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The Found Family Trope

With Thanksgiving taking place this coming Thursday if you're in the States, there's a heightened focus on family connections as we gather together and head into the holiday season.

But for some, family isn't defined by blood or genetics. Rather, it's the loved ones we choose. That's Friendsgiving has become such a popular event in recent years!

This especially deep and special friendship is celebrated in fiction as the Found Family trope. The exploration of the ways different bonds impact our lives continues to resonate with audiences on another level.

The heart of the Found Family trope is characters who are brought together by circumstance but form a familial bond over time, demonstrating that love is not just about who you're related to but connection, trust, and unconditional support. It often involves characters who seemingly have nothing in common and come from drastically different backgrounds developing this tight-knit group.

One of my favorite examples of this trope in action is in The Land Before Time. In the first film, a young Apatosaurus named Littlefoot is separated from his migrating herd and sets off to find the Great Valley, a paradise his mother told him of as she died.

Along the way, Littlefoot befriends other dinosaur children who have also been separated from their families, each of a different species despite it being established in their dino society that everyone should only ever associate with their own kind—as evidenced by Cera's father reminding her that, "Three-horns never play with Longnecks."

In their journey, the team learns to set aside and embrace their differences and rely on each other. Once they've reached the Great Valley, they are reunited with their herds (which includes Ducky's family adopting Spike), but remain close friends and continue to depend on each other in future adventures.

Other examples in recent years include the main trio of Harry Potter, Glee, Lilo & Stitch, and RENT.

Characters in these Found Families create a unique support system that offers comfort and acceptance despite their vastly different pasts and worldviews, banding together to face the odds head-on.

But that's only one of the reasons this trope works so well and is so loved by many!

The Odd Ones Out - Glee

One of the main reasons people are drawn to the Found Family trope is its relatability. It's easier to connect with a story and its characters when we can see ourselves in them.

A key component of the Found Family trope is characters who all feel like the odd one out finding where they belong. We've all had times where we feel like we don't fit in or are on the outside of an inside joke, so seeing characters going through the same thing and ultimately finding their place and their people can be encouraging. It reassures us that we'll be okay. That we do belong somewhere, even if we haven't found that place yet.

As incredibly flawed as Glee is (certainly in retrospect), one of the reasons it became so popular was its Found Family element. Each member of New Directions came from a different place demographically and within the high school hierarchy.

Just to name a few, there was Kurt who was still coming to terms with his sexuality and coming out to his typical blue-collar working-class father, queen-bee-turned-teen mom-to-be Quinn, and Santana eventually disowned by her religious grandmother after confessing she, "liked girls the way she was supposed to like boys."

Despite how different these characters were, even from one another, the glee club gave them a space to be themselves a place they could belong.

Viewers were able to find themselves within the Glee cast's Found Family, which contributed to the show's popularity—especially at a time when so many people felt underrepresented in media. It was like they found their place, too.

...and now I'm cringing remembering Mr. Schue's line about how everyone in the main cast was minorities because they were in the glee club. Yikes.

Representing Nontraditional Structures - Lilo & Stitch

Jumping off the above example, another reason Found Family is so beloved is its diversity.

A Found Family is not always the "standard" dynamic of a mother, a father, and kids. It's a trope that proves there is no correct way to be a family, that a family is no less valid because there are two dads or two moms or a nonbinary parental figure, it's blended, it's a foster family or adoptive, or any reason it doesn't fit into the "norm."

Family is what you make it. It's those who love you for who you are because they choose to. It's who makes you feel wanted at the end of the day and truly valued.

Lilo & Stitch is among my favorite Disney movies and perhaps my favorite Found Family of all.

Early in the film, it's established that Lilo's parents perished in a car accident, leaving her older sister Nani as her legal guardian. Already, Lilo's family looks different from her peers'. Nani is also under constant scrutiny from a social worker, and it's implied that CPS might step in and place Lilo in a foster home if Nani cannot meet their expectations.

Meanwhile, Nani decides to let Lilo adopt a dog—except her chosen pup, Stitch, turns out to be an alien. Ever since crash-landing in Hawaii, Stitch has been feeling lost. Lilo's compassion and unconditional love helps him adjust to his new surroundings. As his "badness" goes down, he begins to lower his guard and learns about Ohana.

Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.

But just as Nani and Lilo are at risk of being separated, Stitch faces the possibility of being taken back by his creator under the orders of the United Galactic Federation. Once captured, Stitch asks if he can say goodbye before boarding the spaceship and introduces Lilo and Nani to the Grand Councilwoman.

"This is my family," he says. "I found it, all on my own. It’s little and broken, But still good. Yeah. Still good."

Lilo eventually convinces the Grand Councilwoman to let Stitch stay on Earth by showing her the adoption papers from the animal shelter.

The end credits feature an abundance of photographs of Lilo and Stitch's new family, including aliens Jumba and Pleakley and Nani's boyfriend, David. Although their family might not have the typical structure, the love this group shares for one another is just as strong.

This Found Family theme carries into the television series based on the film, in which Jumba's other 625 experiments end up on Earth and Lilo and Stitch set out to find the perfect home and Ohana for each of his "cousins."

Lilo & Stitch knows how to tug at its audience's heartstrings, and its use of the Found Family trope is one of the reasons the film has remained so popular after all of these years.

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel - The Last of Us and Telltale's The Walking Dead

Found Family stories often involve characters enduring difficult situations, bonding along the way and forming this familial unit. The trope actually is found quite a bit in stories set in the zombie apocalypse, with strangers-turned-kin as they fight to survive in a hellish new landscape.

Though much smaller in size than the previous examples, another well-known Found Family is found in a video game I've written about on multiple occasions: The Last of Us.

For those who are not familiar with the story, The Last of Us takes place in a post-apocalyptic America following the outbreak of a fungal virus that turns its victims into zombie-like monsters.

In the panic of Outbreak Day, Joel's daughter, Sarah, is shot as they try to flee the city and dies in his arms. Twenty years later, Joel is a hardened man whose only concern is survival and getting by. It's implied that he's done some not-so-great things and has gone down a dark path in this new world.

Joel is tasked with a smuggling mission on behalf of the Fireflies. Only his cargo is not ammunition or rations. Rather, it's a fourteen-year-old girl named Ellie.

Ellie is immune to the virus, having been bitten weeks prior and miraculously not turning. She is believed to be the key to finding a cure.

Reluctantly, Joel agrees to take Ellie across the country, but wants nothing to do with her. Much of this has to do with how much she reminds him of Sarah.

Over the course of their journey, Joel and Ellie bond, becoming a surrogate father-daughter duo relying on each other not just for survival, but for healing after the traumas that they have both shouldered.

Ellie gets Joel to slow down now and then and talk about what life was like before the outbreak. Sometimes, this is explaining what an ice cream truck was. Other times, it's talking about their in-universe's equivalent of Twilight and going to see the movie with his daughter. Joel rarely brings up Sarah, and even shuts Ellie down the first time she mentions her. Ellie allows him to confront his feelings of grief rather than just burying them.

Joel at one point promises to teach Ellie how to play the guitar, indicating that he is now not entirely focusing on simply waking up tomorrow, but what that tomorrow could be.

There's also a line in the TV adaptation that emphasizes this when Joel says that time wasn't what healed him, implying it was Ellie's doing. Ellie saved him.

It's this bond that leads to Joel's controversial decision at the end of the game. Ellie becomes the most important person to him. He's willing to protect her at all costs—even if that means damning the whole of humanity in the process.

After everything he's been through, Joel has finally found his reason to not just endure and survive, but to live again.

The bond between Ellie and Joel, this Found Family of two, is one of the things that made The Last of Us so endearing. And it's also one of the things that contributed to its sequel being so divisive among fans but that's a topic for another day.

If you want to read more about my love for The Last of Us, check out a post I wrote last year about the giraffe scene.

Another zombie video game featuring the Found Family trope is Telltale's The Walking Dead series. Similarly to The Last of Us, the first game in this episodic series follows Lee as he assumes the care of Clementine, a little girl left alone after her babysitter turned into a walker during the outbreak. Although Lee doesn't hold any disdain towards her the way Joel initially dislikes Ellie, he isn't the most confident of sudden parental figures.

As the first season progresses, Lee and Clem become a close-knit pair, working together to survive.

That is, until Lee is bitten by a walker.

After Lee's heartbreaking death, a running thread throughout the series is Clementine's search for a place she can call home. So many times, the group she found fell apart. Nobody knows what happened to Christa after she and Clem are separated. Pretty much everyone she befriended in the second season dies or betrays her. She's kicked out of the New Frontier after stealing medicine to treat baby AJ's illness. She doesn't stay with Javier's family in Richmond after Season 3, leaving to find AJ.

It's not until the final season that Clem finally finds her home in a former boarding school for troubled youths, with its students abandoned by their teachers and left to take charge of themselves in a manner similar to Lord of the Flies. Though she and AJ have a rocky beginning with them, it's not long before they are part of the team and aiding their efforts to survive against the odds.

The fourth season is another great example of a Found Family, even before Clem and AJ join what ultimately becomes theirs. Prior to the outbreak, there's a high likelihood that they would have created a Found Family within their school because they were sent there by their parents for various transgressions and concerning behaviors, many of whom felt abandoned as a result; we see this with Willy and Mitch, for example.

Once the dead started walking, these kids were forced to navigate unprecedented circumstances. Despite the evident rifts within the group, they form a familial unit—which makes Marlon's betrayals and Minerva and Sophie's fates all the more devastating.

Even though they are not perfect, they have each other to rely on. They are a family.

Although I wasn't a fan of the final installment's conclusion, Clem finally settling down with the Ericson's kids and having that home she always longed was so rewarding for players who had followed her journey. She finally has a group to joke around and play cards with like an actual teenager for once. There's a permanent roof over her head. She's safe, not having to wonder who will stab her in the back.

She found her family.

Found Families work especially well in post-apocalyptic settings because it creates a situation where characters are compelled to depend on one another. The mutual experience of everything you know being uprooted creates a foundation to build new relationships. It doesn't matter who you were before the world went to shit. What matters is who you are in this new world. Banding together for survival becomes so much more than that. It's a desperation to live.

For so many characters, their group of survivors becomes the light at the end of the tunnel. For Joel especially, Ellie pulls him out of a dark place and gives him a reason to keep going beyond simply staying alive. He has something to fight for. The same can be same for Lee and Clem, and later Clem and AJ; taking on this parental role gives them something to fight for.

Something to live for.

And for audiences, it's just as rewarding to see the characters they love find their family after going through hell and fighting to get a happy ending at last.

Family is a theme woven into fiction time and time again, and with good reason.

But that family doesn't have to be defined by blood or lineage. Sometimes, family is about who you choose to hold dear. Those who in turn choose you every day.

Found Family resonates with readers for many reasons. It instills hope and an assurance that everyone has their place in this world, even if they feel like the odd one out. Because chances are, it's not just you alone.

It also gives characters something to fight for, together. With a motivation as strong as finding your family or protecting it, readers become immersed in the narrative and want to see your characters come out on top.

Family is something we all want.

And as the Found Family trope tells us, it may not be where or with who one might expect.

The Found Family trope is heartwarming, but what happens if you subvert it? Check out this post to see how that makes Red Dead Redemption II so heartbreaking!



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