This is very specific, but what do I call the protagonist’s parents in narration?

For example, my story is in third-person limited and my hero’s mother has just entered the scene. Do I refer to her as ‘her mother,’ ‘mum,’ ‘her mum’ or by her name? No matter what I pick, it always feels unnatural. Are all acceptable? Can I interchange between them or should I stay consistent?

Thank you,

Alice

Hi Alice,

Yes, it’s specific, but I’ve actually gotten this question before, so you’re not alone.

I think this partly depends on how distant vs close your third-person narration is. The most common way to do it is say “her mother,” but that’s a little formal and distant, and the average third-person limited story is on the distant side. In distant books, I’ve also seen it start with “her mother” to introduce the mother’s name, and then use the mother’s name sometimes as well. Unless the viewpoint character calls their parent by name, using the first name will feel pretty distant.

If you’re using a closer perspective, try just “mother,” “her mum/mama,”  or “mom/mum/mama.”

Ultimately, you’re just looking for something that matches the rest of the narration. How formal or casual the character sounds matters, as does the setting. “Mom” obviously doesn’t work so well for history-inspired settings. If nothing feels natural, you might just be staring at your prose a little too hard. Things stick out more to a writer than to a reader. Write the same sample out several times with different labels for the mom, then go away for a while, and come back to look at them another day.

You can switch off a little as long as the tone is consistent, and it’s really clear who you’re talking about. Giving a character more than one label means the reader has to learn and remember all of them. I wouldn’t switch off “mom” and “mum,” because what’s the point, but for distant narration I might switch “her mother” with the mother’s name to suit the context, or for close I might do just “mom” when it feels natural, and “her mom” otherwise.

Happy writing!

Chris

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