"Oh, man, Quatre loves to blame himself for everything if you let him. Sooner or later, he'll start saying that there's no air in space because he didn't work on it hard enough."
—Duo Maxwell about Quatre Raberba Winner, Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz.
On the one hand, you have The Atoner, a person who committed a terrible deed and after a Heel Face Turn, resolves to spend his/her entire life trying to make up for it. On the other hand, you have the person who Apologizes a Lot, someone who apologizes out of habit, even if they know whatever happened was not their fault.
Now, enter Guilt Complex, the bastard child of those two tropes.
A person with a Guilt Complex is someone who routinely puts blame on his/her own shoulders. It differs from The Atoner in that whatever happened cannot possibly be their fault, and their justification for blaming themselves is usually a stretch, sometimes taken to ridiculous levels. It differs from Apologizes a Lot in that it's not just a Verbal Tic or a way of expressing sympathy for someone else, they truly believe if they had done something different, whatever negative situation they were in would not have ever happened. And they feel this way all the time, in all situations, to the point where it basically becomes one of their main character traits. Often takes the form of "I should have..." or "If I hadn't..."
A Guilt Complex can be born from many different personalities:
- Extreme Doormats who are so used to being blamed for everything that they've started to believe it's really their fault.
- A Martyr Without a Cause who subconsciously tries to shield his True Companions from hurt by taking the blame himself, like The Heart, Team Moms, Team Dads, and characters who are A Father to His Men.
- Characters with lingering, unresolved guilt stemming from their greatest failure (which is more likely to be their fault), when said failure hits them so hard that it pervades every aspect of their life and they begin to believe every failure around them is their fault, as well.
- It can also be a type of Heroic Self-Deprecation from Byronic Heroes who feel they're responsible for everything that happens around them just because they're protagonists.
Expect the True Companions to initially try and make this person see how they are not at fault, until it happens again, and again, and again, and again, and in the end induces much eye-rolling, resignation, or even Lampshade Hanging from other characters.
If a character indulges in this a little too much, it's not uncommon for a supporting character to snap them out of it by accusing them of arrogance for the attitude. Expect to see something along the lines of "you think you're the only one [responsible for/saddened by/involved in] this?!"
Please note: When you add examples, try to give as much detail as possible. Remember this trope is about a behavioral pattern.
Anime and Manga
- Miranda Lotto from D.Gray-man. She has a massive inferiority complex from being bullied by everyone in her hometown and constantly told she's useless. She goes out of her way to be helpful, but feels she can't do anything right, and relentlessly blames herself for pretty much everything that goes wrong. "I'm sorry" and "I should have..." are the things you hear her say the most. Also, she's the team's Barrier Warrior, and often thinks she doesn't do a good enough job of protecting her True Companions.
- It doesn't help that her powers allow her to heal even the most fatal wounds...but only temporarily, any injuries that she heals returning after she deactivates her Innocence. Thus, you can expect her to try and leave it on for as long as possible, even when it's obviously taking a toll on her, and then apologize profusely when she's finally forced to shut it off..
- Quatre Raberba Winner of Gundam Wing, as lampshaded by Duo in the page quote.
- Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion suffers from this, mostly born out of an Extreme Doormat personality clouded with parental abandonment. It's his fault Touji's sister got hurt because he should've been more careful when fighting the angel that almost killed him, it's his fault Asuka hates him because he can't do anything right, it's his fault he had to kill Kaworu because he could've chosen to Take a Third Option, it's his fault Asuka died because he couldn't get his Eva out of its restraints in order to save her... Ironically that one actually was Shinji's fault, if he hadn't choked then Gendo wouldn't have had the excuse to use the dummy plug and Shinji would have been able to stop Unit 01 crushing the plug.
- Himura Kenshin from Rurouni Kenshin, who starting from when he was a very young boy never quite got over the idea that he doesn't deserve to live—not only is he The Atoner for the numerous people he killed, but he has a ton of Survivors Guilt over being the only one who lived through the bandit attack in which he met his mentor—and it took a long, long time for him to break out of his Death Seeker ways.
- His fame as the Hitokiri Battousai means that many of his old enemies come looking for him and many people get hurt in the process. Hence Kenshin blames himself every time someone he cares about gets hurt in these altercations, even if they willingly put themselves on the line. Eventually this prompts him to leave Tokyo, leaving all of his friends and Kaoru) because It's Not You, It's My Enemies.
- Kenshin also blames himself for the death of his first wife, Tomoe. Granted, she did die by his sword, but as she threw herself in between him and his enemy in a Heroic Sacrifice, it was never Kenshin's intention, and since he was by that point blinded by pain and blood from previous battles, there was no way he could've seen her until it was too late. Tomoe herself certainly did not blame him at all.
- Tomoe's little brother went insane as a product of seeing his sister die. Therefore Kenshin also blames himself for this, and indirectly for every horrible deed Enishi brings about in his quest for revenge—effectively everything that happens in the last eleven volumes of the manga. It isn't until the very end of the series that Kenshin began to forgive himself, and believe himself worthy of finding happiness.
- Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei: Ai Kaga, whose name sounds like "Perpetrate".
- In Trigun Vash the Stampede is a Technical Pacifist who believes that "there are plenty of ways to save everyone"; i.e. no matter how bad the situation looks, there's always a way to resolve it without anyone having to die. So, naturally, whenever anyone does die a violent death, he blames himself for not finding a Third Option in time.
- Syaoran from Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle. He blames himself for pretty much everything that happened, because of his decision to rewind time when he was seven. This includes Sakura being taken away by Fei Wong Reed, Fai's being born a twin and therefore being a cause of misfortune, Kurogane's mother's death, and Watanuki, most of which happened before he was born. Probably. He blames himself because the Big Bad implies that his rewinding time gave him a free reign, but in reality it was his only option, he was pretty much manipulated by Fei Wong Reed and had no control over what Fei Wong did making use of the altered timeline, and there is no way the poor kid could've known all the ramifications that were possible from his one wish, anyway. Heck, even the readers don't quite understand all the ramifications.
- Sango from Inuyasha. She blames herself for her undead little brother being Brainwashed and Crazy, for all the deaths he causes and for not being able to hate him and therefore kill him to stop him. She also blames herself every time Miroku is poisoned or injured.
- Jellal, in Fairy Tail lets people pretty much beat the crap out of him without complaint out of guilt for his past actions. Let's see if this holds when (if) he learns he behaved that way due to brainwashing.
- It does. Despite knowing he wasn't totally in control of himself he still offers to die to make up for what he did. After his offer to kill himself to make up for killing Simon is turned down he then tries his hardest to sink his ship (one of the most teased in the series) so that he won't get to be happy.
- Code Geass' Lelouch Lamperouge. To explain how deep and massive his guilt complex is would spoil the entire show. To say the least, Lelouch does many horrible things that directly or indirectly affect the people he loves that by the end he goes to extremes to atone. Deuteragonist Suzaku also has a rather large and justified guilt complex.
- Soichiro Yagami from Death Note, who blamed himself as well as Kira for the deaths of certain task force members, his daughter's comatose state after being kidnapped and held hostage by Mello, and not being able to kill Mello when given the opportunity. He also blames himself for losing the Death Note to terrorists, although this one was technically his fault.
- Spider-Man lives and breathes this. Usually of the type "If only I had gotten there sooner" or "I should've known this would happen" when there was no way he could've gotten there any sooner and there was no way he could've known this would happen. The fact that the media blames him for everything doesn't help matters either; it's a Running Gag in the series that whenever something bad happens, Spidey immediately starts remarking that somehow he'll wind up being blamed for it by the media. His Guilt Complex is also lampshaded many, many times.
- Uncle Ben's death? His fault, he could have stopped the thief earlier. Gwen Stacy's death? His fault, he killed her when he fired a webline to stop her plunging off a bridge. J. Jonah Jameson has a heart attack? His fault, he never should have asked for the back pay the Bugle owed him... You get the point. Sometimes, his guilt is justified (Aunt May getting shot by a sniper, for example), and of course this only adds to the complex as is.
- It gets to the point that in an early issue of New Avengers, when he finds out that Electro caused a supervillain prison break, he starts blaming himself for the riot since Electro is one of "his" villains. Luke Cage immediately points out the logic in that, since if it wasn't Electro, then someone else would have been hired for the job.
- Parodied in I'm a Marvel And I'm a DC:
Batman: Don't you know, [Spider-Man] blames himself for Marvel losing the Transformers?
- One particularly ludicrous example comes from the 90s cartoon series, where villain Morbius changed into a vampire due to an accident experimenting with Peter's blood, which he obtained by breaking into Peter's locker. Peter considers this his fault. Okay, yes, a school locker isn't the best place to keep radioactive blood, but seriously Peter, grow a damn spine.
- In one issue of Daredevil, Matt Murdock's friend, Foggy Nelson, was beating himself up for something, and Matt told him, "Foggy, you would blame yourself for the Battle of Bull Run if you could find a way to do it."
- Bruce Wayne from The Dark Knight Saga.
- Many Lord of the Rings fanfics portray Legolas and Aragorn as sufferers of this, to the point where it's even been parodied in some newer fics.
- The Leithian Script Project, a retelling of the story of Beren and Luthien, shows Beren as suffering from this. Lampshade Hanging abounds, as well as True Companions with a sense of humor:
They're trying to cheer me up by proving that I'm responsible for everything that's ever gone wrong in the universe.
- Harry Dresden from The Dresden Files suffers from this in spades. He has a deep Hero Complex and, being the only practicing Wizard in the Chicago area, he feels responsible for taking care of any supernatural situations that arise in town, and feels guilty whenever he's not able to do so, especially if people he cares about get hurt. This behavior arguably started all the way back when he killed his adoptive father and mentor, something which has plagued him since, even though he knows he did it in self-defense, and it was his only choice.
- Harry often stretches things very far in order to blame himself for things. In book 3, Grave Peril, Harry feels responsible for taking the Nightmare down, and guilty for whatever other attacks it commits, just because it's his power the creature is using for these attacks, regardless of the fact that it took that power by force and in a setting where Harry had absolutely no control (a dream). Bob promptly lampshades his Guilt Complex:
Bob: (Scoffs). Harry, that's irrational.
- He's started to get better about it - it took working with years working with Murphy, leading the Alphas periodically, and teaching Molly for him to finally start to comprehend that other people make their own choices too. Murphy had to take him to task for it a bunch before he shaped up, though.
- A bit of a resurgence when Michael got crippled - Harry was responsible for the choice that resulted in that, but by all the information he had at the time (and reassurances by Uriel at a later date), Harry's decision saved all of their lives.
- A similar one when the Skinwalker went to town on the Alphas. Morgan gave him crap for playing the hero (as Morgan saw it), further compounding Harry's guilt syndrome.
- A Fallen Angel, the full Lasciel according to Word of God, convinced Harry that the mess in Changes was his fault, pushing Harry to arrange for his own assassination, delivered by Kincaid, as a gambit to take the Winter Knight position and save his daughter. This allowed Uriel to interfere in Harry's interest in Ghost Stories.
- Harry Potter blames himself a lot, usually born from his Chronic Hero Syndrome. He blames himself for Cedric's death because it was his idea for them both to grab the portkey that led them to Voldemort at the same time, even if neither could have known that object was a portkey. He blames himself for Voldemort coming back to life because it was his blood that was used in the spell, nevermind that it was taken by force. He blames himself for Sirius' death because he should've known he was being tricked even though he had never been properly trained. He blames himself for putting his friends in danger because he should've been strong enough to choose the It's Not You, It's My Enemies way out. He blames himself for every life Voldemort takes because he feels Voldemort only wants him, regardless of the fact that Voldemort is a psychopath who would've killed even more people if Harry hadn't been around. Boy, that's one massive Guilt Complex.
- Daine in The Immortals quartet feels massive amounts of guilt; because of her presence, animals are becoming more human-like, and, in times of conflict, ready to die for human war. At various points in the later books, she claims to have gotten over it, but by the Protector of the Small quartet, she demonstrates again the guilt complex.
- Larry Underwood from The Stand starts playing up this trope shortly after The End of the World as We Know It. It gets to the point where someone actually tells him he needs to be more self-righteous.
- Bella of Twilight takes the entirety of available guilt for any mistake she's partly responsible for. In one case, she's on different sides of the issue in different books (a vampire struggling not to bite someone who's been injured), and she blames herself both times. (This seems to be intentional on the author's part, as part of Bella's general tendency to think she's worse than she really is.)
- This is ironic considering that one of the main aspects of the series that its Hatedom complains about is how she seems obliviously self-centred with regards to all the trouble she causes everyone around her.
- Hurley in Lost seems to think that because he keeps finding his winning lottery numbers everywhere as the plot moves along, it means that the numbers are cursed, and somehow that means every other bad thing that happens on the island is his fault.
- Before coming to the island, he blamed himself for an accidental deck collapse that killed two people (He is quite overweight). For context, there were at least twice as many people on that deck as there should have been.
- Played for Laughs with Kryten on Red Dwarf.
- While Torchwood's Jack Harkness is usually seen as a clever, charming, flirtatious and impulsive man who doesn't like dwelling much on the bad stuff, the third series, Children of Earth, shows us that there are many things Jack has been blaming for over the course of his life, which has been long enough to make for a massive Guilt Complex; he just had not spoken his guilt out loud. Most of these things were not his fault at all, but being in a privileged position (not only is he the leader of Torchwood Three, but he also can't die) makes him feel responsible for the lives of those around him.
- He blames himself for the 12 children that were sacrificed in 1965, even though that was a government decision and he was only chosen for it. He blames himself when the other members of Torchwood are targeted by the government, because they're only wanted due to their involvement with him, to cover up his involvement in 1965. He blames himself for Ianto's death (and everybody else at Thames House), even though the 456 would have likely killed everybody they could even if Jack hadn't stood up to them. He had to sacrifice his own grandson and he blames himself for it, even if it was the only way to save the world from the 456.
- It's also revealed that he blames himself for earlier events, like Suzie's death (which he couldn't have stopped, as she killed herself the first time, and the second time she was killing Gwen to keep herself alive), his brother's torture (even though he couldn't have done anything to save him, they were just kids) and every action Gray took because of it, such as Tosh's and Owen's death at his hands.
- Josh Lyman on The West Wing, due to a sadistic sequence of events that was never his fault. His sister dies in a fire while baby-sitting him, he leaves his job as campaign manager of friend of his when said friend turns out to be a sorry excuse for a presidential candidate, which he was totally justified in doing but feels guilty about it anyway, his cancer-ridden father dies while Josh is out winning Bartlet the democratic nomination, and he receives a card from the NSA telling him bluntly that because of the job he worked hard to get, he will get access to a safe place in the event of a nuclear blast, but none of his friends will. These events hover in the background of every mistake he makes, driving him to compulsive overwork. His track record makes him constantly paranoid about something happening to one of his friends, which turns him into a Stepford Smiler towards them and leads him into even more trouble — either his fault, like being overly antagonistic or irrational when the staff comes under fire, which makes him even more guilty and frantic; or totally not his fault, like scrambling to reach his coworkers during an assassination attempt, which gets him near-fatally shot. And that's just a few of the things that make him into a giant Woobie.
- Mulder of The X-Files tends to do this a lot. He feels responsible for his sister Samantha's abuduction as a child while under his care, and spent his adult life devoted to finding her. When Scully joins him, it continues. Scully is abducted in season 2, which he blames himself for. She later develops cancer and finds out that she is barren, which he also blames himself for. In season 3, Scully's sister, Melissa, is killed in Scully's apartment by mistake—the shooter was looking for Scully. Mulder blames himself, because if he hadn't dragged Scully with him onto his quest, all these things never would have happened. He also tends to blame himself for other deaths; his informant Deep Throat is shot and killed in season 1, which he blames himself for.
- At the end of the 1998 movie "Fight the Future", he tells Scully she should leave the FBI and be a doctor, before she is killed during his quest. Scully handwaves this and continues on with him.
- It doesn't help that other characters reinforce his guilt. In season 2, his sister returns and Scully is kidnapped by the Alien Bounty Hunter. He trades his sister (though we find out she's really a clone) for Scully's life, and his "sister" is subsequently "killed". He calls his father to his apartment to tell him, and his father becomes angry with him. When Mulder offers to tell his mother, his father demands to know if Mulder knows how losing Samantha again will devestate her. On top of that, it's implied that his parents blame him for his sister's abduction in the first place. Bill Scully, Jr., too, blames Mulder for things beyond his control. The two meet while Scully is dying from cancer, and Bill rips into Mulder for all the things that have happened to his family that he sees as Mulder's fault. He asks Mulder if his quest was worth it and if he'd found what he was looking for, and when Mulder responds that he hadn't, Bill lables him a "sorry son-of-a-bitch".
- His guilt complex is acknowledged in "The Sixth Extinction: Amor Fati" by Deep Throat in alternate reality Mulder enters as the result of a brain anomaly:
Mulder: I felt responsible for your death.
- Dean Winchester from Supernatural. If there's anything bad happening, he'll shoulder the blame whether it was related to him or not. This usually doesn't turn out well.
- The Tenth Doctor from Doctor Who has a massive one of these, even if all the other Doctors has a form of this. He constantly blames himself for others failures, and quite a bit of the time, he is almost right for blaming himself, even though the self punishment goes to far. Especially when people die, even though it is the only way to save the universe. Generally Lampshaded by villain characters more than his companions, as they know that it can unbalance him. The Master and Davros are especially good at it.
- Delenn has some of this for the Earth-Minbari war. In this case she was much to blame but she was hardly the most to blame, and recognized her failure long before the other Minbari.
- The title character from Angel spends his eternal life repenting for all the people he killed when he was soulless. He often broods, and David Boreanaz's prominent brow comes in handy. He is relieved when Cordelia lets him stay in his office and pretend to read while she goes out on a Friday night.
- Guinevere from Merlin has one, blaming herself for things that aren't even remotely her fault (such as her brother's kidnapping and the blackmail that ensues). Most recently she extracted a promise from Lancelot to protect Arthur, little knowing that he was on a mission to heal a rift in the spirit world by offering himself up as a blood sacrifice. Naturally, Lancelot dies in his place and Gwen feels responsible.
- Harold Finch of Person of Interest feels and takes personal responsibility for all of the numbers that the Machine brought/brings up, for any trouble that has come about because of the Machine, or any bad thing he feels he should have been able to prevent.
- "Clunk" by Yo La Tengo, from New Wave Hot Dogs; repeated ad infinitum:
If there is a way, she'll admit she's wrong
- Man-Bot from Freedom Force. His Power Incontinence killed his brother and he's stuck for all eternity inside a suit of Power Armour that keeps him doing the same to everyone else around him. He's a bit 'down' as a result.
- Otacon. Whether it's survivor's guilt, guilt over building REX, guilt linked to his self-esteem issues, or guilt and PTSD due to having an affair with/being sexually abused by his stepmother and his father committing suicide as a result, Hal's got it in spades. The man is a walking catalog of all the ways one can blame oneself.
- Max Payne has a big-time case of this. Apart from his failure to save his wife and baby girl, he also has to deal with the deaths of most of the people around him, most of them by his hand. And judging by his situation in the third game, the Golden Ending of the previous game, the one where Mona Sax lives, has been shot out of canon. Poor guy.
- Litchi Faye-Ling from BlazBlue has a huge one. It's her fault that Lotte got corrupted into Arakune, it's her fault that she was the only one surviving from the corruption. It's also her fault that she can't come up with a cure fast enough. Anyone trying to tell her it's not her fault? She won't accept it. And people think she's just merely obsessed over a slime for this...
- In Final Fantasy VII, we get Cloud Strife. This probably developed due to the fact that from a very early age, he really was blamed by everyone in his town for an accident involving Tifa that mostly wasn't his fault. However, he blamed himself for the incident and thus never told anyone the details, which probably would have helped lift a good portion of the blame from his shoulders. Later on, he blames himself for not achieving his dream and making it into SOLDIER, then blames himself for not waking up from a vegetative state (brought on by four years of experimentation and torture) fast enough to save what was at that point his only friend from being gunned down on a cliff. Skip ahead one or two Mind Rapes, and he blames himself for "lying" to them all about who/what he was (even apologising to Rufus Shinra, Scarlet, and Heidegger, of all people, who had nothing to do directly with the incident). He then takes on the guilt for handing the Black Materia to Sephiroth, and when he finishes with that, he picks up the habit again two years later in Advent Children Complete, blaming himself for not being able to find a cure for geostigma, contracting the disease himself, and for failing to save a bunch of children with the disease from a group of Remnants. He does get somewhat better, eventually.
- Responsibility OCD, also known as hyperscrupulosity, is this trope in spades applied to anxiety disorders. Basically, the individual suffering from it fears not protecting others from harm and lives with constant feelings of guilt or anxiety.
- Wildwing from The Mighty Ducks after his friend (and former leader) Canard, allowed himself to be trapped in dimensinal limbo. Wilding carried a great deal of gulit about it for the rest of the series.
- all the more Egregious given that by the time Shinji learns who the pilot is Unit 03 has already taken out Units 00 and 02 badly injuring the pilots and Shinji is the last line of defence