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Meet Bob. He's a member of the True Companions, he has personality traits, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and maybe even a romantic interest. After a few gay adventures with his friends, it's time to learn a bit about his past. As it turns out, the horrible secret he's been concealing all this time is... he once killed a man. The other characters are horribly shocked. While some will be able to look past his crime, a few may never forgive him and their relationship will become strained. To the viewer, Bob is obviously deeply emotional by what he's done; he probably still has nightmares about the murder, and he prays every day he could take it back. Bob continues to be the lovable (or not so lovable) character he always has been, but the audience henceforth views him in a newfound light. This, dear troper, is Murder as a Sympathetic Backstory.
Murder is serious business. Taking the life of a sentient being is a deeply ingrained taboo in the human psyche. In stories that do not frequently involve death (action, horror, thriller, etc.) the intentional extermination of another human being is a big fucking deal. Of all the troubled backstories Bob can have (dead/abusive/absent parents, Dead Little Sister, rape, Doomed Hometown, etc.) revealing him to be a murderer simultaneously makes him a bad guy and the woobie. The revelation may make his friends question just what makes a 'bad guy' if someone can commit murder and still be a sane, whole person.
If Bob's reveal of his backstory comes with a Flash Back, expect it to take almost the entire episode. It will likely go over Bob's every single option in the situation. You will watch as the victim pleads for his life, or, alternately, goads Bob. The eventual death will definitely be utterly heartbreaking. If the flashback continues after the murder, expect Bob to express "My God, what have I done!" or at least stare down at his hands with horror. Extra Angst and woobie points if he has to kill a parent/sibling/spouse/child/old friend/dog.
90% of the time, Bob was forced to commit the murder. He might have done it in self-defence, to save someone he loves, a Bad Guy might have put a gun to his head and ordered Bob to kill Alice, Alice might have begged Bob for death, Bob might have just been following orders, the list goes on. If the character wasn't forced into the murder by a third party, expect the victim to have been an Asshole Victim (see also Good Victims, Bad Victims).
Take note that this trope only works with sane, intentional murder. The murder was not an accident; Bob didn't unintentionally shove grandma down the stairs. Do NOT include manslaughter/accident examples. The reason murder can be and has been a genuinely sympathetic backstory is because Bob simply had no other choice and had to kill Alice, all the while being horrifyingly aware and in control of his actions.
In Fandom, this is frequently called "manpain", because it disproportionately affects male characters and relies on their guilt being more significant than the suffering of the person who is actually dead.
Expect him to either loathe the thought of killing someone else or be terrified by the fact he discovered he enjoys killing. If he's not tormented by the memory in some form, the backstory is not sympathetic, and therefore not this trope.
Related tropes: Freudian Excuse, These Hands Have Killed, My God, What Have I Done?, A Death in the Limelight, etc. The people most commonly seen with such backstories: Sympathetic Murderer, Shell-Shocked Veteran, Hitman with a Heart, etc.
As this is a Death Trope, beware unmarked spoilers.
- Guts, from Berserk, had to kill two major people in his pre-Hawks backstory apart from those he killed in battle as a child mercenary. The first was Donovan, a pederast soldier in his adoptive father Gambino's band, who Guts killed in revenge for having raped him. The other was Gambino himself, who Guts had to kill in self-defense after Gambino lost his leg, got drunk one night and tried to murder him because he blamed the poor kid for the death of his lover from the plague. The latter killing affected him quite more strongly than the former, though he still has the aversion to being touched which came from Donovan's attack on him.
- Gravitation: Yuki killed someone but it was in self-defense, as they were trying to rape him. It ruined their life, so you will probably feel pretty sorry for them.
- In Fullmetal Alchemist, several characters were deeply affected by their part in the Ishvalan massacre, but particularly Colonel Roy Mustang.
- The backstory for Storm has her killing a man who tried to rape her. And this is why she tries not to kill the rest of the time.
- There are a few other mutants whose power manifestation moments in their backstory resulted in someone dying.
- Also among the X-Men, Gambit was once "hired" by Mr. Sinister to assemble a hit squad and lead them into the home of the Morlocks, a society of underground mutant refugees. Though he didn't personally kill anyone (in fact, he saved a few of the Marauders' intended victims!), the reactions of the X-Men when learning about this was virtually identical. His good name still hasn't fully recovered, in part because he can't seem to stop switching sides.
- In the Jodie Foster film The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, protagonist Rynn hides the secret that she poisoned her abusive mother. The details on just how she did this turn out to be significant for what happens in the rest of the movie, too.
- In The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, we learn that Maurice once ate a talking rat. However, he was only a dumb animal at the time, and had no way of knowing until he gained his intelligence from said meal. The guilt is shown to be why he's so careful about what he eats.
- In Twilight, Edward Cullen confesses to murdering a whole bunch of people shortly after he was turned, and Bella narrates that it is perfectly reasonable.
- Not just Edward. In the Twilight Illustrated Guide, it's revealed that every single one of the Cullens except for Carlisle had killed at least one person before the events of the first book. Bella, in her narration, praises them for sticking to the difficult lives they lead.
- Quillon, the protagonist in Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds, murdered his angel cohorts in his backstory. It was cold-blooded, but done in revenge because they murdered his love interest first, covered it up, and were planning on mudering him as well.
- Part of Kalix's backstory in Lonely Werewolf Girl is she killed her father. It's part of the reason she is so lonely.
- Rebecca definitely fits, and is in fact one of the most interesting examples of this trope. The reader discovers the title character was in fact a horrible person, whom Maxim killed. It was definitely murder, and the reader is absolutely meant to sympathize with Maxim (although the revelation still has negative consequences for his relationship with his new wife).
- Adding to the complexity is the heavy implication that Rebecca deliberately goaded Maxim into killing her by taunting him with the suggestion that she was pregnant with another man's child (it's later revealed that Rebecca was sterile), because she knew she was dying slowly of cancer and wanted a quick, painless end.
- Both Eve and Roarke in the In Death series turn out to have murder in their backstories. As a child, Eve stabbed her father to death in self-defense when he raped and beat her. Roarke, meanwhile, turns out in Vengeance In Death to have gone on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge and killed several men involved in the rape, torture, and death of Summerset's daughter Marlena.
Live Action Television
- In the Stargate SG-1 episode "Collateral Damage", Cameron Mitchell recalls a mission during which he bombed what he believed to be enemy targets only to learn that they were innocent refugees.
- In Terra Nova, Commander Taylor killed his commanding officer when he arrived in alternate past earth to relieve him of command of the Terra Nova colony shortly after he learned the truth about the project. That those behind Terra Nova we tryng to find out how to make the portal go both ways so they can exploit the resources on the Terra Nova side.
- There is also some fan speculation that this trope is being setup as the background for Tim Curran in following seasons. In the 1st season, he is sentenced to exile for a murder; later, he is recruited by Taylor to spy on the sixers.
- Once Upon a Time tries to portray the Evil Queen this way when she has to sacrifice that which she loves most for her Curse. She tried her beloved and prized stallion; that didn't work. It turned out to be her father, after whom she named the boy she adopted.
- Lord John Roxton's past in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. He and his brother William joined an expedition to Kenya because Roxton and his father thought it would make more of a man out of William. The older Roxton brother was attacked by an ape and John tried to save him. It went wrong... and left him a broken man. Especially when it all comes back to haunt him in form of the expedition leader also appearing on the Plateau at one point.
- In the radio version of Gunsmoke, the Doctor had unwillingly killed a man in a duel back East, and had to flee and change his name to avoid extralegal retaliation.
- His backstory was changed for the TV version.
- In South Pacific, "the Frenchman," Emile de Becque, had to flee his homeland because he killed a man. But it's okay because the victim was a bully!
- Actually that was manslaughter. It was in a Bar Brawl and he didn't intend to murder him.
- What wasn't okay was him having had children with a South Pacific Islander, because interracial marriage seemed worse to his Love Interest than murder.
- In Show Boat, Parthy tries (and fails) to stop Gaylord Ravenal from marrying her daughter because he once killed a man.
- In Silent Hill 2, James eventually discovers that he smothered his wife to death either to end her suffering, to get her out of his life or both, this presumably being the reason the Town is tormenting him. Depending on the ending you get, this could serve to make him more sympathetic or to make him look like a monster though.
- In Metal Gear Solid, Snake is tormented by his murder of Big Boss and especially Gray Fox. Significantly, it's when he describes to Naomi how his murder of Gray Fox was done with professionalism and with no hatred, and that they loved beating each other to death ("like a sport"), that Naomi begins to realise that Snake is a Good Is Not Nice and a Type III Anti-Hero instead of a Complete Monster.
- In Amnesia the Dark Descent, Daniel is manipulated by Alexander into sacrificing what he thought were criminals. He is devastated after he was forced to kill a little girl, and nearly loses his sanity. He vows revenge on Alexander for that. Amongst the flashbacks in-game involve the cries of the lives he took (children's voices were amongst them).
- In Fallout: New Vegas Craig Boone and many other members of the NCR military were traumatized by the incident at Bitter Springs, in which they were ordered to fire upon fleeing civilians due to a miscommunication.
- He also had to kill his wife when she was captured by legion slavers to save her (and their unborn child) from a Fate Worse Than Death.
- One of Suikoden V's biggest Tear Jerkers occurs when Lyon reveals she was a former member of Nether Gate, an assassin's guild in service to Falena's royal family. They took her in while she was still a child an trained her. She was eventually rescued by the prince's father, Ferid, who gave her the name Lyon, and she goes on to become the prince's bodyguard as her way of repaying Ferid's kindness.
- In Last Scenario, it's eventually revealed that amnesiac party member Ethan killed a soldier when he was fourteen in defense of his brother. What makes this especially traumatic is that the soldier in question was the son of one member of the party and the best friend of another, so Ethan got a huge helping of guilt along with his nasty childhood memories once he remembered.
- Fear Effect: Retro Helix reveals that Glas had a brother named Drew. Drew shot him in the back, and would have murdered him for money and perceived betrayal that caused the loss of his right arm. A struggle broke out, Glas grabbed the gun and fired, killing his brother. There are hints that Jin AKA Yim Lau Wong (King of Hell) manipulated Drew into doing this. Unfortunately, one thing that ruins the scene is that Glas is unable to punch people out. He could have simply punched Drew out, which wouldn't have been too hard, considering the guy was unarmed and had only one arm!
- In Mass Effect 3 you can meet a Shell-Shocked Veteran Asari named Aeian T'Goni, who after killing a large group of indoctrinated to reach a radio to call for help, had to kill the girl she was hiding with to avoid discovery, because she had broken her leg and couldn't stop whimpering.
- In Drowtales, this happens to Ariel Val'Sarghress. She is ordered to kill Mir'kin Vel'Vloz'ress, and then kills Yafein Val'Sullisin'rune's slave Maya in a fit of rage after he pushed her Berserk Button. It's clearly hinted that the resulting My God, What Have I Done? moment resulted in PTSD. It's particularly disturbing when you remember that due to her species' slow aging process, she was physically still a small child at the time.