Someone's in trouble. The type of trouble can vary enormously — they could have been brutally attacked, recently bereaved, or blaming themselves for a catastrophe they couldn't stop. So now they're laid up in hospital with half their body in plaster, or mid-Heroic B.S.O.D.. Even the most cynical of viewers can't blame the poor soul for going a bit Emo.
But the writers aren't directing the audience's sympathies toward the victim but instead toward someone close to the victim. While the victim is recovering, their significant other is raving "I failed to protect him/her!" or "What happens to our relationship now?" Entire plot lines are devoted to how this person gets over the tragedy.
The real point of the story isn't "the victim was attacked" but "look how protective/self-loathing/angsty/loving the victim's friend is." The scenario is set up for the friend to get Character Focus. The person who was hurt is Collateral Angst.
Some stories make things even more peculiar by having the casualty apologize for being hurt. They will use phrases such as "being a burden" or "letting you down" to express their guilt. If the injured party is more upbeat and has coped admirably with the tragedy, they may try to cheer up their distraught partner, apparently oblivious to the irony of their actions as they do so. It's doubly strange if the victim is dealing well with their situation, but they then have to rescue their other half from the Heroic B.S.O.D. they've suffered.
When well used, this trope establishes the bond between the two characters, especially if the viewer recognises that Character A reacts more violently when Character B is hurt than if they themselves were. When badly executed, Character A may well look like an attention seeking diva, and the viewer may wonder if Character B needs this much drama in their life when they're trying to recover.
The only glimmer of hope for a "damage victim" is that they are important characters in their own right. Once they have recovered, things will be business as usual. It could be worse. If the wronged party isn't just injured, but dies in a particularly pointless way for the main character to angst over, they were probably Stuffed into the Fridge. Someone who is living, breathing Collateral Angst - to the point the reader/viewer wonders if they're ever out of the hospital - and has little plot importance or characterisation beyond that is a Disposable Woman. Of course, two X-chromosomes are required to qualify. Usually.
Compare and contrast with Aesop Collateral Damage, where a peripheral character's undeserved suffering is also used to teach the protagonist a lesson.
- Both Kisa and Rin are viciously attacked by Akito in Fruits Basket. Rin in particular is badly injured after being pushed out of an upper floor window. However, both girls seem to discount these events in their catalogue of tragedies. Kisa is more worried about the bullying she suffers at school, while Rin desperately searches for a cure to the Sohma curse in between hospital visits. Their love interests, Hiro and Hatsuharu respectively, on the other hand, angst constantly about their failure to protect their girlfriends. Hiro especially sees his inability to stand up to Akito and prevent the attack as an insult to his masculine pride and proof that he is unworthy of Kisa.
- Shuichi from Gravitation is brutally gang raped, actually submitting to the attack in an attempt to preserve his boyfriend's reputation... despite the fact that said boyfriend, Yuki, has just dumped him. Shuichi's best friend seems to be the only one who takes the attack seriously, and he storms off to Yuki's house, both to reprimand him for the way he's treated his friend and to inform him of the rape. Yuki responds by threatening Taki, the leader of a rival band and the one who ordered Shuichi raped. After this display of machismo on Yuki's part, Shuichi himself seems to get over the rape remarkably quickly. A few chapters later though, it's Yuki who has a not-so-Heroic B.S.O.D., claiming that it's his fault that Shuichi had to suffer (which is at least somewhat correct) and resulting in Shuichi comforting Yuki for the trauma Shuichi's rape inflicted on the novelist (which just seems plain wrong). In fact, it seems the rape was only there as an introduction to Yuki's dark past. Yuki's angst at the attack on his boyfriend seems doubly bizarre since, in the manga at least, his first sexual encounter with Shuichi wasn't entirely consensual on Shuichi's part. The attitude of Collateral Angst is reflected by the characters within the story as well: only when Yuki is affected by these events does record company owner (and Shuichi and Taki's boss) Tohma decide to take action against Taki. He didn't really care about Shuichi being raped, but making Yuki cry warrants serious punishment. Then again, Tohma's a bit scary and weird to begin with.
- Sailor Moon's Stars arc (manga version) demotes the Senshi so that instead of being a formidable team, they almost instantly get into dire straits and are temporarily killed off so that we can see how heroic Usagi is as she copes with such tragedy. Other arcs do this to a lesser extent, but Stars eliminates them all in double-quick time.
- The Green Lantern plot arc where Kyle Rayner's assistant Terry Berg gets gay bashed focused more on Kyle dealing with the angst of such a thing happening to his best friend, tracking down the assailants and scaring the bejeesus out of them, and eventually deciding that he was running out of faith in humanity and taking off for the stars. All while Terry, the one who actually got attacked, lay in traction.
- One of Linkara's problems with DC's Identity Crisis: Sue Dibny is raped, but the story completely ignores the issue of how the attack affects her in favour of focusing on how it affects everyone else. He goes on to point out the the comic's multiple narrators are all men, so while rape as a plot device (Linkara argues) is used by bad writers as "a thing that happens to women", an actual woman's take on the attack isn't provided, let alone the victim's own experience. Here's the episode for more details.
- One of the many things people take offense to in Dumbledore's Army and the Year of Darkness is its treatment of Lavender's rape. After it's revealed, the victim is only referred to by name perhaps twice in the following scenes. Instead, Neville gathers an (exclusively male) revenge squad, humiliates the attackers (something that in real life would more likely drive them to repeat their crimes, as their egos are now damaged), and calls it paid.
- Hermione's rape in In This World and the Next is very similar, in that it happens solely to motivate Harry to kill the perpetrator (a literal Ron the Death Eater) and is barely mentioned after the first chapter, and Hermione's own reaction to it is never explored.
- In Cori Falls's fic The Thorns of the Rose, Jessie is triggered by memories of her previous abusive relationship during a vacation, and throws herself into work to distract herself. The story is told from James's point of view and focuses on his increasing angst and the fear that Jessie's stopped loving him.
- Shippy fanfic in general loves this trope, especially if a Bodyguard Crush is involved.
- In Gran Torino, Sue is beaten and gang raped by her own gangster cousins to get back at her, her brother, and Walt for standing up to them and challenging them, though the movie focuses more on Walt's reaction, partly because the attack immediately followed his own browbeating of one of the gangsters. Not to mention that he was the main character of the film.
- Little Women: It's painful for Beth to die young; it's more painful for Jo to live without her little sister. As Louisa knew firsthand.
- Jodi Picoult:
- A big part of Handle with Care is the fact that while Willow is physically injured for most of the book (she has brittle bone disease), it's her mother, Charlotte, that does all the angsting — and it's her mother's lawsuit that threatens the family, not Willow's disease. Even Charlotte is forced to realise that the court case she's set in motion is more about herself that Willow.
- My Sister's Keeper seems set up for this trope. A young girl has leukaemia, tragic: we learn about her mother's constant state of panic and worry over looking after her; her father's shame over not being able to help and tendency to withdraw to his fire station and astronomy for peace; her brother's frustration at getting no attention from a family so wrapped up in her condition that he becomes a juvenile delinquent; and her younger sister, who was born for the sole purpose of being her organ donor, and who gets tired of being seen only as a means to keep her sister alive. The plot of the book focusing on the lawsuit that said younger sister launches to get medical emancipation to prevent her parents from forcing her to donate a kidney to her sister. Precious little attention is given to Kate, the actual girl with a terminal illness. It's worth mentioning that the book has a shifting first person perspective so that all of the above characters (as well as a lawyer involved with the case) have at least a few chapters which they narrate, which give us an insight into them, what they're like and how they develop over the course of the book... except for Kate, naturally, whose narration is minimal and saved for the final chapter and whom we mostly learn about through other people's eyes.
- Deconstructed in Side Effects. Izzy's mother shows more angst than Izzy, but it's strongly implied that this is because Izzy is in denial about her illness. Her mother is actually treated rather badly for her constant tears and histrionics.
- David Weber makes a point of using this with his character deaths; the focus is almost always on the pain of the dead character's surviving friends and family. This is part of a larger, overarching War Is Hell aesop, in which Weber makes damned sure to remind his readers that no matter how noble or necessary a death might be, it's still going to hurt like hell for the people left behind. A prime example occurs in At All Costs: losing Javier Giscard in battle hurts like hell, as is par for the course for Weber, but the real agony is in his lover Eloise Pritchart's reaction to losing the man who was essentially her husband in all but name. (The reaction in question is, of course, an utterly broken heart.)
- Deconstructed twice in Scrubs:
- When his best friend, Ben, is diagnosed with leukaemia, Dr. Cox doesn't cope well. Ben, in a rare subversion, actually calls him on this behaviour, pointing out that he's the one with the disease, and could use his friend's help rather than having to cope with Cox's issues.
- Later in the series, Dr. Cox is traumatised by Ben's death. He's annoyed at how well Jordan is coping with the death of her brother, to the point that she has her best friends staying with her. They're out enjoying themselves while Cox openly grieves. Not until the end of the episode does he realise that Jordan has been seriously affected by her brother's death, and her friends are offering comfort where he failed to do so. Arguably, Cox was as close to Ben as Jordan was, but the theme of self-pity at someone else's expense remains.
- House M.D. often treats House's addiction, disability and destructive personality more as a problem for Wilson than a problem for House. It gets to the point where even the idea of anyone feeling sorry for House because of any of these reasons seems ridiculous, even though Fridge Logic tells us it really shouldn't be. Later flipped when Wilson runs into a serious problem of his own — namely, terminal cancer — it's all about House. Even other people act like Wilson is awful for not performing his Living Emotional Crutch duties for House.
Wilson: I'm dying, and it's all about you!
- On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cordelia expects others to give her this treatment. It's All About Me, and so she tells a story where she hit someone with a car and felt that her emotional pain from the incident was a bigger deal than the problems faced by the actual victim of the accident.
- Many AIDS stories focus more on the (generally straight, while the party with AIDS is gay) supportive healthy friend character and how sad they're going to be when their friend is dead, rather than the person with AIDS themselves. Parting Glances plays it dead-straight, even with a scene in which (cool, accepting) Nick comforts Michael when he cries. RENT is a little less supportive of this trope during "Goodbye Love," when Roger snaps a sarcastic "poor baby!" after Mark says that the reason he keeps himself emotionally withdrawn is because chances are very good that he'll outlive his friends with AIDS.
- Final Fantasy VI is a lot more interested in how sad it is that Locke failed to protect Rachel than in sympathising with a girl who lost her memory in an accident, unknowingly turned down the man she loved, regained her memory of him just before she was seriously injured in an attack on her town by the Empire, and is now being kept in a magically-induced coma in Locke's basement, never to age or wake.
- Stand Still, Stay Silent has a subversion. When Tuuri gets potentially infected with a deadly disease, her attitude towards is Nerves of Steel with an edge of denial, while her cousin Lalli displays his worry about the situation much more openly, which makes him come across of the one being hit the hardest among the two. However, the reality of the situation eventually catches up with Tuuri, and she reacts quite badly when it happens.
- Batman: The Animated Series' I Am the Night is all about Batman's distress about Commissionner Gordon being wounded on the field. So much that Gordon himself and his daughter are the ones who comfort him and Bullock is clearly expected to be viewed as incredibly mean for chastising him.