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Marissa Lingen

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Stay. Lost. [Jul. 29th, 2011|01:10 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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This round of Tropes Mris Is Sick Of is a little different, because it gets personal. I am really, really tired of long-lost family in speculative novels. Really. No, really. I am particularly tired of it being a major plot point that someone is biologically related to someone else. Done now! Something else please!

I know a woman who recently met a half-brother she never knew she had, and her response to their first meeting was, "He was a very nice stranger." I said, "Yep, that's what he is to you." He knew he was adopted and didn't know he had a biological sister--but he had a sister already, and the genetic half-sister wasn't that person. She, in turn, didn't even know he existed. This has been the source of some weirdness, but not great social upheaval. If some evil sorcerer wanted to, I bet he could get this guy to scream, "Get away from my sister, you bastard!"--about his sister, his real sister, the one he spent his childhood with, not about my friend, who is...a very nice stranger to him, and ought not to be menaced by evil sorcerers, but.

And I have my own long-lost relative. My dad's father opted out of our lives for incredibly stupid reasons when I was 3. My dad reached out to him and got rebuffed, and we didn't skip family gatherings where he would be, but he did when he knew we'd be there. Then when I was 21, he wrote to me to tell me self-justifying, poorly constructed lies, some of which were easily externally verifiable as counterfactual. (Note to would-be liars: do not lie about things that are on a public record. It's insulting as well as dumb.) Here is how this works: your family is people you have actual relationships with. When you have declined a relationship? Not family. Relatives, possibly. But not family. So "You have to save him! he's your grandfather!" would have about as much meaning for me on this front as, "You have to save him! He's a fellow human being!"

So when long-lost relatives show up in books--when someone turns out to be someone else's ancestor or sibling or some other biological tie--I am not thrilled. I do not gasp with the shock of how powerful that is. I yawn. Or I roll my eyes.

I suspect that one of the things going on here is the same as one of the things that's producing all the sexual violence in the field that's making me read new SF braced for the worst: we somehow have the idea that violence by itself is not enough. It's not horrible enough if you-the-protagonist kill someone, it has to be a blood relative. But you know what? Killing people is pretty horrible. Or it's not awful enough if someone is in peril, it has to be sexually violent peril. Again: the peril. If you take it seriously, it's quite perilous enough. And when Ambrose Bierce had the million and one Civil War stories where someone turned out to be killing someone they knew...he recognized that your best friend or next-door neighbor could also be powerful. He recognized that relationship was important, and even in his gimmick stories, blood wasn't everything.

You know what I'd really like to see? I'd like to see a fantasy story where they assume that blood will work for something only to find that it's completely useless for people who don't particularly know each other or have a history together. "Now we will bind you by sacrificing...your father!" "Uh, dude, my father is the guy who raised me. This is the sperm donor. Now I will win." Or else I would like to see it in reverse, where sympathetic magic works along emotional/social bonds, so adopted siblings would work far better than biological siblings who didn't live together.

Mostly, though, I just find it boring. "I am your father, Luke!" was a line that had gotten into my brain before I remember it doing so--it's not a very interesting plot twist by now. Let it lie. Find something else.

[User Picture]From: brooksmoses
2011-07-29 06:42 pm (UTC)
Yup -- I, too, have a "long-lost" relative that is remarkably close by blood for someone that I only found out about a few years ago and have never met. (The details are, I expect, not mine to tell in public.) I imagine if I met her, there would be a bit of the awkwardness of figuring out that we were, indeed, completely strangers despite the kinship, and that would be that.

And it's not just that "I am your father, Luke" is now overdone. The thing that makes that line work is that it's not just about discovering a long-lost family member; it's that Luke already had a father, whom he had constructed out of imagination and Obi-Wan's stories, and Vader was destroying that imagined father and attempting to take its place. And that loss is a lot of what Luke's response is about. Also, it matters that Luke and Vader are not, at that point, strangers; they are fairly close enemies -- and enemies they remain, at that point; Luke rejects him.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-07-29 06:44 pm (UTC)
That's a really good point. Their animosity is not created by their blood tie, and I'm not even sure it's strengthened very much by it.
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[User Picture]From: pnkrokhockeymom
2011-07-29 06:56 pm (UTC)
I like this post. I don't know if you know this (it is not a secret, but not some deep important abiding factoid either, so I'm not sure how frequently I've mentioned it), but I am adopted. And I really like this post.
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From: swan_tower
2011-07-29 07:18 pm (UTC)
Funny story: I'm not too awake as I read this post, so I stare muzzily at the shelf of my books and think, "Hmm, I haven't really used this trope, except once in that unpublished novel." Then I woke up more properly and thought, "Uhhh, except for kinda sorta using it in Doppelganger." <g> (Not actually quite the same thing, but close enough that I should have thought of it immediately.)

I think the "long-lost family member you've never seen" thing can work -- if the character who's supposed to be moved by it is, well, the sort of character who would be moved by it. If one of their core beliefs is that you don't abandon your blood, no matter what they've done to you, then that sort of person might very well risk themselves for a relative they don't know (as the value of "what they've done to you" in that case is "never been part of your life"). Or if their life has been totally lacking in blood relatives, and they've long been desperate to discover where they came from. Etc.

Having said that, yes -- I would grin to see a story turn those assumptions on their collective heads. Especially your emotional/social bonds example.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-07-29 07:41 pm (UTC)
I think that's a good big part of it: that you have to build the character to make this sort of thing important.

But I also think that I've seen so much leaning on it that it's going to be harder to pull off anyway. Sort of exactly along the lines of the love triangle thing you mentioned above: it can be done well, but it's been done badly so many times that I automatically flinch and go, "Oh, that."
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[User Picture]From: akirlu
2011-07-29 07:22 pm (UTC)
So it's not really the long-lost-ness that bugs you so much as the playing-on-a-relationship-that-was-never-builtness of it all? Yeah, I'm down with that. I was tickled when a long-lost-cousin got in touch with my aunt and revealed a whole raft of family connected to my mormor's father, including a new pair of great aunts and a new great uncle, but the most charming thing there was how much two of them resemble my beloved mormor, who's been gone for some years. That's the real connection I cherish.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-07-29 07:44 pm (UTC)
This post runs right along a weird line between things I feel okay talking about in public and things I don't. So let me say that yes, I have seen the "resemblance to actual known loved one" as a very important factor for people in this situation.
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[User Picture]From: between4walls
2011-07-29 07:40 pm (UTC)
I don't mind the long-lost relative twist, because if a long-lost relative showed up on my doorstep I would feel more bound to them than if they were any other stranger, though it makes sense that you feel otherwise.

But yes to best friend or family of choice being a greater or equal peril. People you have actual history and complicated emotions with>people you have a fantasy about or don't know at all. In terms of character depth if nothing else.

One book I think handles this well is Freedom and Necessity, where even after James finds out who his real father is, it's his enmity with the man who raised him and whom he has a history with that drives the plot. And when he finds out who his long-lost brother is, it matters because they already know each other and it complicates their relationship and views of each other, not because blood relationships are extra-special.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-07-29 07:42 pm (UTC)
Yes. Complication of existing relationships is much better-done than magical relationship appearance out of nowhere, in my opinion.
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From: zwol
2011-07-29 07:46 pm (UTC)
I don't have any long-lost relatives (that I know about) but I have a lot of distant cousins whom I've seen a photograph of once and would probably be happy to have lunch with me if we happened to be in the same place at a mutually convenient time. I agree with everything you said.

The "True Names Have Power So Never Reveal Yours" trope doesn't work for me for very similar reasons. Aren't the name(s) I use every day better conduits for magical influence than a name only I know? Is it really a name at all if it's never used to refer to me?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-07-29 07:50 pm (UTC)
Ah! That's a good point. I think my friends who have given names that are not the names they use attach different weights to them. One friend seems to have a strong bond to his because it's a family name, even though it's not the one he uses all the time. On the other hand, my grandmother likes her given name better than the one she uses, but she's never succeeded in getting the world to agree with her, and I think at this point it's more like, "Wouldn't that have been nice," than like, "But that is my real name."
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[User Picture]From: 19_crows
2011-07-29 07:47 pm (UTC)
I feel similarly, at least about real life long lost people. For me, family is people you care about; blood connections aren't as important.

My father found out when he was a teenager that his father had been married before and he had a half sister. He never had any interest in meeting her, nor do I.
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[User Picture]From: merriehaskell
2011-07-29 08:43 pm (UTC)
I think, like everything, it can be a meaningful trope if done well and properly, but you're right, a blood tie is not a short-cut to raising the stakes in your book or movie. You need it to matter more than that.

I have adopted friends who seem to have found themselves oddly and profoundly moved by meeting their first blood relative, whether that ended up being their child or their long-lost half-sister. I can see how, if you felt like the oddball in your family, finding someone who is like you can be extremely powerful. In the case of my friend who is now BFFs with his recently discovered half-sister? I suspect it's because he was an only child and his adoptive dad had just died, that he latched so closely onto the half-sister. (Though I don't *know*. We haven't really discussed it. I just know his dad died, and he found his sister a few months later, and really connected with her.)

But yeah. "Sudden Sister Syndrome" isn't going to be meaningful--unless, you know, the Empire killed your bio family AND your adoptive family, and you feel really incredibly alone in the galaxy and the cool new chick you kissed is kind of in love with your best friend but you really want her to be part of your life, however that might be, so you know what? It's actually a little bit cool that you have a connection with her and she isn't going to ditch you. Especially when you found out your dad really is alive, is not a war-hero, and is trying to kill you and your Sudden Sister.

I can see why that's meaningful. But if someone had pointed to a random Ewok and said, "Luke, that's your sister," you could see Luke really would've been like, "Uh... right."

That's how, once more, plot is often meaningless without characterization. The sudden sister is plot; how you react to it is the characterization.

Edited at 2011-07-29 08:47 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-07-29 11:33 pm (UTC)
You have said all this very well, but I'm imagining the family reunions with Luke's Ewok sister and giggling.
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[User Picture]From: redbird
2011-07-29 11:04 pm (UTC)
I think people may also be missing the difference between missing a specific person or role and the idea of someone random who also fits in that box. Someone who grew up without a mother, only a father or grandparents or older siblings, may feel a lack there, even if the family that raised them was solid, because there's a lot of cultural and maybe even biological stuff around the idea of motherhood. And a specific missing relative, not $generic_parent but your father so-and-so, he's named Damon and used to be a truck driver before he was sent off to prison on dubious charges, Mom keeps his photo on the mantle, is a very different thing again, even if the viewpoint character has no direct memories of them.
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[User Picture]From: reveritas
2011-07-29 11:58 pm (UTC)
With all these tropes that are tired (and this is a not a criticism of you or your post), there's really nothing new under the sun, ever. Or above it! I don't really write anymore, but when I do, I'm sure someone has done it before (but with different words) and that's kind of, you know.

I even wrote a peak oil romance novel. Thought I would be the first. Nope!
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-07-30 12:04 am (UTC)
Sure, that can be said for a lot of things. All the same, I think it's also the case that some tropes are showing up a lot more often in a particular field. You might not be the first peak oil romance, but I'd be surprised if it was showing up everywhere. Then again, I don't read a lot of romance, so maybe romance readers are rolling their eyes and going, "Not this again!"
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[User Picture]From: firecat
2011-07-30 04:34 am (UTC)
If you start a publishing imprint that eschews the "surprise blood relative" trope and the "up-the-violence-ante" trope, I'll be first in line at the bookstore (or ebookstore) to buy what it publishes.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-07-30 02:50 pm (UTC)
There are several people who have agreed to sit on me and talk reason to me until I see the light if I ever attempt to start a publishing imprint!
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[User Picture]From: bbovenguy
2011-07-30 04:35 pm (UTC)
Okay... well, first of all, I will not be asking you to review my new book that's coming out. Nothing personal, but I don't think that would go very well. =:-p

Second, I am a long-lost relative. My ex and I gave up our son for adoption when he was born. He's 22 now, and we do write letters to each other, but I don't think he knows who I am. He has an "autism-spectrum disorder" of some sort, and I don't think it occurs to him to wonder who I am, or who is "real" parents are. He has parents right there, and as far as he's concerned, that's all he needs. And I'm fine with that. People ask me, "Don't you want him to know you're his 'real' father?" and they look at me strangely when I say no. His "real" parents are the ones who have been raising him all this time. My job was finished 22 years ago.
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[User Picture]From: zalena
2011-07-31 06:09 pm (UTC)
Usually there is a reason relatives are long-lost. Usually it is not a nice one. Usually, that stone is best left unturned.
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