
  • From Berserk Judeau spent his childhood with a traveling performance group and that may have been were his knife throwing skill was picked up. Puck also lived with the same group.
    • There's also Rita from the Berserk videogame.
  • Bird's Nest and Michel from Copernicus Breathing. The two brothers grew up in a traveling circus. After Michel falls from the trapeze and dies Bird's Nest joins another circus troupe as a clown, and even after leaving the performing life, is continually drawn back in to the circus.
  • Marion Begnini from Kaleido Star, as well as Pamela's twin girls. Yuri and the Oswald siblings are more tragic examples: Yuri's dad died on-stage, and the Oswalds joined a circus after leaving their abusive step-parents... and Sophie later died.
  • Sophia, a girl from an itinerant circus that a Magical Girl named Lunlun meets in her travels through Europe. More exactly, in Norway. In a subversion this does have repercusions in Sophia's emotional state, as she's stated to have few to no friends and refuses to work onstage as a clown, despite having inherited her Disappeared Dad's talent for acting and making people laugh. Sophia's mother, who works as the circus's fortune teller, tries to rope Lunlun to try dealing with her...
  • Mai from Magical Emi, the Magic Star grew up in the Magic Carat Magic Show.
  • Pictured above: Rita from Michiko & Hatchin.
  • Nadia from Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water start as a 14-year-old (15 toward the end of the series) who works in a circus as an acrobat in order to survive, since she is an orphan and of unknown origins.
  • In Rurouni Kenshin, Yahiko befriends a girl named Marimo who lives and works in a circus as their Human Cannonball. Then the circus is threatened by some thugs, and the Kenshin-gumi helps Marimo and the crew against them.
  • One of Saber Rider's girls of the week was a cute young woman who worked as an acrobat in a circus.
  • The Amazoness Quartet, a villainess group from Sailor Moon. They are four girls and their attacks are derived from circus skills, with each having a specific talent.
  • This seemed to be the case for one-shot character Espa Roba from the original Yu-Gi-Oh!. He and his younger brothers were former carnies (Espa presumably a carnival psychic, given his methods of dueling later), with Espa getting a Promotion to Parent for his siblings via some unknown incident.
  • Jeagar a clown-like villain from Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds. He was the oldest son in a family of circus performers, but business was bad, so they couldn't afford to feed themselves. (Given the fact that they lived on Cup Ramen, a traditionally inexpensive food, this suggests that it was even worse than Jeagar suggested.) As a result, Jeagar, being the eldest son, left the circus and went to Neo Domino where he became a member of Sector Security, and managed to keep his family well-fed with a much bigger salary. Unfortunately, that led to him becoming a member of Yliaster, and ultimately, an accomplice to morally questionable deeds he later regretted, especially when his family was in danger as a result.
  • Allen of D.Gray-Man was sold to the circus as a child and faced serious abuse and neglect, growing up to be bitter and angry child until a clown took him in.

    Comic Books 
  • Richard "Dick" Grayson, the original Robin from Batman. He still returns to the circus whenever they pass by Gotham and Bludhaven. He even ended up using his sizable trust fund to buy them out to save them from financial ruin. He's generally regarded as the best acrobat in the world.
  • Nightcrawler / Kurt Wagner from X-Men was raised in a traveling circus.
  • Johnny Blaze, the original Ghost Rider. Stunt motorcyclist, later circus owner. Gives much plot in that the sideshow acts are often supernaturally real.
  • DC's first Trickster was a circus brat, which might explain his... eye-catching costume. Of course, this is DC...
  • Hawkeye and his brother Barney both grew up in the circus, and this is where Clint learned his sharpshooting skills to begin with.
  • The occult detective Hieronymus Bosch in the Danish comic with the same name was raised in a Russian circus by his acrobat mother and juggler father. He was trained in both conjuring and honest-to-karma real magic by the circus' illusionist, this being the original source of his occult knowledge.
  • The Goon was abandoned by his father with his Aunt Kizzie, the circus Strongwoman, when he was only an infant, with his father threatening to throw him into the river if Kizzie didn't take him.
  • Benoit Brisefer, the album "Le Cirque Bodoni" has Mona Bodoni, a circus girl specialized in Tightrope Walking.

    Fan Works 
  • Fear's Back Story as written in the Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater fanfic The Joy Of Battle was the son of two circus performers. It seems that he got his tongue from his mother and his ability to dislocate joints from his father. His story may or may not be based on Nightcrawler.
  • In Gypsy Caravan Harry grew up as part of a traveling circus of Squibs after running away to join them when he heard his aunt and uncle refer to them as "freaks" and figured they'd be just like him.
  • In Under the Big Top, Castiel and his family all grew up in the circus. Castiel became a tightrope walker, but he hated the circus and planned to run away with Dean. Then Dean changed his mind about leaving the circus, and they broke up.

    Films — Animation 
  • In Ratatouille, Colette explains to Linguini the backstories of the other cooks. One was a circus acrobat who was fired for messing around with the ringmaster's daughter.

    Films — Live Action 
  • The main character from MirrorMask. She wants to run away from the circus and join real life though she seems to have come around by the end.
  • In Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, the assassin known as the Thin Man is revealed (in a detailed flashback) to have been the child of Romanian circus performers who died in a fire.
  • The Greatest Showman details the first circus, so naturally, there aren't many in Barnum's act who had been in the circus before. Regardless, the Wheelers are implied to have some sort of previous acrobatics and trapeze experience, and Anne is one of the youngest in the show.

  • The Boundless: Will meets a girl in Winnipeg that is a wire walker for the Klax Bros. Circus. Her dream is to be an Escape Artist.
  • InCryptid:
    • Frances Brown was left as a Doorstop Baby at the Campbell Family Carnival, and raised by the carnies. She ended up becoming their star performer until she left with Jonathan Healy, but she stays in touch with her friends there, and Jonathan even arranges for the Carnival to come to Buckley for their wedding.
    • Fran and Jonathan's grandchildren Kevin and Jane were also raised by the Campbell Family Carnival, though not because they were orphans their mom was off in Another Dimension searching for their dad.
  • Kvothe of The Kingkiller Chronicle was the 'traveling entertainment troupe' variety.
  • Kate from The Mysterious Benedict Society ran away to join the circus after her father left her as a baby.
  • The narrator and her siblings in the novel Geek Love. She's also a homegrown freak.
  • The title character of The Phantom of the Opera grew up in a circus (as a freak) and learned a real skill with magic and choreography there. In the book, his first job after leaving the circus is as an entertainer/Torture Technician for an Ottoman ruler.
  • In the James Bond novel The Man with the Golden Gun, Big Bad and Worthy Opponent / Shadow Archetype Francisco Scaramanga's parents were circus performers, and he worked both as a trick shot and an animal caretaker as a kid. His Start of Darkness happened when he shot a policeman for killing his favorite elephant when it went on a rampage.
  • Discworld
    • Parodied (with a partial reference to John Major's backstory, see below) in the novel Making Money. It turns out that Mr. Bent, the Obstructive Bureaucrat chief cashier was the illegitimate son of a particularly famous clown. Because of his natural talent for clowning, he was asked to perform after he reunited with his father; alas, he was traumatized because everybody was laughing at him, and they somehow neglected to warn him that it was supposed to happennote . Bent ran away from the circus and joined a group of Traveling Accountants, swearing off laughter, humor, and "silliness" for decades.
    • After escaping from an Orphanage of Fear, the two-bodied Miss Level from A Hat Full of Sky spent the rest of her childhood at Monty Bladder's Three-Ring Circus as Topsy and Tipsy, the Astounding Mind Reading Act (and the Astounding Bohonkus Sisters, who juggled plates) before eventually leaving due to a Noodle Incident with a clown and becoming a witch.
  • Eddie, the protagonist of The Five People You Meet in Heaven grew up (and spent the rest of his life) at a seaside amusement park. It was where he met his wife and eventually died; one of the eponymous people is the Blue Man from the freak show; a flashback shows Eddie using his ability to juggle to fight off his captors during the war in the Philippines, etc.
  • The protagonist of Margaret Mahy's Maddigan's Fantasia, Garland, is the daughter of the Ringmaster.
  • Bob Snarly from Anthony Horowitz's YA novel The Switch is close to a deconstruction of the trope. He's a brat raised by circus people alright, but he's far from open-minded, instead behaving like common trailer trash. An Aesop is learned.
  • Lucy from The Tale Of Magic spent the first thirteen years of her life traveling in a band. She played the tambourine.
  • Dorothy Shaw in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
  • Carlotta in Enid Blyton's St Clare's series grew up in a circus. She keeps this a secret but is betrayed by the school sneak. Her friends, however, are thrilled by her exotic background.
  • One of the girls in a book called About Face grew up with a traveling circus when her dream is to stay in one town and own a house.
  • The Great Merlini, who appeared in four golden-age mystery novels by Clayton Rawson, was born to a family of circus acrobats and got his initial training in stage magic from the sideshow magician.
  • The Murrary twins from The Night Circus, born and growing up during the course of the book.
  • Maks in The Poster Children has to live with the fact that he essentially caused his circus to be closed down. He doesn't like to talk about it.
  • North in The Gracekeepers.
  • In the Fern Hollow story "The Tortoise Fair", Tugger Bramble and Monty Tuttlebee try to be the runaway type when they stow away in the titular fair's caravan. Unfortunately (for them; fortunately for the caravan), they are discovered when Tugger sneezes. The tortoises are just turning around to bring them back home when their parents and P.C. Hoppit catch up with them, suspecting the tortoises of kidnapping the kids (they only know that the caravan went out of Fern Hollow like a bat out of hell; they don't know that one of the horses had been spooked by a train whistle and bolted). Monty and Tugger's confession sets the record straight.

    Live Action TV 
  • The Chilean telenovela "El Circo de las Montini" is about, well, an itinerant circus. At least three generations of people live and work in it, including children. One of the subplots is about one of the women in the crew marrying a man who isn't a part of the circus, which was a critical factor in their divorce, and now they struggle to reach agreements about the raising of their kids. At the very end of the series the husband decides to fully join the circus, after one of the clowns passes away on stage and he takes his place.
  • Of the regulars in Frontier Circus, Ben was born into the circus and has been with circuses all his life. It is mentioned that several of the other performers coming from multiple generations of circus folk.
  • Micky Dolenz, as a kid (under the pseudonym of 'Micky Braddock'), played one (a kid who helped train elephants) in the old 1950s TV series Circus Boy.
  • Jerome and Jeremiah Valeska of Gotham, the twin sons of a snake dancer at Haly's Circus, though Jeremiah managed to get himself put up for adoption as a child.

  • Chers "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves", the source for this trope's quote.
  • Bruce Springsteen's "Wild Billy's Circus Story".

    Professional Wrestling 
  • The Amazing Gulaks, the Flying Trapeze men of CZW who promised their father they'd follow in his footsteps, though Rory had to get over his Nick Mondo obsession first.

  • The title character of the 1923 musical Poppy (and that of its silent film adaptation, Sally of the Sawdust) is a Heartwarming Orphan brought up in the circus as a Fortune Teller by Professor Eustace McGargle (portrayed on stage and screen by W. C. Fields), a magnificently hypocritical Con Man.
  • Scharlotta Ivanovna, Anya's Cloudcuckoolander governess from Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, is the daughter of circus performers. The second act of the play starts with her thinking out loud to herself about her circus childhood.
    Scharlotta: (...) When I was a little girl my father and mother used to go round fairs and give very good performances and I used to do the salto mortale and various little things..."

    Video Games 
  • Ellis from Battle Arena Toshinden. Thanks to horrific events in her past, her father sent her to be raised anonymously as a dancer in a Turkish traveling circus in order to keep her safe from the mysterious organization hunting them. As a result, she became an extremely skilled Dance Battler, arguably one of the fastest playable characters in the game and capable of jumps and acrobatics that actually makes players think she can fly.
  • Razputin from Psychonauts, which is used to justify his acrobatic abilities. In an inversion, he ran away from the circus. He had a strict upbringing because his father was trying to prepare him for encounters with their family's many enemies, who were hinted at in a Sequel Hook that eventually took off. The sequel also has Raz's siblings, who are also circus acrobats.
  • In at least one strategy guide, Doctor Neo Cortex of Crash Bandicoot is said to have been raised in a family of circus performers, and was literally branded a nerd due to his preference to science over the performing arts (hence the "N" on his forehead).

    Visual Novels 

    Western Animation 
  • The Fairly OddParents! :
    • There's an episode where Timmy runs away from home and tries to become this for a nearby circus. With the help of Cosmo and Wanda he becomes such an amazing performer that the circus stars get angry and try to kick him out. They're actually fairies themselves, and they specifically created a circus to catch runaway kids and send them back to their families. Cosmo and Wanda knew it and sent Timmy to their circus to convince him to go back home.
    • School's Out! The Musical is a movie spawned from the series. Flappy Bob's childhood life as a clown and his secret love for it, despite his boring Pixie-life, is a vital part of the plot. Few after Timmy, Cosmo and Wanda convince him to embrace his desire to be a clown rather than a lawyer, they find out that the Pixies tricked Bob into thinking that his clown parents had abandoned him, and he decides to help Timmy retaliate against them. Once everything's said and done, Bob is happily reunited with his family.
  • Princess Tenko of Tenko and the Guardians of the Magic grew up in a magic show.
  • Ty Lee of Avatar: The Last Airbender fame is this, by way of the 'ran away to join the circus' variant.
  • In The Legend of Korra, Varrick claims to have been taken away by the circus as a child.
    • Lin's half sister Suyin has a few pictures revealing that she was part of a circus for a little while before founding Zaofu.
  • Ernie Devlin in Devlin, as well as his siblings Sandy and Todd. Overlaps with Promotion to Parent as he had to raise them too.
  • Jojo Tickle of JoJo's Circus is the daughter of two famous clowns, and is a clown herself.
  • Let's Go Luna!: Andy, Carmen, and Leo's parents all work in the traveling circus. The three kids have acquired great knowledge of various countries as a result.

    Real Life 
  • Sir John Major, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1990-1997, was the son of a retired circus performer. This gave rise to the joke that he ran away from the circus to become an accountant. Of course, he was neither the first or last child of performers who chose financial security and steady home life over life on the road....
  • Lots of early actors grew up in vaudeville and so forth. Buster Keaton started his career as a little boy being hurled around the stage by his father, learning how to fall so as not to break any bones and develop the Frozen Face that became his trademark.
  • The Byzantine Empress Theodora was the daughter of a bear trainer and had an early career as an actress (which in that time and place was a profession at least bordering on prostitution).
  • Renaissance Faire performers are a good modern expy. Some performers work within a local circuit, so not so much the traveling aspect, but they often come in families with the kids starting to perform as early as they can handle staying in a character. Other performers, especially established acts, travel 9-10 months out of the year to events all across the country.
  • Professional Wrestling families are also a good candidate for modern expies. They have their own page. Famous examples are:
    • The Rock, who is a third generation wrestler on both his father's and mother's side.
    • The entire Hart Family.
  • Early film director Tod Browning joined a traveling circus in his teens and became a skilled contortionist and clown. He used his experiences with the circus as the basis for one of his best known movies, Freaks.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Running Away To The Circus


Sally of the Sawdust

We find Sally a strange, whimsical creature, part tomboy, part woman, her only world the easy-going circus.

How well does it match the trope?

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Main / CircusBrat

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