Found family is the best trope, and that is a hill I will die on.
Occasionally, my sister and I play this game where we go back and forth discussing different metaphorical hills we would die on, things that we would defend against anyone to the absolute end. We talk about singers, items of clothing, movies, TV shows and seasons of certain TV shows until finally, we reach books, which upon one occasion prompted me to give perhaps the coldest take possible by declaring that I would take a bullet to the heart for the “Six of Crows” duology. Maybe that’s a little dramatic, but the love I felt for those books when I read them for the first time makes that declaration feel reasonable.
I’m almost 20. How could a young adult fantasy book series written for an audience much younger than myself still be my favorite? According to Goodreads, I’ve read 72 books in the past year, so it’s not that I have nothing to compare it to. There is something about the “Six of Crows” series that makes it so special.
For those who haven’t had the life-altering experience of reading the “Six of Crows” duology (first of all, I envy you — I wish I could read it again for the first time), it is one of three separate series in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse. Set in an East Asian/European-inspired world, both books (“Six of Crows” and “Crooked Kingdom”) in the duology feature a high-risk heist and a band of teenage criminals, aka the Crows, hungry for money and revenge. While incredibly plot-driven, what really makes the series beloved by so many is the character development. Each chapter switches to a different one of the six “crow’s” points of view, giving readers glimpses into each character’s thoughts. Doing so allows Bardugo to create six distinct characters with thoroughly fleshed-out backstories, motivations and purposes. Readers get to uncover and understand each of the main characters at a very intimate level as they are exposed to their innermost thoughts.
There is so much more to each character than Bardugo lets on with her brief descriptions of each in the back-cover blurb of “Six of Crows,” and it is the reader’s discovery of each character that makes the book so impactful. In our cast of six, we have “a convict with a thirst for revenge” (who also has to unlearn the hateful brainwashing bestowed on him from his home country), “a sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager” (but is also one of the most loving, loyal and witty people you will ever meet), “a runaway with a privileged past” (but who also had a verbally abusive father who attempted to murder him), “a spy known as the Wraith” (who was sold into indentured servitude and separated from her family), “a Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums” (who will be killed if she falls into the wrong crowd) and “a thief with a gift for unlikely escapes” (and a deeply traumatic past and an impossibly difficult childhood).
Each character was crafted so intentionally and with so much purpose that it is impossible not to fall in love with them as they fall in love with each other.
The relationships between characters are so nuanced: the platonic sibling love between Inej and Jesper, the respect and understanding and longing between Kaz and Inej, the sisterhood between Nina and Inej as two women stripped away from their homelands, the bind to a certain code of honor felt by both Mattias and Kaz, the hatred for a world that abandoned them shared by Kaz and Wylan. At their lowest, their realest and their rawest, they connect, and they love each other. This love between the characters radiates off the page, and that is what makes “Six of Crows” so incredible. Feeling that love is what had me slapping my hand over my mouth and chucking my book across the room (“Crooked Kingdom,” Chapter 31), had tears streaming down my face (“Crooked Kingdom,” Chapter 40) and had me wanting to turn away from the sheer intimacy of two characters who were barely even touching (“Crooked Kingdom,” Chapter 27). The love the characters have for each other that they were not given, the love they had to find and the love they had to build is are what make the characters and the series so special.
If we want to label it, that is the found family trope. Classifying these books as merely a trope feels reductive given what they actually are, but for simplicity’s sake, the series is an outstanding example of the found family trope. However, as far as tropes go, it seems like one of the least talked about. It’s always “enemies to lovers” this and “fake dating” that. Don’t get me wrong, the “Folk of the Air” series is also one of my favorites, and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” remains a comfort movie of mine, but what about found family? Why doesn’t it get the same appreciation as these other tropes? To me, the answer is obvious. Found family is about platonic love, while nearly everything else is about romantic love.
We’re taught by the media to crave romantic love. The endless void of cheesy romcoms, Netflix dating shows, romance books and love songs will all tell you the goal: find romantic love. We’re reminded by our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and family friends during the holidays: find romantic love. In middle school: Who do you have a crush on? In high school: Who are you dating? In college: How does marriage sound? Love, romantic love, is everywhere. We are obsessed. Romantic love and its marketability is what are what keep these messages around and make them so apparent. The crux is that we view romantic love as something so untouchable that we almost ruin the mystique if we examine it too closely and realize that it is susceptible to influence by media, too. But, if we can realize how much the outside world emphasizes romantic love, maybe we can start to shift our own focus to other forms of love and begin appreciating everything those forms have to offer. And all hope certainly is not lost: Media does give us platonic love — we just need to notice it.
“Six of Crows” is immensely popular in the book community. “Harry Potter” is perhaps the most beloved work of fiction ever. People are crazy for “Stranger Things.” Yet not a single one of these employs romantic love as a primary plot point. Each and every one of them is an outstanding example of the found family trope and has compelling demonstrations of platonic love. When you think about “Harry Potter,” you think about the Golden Trio; you think about the friendship between Harry, Ron and Hermione. When you think about “Stranger Things,” you think about the relationship between the kids; you think about the paternal relationship Hopper has with El. Take “New Girl,” “Avatar: The Last Airbender” or “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” I would argue that our most beloved works of media are all about platonic love; we just might not know it.
Watching these shows and reading these books has, yes, taken me to magical places and let me fight and learn alongside some of my favorite characters. But it has also given me, for better or for worse, ideal examples of the love I now seek out in the world. I’ve been lucky enough to have a mom, dad and sister who love me, so I never necessarily needed to go seek extra love because I lacked it. However, my naive belief as a child that your family is just who raised you and who was raised with you has been expanded because of these works of media. I’ve had strong friendships throughout my life, but I definitely am still seeking to expand my “family” and to find the people I can love as wholeheartedly and unconditionally as I know is possible. Just like the Crows radiate love for each other, I want to find the people I radiate love for. The realization that we can choose who we love and build love with someone else in a way that is unconditional inspires how I love. The knowledge that platonic love can be just as strong, or even stronger, than familial love or romantic love is incredible. I’ve learned that unbreakable bonds and unconditional love can be built, and that we can choose who we want to love and how we want to love them. There is no one definition of who we should love or how we should love them; it’s all up to us, and that is powerful.
Daily Arts Writer Jenna Jaehnig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.