Top 10 Fictional Characters with Tragic Backstories

Script Written by Niki Neptune. Is a character really a good character without a traumatic past? Join as we count down our picks for the Top 10 Fictional Characters with Tragic Backstories. For this list, we’re taking a look at big screen characters who may seem a little hard to figure out at first glance, but once we learn about the events in their past, all of their strange or obsessive or murderous behaviour sorta make sense. Special thanks to our users Dominick Tortorice and nneptune for submitting the idea on our Suggestions Page at WatchMojo.comsuggest

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Top 10 Fictional Characters with Tragic Backstories

Is a character really a good character without a traumatic past? Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Fictional Characters with Tragic Backstories.

For this list, we’re taking a look at big screen characters who may seem a little hard to figure out at first, but once we learn about the events in their past, all of their strange or obsessive or murderous behaviour sorta make sense. The majority of the backstory must have occurred prior to the film’s start, meaning we aren't counting any character whose story is fully revealed early on, and only those whose histories are alluded to or expanded upon in their cinematic journey. So that means you won't be seeing characters like Maximus from “Gladiator” on this list.

#10: Man & Boy
“The Road” (2009)

The fact that this is a post-apocalyptic movie should be clue one that some less than stellar events took place in these characters’ pasts. You know, like an apocalypse. Based on the book of same name, “The Road” follows an unnamed man and his son as they do what they can to survive in the wake of a world-changing disaster. Things are consistently bleak for the pair as they make their way through the remains of the planet, and flashbacks reveal that the man’s wife committed suicide shortly after giving birth to the boy. What makes this even moretragic is realizing that the kid’s entire life has basically just been one near-death encounter after the other.

#9: Tallahassee
“Zombieland” (2009)

In this sleeper hit and dark, zombie-centered comedy, Woody Harrelson plays a tough guy from Florida who likes his solitude as much as he likes his Twinkies. He also misses his puppy. A college student on a journey to locate his parents soon joins Tallahassee, and the pair is later joined by a couple of sisters who’ve also managed to survive. During a fireside chat, Tallahassee reveals that the “puppy” he’d been referring to earlier in the movie was actually his toddler and that his dearly beloved son was slaughtered by zombies. Losing a child is devastating enough on its own, but losing a child to a horde of marauding zombies has to be the ultimate gut punch. Tallahassee’s face during this all-revealing scene makes his pain all too apparent.

#8: Koba
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014)

This sequel to 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” reveals a world where humans are on the verge of extinction. After a deadly virus wipes out the majority of mankind, highly intelligent apes have started developing their own civilization. Many of the apes gained their heightened intelligence through the same virus that wiped out the humans, including the film’s main antagonist, Koba. Cold, heartless, and with a brutal hatred of humans, this scarred bonobo’s anger is directly tied to the years of cruel experimentation he suffered at the hands of his captors. It would be easy to say that he has a chip on his shoulder, but those years of torture are more like a boulder.

#7: Dom Cobb
“Inception” (2010)

Clever and complex, this cerebral hit stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a thief-for-hire, Dom Cobb, who, along with his crack team of experts, plucks secrets directly from other people’s heads. He’s been hired to perform the pretty tough job of planting an idea in a target’s subconscious and assembles the best and the brightest for the assignment. During a mission to recover their target from limbo, Cobb reveals that his wife committed suicide and implicated him in her death so that he’d kill himself, too. It was a romantic gesture gone horribly wrong, as his wife lost sight of reality after she and Cobb spent too much time in the dream world. This is the reason why he’s a criminal on the run, estranged from his kids, and jacking people’s dreams for a living.

#6: The Bride
“Kill Bill” (2003-04)

In this Quentin Tarantino gore-fest, Uma Thurman plays “The Bride”, a badass assassin with an axe to grind. She’s tracking down all of her former killer colleagues to enact deadly vengeance. The fight scenes are entertaining, and her murderous rampage is as official as they can get. In the midst of the bloodbath, it’s eventually revealed that her assassin pals attacked her and left her for dead during her wedding rehearsal. To make matters worse, she was pregnant with the head assassin’s child and the unborn baby was apparently later plucked from her belly. Needless to say, there are a whole host of reasons not to piss off an assassin, but not ensuring that they’re completely dead when you try to murder them isn’t the wisest of choices.

#5: Harry Potter
“Harry Potter” franchise (2001-11)

He may just seem like a regular kid who’s happy to leave his unbearable family to attend wizard school, but he’s also a boy with a dark past and he has the scar to prove it. His bangs hide the visual reminder of an attack on his life when he was just an infant by a perpetually unhappy, evil wizard named Voldemort. Lord Voldemort, who murdered Harry’s parents, was also raised as an orphan and managed to pay it forward in the most miserable way imaginable. In spite of Harry’s hardships, he seems relatively well-adjusted, unlike “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”.

#4: Darth Vader
“Star Wars” franchise (1977-2005)

By most accounts, the Sith lord formerly known as Anakin Skywalker didn’t live a charmed life. Born and raised in bondage, he didn’t get the carefree childhood you’d expect from most precocious kids. Instead, he worked as a slave before earning his freedom helping out Queen Amidala and witnessed his mother’s death. As it turns out, the Queen becomes the love of his life, but she ends up dying while giving birth to their children. All of this is enough to send any average person over the edge. Throw in his disfigurement in a pool of lava and it’s all he can do to not blow up planets left and right.

#3: Khan
“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982)

It’s not everyday that you find yourself exiled to a distant planet. Nor is it everyday that your wife gets killed as a result of an explosion that you blame on the same dude that exiled you. In this ‘80s sci-fi adventure, Ricardo Montalban reprises his role as Captain Kirk’s long-standing arch-nemesis, but this time he’s out for blood. Following his wife’s death, Khan wants revenge on Captain Kirk for the series of events that led to her demise. He devises a grand plan that involves mind control, a bunch of explosions, and a device that can create planets. Khan was definitely a man who his stuck to his goals.

#2: Leonard
“Memento” (2000)

Solving a murder mystery can prove extremely difficult when you’re suffering from short-term memory loss. In this Oscar-nominated Christopher Nolan film, Guy Pearce stars as Leonard Shelby, a man who is relying on a series of tattoos and Polaroids to help him uncover his wife’s murderer. He’s unable to form new memories, so he’s stuck in a loop of his wife’s attack while taking photos and getting inked to leave himself clues to the killer’s identity. He links up with a woman and an undercover officer who may hold the key to solving the mystery of his wife’s death. It’s a brilliant movie with enough twists and turns to make Leonard’s backstory the only thing that grounds the plot.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
- Inigo Montoya
“The Princess Bride” (1987)
- Carl Fredricksen
“Up” (2009)
- Neil McCormick
“Mysterious Skin” (2004)
- Django
“Django Unchained” (2012)

#1: Magneto
“X-Men” franchise (2000-)

As an antagonist, Magneto is a man of action. He’s constantly devising a plan to get back at the humans who remain distrustful of mutants, good or bad. And considering that the humans seem to constantly also have plans to eradicate the mutants, you can’t really blame him. In fact, his hatred of humans isn’t just a matter of survival - it extends back to his childhood. As a Holocaust survivor, he saw his mother killed before his eyes by a cruel Nazi scientist. In “X-Men: First Class”, he’s able to avenge his mother’s death - but the damage has already been done. He may not be a bad guy through and through, even in spite of his painful childhood. But he does have some really cool super powers.

Do you agree with our list? What big screen character do you think has the most tragic backstory? For more entertaining Top 10s published every day, be sure to subscribe to

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