So You Want to Write a Mother
Updated: Feb 28
(initially published in May)
Congratulations! You have chosen to incorporate a Mother™ in your latest piece of fiction. This is indeed a momentous decision. As all readers and consumers of fiction know, a Mother™ has great influence on her offspring. Depending on what neuroses you intend to burden your characters with, you should choose a Mother™ who will nurture such traits.
Here is a selection of Good and Bad Mothers™. Pick wisely!
The Virtuous Mother™ never complains, never bemoans her fate, and never shows a flaw. Think Marmee March in Little Women. The Virtuous Mother™ is an example of what a wife and mother should be to her children, which means the offspring are condemned to forever strive for an unattainable goal: Perfection. Putting a Virtuous Mother™ in your story allows you to weigh your character down with a sense of inadequacy, which may grow into resentment and self-loathing. After all, what decent person could hate a hardworking, loving, capable, supportive, loyal, devoted and contented Mother™? The child of a Virtuous Mother™, that’s who.
Illustration from “Little Women,” 1893. New York Public Library, General Research Division.
The Mother™ in Heaven is a frequent variation of The Virtuous Mother™. In fact, the Mother™ in Heaven may have died while giving birth. Her children may therefore grow up believing that they are the cause of the death of their Mother™ in Heaven. What this results in may be a pervasive sense of survivor’s guilt, of the worst sort: they have done nothing that caused her death, and yet they know that the Mother™ in Heaven may still be alive if she didn’t have to give birth to them. It may not be a huge problem, except there will always be some people who insist on amplifying how good the Mother™ in Heaven was, how saintly and wonderful, and how pitiful it must be for the children to grow up without their dear Mother™ in Heaven. Harry Potter, with his mother’s green eyes, is one of those few who turned out relatively balanced and mostly sane. Well, inasmuch as being someone who willingly martyrs himself to kill an evil wizard Nazi can be.
The Single Mother™ is another variation of the Virtuous Mother™, except she is more down-to-earth. The Single Mother™ is usually independent, hardworking, and intelligent, but either choice or circumstance led her to give up her dreams to raise her child. She may harp on her sacrifice, or perhaps she remains silent about it. Children of the Single Mother™ tend to be independent problem-solvers who have difficulty relying on others. They may have a secret craving for someone to take care of them. Alternatively, they may feel pressured to achieve the goals that their Single Mother™ gave up, thus subsuming their personal ambitions. This either leads to frustration and resentment or a sense of loss once they attain the dream. An example would be Fantine in Les Misérables, who lost her hopes and dreams once her lover ran away and she became Cosette's mother, and her only desire was to make sure Cosette grows up safely.
Jean Valjean at Fantine’s deathbed. Illustration by Bayard, from the Hughes edition of Les Misérables (1879-1882)
The Self-Centered Mother™ lies on the other end of the spectrum from the Virtuous Mother™. In all her forms, the Self-Centered Mother™ treats people as things, even if the people in question are her own children. The Self-Centered Mother™ is usually a foil to the protagonist, or a key influence on the antagonist’s beliefs. The Self-Centered Mother™ will not let her presence go unnoticed, wherever she is. Pick her second defining trait from the biblical seven sins, and you’re halfway to making a Self-Centred Mother™ a standout villain: other than focusing only on their own aims, Matilda Wormwood’s mother is vain and neglectful in Matilda, while Cersei Lannister is ambitious beyond measure in the series A Song of Ice and Fire.
The Classic Evil Stepmother™ appears in many children’s tales, which speaks volumes of the biases people used to have against women who decide to give a widower a second chance at love. The Classic Evil Stepmother™ has a singular goal: to sideline the previous wife’s child in favor of her new family. She often shoulders the entire blame for the ensuing ordeal, even though her husband really should have paid more attention to his own family. A character who has a Classic Evil Stepmother™ may find themselves paranoid, frightened of new experiences, and eager to appease; conversely, they may choose to rebel against the rules, their long-suppressed defiance bursting forth with reckless abandon. The standard Classic Evil Stepmother™ can be found in nearly every iteration of Cinderella and Snow White. What she really is, at the end of the story, is the obstacle between once upon a time and happily ever after.
The Vengeful Mother™ wants what she deserves, and what she deserves is the satisfaction of knowing that the bastards who hurt her have suffered a pain at least as great as her own. That’s what she wants. What she needs is therapy. The Vengeful Mother™ may drag her children into her revenge schemes, either as pawns or sacrifices. The children then become either as manipulative as she is, or fearful of independent thought and act; their entire existence revolves around her. She may train her children to be cold-hearted and disdainful of anyone outside the family. This is assuming the Vengeful Mother™ doesn’t kill her children in the first place as part of her revenge. Yes, Medea, this is a call-out post. Overreaction much?
The Unhinged Mother™ starts life with a slippery grip on her marbles, and ends up losing all of them, usually in a traumatic event. The rampage that follows is a storm of epic proportions, but the Unhinged Mother™ may just be the spark that lit the flame. A character with an Unhinged Mother™ may have inherited a similar psychosis, which may lead to tragic yet foreseeable consequences. They may also grow up shut off from normal human society, which means their grasp of social norms and cues may be shaky at best or nonexistent at worst. If you need an example of an Unhinged Mother™, study Margaret White in Stephen King’s Carrie.
This list is definitely not exhaustive. Every Mother™ in fiction has their own quirks and temperaments, thus bestowing on their children different inhibitions and problems. We hope the above examples help point you in the right direction to begin creating your very own literary Mother™.
Happy Mother’s Day to every mother out there!