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Cynicism Catalyst

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"Mom raised me to be a man of faith. I lost that faith at Serenity Valley."
Captain Malcolm Reynolds, Serenity Role-Playing Game

The Cynicism Catalyst is a traumatic, disillusioning event that drives many heroes to more morally dubious methods or outright antivillainy. Before, they were more idealistic, but after this event they became more cynical and felt that the current way things are done just wasn't enough. Frequently, this means either picking up less traditionally heroic methods or deciding the established way of doing things is simply not good enough. It won't happen again.

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Frequently, the event is the death of an innocent family member (like a parent or beloved sibling), a close friend, or a love interest. Apart from this, a Broken Pedestal can cause this sort of personality change if the character lets it affect them too strongly. After the catalyst takes effect, the character will generally turn broodier and less open to companionship.

Many works will be dedicated at least in part to getting this character to open up, let it go, and move on. This makes them vulnerable to Morality Pets and sudden bursts of moral insight. Sadly, sometimes they just can't do it or they feel that it's too late.

Expect a Hollywood Atheist to have one of these to explain why he or she does not believe in God. An outright villain will generally not have a Cynicism Catalyst: The trope is reserved for those who are still attempting to do good, leaving it the domain of the Anti-Hero, the Anti-Villain, and the Well-Intentioned Extremist.

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Compare Death by Origin Story for something that spurred a hero into action, Took a Level in Cynic for a character who becomes more cynical but may remain a good person, and Freudian Excuse for pure villains. For a more prolonged wearing down of idealism into cynicism, see Stopped Caring. Also compare Heroic BSoD and Despair Event Horizon for more seriously disabling breaks.

Some of the examples that follow also fall under one or more Death Tropes. Most spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.


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Examples:

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    Films — Animated 
  • Big Hero 6: Professor Callahan became the villain Yokai to avenge his daughter, who was enveloped in a malfunctioning experiment of Allstair Krei, whom he held responsible for it.
  • In Ice Age, one of the protagonists of the trio, Manny, was revealed to have his little son and wife killed by a group of Neanderthals.
  • Strange Magic: Marianne, after seeing her fiancée with another woman right before their wedding. She gives up on love and becomes a sword-wielding warrior.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Casablanca: When Ilsa abandoned Rick in Paris (though as Louis notes, Rick's cynicism was never as thorough as he liked to believe). When Rick and Ilsa reconcile, Rick is able to drop the cynicism and become a straight-up hero.
  • Clara: It's revealed that the source of Isaac's bitterness was his infant. Though not explicit, it's implied this is why he's an atheist and sees no meaning in the universe.
  • In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the death of Harmony's little sister Jenna drives the plot. What made Harmony all kinds of screwed up and guilty was that she couldn't protect Jenna from their father, and then Harmony skipped town as soon as she was sixteen, leaving Jenna alone with him.
  • In Lady in the Water, after reading Cleveland Heep's diary, Story learns that he became depressed and withdrawn from society after a burglar broke into his house, robbed him, and murdered his wife and children all while he was not home (which he blames himself for).
  • Colonel O'Neil from Stargate originally left the military and went basket case because his son accidentally killed himself with O'Neil's own gun. He only joins the mission to the alien planet (from which there is little chance of returning) because he's downright suicidal.
  • Street Angel: For Angela, her mother's death. For Gino, Angela disappearing without a word right after agreeing to marry him.
  • Underworld (2003): Selene's entire family was brutally murdered by Lycans, leading her to mercilessly hunt them once she became a vampire. Turns out Viktor, who turned her, was the one who actually killed her family.
  • In A Short Film About Killing directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski, the young man on death row espoused a life of crime because he was so haunted by his dead little sister's memory.
  • In Top Gun, Maverick's angst during the second half of the movie comes from his feeling of responsibility for his RIO Goose's death.
  • Hannibal Lecter is given a dead little sister "Mischa" during Hannibal Rising, causing a great deal of Badass Decay. Not enough to stop him from going on another killing spree, however.
  • Star Wars
  • Lakeview Terrace is about a cop (played by Samuel L. Jackson) who will go to any lengths, including intimidation, violence, and murder, to get the interracial couple who just became his new neighbors to move. The event that ultimately drove Turner to focus his rage on the couple is revealed to be the death of his wife, who was killed in a car accident while on her way to meet her white boss with who she was having an affair with.
  • In Face/Off, Castor Troy's accidental murder of Sean Archer's son is a key event in the backstory of the two characters. Later in the film, Sean!Troy kills Castor!Archer's younger brother and partner-in-crime Pollux. Castor!Archer also killed his ex-girlfriend Sascha's brother Dietrich. When they confront each other in a church all three of them bring this up.
    Castor: Look, your son's death was an accident. I wanted to kill you. Why didn't you just let it go or kill yourself?
    Sean: No father could.
    Castor: No brother could either.
    Sascha: Neither could a sister.
  • Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit was revealed to have held a bitter grudge against the Toons after his brother was murdered by a toon.
  • Pacific Rim:
    • Pentecost's sister was one of the fighter jet pilots who lost her life during the first Kaiju attack. Her death was what caused her brother to work with the military to find the best way to combat the Kaiju.
    • Yancy is this for Raleigh.
    • Tendo Choi lost his grandfather to Kaiju blood in the prequel comic.
  • Red Lights: Both Margaret and Tom have these as motivations to debunk paranormal claims. Margaret's son is in a coma, which apparently caused a loss of faith and firm disbelief in all things supernatural or paranormal. Tom's mother died due to trusting in a faith healer rather than medicine, with the same results.
  • Secondhand Lions: The loss of Uncle Hub's wife Jasmine in childbirth.
  • Split Second (1992): In a flashback, it's shown how Stone was fairly well-composed before his partner was killed by the monster he has since been pursuing. Stone blamed himself (especially because he was having an affair with his partner's wife) and became a paranoid, rude gunslinger in response.
  • On Star Trek: The Original Series, Captain Kirk would sometimes regard the Klingons as Worthy Opponents. But after his son David Marcus gets slain by Klingons in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Kirk would start harboring a deep hatred of the Klingons, which wasn't resolved till Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, when Kirk's hatred made him the prime suspect of Klingon Chancellor Gorkon's assassination, almost sparking a war between the Klingons and the Federation.
  • Manchester by the Sea: The death of his three children, which he accidentally caused, is what caused Lee to go from the outgoing and friendly guy shown in flashbacks to the depressed shell of a man he is in the present.

    Music 
  • Amidst all the Word Salad Lyrics of "American Pie", Don McLean repeatedly references "the day the music died" — the day of the plane crash that killed rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson.
  • Musician Eric Clapton's son died in a tragic accident when just a toddler, about which the songs "The Circus Left Town" and "Tears In Heaven" were written. Though close, this example subverts the Trope — particularly with "Tears In Heaven". Eric rarely plays it in public as he says he has tried to move on from a very sad period in his life and doesn't need the song anymore.
  • Johnny Cash's older brother Jack died in a lumber mill accident when Johnny aka JR was twelve and Jack was fourteen. This affected Johnny throughout the rest of his life, and Jack Cash is mentioned in the liner notes of his 1996 album "Unchained".

    Tabletop Games 
  • George Weathermay, one of the Ravenloft setting's greatest werebeast hunters, began a downward spiral into self-recrimination and depression when he brought his new fiancee home to meet the family, only to have her reveal herself as a lycanthrope and attack his young nieces. Neither girl died, but he blames himself and is now obsessed with tracking down and destroying this treacherous werewolf, whom he fears may have infected one of the twins with lycanthropy.

    Theatre 
  • The Mrs. Hawking play series: For Malaika in Gilded Cages, when their plan to feed her starving village fails, Victoria disappears on her, and her entire life is ruined when she is arrested for what they did. She loses all faith in being able to count on others, particularly white people or those more privileged.

    Web Comics 
  • In El Goonish Shive, Susan has had two of these; the first was the aftermath of her father cheating on her mother and the second was when she had to kill the aberration.
  • In Errant Story, Ian set off on his quest to find the elven gods because his older sister was dying and he wanted to find a way to heal her. When he achieves godlike power and returns home to find that she died while he was away, he snaps and blows up a few cities.
  • Gunnerkrigg Court: Antimony being forced to lead her own mother to the afterlife.
  • I'm the Grim Reaper: Scarlet’s comes very early in the story. At first she’s more apprehensive about killing sinners, but when the seemingly nice young man she meets who’s marked as one turns out to be a cold-blooded serial killer, she quickly becomes more jaded and willing to do the job.
  • Nebula: Witnessing Sun kill Ceres (the only other member of his species he'd ever seen) is what drives Pluto to abandon hope of befriending the rest of the group and makes him leave to go join Black Hole.
  • The Order of the Stick:
    • Roy Greenhilt has a dead little brother named Eric. Eugene's magic experiments were responsible, but Roy blames himself to a certain degree for failing to get his arrogant father's attention before the lab exploded. His comment on Eric's love of music and potential future as a bard may also provide insight into his relationship with Elan.
    • Redcloak, the Anti-Villain, is revealed to have a dead little sister in the prequel book Start of Darkness, and at the end of the book, he's forced to kill his brother too.
    • Varsuvius really screws up with that deal with the three fiends, but after they find out that their purge to end the cycle of revenge killed a LOT of humans (and their many, many in-laws), whose ancestor fell in love with a dragon, the cynicism kicks in and makes them much less of a Large Ham and more of a Vulcan. In the next book, they don't show ANY haughtiness or flashy gestures at all when casting spells.
  • In Picatrix, Samael is motivated to exact revenge on the angel of death who took the soul of his twin sister.
  • In Powerpuff Girls Doujinshi, Dexter seems to be collecting these. First of all he's got the haunting death of Dee Dee, his dead sister (ironically a dead big sister) hanging over him. Then, not long after, he develops a secondary complex involving his guilt over Mandark's death in light of Mandark's own little sister promptly moving to Dexter's school after the loss of her sibling. One way or another, he’s suffering a lot of angst these days.
  • Stand Still, Stay Silent: Something, that is most likely linked to the Promotion to Parent in his backstory, has caused Onni to fear the Silent World to the point that he hasn't left his home military base in 11 years when the story starts and he has been doing all he could to keep his younger sister in there as well. Whatever means he used for this apparently backfired, as the younger sister in question is now fascinated with the Silent World and accepts a job to explore it. Onni can't bring himself to accompany her there, even if it means getting separated from her.
  • Hoh from Tower of God feels guilty for not being strong enough to protect his friends from a berserk stray warrior. It has made him rather jealous and loathing towards anyone with greater power than him, especially Bam.
  • Darby has the older brother version in TRU-Life Adventures. Watching how others got hypocritical in response had more of an impact than the actual death, though.
  • The Wotch: It is strongly implied that Miranda West's distance is because she blames herself for her friends' deaths.

    Web Original 
  • Can You Spare a Quarter?: Jamie began to run away from home after his uncle died; he had been the only relative to treat him well and until then Jamie thought he might be taken by his uncle.
  • In Noob, after years of being the Only Sane Man of a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits, Arthéon got an in-game girlfriend with whom he got along perfectly well. The girlfriend interrupted their in-game wedding because she found out something more interesting to her was happening elsewhere. This prompted Arthéon to question all his current friendships lash out on pretty much everyone, including his own guild by disbanding it.
  • Reds!: A Revolutionary Timeline: The United States entering the First World War much earlier, and seeing a significantly higher death toll as a result, was this for a great many Americans. The individual character most directly affected by this in the narrative is George Patton, of all people: The horrors of trench warfare were enough to throw cold water on even his Blood Knight tendencies, and the lack of any clear reason why this whole war started and what America is getting out of sending thousands of its young men to their deaths every day forced him to do some serious self-reflection about his Patriotic Fervor and the gulf between the country the United States was and the country he wanted it to be. He returned home from the war a very changed man, but not necessarily for the worse: Losing a lot of his idealism about his country was what prevented him being drawn into the proto-fascist movement that was developing around General MacArthur.
  • In Red vs. Blue, Agent Washington was shown in the Project Freelancer sections to have been a fairly idealistic and warm guy. However, having an AI go mad inside his head and show him all that had happened to the Alpha AI and the Director turned him into the bitter, cynical man he is in the present. He's gotten much better (at least on the warm end) thanks to his interactions with the Reds and Blues, but it's clear the man he used to be is gone.
  • Take a Lemon:
    • Marsh seems to regard his little sister Tina as dead, even though she is standing right in front of him because her memories were apparently altered by the experiment.
    • Later in the story, Marsh finds out that his favorite cousin is now Ret-Gone due to the same experiment, leading to a Heroic BSoD.
  • In Twig, Sylvester's upbringing being used as a test subject for the experimental Wyvern Formula served to make him automatically distrustful of kindness, since he knew it was always followed by pain. Jamie even calls it a "compulsion to attack people who are kind to him," no matter if their kindness is genuine or not.
  • On We're Alive, Todd's death at the hands of the zombies is Lizzy's main reason for wanting to kill every zombie she sees.
    • After Samantha's Death, Datu spends a lot of time being generally depressed and hopeless. During The War and its aftermath he is completely convinced that everyone is going to die and begins leading some of the other Tower members in prayer rather than trying to help fend off the Mallers/zombies/fire. It isn't until Michael, Pegs and Kelly return from the Colony with Samantha's daughter, Hope, that he really gets better.

    Real Life 
  • The Kennedys:
    • John Fitzgerald Kennedy had his dead older brother Joseph, who died in World War II. Both he and Joseph Jr. were dead older brothers to Bobby and Ted, and sadly, JFK, RFK, and Joe Jr. all were dead older brothers to Ted, the only one who lived a full life.
    • JFK's two sons, Patrick (dead two days after his birth) and John Jr. (dead in a plane crash alongside his wife and sister-in-law) are dead younger brothers to his only surviving child, his daughter Caroline. Who also has a dead older sister in Arabella (a stillborn child).
    • The Kennedy Family's involvement in the Special Olympics is inspired by (or perhaps penance for) the fate of Rosemary, who was lobotomized and then kept in an asylum for most of her life because Joseph Kennedy Sr. was flimflammed into thinking it was a good way to deal with a willful daughter by celebrity lobotomist Walter Freeman.
  • Richard Nixon was always an intense political campaigner, but his paranoia and Machiavellian tendencies were only exacerbated after losing the 1960 presidential election and the 1962 California gubernatorial election back to back. Both times, he felt humiliated and bitter at losing and being outplayed, particularly by the Kennedy campaign, and had (admittedly good) reason to believe that the press had unfairly favored his opponents. After that, he vowed to never let himself be caught off-guard again, leading to later incidents such as the Dragon Lady Affair (where he probably had a contact sabotage peace talks between North and South Vietnam in order to hurt his 1968 opponent, Hubert Humphrey) and, of course, Watergate (though Nixon did not personally order the break-in, and did not know about it before reading about it in the newspaper, he immediately got in on covering it up).
  • Samuel Clemens lost his younger brother Henry in a boiler explosion on the steamboat that he piloted, and was guilt-ridden about it for the rest of his life.
  • Akiyuki Nosaka, author of Grave of the Fireflies, wrote it as an apology to his little sister who died of malnutrition in war-torn Japan during WWII. Internet rumor has it that she didn't die of malnutrition and that he simply lost her one day and never saw her again. The book (and subsequent anime film) were ways of convincing himself of this. Japan's records of the time are terrible at best and it's most likely that the story was crossed with one of someone else.
  • Known for being something of an idealist before, Aaron Burr, the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, was hit hard by the state-sponsored attempt(s) on his life in 1807, trying (and failing) to shoot himself after his trial ended. Though he made no further attempts (that we know of) to kill himself, he was never quite the same again, becoming rather cynical and sardonic for the rest of his life. He also became extremely paranoid, assuming at least five separate aliases, disguising his handwriting, and carrying concealed weapons at all times—where he had previously been known as the exact opposite.
    • Burr had also previously had a more minor one on January 26 of 1804, the day he learned that Thomas Jefferson, along with the entire Democratic-Republican party, had betrayed him (and indeed had been working against him behind-the-scenes for over a decade); this was enough to make Burr rather disillusioned with the party, and politics in general.
  • The Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis and his daughter/heiress Christina had his son and her older brother die, respectively: Alexandre Onassis Livanos, who died in a plane crash at age 25 (which is a favorite topic among Conspiracy Theorists). Both of his parents crossed the Despair Event Horizon at that: mother Athena Mary Livanos ("Tina") killed herself, Aristotle's already decaying health plummeted and he died a few months later. Christina outlived everyone for more than a decade, but she didn't have it much easier, either.
  • Philip K. Dick's twin sister died when the two were only five weeks old. Being raised as a child with this knowledge (his mother allegedly claimed that the wrong child had died during an argument), the loss haunted PKD throughout his life. The figure of the mysterious, dark-haired, and unattainable woman that is prominent in so many of his works (especially "Flow My Tears, the Police Said") is said to be based on PKD's imaginings of what his sister would have been like had she lived.
  • As told in Boy: Tales of Childhood, the loss of Roald Dahl's older sister Astri drove his father to Death by Despair when he fell ill with pneumonia.
  • Wyatt Earp's vendetta against The Cowboys, following his brother Virgil's permanent injury and Morgan's death. It's known for being retold in the film Tombstone.
  • Back in 2004, UFC middleweight Vitor Belfort's sister Priscila was abducted in Brazil, and for three years he used his fights as a soapbox from which to tell fans about this and solicit information and help. The distraction due to this contributed to his losses in this time. Unfortunately in 2007, a woman ended up confessing to her murder, though the Belforts didn't initially believe her (fearing rather the possibility of her covering for someone else). Nevertheless, it was only after this that his career turned around — and at his UFC 142: RIO, her face was on his team banner.
  • Vincent van Gogh had an older brother, also named Vincent, stillborn the year earlier. It's been suggested this knowledge deeply influenced him and his artwork. Whatever the case, he was a very unhappy person in adult life, and eventually killed himself.note 
  • Charles Dickens was greatly affected by a railway disaster caused when a maintenance crew failed to warn oncoming trains of work on the line ahead. He, his mother, and his mistress all survived, but his son noted that Dicken's outlook on life changed from that point forward, and he grew increasingly bitter.

Alternative Title(s): Dead Little Sister

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