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

Updated August 14, 2019 29.0k votes 7.4k voters 336.0k views17 items

List RulesVote 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.

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  • Dr. Lance Sweets
    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. 

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  • 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. 

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  • 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.

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  • TV Show: Grey’s Anatomy

    Like with Game of Thrones, it’s hard to find a Grey’s character with an idyllic childhood. However, no one has suffered more than Alex Karev.

    As Alex admits at one point, he basically became an adult when he was only seven years old, at which age he had to start cleaning up after his father, a raging alcoholic. He took care of his mother, who was schizophrenic, and his siblings. He spent a long time in the foster system and even landed in juvenile detention at one point for stealing food for his family. 

    There’s no wonder Alex was a bit of a prick when the show first started. Thankfully, his character growth was more than impressive over the course of the last few years.

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