“As they neared the corner, Mungo halted and shrugged the man’s hand from his shoulder.”First line in Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart
It’s time to discuss tropes again, and originally, I was just going to do the found family trope in this post, but then I realized that my feelings and opinions on this trope are so heavily connected to the dysfunctional family trope. So I’m doing both. You’d also think those two tropes often go together (character escapes their dysfunctional family and finds a better one), but when I started looking, I actually had trouble finding books that did both. In my experience, the found family trope is most often used when the character has lost their actual family. But before I get ahead of myself, let’s get some definitions on the table so we know what we’re talking about.
Found Family: Also known as Family of Choice, the found family trope refers to a group of people who form a close, family-like bond despite not being biologically related.
Dysfunctional Family: The trope can appear in many different forms and to different degrees but the common aspect is family members that don’t get along in such a way that is unhealthy for one or all parties involved.
Let’s get the controversial opinion out there: I dislike the found family trope. I don’t say ‘hate’ because there are instances where I’m okay with it but it has never been among the main reasons why I like a book. I tolerate it more than anything else. And my reasons for not liking the trope are rather personal but can also, I’ll admit, seems slightly petty. The basic idea is that I don’t think there is any reason to taint these relationships with the word ‘family’ when they are friendships. Yes, friendships are deeper and worth more than family relationships in my opinion so I always feel that slight annoyance when the family concept is pushed instead. Characters don’t even need to say it out loud because sometimes it’s obvious what the author is going for (being able to use the found family trope for marketing purposes) and that still annoys me. However, if characters don’t go out of their way to call their group a family and the author isn’t pushing them to do family-like activities, then I really don’t mind the trope. It will not be the found family trope in my head but just a friend group although there practically might not be any difference.
I want to give some examples and if we’re talking about the obvious found family trope first, I specifically dislike it in books such as The Tarot Sequence by K. D. Edwards and The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune while The Heroes of Olympus by Rick Riordan was pushing its luck so I quit the series after three books. All three of these books/series are also going for wholesomeness which could also explain why I don’t like the trope. That’s just not my thing.
On the other hand, we have the books that manage to trick my brain into thinking they don’t employ the found family trope and those are Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Tide Child by RJ Barker and The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (the trope isn’t strong in this one but I’d still argue it’s there). I should mention A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara which is the only exception to everything I just said. It’s very obviously found family and while it’s not my favorite part of the book, it does nothing to lower my enjoyment of it. All I can say is that special conditions apply to that book.
But back to why I don’t like the found family trope and how that is connected to the dysfunctional family trope. As I hinted at earlier, ‘family’ is not a positive word for me and yes, that is 100% based on my own experiences but that is why whenever I read something about families written in a positive light, I feel sort of disconnected. A happy family feels just as fantastical as dragons but because it’s not written as fantastical, I think some subconscious part of me writes it off as bad writing or poor characterization and I get this aversion to it. It’s not logical, I know, but it might make you understand why I’d much rather read about families with deep and far-reaching problems aka dysfunctional families. It just feels more natural. And also way more interesting.
Now, of course, I’d love to share all the many books about dysfunctional families I’ve read and explain what they do right… but I haven’t read very many that actually have the perfect execution of this trope. The only book that did it flawlessly is Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart which didn’t shy away from the ugliness and also had that trope as one of its main themes. There are a couple of other instances where I’ve liked the execution but the trope wasn’t one of the book’s main focuses. The examples are The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.
That said, though, poor execution of the dysfunctional family trope can quickly turn it from my absolute favorite trope to the one I despise most of all, probably because it manages to get my hopes up and then squashes that hope. The clearest way to mess it up is to have the characters make up and excuse each other “because they are family” and they (have to) love each other. And that’s the only reason. There is no surer way to make me yeet a book across the room! It’s a bunch of Hollywood bullshit that only proves that the family didn’t actually have problems in the first place.
Unfortunately, this is rather common but it’s hard for me to give examples because of spoilers. One I can mention vaguely is The Realm of the Elderlings by Robin Hobb. The first trilogy does the trope really well but in the next two, it’s just slowly going downhill so that in Fool’s Fate, the poor execution of this trope was actually a big reason why I hated the book so much.
So in conclusion, when the dysfunctional family trope is done right, it has more value to me than the found family trope. When the family members in question are clearly toxic to each other but stay together anyway because it’s still better than the alternative which is to be alone. When the toxic environment is shown to have long-lasting negative effects on the children of the family which prevents them from living their life to the fullest as adults. When characters find the strength to say they don’t love their family in an effort to escape. That’s what I want in books.
Okay, so this turned into less of a discussion and more of an explanation for my weird preferences but I still hope you found it interesting. I’ve yet to see anyone have a similar opinion of the found family trope so I’d love to hear from anyone that does. Also, if you have any recommendations for books with a dysfunctional family, you’ll be my new best friend.
But let me know what you think! Do you feel different about the found family trope depending on how “obvious” it is? What are some of your favorite examples of that trope? Do you agree with my assessments of what a poor and good execution of the dysfunctional family trope is?