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Defeat as Backstory

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"He had seen Hoare depart and John-John Peters take over, had quarreled with Peters and driven north to join Denard at Paulis, had been in the Stanleyville mutiny two years later and, after the Frenchman's evacuation to Rhodesia with head wounds, had joined Black Jacques Schramme, the Belgian planter-turned-mercenary, on the long march to Bukavu and thence to Kigali. After repatriation by the Red Cross, he had promptly volunteered for another African war and had finally taken command of his own battalion. But too late to win, always too late to win."

A protagonist (or some other character's backstory) in a story begins by having been defeated either before the story began, or early on in the story (often in a prologue). While this usually applies to a character having fought on the losing side of a war, it can also apply to someone having lost an important game as an athlete. This defeat forms a significant aspect of that character; fighting on the losing side may have closed doors for that character, or they may be burning for revenge, or they're trying to pick up the pieces and move on. If a character is trying overly hard to prevent a similar defeat from happening again, then they are a Failure Knight. If someone is Sealed Evil in a Can, they will have by design a previous defeat as part of their backstory (that's how they managed to get sealed into a can, after all).


Subtrope of Dark and Troubled Past.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Fist of the North Star begins with Kenshiro Walking the Earth and seeking out his lost love Yuria, who was taken from him by Shin. Shin defeated Kenshiro and put the Seven Scars into his chest. Kenshiro's initial adventuring is out of a desire to rescue Yuria and take Shin down, which soon leads into the greater arcs which make this a beloved series.
  • Genesis Climber MOSPEADA has Stig's entire squadron wiped out by the Inbit, with his fiancée killed in the process. He ends up Walking the Earth with a ragtag crew of misfits in a quest to defeat the Inbit.

    Audio Drama 
  • This is true for both groups in Tsukipro's Alive series, but in very different ways. The series follows two bands, Soara and Growth, as they audition for the titular music label. Growth is made up of three high school students with experience in the professional entertainment industry. Their failure is that they were cut from their old agency's newly debuting unit. They decide that instead of staying with that agency as second-tier members, they will leave and audition for a different label as a unit, with their fourth member, a composer they met by chance. Soara, on the other hand, is made up of five ordinary high school students, but their leader, Sora, had had a fifteen-minutes-of-fame experience as a songwriter when he was in middle school. But the "can-you-believe-this-talented-kid" media circus moved on, and only the rude dregs of the internet were left. He quit, emotionally scarred by the experience, until his new friends persuade him to compose music for the band they want to start, after which they audition for Tsukipro.

    Films — Animation 
  • Cars:
    • Doc Hudson was once the Fabulous Hudson Hornet, a celebrated racecar until he crashed fifty years earlier. After his recovery, he was forcibly retired, which left him bitter and led him to quit racing to become doctor at Radiator Springs. Seeing how Lighting McQueen changes during his stay and how he has helped the other denizens of the town lead Doc to rejoin the racing community as McQueen's pit crew leader.
    • In Cars 3, Lightning finds himself being beaten by up-and-coming hotshot racer Jackson Storm. He overexerts himself trying to beat Storm and crashes. The rest of the movie is him training for his big return with young trainer Cruz Ramirez.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Creed II, Ivan Drago hopes to avenge his defeat in Rocky IV through his son, Viktor, challenging Adonis.
  • Cross of Iron begins by showing footage of German generals surrendering at Stalingrad; for the rest of the film, there's a feeling among the German soldiers serving on the Eastern Front that the tide of the war has turned permanently against them.
  • Dheepan: During the Sri Lankan Civil War, all the members of Dheepan's platoon were killed. His wife and children were killed too. That's all backstory, and as the film opens Dheepan is escaping Sri Lanka as a refugee, under a false identity, with two strangers pretending to be his wife and daughter.
  • The Empire Strikes Back starts off with the rebels hiding in their base on Hoth, having been driven off of their Yavin base.
  • The Hidden Fortress: Before the film began, the Akizuki clan suffered a terrible off-screen defeat, and General Makabe and the Princess are carrying a load of hidden gold to try to rebuild their shattered kingdom.
  • It Happened Here begins with Britain having been successfully invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany.
  • This forms the backstory for both Murakami (the detective) and Yusa (the criminal) in Stray Dog. They both served in the Japanese military in WWII, returning to Japan after that country had been defeated, and during the return back, they both had their packs (containing almost all of their possessions) stolen. The paths they took, however, were very different; Murakami joined the police to prevent this from happening to anyone else, while Yusa turned to a life of crime.
  • The prologue of Master Z: Ip Man Legacy tells us how an uprising Wing-Chun star, Cheung Tai Chi, retires from the martial arts world after being defeated by Ip Man.
  • The opening of The Mighty Ducks shows a young Gordon Bombay missing the game-winning penalty shot for his pee-wee hockey team. Fast-forward to adulthood and Gordon is now a Amoral Attorney who quit hockey and wants nothing to do with it even after he is forced to coach a rag-tag pee-wee team as community service.

  • The Dark Tower has Roland, the last of the gunslingers, having lost to John Farson's forces at the Battle of Jericho Hill before the series begins.
  • The Dogs of War starts off with "Cat" Shannon and his fellow mercenaries trying to flee from Nigeria, having fought on the losing side in the Biafra War.
  • Mistborn: The Original Trilogy had this as Brandon Sanderson's initial pitch. Describing his initial concept, he said: "The second idea was to write a story about a world where the good guys lost. I wanted to take the standard fantasy story I’d read a dozen times, that of a young peasant hero who went on a quest to defeat a Dark Lord, and turn it on its head. What if the Dark Lord won? What if, in the final climactic moments, he killed the hero and took over the world? Hence, Mistborn. A thousand years ago, the prophesied hero from lore rose up to overthrow a great and terrible evil. Only, he lost, and the Dark Lord took over and has been ruling with an iron fist for a thousand years."
  • In World War Z, this is why France was so eager to eliminate zombies from Paris so quickly in comparison to other major cities; after enduring a series of defeats from the Maginot Line to Vietnam to Algeria, the French government believed the French people needed a major victory to turn themselves around.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Mal and Zoe on Firefly fought on the losing side of a war, with the first episode showing the last moments of the last battle of the war. Six years on, during the main timeframe that the show takes place in, they still wear the brown coats of the independent forces, and the spaceship they live on is named Serenity after that battle. Mal still has trouble adjusting to living under his former enemies' rule, and always ends up getting into a fight on "Unification Day".
  • Bohannon in Hell on Wheels served as a Confederate officer in the American Civil war, with the war having ended before the events of the first season. He starts the series looking for the Union soldiers who raped his wife, driving her to suicide; later, he encounters former Confederate soldiers he served alongside, who have now started robbing trains.
  • JAG's Harmon Rabb was a F-14 pilot, until a crash and a diagnosis of night blindness forced him to transfer to the Judge Advocate General's office.
  • Kamen Rider Ex-Aid works with the contrast of playing this trope for laughs and for drama. The angry munchkin Nico Saiba has lost a pro gaming match against the then reigning champion M, causing her to spend her life between the ages of twelve and eighteen making a name as the next champion, N, and obsessing over the day she can avenge this humiliation. It only makes her angrier that M doesn't even recognize her in present and has retired from gaming to works as a relatively mundane doctor. Her beleaguered involuntary guardian, Taiga Hanaya went against the orders and bet everything on saving a patient in critical condition. Failure to do so cost him his medical license and made everyone in the know hate him. So when Nico reveals her motivation, he gives her a heated "Reason You Suck" Speech, because people are dying in their line of duty and here she is trying to use them to sate her childish grudge.
  • Power Rangers RPM works with a similar outline as Mistborn mentioned above in Literature. Typically, Power Rangers fight to stop the The End of the World as We Know It. RPM, on the other hand, starts after the apocalypse and the team's role is to protect the city holding what's left of humanity on Earth.

  • Red vs. Blue: The Director's late wife Allison lost her life failing to complete her last mission. The horror of the event left such an impression on the Director that when he managed to recreate her as the A.I. known as Tex from his memory, it subconsciously imprinted on her to always fail regardless of her efforts.

    Video Games 
  • God of War: Kratos' story and downfall began primarily when his Spartan army lost a major battle against a barbarian horde, as he begged the titular god of war Ares to bring him victory, just before Kratos himself could be killed by barbarian king Alrik.
  • At the start of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Link wakes up inside a shrine, having no clue how he ended up there. Over the next couple of hours, he learns that he has actually been defeated and killed by Calamity Ganon when the latter attacked Hyrule a hundred years ago. Link's allies managed to spirit away his corpse to the Shrine of Resurrection, but during the time it took for him to come back, Hyrule fell into complete disrepair while Ganon, despite being sealed by Princess Zelda's sacrifice, has regained enough strength to soon have another go at destroying it.
  • Sonic Forces: As revealed in the DLC level Episode: Shadow, Infinite was an overconfident mercenary working for Dr. Eggman. When Shadow invaded one of Eggman's bases, Eggman ordered the mercenary to take him out, but he beat the mercenary down in just a few seconds and left him there, calling him "weak." The mercenary was so infuriated by this that he allowed himself to be fused with the Phantom Ruby and become the unstoppable force he is now.
  • In the back story of Final Fantasy X, party members Wakka and Lulu have both failed quests to protect a summoner journeying to defeat Sin. Ironically, fellow party member Auron succeeded in such a quest, but because Sin has a form of Resurrective Immortality, Auron's comrades had to lay down their lives for the victory, and it clued Auron into the Awful Truth about Sin, (namely, that there was no possibility that the Summoner's quest could defeat Sin for good and it would always return eventually) Auron considers it his greatest failure.
  • BlazBlue: Bang Shishigami's past involves him being defeated by Jin Kisaragi in the Ikaruga Civil War, which prevented Bang from stopping Jin from slaying Bang's master, Lord Tenjo, making Bang's side lost the war. In the present, he initially holds grudge against Jin and considers him his greatest enemy, but over time he learns to put that aside and focus on helping people in need and rebuilding his hometown.

    Web Comics 
  • Dominic Deegan: Dominic became acquainted with Lord Siegfried when the latter sought him out to foresee his chances of getting even with the swordsman Scarlatti after being defeated by him in a duel. While Siegfried does come to terms with his loss, the meeting sets the tone of the rather rocky relationship between him and Dominic.
  • Girl Genius: The Fifty Families are the traditional ruling houses of Europa, and they are all furious at having an "upstart" like Baron Wulfenbach having defeated them and forced them into subjugation to his Empire. The Storm King conspiracy gains grounds due to this as they all want one of their own to become the new Storm King and rule Europa and to that end worked for years to create a Storm King shaped hole, at least in people's minds, which causes the brutal and bloody swift return of the long war as soon as the Baron is out of the picture.
  • In Weak Hero, Alex squared up against Jimmy Bae in the past and ended up getting thoroughly beaten. It wasn't the defeat that affected him the most, however, but Ben stepping in and suffering a long-term injury because of it. This lead to Alex's fear of Jimmy in the present, and when Jimmy beats him again he isolates himself so that Ben won't get hurt again. Meanwhile, Jimmy holds a grudge for losing against Ben and chomps at the bit to get revenge on him.

    Real Life 
  • Countries that have been defeated in war will have to come to terms with their defeat, especially if losing the war causes a change in government (such as what happened with Germany and Japan after WWII, and Argentina after the Falklands War). The national legacy of military defeats can in some cases last for a very long time. The Battle of Kosovo (in which the Serbs were defeated by the Turks, with heavy casualties on both sides, which was especially devastating for the Serbs, who had far fewer men to begin with) is widely seen as a defining moment in the national identity of Serbia to this very day. The battle took place in 1389.