Fourteen Ways To Depict Mothers In Stories (Part I)

Recently, we looked at how to portray fathers in fiction and fantasy across three blog posts. Now, it is time that we turn our attentions to their female counterparts. Like with fathers, I have come up with a list of fourteen ways to depict mothers in stories.

Again, this list is non-exhaustive and only gives a flavour for the sorts of mothers that have been depicted, and how their conduct affects their children. This week, we will concentrate on predominantly strong mothers.

1 – The Commander

It is rare, but occasionally mothers can be commanders of war and this is the first of the fourteen ways to depict mothers in stories. Such a mother has earned the respect of her male peers due to her intelligence and her nous for military strategy.

Example – Lady Finree in A Little Hatred

Joe Abercrombie’s most recent novel, which continues about 30 years after the events of The First Law Trilogy.

In Joe Abercrombie’s A Little Hatred, the first in The Age of Madness series, there is a war going on in Angland, in the cold and savage north of the Union. Unusually, the leader of the northerners fighting for the Union is a woman – Lady Finree dan Brock.

She is not a warrior herself and does not get into the scrap of battle. Nevertheless, Lady Finree is incredibly savvy, understands that war requires patience, and that a battle should only be fought on terrain that gives her forces the advantage (particularly as her enemy outnumbers her army). As a result, she commands a great deal of respect in a land that hero-worships victorious, sword-wielding men.

Moreover, Lady Finree spends about half the narrative reminding her vainglorious (foolish) young son, Leo, that it is better to live than to be a dead hero. Showing her motherly love for him, she does everything she can to avoid a situation where he has to fight.

2 – The Warrior

Black Widower, Mystique, Brienne of Tarth, Wonder Woman and Katniss Everdeen (to name but five) have all shown that women can be kick-ass, battle-hardened fighters. However, none of them were mothers when they were called into action. Strangely enough, it is very rare in fiction and fantasy for a mother to be a warrior.

Yet, there is one notable example to highlight that a mother will fight tooth and nail for her children and what she believes in.

Example – Mrs Molly Weasley

Molly Weasley is a mother to seven children, including Ron and Ginny, in the Harry Potter series. Plus, she is kind towards the mother-less Harry too.

While she spends most of her on-page time shouting at her children in a futile attempt to keep them in line (particularly the twins); nonetheless, she is also a member of the Order of the Phoenix and shows her wizarding skills in the Battle for Hogwarts in The Deathly Hallows. Famously, Molly defeats the evil Bellatrix in a ferocious duel.

fourteen ways to depict mothers in stories - the fighter, Molly Weasley
Molly Weasley (Julie Walters) fighting in wizarding-style during the Battle For Hogwarts.

3 – The Negotiator

Of the fourteen ways to depict mothers in stories, arguably the negotiator is one of the most interesting. Such a character, by definition, has to be intelligent and politically astute. She understands that war cannot be won on the battlefield, alone, and that (to be victorious) a lord needs to build alliances.

Example – Catelyn Stark

In A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, Robb Stark leads the Northmen against the Lannisters to rescue his father and then avenge him. But while Robb is a competent battle strategist and a popular leader, he delegates the responsibility of negotiation to his caring mother, Lady Catelyn (Tully) Stark.

Lady Catelyn shows her gift for diplomacy when she successfully creates an alliance with the cranky, temperamental Lord Walder Frey in A Game of Thrones; mediates between the Baratheon brothers, King Stannis and King Renly, in A Clash of Kings; and near creates an alliance with Renly before Melisandre’s dark magic kills him.

All the same, Lady Catelyn shows her negotiating skills superbly. It is not her fault that her son undoes all her hard work, resulting in his and her ruin.

4 – The Schemer

It will come as no surprise that mothers who are good at negotiation can be every bit as good at scheming. It is a similar kind of intelligence, since for both one needs to think ahead to achieve the desired outcome.

Only with scheming, the skill tends to involve shafting an ally or rival (rather than an outright enemy) and/or murder.

Example – Margaret Beaufort in The Red Queen

In Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction series, The Cousins’ Wars, Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor, proves herself to be every bit as calculating, cunning and murderous as her male counterparts.

There is nothing she won’t do, nothing more holy than to get her son on the throne of England. During the reign of King Edward IV, she marries a rich and powerful nobleman called Lord Thomas Stanley to be close to power. Then, when Richard, Duke of Gloucester, seizes the throne to crown himself King Richard III, she orders (by default) for the princes in the tower to be murdered. Subsequently, she goes behind King Richard’s back and forges an alliance with Dowager Queen Elizabeth (Edward IV’s wife and mother to the murdered princes) in order for her son, Henry, to marry the Dowager Queen’s eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth of York.

As a result, and because of her husband betraying King Richard at the Battle of Bosworth, Margaret Beaufort’s scheming come to fruition. She succeeds in putting her son on he throne of England and securing the Tudor dynasty.

The calculating, scheming and murderous Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale in the TV adaptation, The White Queen)

5 – The Guiding Mother

The Guiding Mother is the closest equivalent to the Wise Father. The Guiding Mother not only nurtures her children, she educates them and lays down the basis from which they can go on and succeed.

Interestingly, like with the Wise Father, the Guiding Mother invariably must die in the first third of the narrative. This way, her children can go on their own journey and grow as characters.

However, a key difference between the Guiding Mother and the Wise Father is that the Guiding Mother does not teach her children how to become good/effective rulers. Her role is more about survival and conduct.

Example – Littlefoot’s Mother in The Land Before Time

fourteen ways to depict mothers in stories - the guiding mother, littlefoot's mother
Littlefoot’s mother giving him some words of comfort, direction and love, as they struggle toward the Great Valley.

The Land Before Time is a beautiful, animated film (which inadvertently heralded the Disney Renaissance). It centres around Littlefoot, a small brontosaurus. Due to climate change, the dinosaurs have to migrate west to the Great Valley.

Littlefoot’s mother has never even seen the Great Valley, but believes that it exists and implants this belief into her son. Also, she is open-minded and has no issue with her son making friends with other dinosaurs, such as Cera, a triceratops. (This is despite other dinosaurs, including Cera’s father, stating that each dinosaur must keep to his own kind.)

This lesson is important for Littlefoot. Not long into the narrative, Sharp Tooth, a tyrannosaurus rex, appears and an earthquake occurs. Sharp Tooth kills Littlefoot’s mother and the earthquake means that Littlefoot is separated from his grandparents, the only other members of his kind left.

Thus, what in essence seemed like a straightforward journey for Littlefoot to the Great Valley, becomes one of character growth and faith. Littlefoot has to work with his grief and with some other, young dinosaurs (of different species). Littlefoot’s mother gives him the strength to go on and lead his companions to their destination.

Despite being dead, she acts as his guide both in terms of directions and in terms of how to conduct himself for the betterment of others. As a corollary, the other young dinosaurs (with the possible exception of the proud Cera) respect Littlefoot. Indeed, they follow him and help him adapt to life without his mother.

To Be Continued…

Thank you for reading Part I of the fourteen ways to depict mothers in stories. I hope you have enjoyed this blog piece, and that it has given you some ideas on how to portray a mother in a story.

Next week we shall continue this mini-series,

Paul

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2 comments

  1. Interesting series Paul. Under warrior mother, if you’re moving across genres and complexities within the role, horror as a genre has a lot of warrior mothers protecting their kith and kin against the dark forces.

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