by Laura Dennis, @LauraDennisCA
Christian Grey is “fifty shades of f---ed up” according to EL James ... because he’s adopted. Popular fiction (eh hem, Twilight) uses adoption as a cop-out to explain vampires living among humans.
If we desire to inspire, surprise, and even educate our audience, why not learn more about adoption, and flesh out adopted characters’ inner life?
Why care about adoption in fiction?
Nearly six of every ten Americans have had "personal experience" with adoption (Adoption Institute). These potential readers have a close friend or a family member who adopted a child, was adopted, or placed a child for adoption.
This 6-in-10 figure doesn’t even include co-workers, friends, and the extended family of adoption.
Guess what? I'm adopted. So congratulations! By meeting me, reading this blog (drumroll please)—you, however peripherally, are connected to adoption.
Understanding adoption = dynamic characterization
Elizabeth Craig recently posted great advice on how not to be boring, listing of “ingredients that can help spice up a story.” Out of eleven items, at least seven relate to characterization.
Brainstorming an adopted character? Whew, here we have a vibrant, conflicted personality with a secret past, who changes as the story progresses. Throw in a biological family reunion for an instant subplot.
Need a complex antagonist? Try a loving adoptive mom, conflicted about her daughters’ biological reunion. Our protagonist feels guilty, wondering how to reunite without seeming ungrateful to the woman who raised her.
Or a birth father who wants nothing to do with the adoptee. Facing rejection, how will our protagonist cope?
With these subplots as fodder, an imaginative fiction writer can up the stakes, adding drama to the adopted protagonist’s adventures.
Brief history of adopted characters
Does all this adoptee family conflict sound a lot like women’s fiction, or even memoir? You got me; those ideas above are true stories.
“Upping the stakes” in my memoir was fairly straight-forward. After I reunited with my birth mom, I entered a paranoid delusion that I was a bionic spy responsible for 9/11. No joke.
Memoir aside, exploring the political, emotional and social issues connected to adoption can work in any genre. For historical fiction, look to Roman and medieval aristocrats who used adoption to solidify political ties and enable smooth transitions of power.
The 19th century Catholic Church developed institutionalized foster homes and orphanages. Think Oliver Twist, Little Men, and the orphaned Jane Eyre living with her cruel aunt and cousins.
In the last forty years, we've seen a shift from closed adoptions like mine—clouded in secrecy and shame, to reality TV teen moms participating in open adoptions.
Then there’s the ever-fashionable Jolie-Pitt transracial adopted/non-adopted family. Add in zombie paparazzi, and you’ve got your next best-selling YA fantasy!
Seriously, though, the “mystery” and secrecy that surrounds adoption in media could also be re-told in today’s fiction. Writer and adoption activist Amanda Woolston points out that this portrayal “has contributed to the cultural atmosphere that says mystery is ‘normal’ in adoption. It's not normal, nor should it be.”
Food for thought? I hope so. In Part II on Tuesday, November 6, I’ll discuss solutions for using adoption as a literary device in fiction.
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I’m so happy to be guest posting, as November is National Adoption Awareness Month. If you have a question about adoption, please comment below.