A Troublesome Trope: My Issue With Found Families

-this article contains minor spoilers for season 4 of Killjoys-

‘We’re more than that, we’re a family.’

It’s a line that could come from any number of films, TV shows or books. Fast & Furious really kicked off the notion of found families, and these days it seems like everyone is following suit. From Guardians of the Galaxy to The Expanse, it seems you can’t move for groups of misfits who plaster themselves with a label typically applied to a bloodline.

Let’s back up a bit. What exactly is a ‘found family’ when it’s at home? Well so far as I can tell it’s when a group of unrelated individuals decide that being friends isn’t enough of a bond. It’s also a handy narrative crutch for ‘look, these people trust each other.’ It’s one of the most pervasive and often celebrated of tropes to emerge in the past few years. The thing is, I absolutely hate it.

First of all, that’s not how family works. There’s the old saying ‘You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.’ And that pretty much sums up my thoughts on the matter. A family is dictated by circumstances of birth. of course there are legal ways of entering a family. Marriage and adoption being the most obvious ones. But that’s not how the idea of a found family operates. Which is almost nice, because to be quite frank a team of misfits that signed adoption papers for each other would be incredibly weird.

Found families rely on the idea that family is the strongest bond you can have. I can see the logic in that. After all, you can murder people and still have a mother who takes pity on you. I myself am on good terms with my family, and spend more time with them than with my friends. Though that’s the result of living in the middle of nowhere more than anything else. But it’s perfectly possible to hate your family, and want nothing to do with them. It’s a varied and complicated relationship, so why put it on a pedestal as some ideal that’s superior to all others?

It’s a trope that also undersells the value of friendship, or even just being allies. These are people who you choose to be in proximity to, people you have actively chosen to associate yourself with. Surely that’s a stronger relationship than having a few strands of DNA the same? Perhaps not by any legal of biological definition, but there is a bond in friendship, and it’s one that all too often is undersold in favour of calling people a family when they are not.

There’s a brilliant moment in season 4 of Killjoys that really spurred my thoughts on this matter. When our heroes call themselves a family, their commander reminds them, ‘We are not a family. I am your boss and you work for me.’ It’s a brilliant piece of comedy, but also makes a valid point. In the same season, there’s a scene where the ‘family’ of main characters realise that they are in fact all part of a messy biological family. For a show that derives so much of its insane glory from tropes, it’s a brilliant undercutting of one of the most commonly used.

Thinking over the RPGs I’ve run for friends, I can see the same trope in effect. Any new character, even when played by a familiar player, has a problem ingratiating themselves into an established group. And that’s because characters group themselves like families to the exclusion of new members. While the found families trope is usually portrayed as a symbol of inclusion, it can be incredibly hard to get into when you find yourself on the outside. It’s easier to make a new friend than to welcome a new brother. As I gear up to start a new RPG campaign, I’m now thinking, ‘How do I avoid this?’

Honestly, I don’t have any answers. All I can do is dissuade the spread of this trope. To emphasise the fact that people come and go, and family is not the answer to that problem. You are not brothers and sisters, you are friends and colleagues. Surely that is enough of a bond to stop you from killing each other.

Taking that approach to writing, it’s a little easier, as I don’t have characters running on orders that aren’t my own. While so many of the shows and books I love are fuelled by found families (The Expanse, Stargate, Dark Matter, Killjoys, the list is endless) it’s a trope that I refuse to use in my own writing. Going forward, colleagues and friends are the way I’m going to bond my characters. They will never be family, but they are still on the same team. I just have to hope there are enough readers out there who want to see that dynamic in action.


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