In honor of Mother’s Day, I am celebrating writing about mothers in fiction. Be they amoral, good, reckless, calculating, tender or steel—are there any more fascinating characters to bring to life in a story than mothers?
Though my own mother was and is a gentle person who never threatened my existence, we all live with the shadow idea of our mother. She could have let us drown and disappear in those early days when we were helpless. We know she has shaped us in ways we don’t remember and cannot name. If she is still present in our lives, she has an undeniable authority no matter how sweetly she might communicate that authority. Some of us spend our lifetimes and lots of money for therapy on trying to untangle ourselves from our mothers. Some of us imitate the habits of our mothers with little introspection about the process. For those of us who become mothers, our original anxiety is only amplified about one thousand times by the realization of the terrific power we now wield.
Currently I am writing about a queen, and this queen is a mother. She is guilty of a very great love that both lights her children’s lives and casts them into darkness. This character evolved fairly early in my work-in-progress, but she is not the protagonist. In the first draft I was too complacent about the queen’s role in the story, but now, as I wade through the second draft, I see my mistake. Like me, the two main characters of the story are figuring out that mothers have a way of taking over everything.
Ever notice the preponderance of bad mothers and evil queens in literature? I’m convinced it’s primarily because of our never-to-be-forgotten dependence on those we are born from. She who is your mother has all the answers, cards, magic, whatever. It’s a basic, undeniable power imbalance. That’s just the way it is, and because we love action more than control, it’s not surprising we enjoy reading mothers who let that power loose. When that power is directed toward us, it’s generally bad. When directed toward others, generally good. Or at least that’s how we justify it.
Moms play the long game. Not the con, the real long game—like Lilith in the Lilith’s Brood collection by Octavia Butler. That’s another reason we love to read and write them. Sure, Dad talks a good game about the future, but he’s usually dealing with immediate security issues. Mom is making her moves based on the needs of the next generation or even the needs of her children several generations in the future.
I have finally accepted that the queen in my WIP will not be pushed into secondary character status. The only choice I have is to write her heavy or write her lite. These are not really categories, but more ends of a spectrum where heavy means I have to take the time to figure out how she is shaping her children’s worlds for good or ill—and demonstrate the consciousness she has of her power. Lite means I play down her power and try to keep her character bound by her other social and political roles. It’s the difference between Ellen Ripley in Alien and the evil queen in Snow White or the difference between Eva Khatchadourian in We Need to Talk About Kevin and Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter series.
When I think about the sappy narratives and gestures that fuel our celebrations of Mother’s Day, it reminds me of the huge gap between what we know to be true about mothers in fiction, and how we limit mothers’ roles in real life. Who needs flowers and brunch? Why not celebrate Mother’s Day with remembering the courage of the mothers who came before us, or standing in solidarity with the mothers whose children are suffering through war or other injustices today, or having a conversation with our children about the future and learning the skills necessary to preserve human DNA in case of cataclysmic climate change, nuclear winter, or planetary invasion?
Okay, I’m done. Let me know what mothers have you enjoyed reading about and what you think makes them such extraordinary characters.