17 TV Characters With Shockingly Depressing Backstories Guaranteed To Make You Tear Up  

Alexandra Plesa
25.3k votes 6.7k voters 324.9k views 17 items

List Rules Vote up the character whose backstory made you wish you could reach into your TV screen and offer them a hug.

The "dark and troubled past" trope is nothing new. Rarely on a TV show is there not at least one character who has gone through something traumatic in their history. This trauma can range from absent parents to abusive relatives, or from criminal pasts to dead lovers. Some TV characters just have it worse than others. But the characters on this list really take the cake. From homelessness, to castration, to accidentally killing their loved ones, these characters have been through so much it's honestly surprising they’re still standing.

For some, the hardship started at a really young age, affecting them way into adulthood. Others learn to accept their traumatic past and find a way to move forward, only occasionally revealing glimpses of their emotional scars. All in all, a troubled past can certainly make a character more layered and complex. Plus, a good backstory can push viewers to root for characters they would otherwise despise, and to love their favorites even more.

The only downside? Sometimes the backstories are so brutal they can prove too much to handle. Here are our favorite TV heroes with highly disturbing pasts, from Phoebe Buffay to Doctor Who himself.

Dr Lance Sweets is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 17 TV Characters With Shockingly Depressing Backstories Guaranteed To Make You Tear Up
Photo:  Bones/FOX

TV Show: Bones 

Both Seeley Booth and Temperance "Bones" Brennan suffer from difficult childhoods on the show, but psychologist Lance Sweets has the physical scars to prove it. Before being adopted by a loving couple when he was six, Lance suffered despicable abuse. In a Season 4 episode, the whip scars on his back are shown. Probably one of the reasons he could empathize so well with Booth, who had an abusive, alcoholic father and with Brennan, who was abandoned by her parents when she was a teenager. 

Is this sad?
see more on Dr Lance Sweets
Phoebe Buffay is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 17 TV Characters With Shockingly Depressing Backstories Guaranteed To Make You Tear Up
Photo:  Friends/NBC

TV Show: Friends

Phoebe Buffay's backstory is pretty crazy. Her dad abandoned her at a young age. Her mom committed suicide. Her stepdad went to prison. Not only that, but she also had to live on the streets and struggle to make ends meet by begging and pick pocketing. She never attended high school or college, she lived in a car at one point, and she got hepatitis after a pimp spat in her mouth. 

And yet, Phoebe is the quirky and upbeat one of the six friends that make up the show. She’s kind, loyal, and loving; as opposed to her twin sister, who is anything but. We’re guessing nothing but her sunny demeanor could have gotten her through the tough times. 

More Phoebe Buffay

#11 of 1105 on The Greatest Female TV Characters of All Time #29 of 1662 on The Greatest TV Characters of All Time #25 of 505 on The Funniest TV Characters of All Time featuring Despite The Laughs, Phoebe’s Backstory On ‘Friends’ Is Pretty Dark

Is this sad?
see more on Phoebe Buffay
Ned is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 17 TV Characters With Shockingly Depressing Backstories Guaranteed To Make You Tear Up
Photo:  Pushing Daisies/ABC

TV Show: Pushing Daisies

Ned, also known as The Piemaker, is a precious snowflake of a man. This despite his unique and morbid gift. Ned can bring the dead back to life with a single touch. A gift which, on the surface, seems great. But there are two major consequences. First, if the newly revived corpse remains alive for more than 60 seconds, someone in close proximity to them will die in their stead. Second, if he touches them again, they die forever.

What’s worse is that at a young age, Ned finds out he has this ability the hard way. When he is nine, his mom dies right next to him in the kitchen, and he is able to revive her. After a minute, the next door neighbor drops dead outside. Later that night, to his horror, when his mom kisses him good night she dies again. Afterwards, Ned's father abandons him at boarding school and Ned becomes a loner.

In short, childhood was pretty tough for Ned. He basically just had his dog, Digby, whom Ned brought back to life after he was hit by a truck. Which meant he couldn't even cuddle or touch his own pet. A sad life indeed.

Is this sad?
see more on Ned
Tiffany 'Pennsatucky' Doggett is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 17 TV Characters With Shockingly Depressing Backstories Guaranteed To Make You Tear Up
Photo:  Orange Is The New Black/Netflix

TV Show: Orange is the New Black

A lot of Litchfield Penitentiary's inmates have tragic backgrounds, but Pennsatucky’s is probably the saddest portrayed on the series. From a young age, she wasn't taught that that sex was pleasurable for both men and woman, and she frequently sold her body for things like a six-pack of Mountain Dew. Her mother was not the best, basically using Pennsatucky to get more money from the government. She eventually became a meth addict who shot a nurse because she made a snide comment about Pennsatucky getting her fifth abortion. Which ultimately landed her in prison.

Honestly, going to Litchfield probably wasn’t the worst thing that could happen for a character with such a sordid past. Even with all that abuse from prison guards.

More Tiffany 'Pennsatucky' Doggett

#7 of 30 on The Best Characters on Orange Is the New Black, Ranked #7 of 24 on 'Orange Is The New Black' Characters Out Of Their Prison Jumpsuits

Is this sad?
see more on Tiffany 'Pennsatucky' Doggett