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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Laura R. Samotin! Her novel coming out on May 7, The Sins on Their Bones, is described as follows: “Inspired by Jewish mysticism and folklore, this queer dark fantasy debut is perfect for fans of Leigh Bardugo, C.S. Pacat, Ava Reid, and Katherine Arden, set in a fantastical reimagining of 19th century Eastern Europe.” I’m delighted she’s here today to discuss one of her favorite tropes and incorporating it into her soon-to-be-released novel in “Writing Found Families With Two-Dimensional Characters.”

Cover of The Sins on Their Bones by Laura R. Samotin

Writing Found Families With Two-Dimensional Characters
Laura R. Samotin, author of The Sins on Their Bones

March 28, 2024

Found family is, hands down, one of the best tropes out there. I will die on the hill that some of the most satisfying character interactions in literature have come from this trope, which highlights the unconditional love between people who have chosen each other as family. It allows authors (and readers) to delve into intimacy, connection, and the bonds between individuals who truly understand each other. I love reading found family books, and so I knew I wanted to write one that paid homage to the trope.

But a larger cast is difficult for any writer to manage, and limited pages in any given book don’t always leave room for fully fleshed-out secondary characters. Readers want to get to know the main characters, and so understandably, that’s who writers focus on. We come to know their personalities, their unique ways of thinking about the world, their hopes, dreams, and more. Because of this, characters in books with the found family trope can sometimes fall into a reductive dynamic, with characters typecast into roles that leave them feeling one-dimensional.

That can leave writers of the found family trope struggling to do the same with secondary characters. I personally grappled with this challenge in my debut adult fantasy THE SINS ON THEIR BONES, which features a queer cast that has formed a found family. My main character Dimitri is the deposed Tzar of Novo-Svitsevo, and his friends have joined him in exile. With a court of five members, I had my work cut out for me when it came to fully developing all of their personalities, making them feel vivid and real.

I also pushed myself hard to critically examine my characters and ensure that they were being portrayed as whole people, and not reduced to flat (or worse, stereotypical) depictions based on their identifying characteristics, as often happens when characters aren’t fully developed on the page. This was particularly important to me when it came to my two female secondary characters. So many times, I’ve seen the female member or members of a found family grouping being boxed into the role of the “mother hen,” the one who’s making sure characters eat and wear warm clothing and attend to other more mundane needs in the midst of heists or quests or other fantastical scenarios.

That’s all well and good, because if the members of a found family don’t take care of themselves, they won’t last through the story. And caretaking, in all its forms, is a key part of human connection. But these female characters can often be stuck only nurturing the other characters in the group—and being the only ones doing the nurturing as well. Their personality gets reduced to the act of caring for others. While nurturing can be fulfilling—and one of my female characters does a lot of it—it shouldn’t be the only trait that female members of a found family group possess. My two female characters are quite different from each other—intentionally so, given that they’re two separate people, and have different personalities, interests, and skills.

Annika is Dimitri’s former general, who is still grieving over the defeat of her and Dimitri’s army in the civil war they fought. She is a nurturer, and to her, being a soldier is at odds with her deep desire to keep people safe. Annika likes knitting socks, providing tea, giving hugs, and listening when she feels her friends need a shoulder to cry on. But it doesn’t mean that that’s all she gets up to in the book. She also pushes Dimitri to critically examine the tough decisions which were made during the war, defends her decisions as a military tactician, and spends a lot of time on-page thinking about the potential ways in which the court can defeat Alexey, Dimitri’s ex-husband and the book’s villain.

Ladushka is Dimitri’s former chancellor, who helped him to manage the political running of his court and country.  She is a very different character from Annika, even though the two of them are close friends. Ladushka is a clear-eyed realist who frequently reminds Dimitri of the necessity of making the hard choice, even when the hard choice is the dangerous one, too. She isn’t a caretaker—not in the traditional sense, not even close. Ladushka shies away from overt displays of emotion, which is intentional given that her character is autistic. But her care and concern for Dimitri and the rest of her friends comes through in the way she exerts herself to ensure that the court’s goals are met. She’s the one urging everyone forward and calling them to action—a role typically held by one of the men in a found family group.

By allowing my female characters to hold multiple or contradictory personality traits at the same time, I hope that I’m able to bring more life and realism to my secondary characters, all while combating the “mother hen” stereotype in two ways: one, that it doesn’t work to write a female character who delights in that kind of caretaking without reinforcing stereotypes; and two, that female characters who don’t fit that mold are inherently less caring or interesting than ones who do.

And I also think that the same principle and concerns apply to male and non-binary characters as well. Showing non-female characters taking on “mother hen” roles is just as important, allowing for two-dimensional depictions of people of other gender identities which include stereotypical feminine traits. For example, Mischa, a non-binary member of my found family, is the one to consistently insist that Dimitri eat. Part of this comes from their profession (they’re a doctor), but mostly it’s because cooking for and feeding people is their way of showing care, and it’s a role they enjoy and derive satisfaction from. Vasily, a male member of my found family and the court’s spymaster, also sometimes takes on these “mother hen” activities for Dimitri, ensuring he sleeps, eats, and takes care of his health.

Ultimately, there are many ways to show love, devotion, and care—and some of those ways involve knitting socks, while others include helping you to plot how you’ll take back the throne and ensure your unhinged ex-husband’s downfall. The female members of a found family should be able to do both—and each should get the chance to be a fully-realized person on the page. And non-female members of a found family should get the chance to take on caretaking roles as well. A truly vivid found family in a book is one in which every character is multidimensional and layered. When authors pay attention to these kinds of dynamics, it allows for a richer and more vivid reader experience—with the benefit of reminding readers that in books, as in real life, people are more dynamic than tired stereotypes might suggest.

Photo of Laura R. Samotin Laura R. Samotin has a PhD in international relations from Columbia University and enjoys using her academic background on military tactics, power politics, and leadership to enliven and inform her creative writing. Her YA and adult fiction is grounded in Jewish myth, mysticism, and her Eastern European Jewish heritage.