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Dysfunction Junction

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"I'm not sure why the Light Warriors worry about obstacles or monsters standing in their way. They are nothing compared to the obstacles and monsters within the party."

What's your malfunction?

A character with flaws is more interesting than a character without flaws. Ergo, a cast of characters with flaws is more interesting exponentially. QED.

Normality is boring and unartistic. An easy way to crank up drama is to supply everyone with a tragic past, screwed-up family history, other significant psychological issues, or some combination of the three. When Dysfunction Junction comes into play, good parents can be as common as penguins in the Sahara, instead turning out to be neglectful, smothering, unfeeling, abusive, misguided or dead. And let's not even get into the rest of the family.

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The resulting prevalence of personal trauma often stretches suspension of disbelief and is a leading cause of Cerebus Syndrome. If done poorly, this is a one-way ticket to Wangst territory, and as so many attempt to smother the series with dysfunction, Deus Angst Machina is a frequent result. If done well, you get a large number of interesting, sympathetic, flawed characters, and their interactions with each other gradually reveal the multiple sides to each of them. More realistic (i.e. not Flanderized) portrayals of this trope can even help the audience understand and cope with their own dysfunctional lives, especially with regards to issues that are typically glossed over in mainstream society.

This trope often goes hand in hand with There Are No Therapists, Trauma Conga Line and dramatic Crapsack Worlds. Big, Screwed-Up Family can be a justification for this trope. When all or nearly all involved parties are insane, you have a Cast Full of Crazy. Royal families are particularly prone to this, as are cops and detectives. The Dysfunction Junction is the natural habitat of the Jerkass Woobie.

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    Film — Animation 

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Everyone in Eagle Vs Shark, from the possibly-autistic Jared, cripplingly-shy Lily, Jared's family still scarred by his brother's suicide...
  • Almost everyone from the Spider-Man Trilogy films, ranging from Peter, Mary-Jane, Doc Ock, Norman and Harry Osborn, Eddie Brock, and Flint. Aunt May and Uncle Ben were perfectly fine and normal folks, and May copes rather normally after Ben's death. As for Dr. Octavius, he was a happily-married well-adjusted scientist until his No OSHA Compliance Combat Tentacles went crazy.
  • This idea is deconstructed in Mental. The movie is about Shaz, a violent, drug-using ex-mental doctor. In order to wrangle up a team to get a shark that killed and ate her daughter, she finds five kids: The loneliest, least talented, and most mentally unstable children in all of Australia with a recently rehabilitated mother who went to hospital after believing her husband won Wheel of Fortune and bought tons of furniture, and an unfaithful father who hasn't eaten dinner with them since Coral, the eldest child, tried to kill herself by jumping off the roof and landing on his car while he was pulling in, knocking him unconscious for five minutes, and tricks them into her scheme. However, it all falls apart when the children realise that they are sane (well, Michelle has legitimate schizophrenia, but reacts well to the medication); in fact, everyone who Shaz presented as insane was actually sane, just to different degrees, but all of them were huge assholes who simply presented Hollywood archetypes of these illnesses (with one of them eventually committed after a combination of OCD and racist attitude causes her to go on a violent rampage), and Shaz was simply suffering from mental illness caused by the death of her daughter. The same goes for her ex-husband, who simply wants her to suffer for being such a horrible mother.
  • All the kids in The Breakfast Club came from dysfunctional families, and this is what directly or indirectly got them all Saturday detention.
  • The Avengers has its eponymous team. Everyone but the SHIELD agents has some kind of disorder or other issue.
    • Count Steve as well. The world he knew is gone, everyone he knew and loved is dead, and he seems to spend most of his time pounding on punching bags while plagued by war flashbacks, hinting that he's most likely suffering from combat-related PTSD. Also it's implied that he was conscious at least when he began thawing from the ice.
    • Also Black Widow was taken from her parents and trained from early childhood to be an assassin who spent years as an outright villain. And Hawkeye, who even at the movie's beginning was hinted at being an eccentric loner, was so thoroughly violated and Mind Raped over the course of the movie that if he didn't have any major issues before, he sure has them now.
    • However, all the Avengers put together can't touch the Royally Screwed Up pile of Sibling Rivalry and aristocratic familial politics that makes up Thor's family life, including the fact that his little brother tried to assassinate him to steal his throne, tried to genocide an alien race, and even conquer Earth.
  • In the 2011 film Warrior: Paddy is a lonely recovering alcoholic, Tommy has PTSD (and a lot of chips on his shoulders) and Brendan has inferiority and abandonment issues.
  • Eddie and Sarah in The Hustler bond with each other over their various dysfunctional pasts.
  • Every single film by Lars von Trier, even in the television show Riget, where it's Played for Laughs.
  • Same for Jean-Luc Godard, who uses this to alienate his audience.
  • In A Nightmare on Elm Street, the adults are almost all neglectful and condescending at best, to the point that they serve as the secondary antagonists to Freddy himself. Abusive Parents are the norm in Springwood, and the teenagers are so used to it that by the time the fifth movie rolls around, one scene has them casually commiserating over their controlling parents. This series is one of the more realistic treatments of this trope, since their situations aren't too far detached from young people in real life. But importantly, the films take the teenagers' concerns seriously, while the adults that talk down to them are seen as in the wrong.
  • Up to Eleven and Played for Laughs in Tropic Thunder, where every actor struggles with issues.
    • Tugg Speedman is a washed up, egotistical action movie star, whose attempts at breaking out of his genre have created some of the biggest bombs in movie history.
    • Kirk Lazarus is an uber-talented Australian Method Actor who actually dyes his skin black so he can play an African-American soldier, and spends the movie seemingly convinced he is black (much to the chagrin of the actually black Alpa Chino), and then suffers a short identity crisis.
    • Jeff Portnoy is a drug-addicted comedian who spends much of the movie in withdrawal, and literally begs to be tied to a tree.
    • Alpa Chino is hiding in the closet.
    • Kevin Sandusky is probably the most down-to-Earth of the actors, but he is a No Respect Guy for most of the movie, and none of the actors can even remember his name.
    Kevin Sandusky: The insecurity level with you guys, IS RIDICULOUS!

    Music 
  • Played for laughs in "Six-Pack" by Three Dead Trolls In A Baggie: the singer's father is a drunkard, his mother is a whore, his sister is a drug dealer, and the singer himself is schizoid.
  • Exaggerated and also played for laughs in "My Home Town" by Tom Lehrer: although the singer has no complaints and is actually rather nostalgic for his home town, it is apparently completely populated with crazies, perverts, and psychos.
  • Done seriously in "La Historia De Juan" by Juanes. A kid was abandoned by his mother, is abused by his father, and lives on the street alone and unloved, sleeping in a cardboard box. Then he dies.
  • Gorillaz: Murdoc suffered a thoroughly unpleasant childhood at the hands of his father, his brother, and various school bullies, and if he's telling the truth he "hit puberty when I was eight and lost my virginity to a dinner lady when I was nine and I've been in a bad mood ever since". He grew up into a Satan-worshipping drunkard who takes out his frustrations by verbally and physically tormenting 2D. 2D, as if being raised with a Punny Name like "Stu Pot" wasn't bad enough, suffered from migraines and at least one severe head injury in childhood. Then he was run over by Murdoc and spent a year in a coma, which he came out of when Murdoc ran him over again, leaving him with missing front teeth, fractured eyeballs, and worse migraines. Later on, he managed to father ten illegitimate children. Russel watched his friends die in a drive-by, and ended up possessed by their spirits. He was understandably traumatised, and only got worse when the actual Grim Reaper retrieved his best friend Del's soul, to the point that he ended up having a nervous breakdown in Ike Turner's basement. Noodle, meanwhile, was amnesiac when they found her, and later discovered that she was in fact a genetically-engineered Tyke Bomb super soldier. Regardless of that, she seems to be the only semi-well-adjusted band member untill she gets dragged into hell and replaced by an Axe-Crazy cyborg with issues of her own, that is.
  • Played for laughs in "Neighbourhood" by Space, where the neighbours include a family of thieves (although the house is empty because they've all been arrested), a serial killer vicar and a man who thinks he's Saddam Hussein.
  • Twenty One Pilots:
    • Referenced in "Polarize".
      My friends and I have got a lot of problems.
    • The topic of "Heathens".
      Just because we check the guns at the door
      Doesn't mean our brains will change from hand grenades
      You're loving on the psychopath sitting next to you
      You're loving on the murderer sitting next to you
  • "The Kids Aren't Alright" by The Offspring is about a group of high schoolers who grew into dysfunctional or impoverished adults.
    When we were young the future was so bright.
    The old neighborhood was so alive.
    And every kid on the whole damn street was gonna make it big in every beat.
    Now the neighborhood's cracked and torn.
    The kids are grown up but their lives are worn.
    How can one little street swallow so many lives?
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    Newspaper Comics 
  • Peanuts is famous for getting away with having a cast of relatably dysfunctional characters defined by insecurity, unrequited love, and failure despite being a comic strip from The '50s starring a bunch of kids. Charlie Brown is painfully aware of his inability to succeed in anything, Snoopy is often off in a flight of fancy, Sally is an apathetic little airhead, Lucy is a crabby fussbudget who thinks the world owes her, Linus, despite his philosophical intelligence, gets picked on for odd traits such as needing a Security Blanket, Schroeder barely does anything beyond playing Beethoven's music, Peppermint Patty often falls Asleep in Class and, despite being a rough-n-tumble tomboy, worries a lot about her appearance and femininity, and Marcie is woefully naive about anything beyond academics.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The titular Exalted, thanks to the Great Curse.
  • Changeling: The Lost, in part due to what The Fair Folk did to everyone before the game began. At worst, the Spring Court are desperately throwing themselves into distraction to avoid coping with the pain, the Summer Court are endlessly angry and want to fight the immortal mad gods that made them, the Autumn Court throw themselves into the weird powers they picked up as a result of cosmic abuse, and the Winter Court would like it very much if you did nothing to draw their attention. And that's not counting whatever Loyalists or Privateers that may be lurking in secret...
  • Burning Wheel requires you to spend resource points during character generation to acquire significant relationships. You get discounts for various aspects of said relationships, including having them be hateful, forbidden, and/or family. Thus it's not unusual to have a party full of family dysfunction.
    • More significantly, the con demo scenario "The Gift" is about four Elves sent as emissaries to the crowning of a new Dwarf prince, who has three close advisors. Except the Elves start by making an immense diplomatic faux pas. The eight premade characters, all PCs, have widely differing attitudes and goals. One is a broken-down alcoholic. Two are on the verge of catastrophic meltdown, one from too much Dwarven Greed and one from too much Elvish Grief. The often disastrous results are a lesson in dysfunction critical mass.
  • Bliss Stage, what with all the adults but one having vanished, imminent alien attacks, and a bunch of teenagers way over their heads knowing that they are dead at 18.
  • For some reason, this trope is heavily involved in the formation of some — if not all — Player Character groups in any tabletop game, ever. It's almost never "A bunch of folks good with {weapons/skills in use} that like to go treasure hunting and killing things for profit because they're good at it." The mage is power mad and/or Blessed with Suck, the warrior/soldier is haunted by past battles or trying to reclaim honor, the priest only turned to religion after tremendous personal tragedy, etc. etc. etc.
    • Moreover, point build systems encourage this to happen, as by picking flaws and misfortunes — say, being an orphan — the player gets bonus points to spend on the character's stats.
  • Warhammer 40,000: For what it's worth the dysfunction junction is just the beginning of how to describe the relationship between the Emperor and his sons the Primarchs.

    It can also be argued that the universe is this trope on a massive scale.
  • Heavily and deliberately averted in Teenagers from Outer Space - no matter how wacky an alien you might be, you come from a perfectly normal suburban family.
  • BattleTech: in each faction, at least one or more member in it has some serious issues, or is bat-shit crazy. The great houses tend to have one member who ends up being a tyrant or worse.
  • Chuubo's Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine: Of the eight archetypal characters for the Glass-Maker's Dragon campaign, six have some kind of psychological hang-up. Natalia had her hope carved out of her along with her weakness during Training from Hell in which surviving for long periods on ice chips was a regular feature; Jasper is cut off from her true home and marooned among people with strange habits like sneezing; Entropy II's father was a grade-A evil bastard who he may have killed, and distrusting your memories is stressful enough without having to cope with seeping mutagenic blood from your hands; Leonardo is a lonely, broken genius whose life has been a fairly nonstop parade of suckage from a young age, struggling with a self-assumed responsibility that may be too heavy for him to bear; Seizhi is stressed out about not being properly real; and Miramie is just stressed out in general and has to deal with her past life being an enemy of the world. About the only ones who are relatively stable are Chuubo, who is heavily implied to be an Amnesiac God and is struggling with great power he is really bad at using sensibly, and Rinley, who defies rational explanation. Thankfully, most of them are just dysfunctional enough to produce interesting storytelling possibilities without being quite messed-up enough to be dangerous.

    Theatre 
  • Between them, the dancers in A Chorus Line have neglectful, emotionally abusive or absent parents, deaths of family members, sexual molestation, and bullying, and the poverty, unemployment and constant risk of injury that come with their chosen career.
  • Half of the main cast of RENT has AIDS or HIV, and that's not even getting into the drug addictions, poverty, suicide of friends and constant relationship problems many of them have to deal with.
  • None of the principal characters of Chess are well-adjusted. Freddie is an arrogant jerk with a Freudian Excuse. Florence was separated from her father and home country at an early age. Anatoly is not a happy Russian at the start of the show, and abandoning his wife for Florence and defecting to the West only causes new problems for all of them.
  • Hamlet. His uncle killed his father and married his mother. His mother may or may not have been in on this. Thanks to him, his girlfriend Ophelia has been rendered either insane or suicidal. With a good dose of Alternate Character Interpretation, he himself is either insane, suffering from an Oedipus complex, or both. That's not even getting into the more minor characters.
  • Road. Inhabitants are universally poor and frustrated, often alcoholic and usually from dysfunctional families. Suicide, domestic violence and prostitution are all covered by the end of the first act.

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