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.


12 responses to “A Troublesome Trope: My Issue With Found Families”

  1. BOOK REVIEW: Fleet of Knives, by Gareth L. Powell – At Boundary's Edge Avatar

    […] written before about my dislike of the ‘Found Families’ trope, but here Powell makes it work. The bonds between crew never feel forced, but rather are organic and […]


  2. BOOK REVIEW: Bone Silence, by Alastair Reynolds – At Boundary's Edge Avatar

    […] to their cause. Some of them more willing than otherwise. But this isn’t just another tired Found Family story. Rather than falling for the obvious trap, Reynolds gives us a more realistic look at the […]


  3. BOOK REVIEW: Light of Impossible Stars, by Gareth L. Powell – At Boundary's Edge Avatar

    […] heroes take in each other’s company. yes, it’s close to that Found Families trope that I hate so much, but it’s a nice break from the angst and distrust-driven crews that seem to fill the genre […]


  4. BOOK REVIEW: The Indranan War Trilogy, by K. B. Wagers – At Boundary's Edge Avatar

    […] and with great interactions. There are points when the dynamic morphs into a >shudder< found family, but generally speaking I liked the mixing of bonds of friendship and dutiful loyalty. Hail and […]


  5. THEY CAN’T ALL BE WINNERS: The Purpose of Bad Reviews – At Boundary's Edge Avatar

    […] line I draw is that there is no point getting angry for likes. Sure, there are things I hate. Found Families and Edgelords spring to mind, but those hates are not aimed at someone’s hard work. Making […]


  6. Emma Gilmore Avatar
    Emma Gilmore

    This is an incredibly sad article that doesn’t catch the idea of found family at all and is looking so far into it that the point is lost in the depths of space. Found family = family for more then “inclusion’. A lot o people like myself are drawn to the found family trope because its relatable in many many ways, one of them being about never having a support group of people who are there for you. Clearly you didnt look into what the main character (s) of these tropes’s backstories as usually the answer is as clear as day. Some people find “family” in those who are not blood because they’ve never really had a family, regardless of the outside or whatever. I can tell you must of really had a 10/10 superb experience with friends and family so I can see why this sorta trope dosnt speak to you, but it is important to a lot of people and trying to drown it out with your “your never be siblings” logic is silly and disheartening to those you actually relate to it


  7. Aurora Avatar

    If you ‘hate your family, and want nothing to do with them’, they are NOT family.
    Simple as.

    True family is about love and dedication.
    ‘Having a few strands of DNA the same’ as was ‘dictated by circumstances of birth’ has NOTHING to do with it.
    My dad is ‘family’ by those standards – he’s half of my genetic makeup.
    But he is NOT family.
    That is my CHOICE.

    What about my godmother??
    Sure, maybe to me she’s family ‘by circumstance of birth’, but not to my mum. She only fits that extremely narrow minded standard because I’m lucky enough to have been born to someone who understands that family is about love and dedication, not coincidences of birth.

    Family is love and dedication, being able to rely on them, and them you.
    Sometimes that person is someone who shares your DNA, but sharing DNA, in and of itself, does not a family make.
    Sometimes, a friend IS the person you have that sort of bond with.
    Don’t get me wrong, I hate any suggestion that friendship is inherently inferior, and I will die on this hill.
    But sometimes you find someone who becomes a particularly close friend. They’re still, at the core of it, a friend, but it’s a deeper sort of friendship.
    One with the love and dedication that constitutes family.

    (Also, wasn’t sure where to fit this in, but you know the saying ‘blood is thicker than water’? The expression that’s often used to justify the borderline eugenic attitude of ‘BLOOD above all’?
    Yeah, well the full version of that is:
    ‘the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the covenant’ and it’s about how bonds forged in the throngs of battle are stronger than those seamingly obligated by ‘family’.)


    1. Elinor Avatar

      Actually, ‘blood is thicker than water’ is the original quote, and means exactly what it sounds like – that genetic lineage, and its obligations, are the most important bonds. ‘The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb’ is a 20th-century invention of two specific writers, with no historical precedent. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_is_thicker_than_water


      1. Riku Avatar

        It’s really a question of who you ask because in other cultures, it’s interpreted differently.And really, poop is thicker than blood, so it means nothing.


  8. WRITING UPDATE: Themes I Keep Coming Back To – At Boundary's Edge Avatar

    […] would be nice to have heroes on the right side of the law for a change. The ability to hit back at the found family trope in favour of something better is also a big draw for me with this […]


  9. […] the limits of family, and “Found Family” has become a subgenre in and of itself (to the chagrin of some) with books like The Wayward Children series, or The Vanished Birds (ok technically Sci-Fi but […]


  10. dorsetgirl1 Avatar

    Just found this tonight, because I was reading a writer’s replies to comments and she said something like “everything I write is found family”. I’ve always hated “found family” as a concept but could never articulate why and you’ve done that extremely clearly here. Family is what you’re issued with (or not, of course, and I can understand why people in that position might venerate the concept more than most) and you don’t get a choice in it. They are not necessarily people you like, or understand, have anything in common with or particularly want to talk to, but you’re obliged to see them occasionally and try to be polite. Also, to me, the “found” part suggests you went looking, and why would you do that if you’ve already got a family? Friends are friends, workmates are workmates, lovers are lovers, and none of them are “family”. Unless you settle down with the lover and have children together, but then you’ve built/created a family, not “found” one. Thank you for posting this!


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