Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Missing Moms in Fiction

Posted by: Nicole Luiken

Looking through the list of eighty books I’ve read this year, I was struck by how few had mothers as main characters. Part of this is due to my reading choices: I like high-action novels, usually paranormal romances or SF/fantasy novels. Often a woman with child is seen as being unable to have an adventure—diaper-changing and battling demons don’t go together.

Here are the stats: 

Women who gain a child at the end of the book: (4) Eidolon, Fatal Deception, Of Noble Family, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
Women who have a grown-up child: (1) Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
Women who have a child: (2) Voyage of the Basilisk, Alien in Chief
Fathers who have a child: (7) Stolen Luck, Entreat Me, Alien in Chief, Changes, A Line in the Sand, Wolfsbane, Sycamore Row
Child whose rescue was a plot point: (1) Changes
Novels where the main characters had no children: (68)

So fathers are still more likely to be main characters, presumably because it’s more socially acceptable for them to leave the kid with a caretaker and go off on an adventure. Interestingly, the two books I read with women who had a child (and used nannies) were characters who acquired the child mid-series.

I’m just reporting here BTW, not finger-pointing. Of my own novels, the only woman-with-kids character I can claim is Penny from Running on Instinct, who both has a little boy and is pregnant.

The phenomenon of missing moms is even worse in YA novels. 

Many mothers are simply dead. There’s a reason why Harry Potter is an orphan. Not only does he gain instant sympathy points, but he has no parents to turn to and thus has to solve his own problems—a key ingredient of a YA novel. I’ve written my share of orphans--Medusa Noire in The Catalyst and Johnny Van Der Zee in Frost—but it’s unrealistic to have every YA character have dead parents.

Also popular are missing moms or moms who are off-stage. Sometimes their mysterious absence forms the core goal for the protagonist, sometimes the protagonist is merely staying with another adult relative with the mom is off-screen somewhere. I freely confess to doing this in both Through Fire & Sea and Amid Wind & Stone.

Then there are horrible mothers. I've used that one, too. Mike, in my Violet Eyes series has dreadful foster parents and a large part of his character arc in Golden Eyes is dealing with his issues.

Much harder to pull off is a parent who is actually there and has a good relationship with the protagonist. Because if they’re a caring parent, why aren’t they helping their kid?

One strategy I’ve used successfully (in Dreamfire and Dreamline) is to give the mother a blind spot. She loves her daughters and is a good mother—but she doesn’t believe in psychic stuff and therefore is no help to the main characters and even stands in their way.

Another way to handle this dilemma is to make the mother powerless. Katniss Everdeen’s mother in The Hunger Games is a good example. There is nothing she can do to prevent the repressive government from taking Katniss away once her name is drawn.

Angel’s parents in my Violet Eyes series are similarly hampered. Because they are actors hired to play the role of her parents, they have no legal standing. If they protest and try to help Angel, they will be forcibly separated from the daughter they’ve grown to love.

Still, in all, I feel that there is room for more mothers in SF/fantasy and YA fiction. As a writer, I shall try to do better to represent them. What do you think?


  1. Interesting post! Thinking back, one of the things I really liked about Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen was that the characters were older (and so had children). I really enjoyed the scenes were Cordelia reflected on parenthood. It was such a quiet book, though, and I often read more actiony stuff. Right now I'm in the middle of the Hyperion Cantos and there's a lot of parenthood stuff in that, but no mature mother character. There is a character who becomes pregnant, though, and her baby is important. What is nice is that her mother was very important too. And well remembered as the series goes on.

  2. One of my favorite bits of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen was when, at Cordelia's suggestion, Oliver mentions he's thinking of having a baby to his fellow officer--and immediately gets into the 'secret clubhouse' of parenthood conversations.


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