These Characters Found Strength From Their Tragic Pasts

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Our pasts shape who we are as a person.

The good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful -- they all make us who we are. 

Read on as we discuss TV characters who allowed themselves to grow and become stronger, not only despite but because of, the pain and tragedy of their pasts. 

Tragic Backstories

Dean and Sam Winchester - Supernatural

Hands Up - Supernatural Season 14 Episode 16

Their tragic lives started with the loss of their mother at the hands of Yellow Eyes. Mary Winchester's death set in motion a chain of events that shaped Dean and Sam's lives. The brothers were dealt blow after blow.

From John dragging them into the hunting business instead of letting them live normal lives, to Sam's fiance Jess being murdered by the same demon who killed their mother, to John dying, and that was all before the second episode of Supernatural Season 2.

All of the loss that was thrown at them by the supernatural world only served to make Sam and Dean the strongest hunters around. 

Dex Parois - Stumptown

A Sick Dex?  - Stumptown Season 1 Episode 2

We are just starting to get to know Dex, but we already know that Dex has been through a lot in her life. 

Her ex-boyfriend Benny's mother drove them apart. After joining the military, Benny followed her in hopes of winning her back, only to get killed in the line of duty. 

Benny's death, and her experience in the military in general, Dex suffers from PTSD, but her experiences led to an inner strength that has made her the badass that we already love. 

Meredith Grey - Grey's Anatomy

Easy and Breezy - Grey's Anatomy Season 15 Episode 12

There aren't many people on television that have gone through as much trauma as Meredith Grey.

After Meredith's parents split up, Meredith was left to be raised by Ellis alone. Ellis was an absentee mother who left Meredith feeling inadequate, even in her adult years. 

As a child, Meredith found Ellis after what appeared to be a failed suicide attempt, but what Meredith later realized through therapy was a cry for help. 

As a young intern her streak of bad luck continued. 

Finding out the love of her life was married, having her hand on live ammunition, and surviving a near-drowning experience to name a few. 

It isn't until Ellis dies and her spirit gives Meredith the push to be extraordinary, that Meredith becomes the strong woman that we see today. 

Meredith continues to face obstacles but she always manages to come out stronger. 

Jason Street - Friday Night Lights

Jason Street FNL

Jason had everything going for him. He was good looking, popular, and on the way to being a professional football player. Everything changed in an instant, though.

After an improper tackle, Jason is left paralyzed from the waist down, ending his football career and changing his life forever.

Jason's struggles pushed him to the lowest place he had ever been in, but he was eventually able to grow from it and realize that just because he can't play football anymore, doesn't mean that his life is over.

This realization allowed him to become a strong adult and an incredible father to his child.

Veronica Mars - Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars Tragedy

Veronica was just a normal teenage girl before her best friend Lily was murdered.

Lily's murder set her on a much different path than she ever could have imagined.

While grieving the death of Lily, she also becomes the victim of sexual assault. 

Veronica became hardened by her losses, but as her best friend Wallace reminds us, she is just a marshmallow. 

Veronica is arguably one of the strongest female characters ever on television, but that would have never been possible without her tragic past.

Angel - Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel

Angel Heartache

Angel was turned into a vampire when he was in his mid-twenties.

For over 100 years he killed countless people and was one of the most notorious vampires in existence.

After being cursed with a soul by a gypsy clan, Angel was forced to live with the guilt of the horrors of his past. 

For years, Angel let this guilt hold him back from the world before finally finding his calling in being a force of good. 

Ryan Atwood - The OC

Ryan Atwood OC

Ryan enters the lives of the Cohen family after being put in jail thanks to being there when his brother stole a car. 

After getting out of jail, Ryan is abandoned by his mom, leaving him with nowhere to go.

Being raised by an alcoholic mom, with no father in the picture, forced Ryan to be independent. 

Ryan showed us, though, that sometimes showing that you're strong doesn't mean doing everything alone, but instead being willing to let people in, which he slowly can do with Cohens. 

Dylan Mckay - Beverly Hills, 90210

Dylan McKay

An abusive father raised Dylan due to his absentee mother. 

Dylan fended for himself the majority of the time, which wasn't always a bad thing because things were less than perfect when his father was around.

After spending time in prison, Dylan's father fakes his death and joins the witness protection program -- a fact that Dylan doesn't learn until years later.

Despite Dylan's upbringing, Dylan was mature beyond his years. 

Caleb Rivers - Pretty Little Liars

Caleb Rivers

Caleb got abandoned by both his mother and his father as a child. Caleb spent his life in the foster system, and when he meets the Liars he is living out of the school after a foster situation goes wrong. 

Caleb spent his time hacking as a means to an end and even spied on Hanna for Jenna to get money. 

Caleb eventually rose above his past, though, and became one of the best assets the Liars had. 

Jo Wilson - Grey's Anatomy

Jo's Freedom - Grey's Anatomy Season 14 Episode 10

Jo spent her youth in foster care and then homeless. 

In her early adulthood she ended up married to a man who was so abusive that she had to change her name and flee to get away from him. 

Jo's past lead her to be incredibly independent. 

The recent revelation that she was the product of a sexual assault threw her into a depression. Her storyline showed that no matter how strong someone is, we all can use help sometimes.

It takes real courage to admit that you need help and Jo showed that courage when she checked in for an inpatient psychiatric stay. 

Shawn Hunter - Boy Meets World

Shawn Hunter

Shawn's parents went in and out of his life with no sense of responsibility for him whatsoever. 

Shawn was never really alone, though, and was taken in as an unofficial member of the Matthews family. 

After Shawn's dad's death, Shawn considers running from his life, but eventually, realizes that between the Matthews and his half brother Jack he has everything he needs to stay strong. 

Shawn never believed he would amount to much, but we learned in Girl Meets World that he is a successful photojournalist, proving that we do not have to be the products of our upbringing. 

Alex Karev - Grey's Anatomy

Handsome Karev Pic

Alex was raised by a drug addict father and a mother with significant mental health issues. 

Alex was not the greatest person when Grey's Anatomy began.

However, after going through what he has on the show like dealing with Ava having a mental breakdown and helping Izzie through cancer only to later be left by her, Alex grew so much as a person. 

Alex is one of the rocks of the show now and holds things together. 

Sansa Stark - Game of Thrones

It's Time for War - Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 3

When we met Sansa, she was an unlikeable spoiled brat who felt entitled to the world.

After watching her father get killed on the orders of Jothri, her betrothed, she was effectively held captive by his family, eventually getting forced into marrying his uncle Tyrion. 

Once she finally escapes the clutches of the Lannisters, she thought her troubles would be over, but they were only beginning.

Forced into yet another marriage, she is raped and tortured. 

The Sansa we knew during Game of Thrones Season 1 would have never been able to handle such horrors, but Sansa rose like a phoenix from the ashes and eventually become the Queen of the North. 

Jessica Davis - 13 Reasons Why

Jessica's New Job - 13 Reasons Why

Hannah may have been the focus of 13 Reasons Why Season 1, but she wasn't the only one who had been hiding a secret that was leading them to terrible pain.

Bryce had raped Jessica, and Justin had let him do it. 

Fueled by the loss of Hannah, Jessica found the strength to fight back against her attacker. 

Even though Jessica didn't get the retribution she had hoped for in going after Bryce, her experience changed her and she became a leader and a voice for change. 

Kelly Taylor - Beverly Hills, 90210/90210

Kelly Taylor

Kelly's mom Jackie was a drug addict alcoholic who didn't do much parenting. 

Kelly may have had her fair share of ups and downs, even facing her problems with addiction.

However, she came out the other side as a strong woman and wonderful role model to Silver, who she ends up taking in even though she is already a single mother. 

Zoe Benson - AHS: Coven

Zoe Benson Coven

Zoe's gift that she is cursed with is the ability to make a man die from a hemorrhage during intercourse. When she loses her virginity, oblivious to her gift, she kills her boyfriend. 

Zoe is then ripped out of her home and brought to New Orleans to get trained in the ways of witchcraft. 

Because of Zoe's powers, she is unable to be physically intimate with anyone unless she wants them to die at her hands. She finds inner strength in her witchcraft, though, and goes on to train the next generation of witches. 

Alison Dilaurentis - Pretty Little Liars 

Truth Seeking - PLL: The Perfectionists Season 1 Episode 4

Alison may have started as Rosewood's resident mean girl, but she went through her fair share of nightmares. 

After being tormented by Mona under the guise of "A", Alison is buried alive by her mother. Scared to let her attempted murderer know she is alive, Alison is forced to stay on the run. 

Once she returns she is framed for Mona's "murder" and is even found guilty of the murder and goes to jail. 

She is then lied to by Charlotte, making her believe that she is her sister. Charlotte's boyfriend Archer tricks Alison into marrying him, and then he has her locked up in a psychiatric institute, and her money gets stolen by Archer and her aunt Mary. 

Alison still, after everything that she was put through, ended up coming out as the most changed and most improved Liar. 

Daenerys Targaryen - Game of Thrones

Saying Goodbye (Wide) - Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 4

Daenerys started Game of Thrones as an orphan who was being married off to a man much older than her to a secure an army for her power-hungry brother. 

After losing her husband, who she grew to love, and bringing to life three dragons, Daenerys finds herself the ruler of her own people.

Daenerys faces many threats and betrayals over the years, but all her hardships hardened her and made her a fearless leader. 

Say what you will about Daenerys by the end of Game of Thrones, but she was one bad bitch. 

Carter Wilson - Finding Carter

Carter Wilson

Carter spent the majority of her life thinking she was being raised by a loving mother, Lori, only to find out that she had been abducted as a child by her.

Carter is forced back into her birth family where she feels like a stranger and struggles to bond with them. 

Just when she finally starts to feel like part of the family, Lori kidnaps her again and reveals she is her biological mother as she was a surrogate for Carter's parents. 

To add to Carter's troubles, she witnesses her boyfriend shoot her best friend accidentally, almost killing him, giving her no choice but to help turn him in to the police.

So many other people would have crumbled under the stress of Carter's dramatic life, but Carter remains a strong independent woman. 

Jon Snow - Game of Thrones

A Bloody Aftermath - Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 4

Jon was raised as a bastard and spent his whole life being treated as such.

After going to the Nightwatch he felt like he had a sense of purpose, but still, he found himself suffering more pain. 

Jon had not one, but two of the woman he loved, die in his arms, one at his own hands.

Jon rose from the dead after being murdered by his men. The betrayal only made him an even greater leader though. 

As King of the North, he showed his strength, and even would have probably become the King of Westeros if he hadn't been the one to put an end to Daenerys. Not bad former bastard. 

Emily Thorne - Revenge

Emily Thorne Tragedy

Emily, also known as Amanda, had the only person she loved ripped away from her when her father went to prison for a terrorist act that he got framed for. 

Emily finds herself in and out of foster homes and even spending time in juvie. 

As strong as she may have felt as a rebellious teenager, her real strength comes when she finds out the truth about her father and his set on a path to avenge his name. 

Maeve - Westworld 

Maeve Westworld Tall

Maeve may be an AI, but that doesn't mean that she doesn't have feelings.

Living the story of a mother -- one who saw her child murdered -- left an imprint on her that she couldn't shake, and aided in her becoming aware of her reality.

Maeve's new found consciouness forces her to live out the horrors of being a host. 

Maeve finds power in this though and eventually helps to lead a rebellion. 

Callie Adams Foster - The Fosters/Good Trouble

The Fosters Callie

Callie spent her childhood being tossed around various foster homes.

Through it all she is forced to be a mother figure to her brother, as just a teenager herself. 

During her time in foster care she is faced with abuse. 

As she finally finds a safe place to land with the Adams Fosters, she is allowed to deal with her trauma and becomes an advocate for other foster children. 

Over to you TV Fanatics! What other characters on the shows that you love are stronger because of their pasts? Comment below! 


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Meaghan Frey was a staff writer for TV Fanatic. She retired in September 2020.

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