“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?
8 thoughts on “Trope Discussion #4: Found Family Vs. Dysfunctional Family”
Please keep explaining your weird preferences because I always love how much these posts make me think! This was a fascinating discussion! 🤗
Interestingly enough, although I’d definitely say that I’m way closer to my family than my friends and value those relationships more highly, I actually partially agree with you… I’m not a huge fan of the found family trope when it’s very on the nose and the characters keep emphasizing that they’re family. Most of the time, they’re not family! They’re friends! 😤 Especially once found family books start pairing everyone up in romantic relationships and still insist they’re like siblings, I just find the comparison kind of ridiculous 😅 It’s such a disservice to true friendship, and also, often, when you have a “found family”, it feels like the characters immediately forget they have a toxic/tragically murdered real family and never think about them again – which I find entirely unrealistic and a cheap cop out! There needs to be at least a bit of emotional baggage!
That being said, though: I do like reading about “found families” as long as their members don’t call themselves that! (Yes, I’m supremely petty about semantics 😁) Because then I’m reading about great friendships and I do love those!
And, when you have ACTUAL adoption situations, where the structure of the group in question really resembles that of a family – like in Cerulean Sea or A Little Life (I’m talking about the relationship between Harold, Julia, and Jude in this case, NOT the friend group!) – I suddenly love the found family trope, too, even when it includes cheesy proclamations of family ties 😁 I just find it enormously satisfying when characters who never had a loving home before find someone who unconditionally accepts them for who they are! 🥰
So yeah, I guess what really annoys me is more the stereotypical YA Six-of-Crows rip-off found family where half of the family members are dating and constantly telling each other how unique and amazing and family-like their friendships are 🙄 It’s vomit-inducingly cheesy and unrealistic! Wholesomeness, though, I’m more than fine with 😁
As for the dysfunctional family trope, I enjoy reading books with it every once in a while, but I don’t think I love it quite to the extent that you do. Which I guess personal experience does play a big part in – my favorite types of families to read about are also the ones like mine – big, tight-knit, a bit chaotic, and weirdly nerdy 😂
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I’m kind of glad I’m not the only one with a problem with those groups that keep emphasizing they’re a family. I just can’t imagine real family members constantly pointing out that they’re family so why would the found family do that? 🙄 But “found family” is such a buzzword these days that authors need to make sure you understand what trope it is.
I hadn’t thought about those characters forgetting their real family but yes. I find it’s often something that happens before the book starts so we’re just quickly told what happened but then we also need to get on with the story and the found family trope. But yeah, it’s also weird that authors don’t see a problem with “family members” dating each other 😬
And semantics are super important! 😄
I was also referring to Harold, Julia and Jude with the found family in A Little Life. I don’t think the friend group can be considered found family although I have zero arguments for that statement. It’s just a feeling 😄 But it’s curious that you love the adoption situation because I think that makes it even worse for me 😅 Like when you have characters that are obviously parents, it’s harder for me to convince myself it’s just a friend group. The age differences just makes it too weird!
And I also love the dysfunctional family trope a lot so I didn’t think anyone would match my adoration for it 😄
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Yeah, I don’t think my family has ever explicitly pointed out our relatedness in the way found families constantly seem to… I would be so weirded out! 😅
And I also don’t think the friend group in A Little Life counts as a found family 🤔 Maybe one big argument would be that they don’t all live together? That’s usually the case for found families, right?
And it’s really interesting that you think the adoption situation is worse because it’s harder to convince yourself that it’s just a friend group – I think that’s actually why I like it more! 😂 At least in that situation, I am actually being sold something that resembles a family, not a friend group in disguise. So then the characters calling each other family doesn’t feel as forced!
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Hmm I don’t know if it’s a requirement that found families live together but now that you mention it, it IS how the situation most often is. But then again, Jude also doesn’t live with Harold and Julia 🤔
And well, there you have our differences regarding the found family trope 😄 We overlap in the sense that we both like instances of it but we have totally different reasons for it.
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LOVED this! I actually never knew the found family trope existed. When I first published my books, it might have been a good thing to know–although I’m definitely more a dysfunctional family type of writer. I like to throw my favorite characters a few bones so let them meet mentors or lovers who get them and help them come into their own despite their terrible upbringing. I hate pat endings and perfect forgiveness unless there’s a grueling redemptive arc. I don’t mind tentative forgiveness because you do love the person but still don’t trust them.
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Thank you! I also find myself enjoying characters who overcome their upbringing with the help of a mentor or a lover, but I think it depends on how it’s handled. It shouldn’t be too easy.
I don’t recall having come across that “tentative forgiveness” except for one book I read recently and I did like it in that one. Like you say, it makes sense because there is still some trust that needs to be rebuilt and I like the idea of the relationship as a work in progress, I guess.