Q&A

What’s Your Advice for Writing Mom Protagonists?

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I recently noticed that there are hardly any stories about mothers in speculative fiction. Moms in stories are likely to be dead or die, and if they’re around, they usually fill a vaguely supportive and inconvenient role. This strikes me as unfair, as moms are complex humans who have the extremely difficult job of raising equally complex smaller humans and often go completely unacknowledged for their vital work. I think about my own mom, who had three children and decided to adopt four more from Ethiopia, became a second mom for all the kids we brought over, was awesome at being awesome, all while living with chronic illness. She deserves to see people like her in the genres she actually likes.

I’ve decided that I want to write some awesome mom protagonists, and wanted to ask if you had any advice in incorporating motherhood into stories? Are there pitfalls I should avoid? Things I can use to emphasize how impactful motherhood is? Are there ways I could take advantage of the setup of a mother protagonist to make her story more engaging?

Thank you for your time, I love the blog!

-Emma

Hi Emma,

Good for you. You’re absolutely right that we need more stories about moms, and it looks like you’ve already noticed a lot of bad patterns that you want to avoid.

The biggest improvement that needs to be made when it comes to depicting moms is to not make them live entirely for their children or family in general. One of the big reasons there are so few moms in stories is that storytellers assume that if a character has a mom, the mom must be there serving the character. Because they need their protagonist to solve problems on their own or go through hard times, they kill off the mom so she can’t help the protagonist with their problems. Similarly, when the protagonist has a dead mother and father, the father is remembered for doing great things, and the mother is remembered for caring for her family (every dead mother is described as “kind” and “pretty”).

My point is that mothers should be full-fledged human beings with their own interests and desires, not just the embodiment of childcare. Let her set boundaries with her kids and get some time to herself. Give her outside ambitions, and if there’s another parent, that parent should help her with the children without being badgered into it. We definitely could use more stories where the heroine just happens to be a mother, and that doesn’t hinder her from kicking ass and being part of the action.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have epic stories about moms raising children. Glorifying motherhood is also needed. Consider a story where your mother character is a powerful mage and she’s trying to teach her children to wield magic responsibly, or where the mother is the head of a noble family and she’s doing political intrigue to keep all of her children safe, arrange great marriages for them, and maybe scheme for the throne. Avoid patriarchal settings (this is a great time to do a matriarchy) and use speculative fiction elements to make the mother and her children important. Mothers are always depicted as humble in and the background, so I would err on the side of glorifying her, and powerful children will make it easy for child-raising to be plot important.

A word of caution for stories about a mother caring for her kids: show her children being kind and helpful at least as often as they cause trouble or create headaches for their mother. Since her primary motivation will be to promote her kid’s welfare, you don’t want your audience to find those kids annoying or frustrating.

Those are my thoughts. I hope that gives you some ideas!

Commenters: What would you like to see for mothers in stories?

Chris

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Comments

  1. LazerRobot

    I agree that it would be cool to have the other parent participating enthusiastically in parenting instead of her always having to do everything. I’d love to see a badass wizard mom whose husband gladly takes care of the kids while Mom goes to slay demons or whatever.

    Though that’s not to say she shouldn’t also use her magic fire powers to bake cookies for her kiddos, if she’s so inclined!

    Also, (though I think this could involve more depth if the kids are older) having complex relationships and disagreements with their kids. Especially with spec fic elements, there’s a lot of options. Her kids might have moral/philosophical questions or opinions about magic rituals, interplanetary politics, etc.

    • Dinawr

      This could be an entire conflict in a book (or at least a short story). I know from experience that when one parent has to travel for work for extended periods of time, it creates tension between the spouses. This tension increases when the risks increase. The spouse that travels thinks “I’m risking my life and working myself to death; when I get home I want to relax.” The spouse that stays home thinks “I’m working myself to death taking care of these kids; when my spouse gets home, I want to relax.” Neither is wrong–but they are (typically) mutually exclusive. Nor does it mean that the spouse that stays home is less than enthusiastic; self-care is vital to survival, especially with very young children (lack of sleep hurts).

      This can create some interesting and intensely relatable drama. It could be either the central conflict in a story that uses some larger conflict as a setting, or it could be a touch of realism in your Heroic Fantasy Epic.

  2. tealstar

    In my opinion (as a non-Mom, to be fair), the Thursday Next novels by Jasper Fforde are a good example of a mom protagonist, for anyone looking to read one– Thursday becomes a mom in the course of the series, and, while she still goes on her own adventures, her kids and her role as a mother are an important part of the story.

  3. Lucy

    Speaking as a Mum, I love the idea of a Mum protag, but please, please, please, pleeeeeease have her get cross and irritable at some point. Like it doesn’t need to be a major plot point or anything, and it doesn’t even need to be at her kids. Maybe she’s patient with her kids, but then snaps at someone else later.
    You see, the thing that wears me down most about Mum’s in fiction, is how good they are. How kind and tolerant and cheerful they are. Sometimes it appears easy for them, or in more realistic fiction sometimes it can be presented as a great struggle to appear that way – but either way, it’s held up as the ideal, and it’s an ideal that is unreachable for the vast majority of us mere mortals. I cannot be kind and loving and tolerant every single minute of the day, it’s beyond me. So when I, as a Mum, read stories with those characters, all I can hear is a little voice in my head going ‘You should be like this, and you’re not, and that makes you a Bad Mother’ (and then, of course, there are the Mum characters that DO show irritation and annoyance, and they usually the villain so that’s … not great either).
    One of my favourite Mum characters is Lisa from the film ‘Ponyo’. She’s a great Mum, she obviously loves her kid (who she basically looks after single handed while holding down a job) and, yes, she stays super calm and collected in circumstances I would not be able to deal with. But also, she loses her temper with her husband, she drives recklessly, she bangs the dishes in the sink when she gets annoyed, and she reaches for a beer. When I look at her, I see a character I wish I could be like, not a character that seems designed to make me feel inferior.
    Oh, and thinking about it, Ponyo also features the super ocean goddess Mum, and the wizard Dad who looks after the mermaid kids, so … yeah, I guess it’s a pretty good film for different views on parenting all round XD

  4. Koeleria

    While reading this article I first thought of Maud from the Innkeeper novels by Ilona Andrews. Maude is a sword-wielding bad-ass, with a talent for diplomacy, recovering from the disaster of her first marriage. Her 6 year old daughter Helen is as adorable as she is deadly. Helen will play games and jump on beds like any child. But if her or her mommy are threatened, her fangs and daggers will come out. Together they come to terms with their past and try to find a better future.

    Until I read her book I hadn’t really thought about how rare it is to see an action hero actively parenting. Usually the most you get is a sappy introductory scene of the hero with their child intended to make you feel sorry for the hero when the two are separated in the second scene.

  5. Koeleria

    Another author with good mothers is Lois McMaster Bujold.

    SciFi: Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan deals with marriage, deadly politics and pregnancy in Barrayar. The focus shifts to her son Miles in the following books, but she remains a powerful figure. Miles later falls in love with a woman with a young son and we start to hear things from her point of view.

    Fantasy: The Paladin of Souls follows the mother of a queen as she looks back on the choices she made when she was younger and tries to figure out what she wants for her future while dealing with demons, meddling gods, romance, and an invasion. Her motherhood isn’t so much an active part of the story as part of who she is.

  6. I. W. Ferguson

    I agree wholeheartedly with mom’s as protagonists being needed, and how they should clearly demonstrate how hard it can be. I was so pleased to discover The Sword of Kaigen by M. L. Wang (thanks to this year’s SPFBO contest, which you can check out on Mark Lawrence’s blog). The mother is the most important of a few POV characters. She’s got fantastic skills in magic, fighting, and parenting.
    I usually take better notes when I read a book, but I was so blown away by this one all I wrote down was: “This is the only book I’ve ever read that includes breastfeeding.” It’s not a perfect book (I’m not into magic based on “bloodlines”), but the good things about it were so great, so moving, and so different that I rave about it whenever I can.

  7. Ty

    I know it’s not literature but Linda Belcher from Bob’s Burgers comes to mind as a good example. And she’s not a protagonist but Queen Angella from the Netflix She-Ra was an interesting Mom character as well.

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