The writers have a villain, and they want to give that character some depth. The obvious solution is to Pet the Dog. Unfortunately, that tends to make the character less scary, causing Badass Decay and Villain Decay.
Instead, writers may keep the villain (especially The Sociopath) just as vile as before, but reveal that they have a reason for being that way. The most popular one is the Freudian Excuse: the villain had an abusive and particularly violent backstory (such as Abusive Parents, being bullied by peers, being raped in the past, etc.), making them insane and warping their perception on the universe, and that's why they're sociopathic Serial Killers going on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge, or why they want to destroy everything out of their misery, or why they're Straw Nihilists who adhere to The Social Darwinist philosophy that it's a Crapsack World where Might Makes Right. Sometimes, this is done for deliberate Badass Decay, but usually it isn't. The villain is as horrible as ever, only now the audience can look at them in a new way.
Unfortunately, just like a Pet the Dog moment, the Freudian Excuse sometimes fails to give a villain any depth at all. If the villain is particularly evil, it can come across as an illogical and lame Non Sequitur: "his father beat him, and that's why he's an Omnicidal Maniac." Even if the villain's crimes are proportionate, the writers have to strike a hard balance. Too much emphasis on the excuse, and it looks like they're attorneys justifying the villain. Too little, and it is a fallacious Appeal to Pity that looks like a ridiculously gratuitous scene of Wangst. However, this can in turn be highlighted in-story if the other characters point out that Freudian Excuse Is No Excuse. In the case of the Complete Monster, it fails to justify anything, merely explaining their origins and nothing more. It could even be used to make the character worse, since they know how awful it is to be treated horribly yet inflict pain on others anyway while rejecting the possibility of ever getting over their trauma and changing their ways.
Most importantly, the Freudian Excuse does not involve the character growing or changing; it explains why they haven't changed, and in fact, often serves as a signal that they cannot and never will. Bad writers often think that the excuse can substitute for Character Development, but it does the exact opposite. Good writers know the excuse has limits, and watch them. If done well enough, it may lead the audience to Cry for the Devil or even straight-up create a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds. A Freudian Excuse is often invoked to explain how someone who Used to Be a Sweet Kid became such a monster instead - again, much writerly skill is generally needed to pull this off and make it poignant rather than pathetic.
The excuse can be played with in many ways. One way is to use it to show how pathetic a villain is — after the villain gives a Breaking Speech, a hero's classic rebuttal is "says the guy who became an Evil Overlord to work out his daddy issues." The second way is for the villain to sneer at the hero's pity for them, even exploiting it in a fight. (Further, the villain is protesting far too much.) A third way is to simply present it as an explanation rather than a full excuse. Sometimes the author simply shows what warped the character into what they became without expecting the audience to feel any more sympathetic toward the character- a sort of psychological How We Got Here. And a fourth way is to use the Freudian Excuse as a justification for a HeelFace Turn; if the villain gets treatment he no longer has any reason to be evil and may pay the heroes back out of gratitude.
Many Crime and Punishment Series (and Darker and Edgier superhero comics) are notorious for Writer on Board stories deconstructing the Freudian Excuse. At least once per storyline, there will be a slimy psychiatrist or defense attorney who declares that the Neck-Chopping Killer is merely a victim of circumstances, and it's the hero who should be locked away. These stories tend to end with said psychiatrist or defense attorney getting murdered by the killer, which is depicted as poetic Irony.
However, not all examples of Freudian Excuses have to involve evil or villainous characters. It can also be used to explain the neurotic behaviors of even heroic or otherwise neutral characters.
See Freudian Excuse Is No Excuse for deconstructions of this trope, and Freudian Excuse Denial for one particular subversion. See also Dark and Troubled Past, Start of Darkness, Jerkass Woobie, Abusive Parents, Parental Neglect, Parental Abandonment, "Well Done, Son!" Guy, Single-Issue Psychology, Tragic Bigot, Being Tortured Makes You Evil, Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds, You Are What You Hate, He Who Fights Monsters, and Who's Laughing Now?. If the villain is gothic, see Goths Have It Hard. Takes the "It's Nurture" position of the "Nature Versus Nurture" argument; for the Nature position, see Villainous Lineage. Contrast Upbringing Makes the Hero.
Please note that the trope deals only with traumatic experiences in childhood or adolescence. Being raped or losing one's job or family as a fully formed adult is not a Freudian Excuse.
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- In Season 7 episode 13 of Happy Heroes, after Careful S. breaks his clown mask, Clown Monster reveals why he became a villain - it's because he was born with face paralysis that makes him incapable of smiling. He was treated so unfairly over it that it inspired him to make people keep their smiles forever by freezing them into stone with his special ruby when he donned the Clown Monster alias.
- In Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, Paddi is notoriously hungry and sleepy all the time. Why? Episode 13 of Joys of Seasons shows that it's because his parents were so lazy they didn't want to play with him. Paddi is also offered a cake by his lazy mother in the flashback; both these things make him wonder if eating and sleeping are as fun as his parents seem to think they are... and, evidently, he did ultimately find them enjoyable.
- Most of the Traitor Primarchs of Warhammer 40,000 possess one:
- Angron crash landed on the planet Nuceria as a child, where he was enslaved by the populace to fight as a gladiator. Part of that process involved the Nucerians shoving archaeotech called the Butcher's Nails into Angron's head, so he could feel no emotion other than rage and suffered constant pain when not killing stuff. Eventually he rebelled and amassed an army of his fellow gladiators, slaughtering their former captors until they were finally cornered. Just before the final battle, the Emperor appeared to Angron and asked him to join the Great Crusade, which Angron refused. The Emperor wouldn't take no for an answer and teleported Angron up to his flagship, leaving Angron's gladiator friends to die without his leadership. Angron never forgave the Emperor for this betrayal and was one of the first Primarch to turn traitor when the Horus Heresy broke out.
- Lorgar Aurelian was raised by an abusive radical named Kor Phaeron, grooming him to overthrow the religious authorities of his homeworld. When the Emperor arrived, Lorgar identified Him as the Messiah he had been preaching about, something the atheistic Emperor took issue with. This finally came to a head when the Emperor ordered the destruction of Monarchia, a temple city that had been the crown jewel of Lorgar's zealotry, and then had the Word Bearers bow to the Ultramarines who carried out the destruction to humiliate Lorgar and get him to fall in line. His faith roughly shattered, Lorgar turned back to Kor Phaeron, who guided him to the Gods of Chaos as an alternate faith to worship.
- Mortarion was raised (and abused) by an alien warlord on the planet Barbarus, which was wrapped in a poisonous fog that even the superhuman Primarch struggled with. Eventually he started a revolt, overthrowing all of Barbarus' overlords save his "father". As he climbed the mountain the warlord's fortress was built upon, a mysterious stranger approached Mortarion with an offer of help, which he spurned. Unfortunately for Mortarion the poison was too much, and just before he passed out from exhaustion he had to watch as the stranger revealed himself to be the Emperor and killed Mortarion's father with little issue. Denied his final vengeance, Mortarion gained a grudge against the Emperor that festered until the Heresy.
- Perturabo was far too brilliant for the rest of Olympia, and thus gained rather poor social skills and a mild obsession with perfection. When he joined the Great Crusade, his Iron Warriors were quickly shoved into the thankless job of siege warfare, with thousands of Legionnaires being fed to the meat grinder so other Legions would get the glory of actually taking the planets. Peturarbo grew resentful of his brothers, especially Rogal Dorn and his Imperial Fists (who got the job Peturarbo wanted, that of building forts and palaces instead of knocking them down), and joined Horus since he seemed to be the only Primarch that gave a damn about him.
- Konrad Kurze grew up on the planet Nostramo, a world of perpetual darkness with ridiculously high crime and corruption. This combined with his repressed psychic powers drove Konrad a little nutty, causing him to take up the name "Night Haunter" and become 40K's answer to The Punisher. His psychosis got worse after he was brought in for the Great Crusade, and by the time of the Heresy he had so much blood on his hands he felt he had no choice but to turn.
- Alpharius was discovered near the end of the Great Crusade, and struggled with constant reminders of his brothers' conquests while he had little to show. His constant scheming and planing was an attempt to one-up the others, but only made the other Primarch's distrust of him grow. While the Alpha Legion's alliances are shrouded in mystery, a lot of their villainous acts go back to Alpharius' jealousy towards the other Legions.
- Archaon the Everchosen was a devoted follower of Sigmar... until he realized that he was destined to be chosen by the Chaos Gods to herald the world's destruction. Archaon begged tirelessly to Sigmar to no avail and was soon hunted by his fellow comrades until he finally gave in and turned to become the leader of the Forces of Chaos.
- While jealousy and pride have the biggest impact in Malekith turning from an elven hero to the founder and leader of the Dark Elves of Naggaroth, another factor was the loss of two individuals close to him; the dwarf Snorri Whitebeard and his wife Allisara.
- The Beastman known as Ungrol Four Horn has a past that is pitiable, given the very nature of the Beastmen. In addition to be cast aside by human civilization, he was also mocked and treated as a joke by fellow Beastmen, until he finally had enough and killed his clan's chieftain and shaman (a terrible sin by Beastmen standards) and began to make his own group of Beastmen.
- Chadam: Viceroy was abandoned by his parents and ostracized by the rest of the community for being born deformed and with no imagination, so he turned to studying, and thus got started on the path to being a Mad Scientist.
- The Father Tucker short "Rest for the Wicked" has a scene where Father Tucker warmly reminisces on going camping with a priest named Father Taper when he was young. We then see a flashback of a clearly traumatized Tucker being told by Father Taper not to tell anyone what had happened, which implies that Father Tucker is a Pedophile Priest because he himself was a victim of one.
- The Human Pet: The last upload reveals Sam's motivation for his kidnapping, murdering and torture is that his parents were horribly abusive to the point of driving him mad.
- Parodied in a Rooster Teeth podcast, in which Gus mentions having a contest with Geoff Ramsay over who could say the most ridiculous thing to get out of signing a petition. Gus was approached by a man wanting to "Save the Trees", and Gus quietly responds "...my father was killed by a tree" before walking off.
- Naruto: The Abridged Series spoofs Naruto's Freudian Excuse - Sakura tells Sasuke she's not interested in Naruto because he's got such a downer background, yet isn't using it as an excuse to be emo.
- Yu-Gi-Oh! The Abridged Series:
- Played with in Kaiba's story... he fired his own parents.
- They also point out the flaw of logic that Dark Marik from Yu-Gi-Oh! resents the Pharaoh considering at the time all he did was be dead and remain dead when it was his abusive father who made his life miserable and forced him to be a tombkeeper. Really the Pharaoh being around at all means his job is officially complete and he's completely free.