Something terrible happened to a character; some tragic event in their past that shaped a fundamental level of their personality. Long after the event is over, it still has a powerful influence on the character's life.
The root effects are usually:
- Self-hatred via My Greatest Failure and/or Personal Horror.
- Outward distrust because of being betrayed.
- Inward callousness coupled with outward hate because of a Freudian Excuse such as abandonment, trauma, or death of a loved one.
Usually involves one or more of the following:
- A dead loved one: parents, siblings, best friend, spouse and children, or a whole Doomed Hometown.
- Physical and, sometimes, sexual abuse by parents or lover.
- Being abandoned by one or both parents.
- Being tortured or raped, or being Forced to Watch it happen to a friend or loved one.
- A criminal past, usually with remorse.
- Being caught up on the wrong side of war.
- Being betrayed by a True Companion or Heterosexual Life Partner/Platonic Life-Partners.
- Having a Love Interest not dump them, but get Stuffed in the Fridge.
- Killing any of the above, whether in self-defense, recklessly or through a Sadistic Choice.
- Being ostracized or bullied by your classmates, siblings or others around you. Or having a Friendless Background.
- Being raised as a Child Soldier or a Tyke-Bomb.
- Any of the above, but being experienced during childhood.
This is a stock Backstory for a character. Much like a Mysterious Past, except more tragic and troubled. Don't expect it to be revealed all at once, or sometimes at all. It usually gets revealed in small doses through a Troubled Backstory Flashback as the story progresses; possibly in a Flashback Nightmare where a happy memory transforms into a slaughter. Often used as a Freudian Excuse for an asocial character's Jerkass tendencies or quiet stoicism. Still, it is understandable that the character wants to keep it secret because They're Called "Personal Issues" for a Reason, after all.
This can lead to either becoming an Anti-Hero or Hurting Hero. For villains, this is a Start of Darkness. Especially blatant cases of this trope will result in the character being seen as a Sympathetic Sue.
Female characters with a Dark and Troubled Past include the Dark Magical Girl and the Broken Bird. Male characters with a Dark and Troubled Past are instant bait for the Estrogen Brigade who have bought him leather pants. Expect all nearby female characters to become afflicted with an attraction to his Troubled, but Cute appeal, and try to help him heal his heart. Not happening. Or maybe it will?
The step-up of this trope is the Dysfunction Junction, where the whole cast will have one of these and suffer from it, too (and don't expect them to get better). If the afflicted character is in a law enforcement profession, see Standard Cop Backstory. When paired with a Nice Guy or gal with a happy upbringing, you can expect...interesting results. See Deus Angst Machina.
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- The Patient from The Black Parade is implied to have had a violent past, in which he committed many misdeeds.
- Pink from Pink Floyd's The Wall. His father died in the war, his mother is over-protective, he was tortured by sadistic teachers...no wonder that, when his marriage collapsed, he isolated himself from the rest of the world and became a fascist dictator in his imaginary world. What's more, Pink was strongly based on Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters and his similarly-troubled life.
- The patient in The Antlers' album Hospice certainly qualifies.
- Luca Turilli uses this trope whenever he can.
Lord Of The Winter Snow: Back again to my tragic pastDemonheart: Shocked again she opened the gates / of her tragic past and bloody images / came back to her mindDargor; Shadowlord of the Black Mountain: For his tragic past he disowned the sunlightLegend of Steel: Break the chains of the past foreverBlack Dragon: Had to fight the reputation of his bloody pastDawn of Victory: Shades of a past not so far to forget... / the rise of the demons from their bloody Hell!
- Bloody Hell! He couldn't break the chains of this reputation.
- The protagonist from The Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash", which has him born and raised in an abusive household and abandoned at some point in his childhood. It's hinted in the chorus that he's gotten over it, albeit not in one piece, given the nature of the song.
- A lot of great musicians have had dark and troubled pasts. John Lennon had serious issues with the way his parents treated him, which he only started dealing with after he met Yoko Ono. Neil Young similarly had a chip on his shoulder about his parents breaking up (leading him to support Ronald Reagan under the guise of his 'strengthening the family' rhetoric, although he soon became disillusioned). John Cale was unable to have a conversation with his father until he was seven years old (at his mother's insistence, he was raised speaking only Welsh; his father only spoke English). Then he was molested by at least two older men in his youth, giving him issues that fed into his later substance abuse.
- Dr. Light, as told by The Protomen. His father died in a mining accident, leading him to build robots to do the work instead and "take the death away". Unfortunately, things do not improve from here.
- Almost the entire cast of the Evillous Chronicles. Venomania was locked in a basement and horribly bullied because of a small deformity, and then the only person who accepted him turned on him; Conchita's mother was abusive; Riliane's parents died and she was forced to ascend the throne while still a little kid; Margarita's true love completely ignored her, which sent her over the Despair Event Horizon; Lukana's family died in a fire; and Gallerian's family was killed by a Giant Octopus possibly by MA or Nemesis while Nemesis never knew her father, Gallerian, was abandoned for some time by her mother, and later was forced to kill the man she loved by her boss. No wonder they're all so fucked up. And that's only a few of them.
- The conjoined twins from Evelyn Evelyn had their mother die in childbirth, their father killed, and their doctor killed all within minutes of birth. They were kidnapped by a chicken farmer who raised them in a cage amongst chickens. When he died a few years later, they ran of but ended up picked up by a brothel masquerading as an orphanage. At age thirteen they were given to a circus due to being "too old" for the men. At the circus, they were abused and harassed until they ran away a few years later.
- Eminem referenced his past countless times in his songs, namely his Disappeared Dad, his mother who didn't care enough for him, people who bullied him for being white in a black neighborhood.
- Two of the four fictional Gorillaz members:
- Murdoc had a severely messed up childhood. He was abandoned on his father's doorstep as a baby, forced to participate in talent shows for measly amounts of money to pay for his dad's drinking habit, was beat up by his brother Hannibal and Hannibal's friends, got bullied in school, and was sexually abused by a dinner lady when he was nine.
- Russel was possessed by a demon as a young child, which sent him on a rampage that destroyed his school, caused him to fall into a coma, and got him expelled. When he woke up from his coma, he attended a public high school where he made friends...all of whom died in a drive-by shooting.
- It's mostly played for laughs in Sequinox, but Sid claims to have come from a town where the only thing they celebrated was surviving the winter, and it's very possible she has killed someone.
- Belle from Pokemon Adventures In The Millennium Belle. She came from an abusive home, joined Team Rocket only to realize they were just taking advantage of her, and abandoned her Pokemon because she felt like she couldn't be a good trainer to them. Not to mention the baggage she has with her old partner, Starr.
- In Psionics: The Next Stage in Human Evolution the book states that there is a correlation between the manifestation of psionic talent and childhood trauma, although no causal link has been established. It also specifies that most espers have pronounced emotional problems.
- In Chess, Florence's father disappeared during the 1956 Budapest uprising.
- Many of the dancers in A Chorus Line have one, but this is especially emphasized with Sheila, Bebe, Maggie, Bobby, and Paul, who experienced a gamut of issues from Parental Neglect to sexual abuse.
- The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera was used as a circus sideshow freak until he escaped.
- In Pokémon Live!, Ash's mother Delia Ketchum used to go out with the head of Team Rocket, Giovanni.
- Siegfried in Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung: An orphan, with the additional guilt-inducing bonus of knowing that his mother died giving birth to him, raised by Mime to be used to kill Fafner for his hoard and the ring. Although he doesn't know it yet, his parents Siegmund and Sieglind were siblings, and his scheming grandfather Wälse alias Wotan also wanted to use Siegfried as a pawn in a longterm project and Wotan's enemy Alberich also would like to get rid of him. Sieglind saw her mother killed and was kidnapped and forced into a loveless marriage, then had to witness her brother and lover killed (which was also due to Wotan's intervention). Small wonder that one of the leitmotifs is called the Wälsungen suffering motive (Wälsungenleidmotiv).
- Mary in Vanities has an alcoholic mother and runaway father; she sings about her desire to get away from it all in "Fly Into the Future".
- In Wicked, Elphaba was seen as a freak from the moment she was born due to her green skin. Her mother chews milk flowers in a desperate bid to make sure the next child has a normal skin tone, which technically works, but it causes her mother to experience Death by Childbirth and the second child Nessarose to be born a paraplegic. Elphaba blames herself for this, not helped by the fact that she is blatantly The Unfavorite of her father. Elphaba is extremely protective of Nessa due to this and has developed a rather caustic personality in the present day.