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Found Family: Exploring the Dynamic Tapestry of Dysfunctional Family Roles

In the realm of storytelling, the found family trope has captured the hearts of audiences worldwide. As we delve into the intricacies of these fictional bonds, it's fascinating to observe the echoes of real-world dynamics reflected in the 12 dysfunctional family roles. These roles, stemming from family systems theory, offer a lens through which characters in found family narratives can navigate a web of relationships, forming connections that transcend blood ties.


Ashley Holmquist's novel "Sword of Audantei"

Before I took on my series, ARTIFACTS OF ANARCHY, I had been studying the psychology of functional ("healthy") and dysfunctional ("unhealthy") families. Using the family roles, we are going to create a guide to writing a compelling found family that will stand out in an over-populated industry.


Healthy Family Roles


In order to understand how to properly use the dysfunctional family roles, first you must understand the basic copy-and-paste format.


These roles are used to label your protagonist and the background characters in a way which will help your plot.


Leader


The leader is often the protagonist and takes on the 'father figure' role. They're the main provider and protectors. This role is not limited to age or gender but maturity and wisdom. If the protagonist does not fulfill this role then the mentor character will.


Nurturer


This is known as the 'mother figure' or 'mom friend'. Their main focus is to take care of the group's emotional well-being and offers comfort or support. They will act as the mediator and will remain calm to keep the found family together.


Reckless Sibling


Lives for drama and never listen to common sense. They are the chaotic background character that often becomes the reader's favourite.


Innocent Sibling


This character is sheltered by the remaining cast and is inexperienced for the threat your plot creates. The others will work together to keep them safe and they are often the person that creates the family dynamic. Albeit sometimes accidentally.


In mid-grade novels, the protagonist is often the innocent sibling as it makes for writing an easy character arc.


Lone Wolf


The lone wolf is self-absorbed and emotionally distant from the remaining characters. They are reluctant to be involved with the found family and are hard to interact with. However, this is often an act as they deeply desire love and affection.


Healthy (or 'functional') Family Role Examples


If we were to assign these characters to examples, it would be as follows (featuring AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER):


  1. Leader = Sokka

  2. Nurturer = Katara

  3. Reckless sibling = Toph

  4. Innocent sibling = Aang

  5. Lone Wolf = Zuko


What's Wrong With the Basics?


There's nothing wrong with the basic found family as an outline. In fact, ATLA did spectacularly with the trope and is still popular to this day. But what ATLA did that most novels today aren't doing, is focused on the development of each character as the protagonist of their own stories. The story may have been focused on Aang but the plot would have fallen apart should one of the other characters had been less developed.


For those of you who want have a broader cast. Or want a found family with multiple dynamics, we will be looking at the dysfunctional family roles next.


Because while the family of choice trope may be highly loved, these characters should be far from perfect to seem believable. And let's be real, people with different backgrounds, experiences, or opinions never mix perfectly.


12 Dysfunctional Found Family Roles


Yes, that's right, twelve. Many people will argue there are only six, but these roles can be condensed within each other and overlap. Especially considering most families are between 4-6 people.


For creating your cast, we will leave it as a list of twelve roles. And rather than spit a large list of characters at you when we've finished going through them, I will be using characters from my novel SWORD OF AUDANTEI and some from JK Rowling's HARRY POTTER.


1. Narcissist / Addict


Here's the origin of the dysfunction. AKA the villain.


This role uses the surrounding family as fuel for their personal fires. The family is seen as extensions of themselves or as property to own or destroy. They're ultimately terrified of abandonment or rejection.


In order to keep the family under control, they'll tell everyone (including people outside the family) how much they've sacrificed. This will double as a guilt trip to make others believe they're owed something in return.


From SWORD OF AUDANTEI, the "narcissist" would be none other than GENERAL LLODIS ALTAMURA. And from HARRY POTTER, this is DELORES UMBRIDGE.

2. Enabler


The "enabler" is dependent on the "narcissist" and will fuel unhealthy lifestyles. And will ultimately feel fueled by the "narcissist's" need for their help. Despite being the help, they'll receive all manners of mistreatment and abuse.


They'll do anything to remain in the "narcissist's" good views even if it means betraying the family and playing the 'victim'.


This SWORD OF AUDANTEI character would be KOSYMO GUERRA. From HARRY POTTER, this could be SEVERUS SNAPE, or even ALBUS DUMBLEDORE.

3. Caretaker


A "caretaker" can be interchangeable with the "enabler" (which is true for the case of Albus Dumbledore, to an extent), but this role requires trying to keep the peace. They are constantly on high alert for anything that could go wrong and sacrifices their emotional well-being. Because of their hyper-vigilance, they cannot rest easy.


This role martyrs themselves for others because they think their existence is only to create a healthy environment. They will seek approval for their selflessness and if they do not receive this approval their mental/emotional well-being will deteriorate.


In SWORD OF AUDANTEI, this is HESTIA. From HARRY POTTER this character is harder to pinpoint. MOLLY WEASLEY would be the most practical fit. However as a mother she doesn't often need approval. She's a strong character and I approve of her dearly.

4. Golden Child


The "golden child" can do no wrong - so long as they remain beneath the "narcissist". All others are compared to them because they allow the problems and abuse to be ignored through their accomplishments.


These individuals feel they cannot make mistakes and become used to the spotlight. Because of the "narcissist", they have very little sense of self and will stay in unhealthy situations longer than they should.


When free of their abuser, the "golden child" will develop anxiety attacks, nervous breakdowns, and suicidal ideation. They also may gain eating disorders or will 'calorie count' as a means of continuing to live with rigid control over their lives.


Ladies and gentlemen, the one and only DANILO ALTAMURA. Argue with me, I dare you.

I'd also say that this is HARRY POTTER. However, Harry is seldom left alone to his own devices, so his unhealthy habits are widely ignored as a dysfunctional character.


5. Rebel / Defender


This is the "golden child's" opposite. Instead of cowering they respond with defiance and will draw the abuser's ire because they don't obey. They'll use their rebellion to protect vulnerable family members.


They will often antagonize the abuser to take the worst of their attention. The "rebel" tends to be the strongest or most capable family member.


If you've read SWORD OF AUDANTEI then I don't even need to say who this is. For those of you who haven't this is ENZO SAPIENTI.

As a HARRY POTTER character, I'd label the twins as these roles.


6. Waif


I feel very terrible for who I've designated as the waif, however, from a psychological standpoint this is accurate.


These roles are the ultimate victim and in constant need of care and protection. They demand reassurance and affection as a result of abuse. They'll be unable to admit when they've done something wrong and may even be in tears when confronted.


Like the "golden child", they're prone to anxiety attacks. These individuals will use their victimhood as a weapon to control the environment. They thrive on drama.


As mean as this may be, I believe this is RON WEASLEY. I may get backlash from this, but the novels have highlighted some of these attitudes from him.

You've yet to meet this character from the SWORD OF AUDANTEI series, but I do feel like you'll either love them or hate them.


7. Black Sheep


They oppose the "golden child" and get blamed for a majority of the family's problems. The "black sheep" often acts out in response.


Sometimes they get blamed simply because they're unwilling to participate in the family dynamic. In response, they'll spend their lives in isolation or seeking acceptance.


From SWORD OF AUDANTEI, this is MAGUS SOHN. This character happens to double as another dysfunctional role. From HARRY POTTER, this could be any of the characters depending on which book you're discussing. However, I think DRACO MALFOY would fit into this character as well.

8. Clown


This character/role will lighten the mood when things are tense and help to facilitate denial or minimize problems through humor. They will have difficulty facing negative emotions and will deflect using their humor. A "clown" will counterbalance the "black sheep". While they do recognize mistreatment or abuse, they won't do anything to help themselves. As a result of their history, they will not get angry.


Though he does not come across as your stereotypical clown, BORAK deflects a majority of Magus' behaviours from the other characters in the family. From HARRY POTTER, this is LUNA LOVEGOOD. She is also not your 'typical' clown but she is incredibly observational and can misdirect a lot of unnecessary drama.

9. Peacemaker


The "peacemaker" can be found in the middle of arguments and asked to be the deciding opinion. This role refuses to participate in the arguments and will instead establish themselves as the 'mediator'. Often the "lost child" will accept the role as they both require them to have no personal needs.


A "peacemaker" will read-the-room and act accordingly. They aren't confrontational and will mentally detach from abuse.


REINA from SOA is a precise example of this role. From HARRY POTTER, GINNY WEASLEY is the best example of this role.

10. Lost Child


A "lost child" receives the least amount of attention. They wrestle with strong feelings of loneliness and will crave love; due to abuse, they'll learn to be independent and never ask for support. They're the most neglected and often forgotten to exist. As a result, they do not often receive abuse or mistreatment from the "narcissist".


They'll draw the attention of the "black sheep", "golden child", or "clown". A "lost child" does not often speak since it requires gaining attention which they've come to hate because attention means risking abuse. They feel immense shame for the mistreatment they do and don't receive. Because they prefer to be forgotten, any attempt at helping them is viewed with suspicion.


DOBBY is the best example of the HARRY POTTER characters. Though he isn't independent very often, this is a result of JK Rowling's worldbuilding of his kind and not because of his role as 'the lost child". A better example is EASTON from SWORD OF AUDANTEI. Poor kid.

11. Manipulator / Mastermind


A "mastermind" is keenly aware of what is going on around them. They learn how to manipulate good and bad behaviours to their advantage. Everything they do is subtle. They'll pull strings on surrounding dysfunctional roles and reap the benefit of the following chaos.


Sometimes family members will become aware of the "mastermind" but won't be able to get around them. As a result of shutting their emotions off in order to survive abuse, they're the most likely to become the "narcissist". They have no qualms about hurting others to get what they want.


In both examples SWORD OF AUDANTEI and HARRY POTTER, these characters are "the big bad". MARA and VOLDEMORT. The very characters that the protagonist cannot escape. However, there is another example I will mention (for those of you who've read the story), the Foxhole Court's goalie, ANDREW MINYARD. He's a prime example of this role in action in a morally grey character.

12. Doer


Finally, is the "doer". The "doer" takes action and gets things done. They're the stereotypical 'mother figure' and will coordinate schedules, cook meals, and handle chores. This role constantly feels exhausted because of their inability to say no. Their continuous effort to keep the family (or surrounding roles) healthy and happy can often lead to resentment or anger.


This role is BORAK from SWORD OF AUDANTEI. And from HARRY POTTER, it's harder to pick one because Remus Lupin, Molly Weasley, and even Albus Dumbledore could fit these roles.

Assign Your Characters A Dysfunctional Role


As you would assign your character a "functional family role", try assigning them a dysfunctional role and see whether or not it makes more sense than with the limitations of the basic structure.


Remember that all the Harry Potter characters listed are simple placed according to which category fit best. In order to write the best dysfunctional found family that you can, you need to select 1 role that your character fits best.


If you are writing a series or a book with a large cast, consider whether the dynamic changes with new characters or during character arcs.


Note: that roles CANNOT change to opposite roles and some roles cannot change at all.


Things to Remember


Create a Diverse Cast


A good found family will use these roles to establish a hierarchy among the group. A great found family will do this and include people with different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. Make their individual stories rich and give each character a theme.


Establish a Common Goal


Themes add depth by providing a framework for exploring emotional and psychological growth. The following are common themes used to explore the found family trope:


  1. Belonging

  2. Identity

  3. Acceptance

  4. Family (purpose)

  5. Safety


Explore Each Backstory


Give the characters motivations and desires which will justify their good and bad decisions as this will allow the characters to bond and give readers something to connect with.


Avoid Romance


Unless this is planned or foreshadowed in advance, you'll want to establish clear and reasonable boundaries or explanations for why these are platonic relationships. Otherwise, you're at risk of your readers inserting romantic subtext.


Friendship VS Family


Family relies on each other and forms a dependence which shows reliability, care, and compassion. Vivid dynamics will understand subtext that you don't write. Your readers are smart enough to pick up on this. Friendship lacks this vulnerability and is more susceptible to breaking when arguments arise.


Converting Friends to Family


Do not extinguish the natural tension too fast. The relationships will come across as shallow and futile. They will even unravel the story's natural pacing.


If you're worried about this, pay attention to the tension in later drafts and try to find places where it seems thin.


 

Thank you for coming to my impromptu TED talk about adding dimension to your found family trope. If you found this information valuable, please share it on social media and follow me on Instagram as I write my series: ARTIFACTS OF ANARCHY.


Until next!


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12 dysfunctional family roles for writing found family

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