Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Adoption in Fiction, Part II--Guest Post by Laura Dennis

by Laura Dennis, @LauraDennisCA

Adoptees as ticking time bombs, “he’s f---ed up because he’s adopted.” ... There’s more to it than that!

In last Thursday’s guest post, I wrote about problems inherent in using adoption as a literary device in fiction. Today I’ll offer solutions for creating nuanced adopted characters and plotlines.

Before I get all writerly* and practical, it’s full-disclosure time: I was adopted as an infant in a closed, private adoption.


Within the adoption community, there’s ongoing debate about nomenclature ... Who cares more about words than writers?

There’s the issue of who’s the “real” parent—the one who raised the child, or the one who birthed her?

Um ... Both are real, this isn’t the Easter Bunny we’re talking about! They both exist. Attempting to “give credit where credit is due” overlooks the reality that a birth mother is a mother, just one who didn’t raise her baby.

There are alternative phrases such as first and second parents, birth mom, biological mother and adoptive mom. Some adult adoptees opt out and call everyone by their first names.

On the other end of the spectrum is a woman I read about recently who got pregnant as a result of being raped. She refers to herself as the “maternal source” for that particular relinquished child (with whom she wants no contact). She calls herself “mom” for the rest of her kids. Go figure.

With something as simple as terminology, writers can add nuance to their characters’ personalities, address questions of identity, and show change and growth.

Writer Stacy Clafin says that in her upcoming YA novel, Deception, the main character, Alexis, begins her journey frustrated with her adoptive parents, longing for her birth parents. But she learns that she wouldn't be the person that she is without what each parent has given her.

As a way of distinguishing, Clafin says, “Alexis calls her adoptive parents ‘mom and dad’ and her birth parents ‘mother and father.’”

Let’s get technical—literary devices

Adoption can be used to great effect as a Chekhov's gun, in which a seemingly insignificant aspect of a character's background becomes important later on. In other words, the circumstances of the character’s adoption become a plot twist, a "reveal."

But it’s important to not use adoption as a cop-out. For example, blogger and adoption activist Amanda Woolston takes issue with Christian, the adopted Fifty Shades of Grey character

Portraying adoptees and fostered adults as psychotic, making the only representation of an original mother as the stereotypical "crack wh*re" ... That's not all that "gray" to me.

For people who have experienced the life-altering complications of adoption, such simple explanations are dues ex machina, an unsatisfying way of resolving a story’s conflict.

Truly, there are many interesting, creative ways to write-in psychosis. Adoption doesn’t need to be the over-arching explanation for a character’s mental issues. Have you ever written an adopted character? What are your thoughts on adoption in fiction?

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Laura Dennis was born and adopted in New Jersey, raised in Maryland. You can read more about her adoption reunion and brief bout with insanity in Adopted Reality, A Memoir, now available in paperback and ebook.

November is NaBloPoMo, and we, the contributors at Lost Daughters, are posting each day on a different adoption topic. It’s worth checking out.

* Yes, I know, writerly isn’t a word, but it should be!