Sunday, May 12, 2013

Good Mothers in Fiction: What Emotional responses Reveal about Ourselves

I wasn't going to write anything for Mother's Day, because I couldn't even come up with a decent comic idea. My mother has also said that the only thing she wants today is for us to be happy. 

Then I read How to Seize a Dragon's Jewel on Friday, the tenth How to Train Your Dragon book. It involves a mother who isn't all hugs and kisses but fighting and making speeches, not keeping her son in on the loop. Mind, I'm not going to spoil the book for those who have been following the series, and I'm not going to apologize for my HTTYD theme carrying on in recent blog posts, but let's just say you will be shocked. And for contrast, we get a glimpse at another mother who tried to protect her child from a watery death. 

Here was my initial reaction to the first mother's intellectual approach: "How can you prioritize politics over your child's safety?!" 

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Then I thought about all the cases in literature and animated film where mothers aren't there. Most good mothers from the Disney Animated canon are either dead, separated from their children for the film's duration (Sleeping Beauty, The Lion KingThe Princess and the Frog, and Tangled). The few that aren't tend to be stepmothers or adopted parents, like in Cinderella, Snow White or Tangled

I've been raised to believe that parents protect their children, even when these children pass the dear sweet age of eighteen. My older sister stayed at home while attending college, as did my other two older siblings and myself. My mother has made it a point to take care of us, and we try to return the favor-- that is, my older brother and I since we still live at home-- but sometimes the protection can prevent us from taking great risks or exiting our comfort zone. The same can apply to fiction: if a parent won't let their child protagonist enter danger, usually for a good reason, then how can the story happen?

The tenth How to Train Your Dragon book answered the question as such: the story happens when the mother starts treating her child like an adult. They can't apologize for not being there, but they can pledge their support in the present moment. Good parenting? No. Potential for redemption? Yes.

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That said, I wouldn't easily write a story with such a mother given my background and the books that I've read. We have the Mama Bear trope to prove that point: "Bears usually won't attack humans — but get between a mother bear and her cub, and she'll tear straight through you. Apparently, the same rule applies to human parents. Threaten their husband/wife, child, boyfriend/girlfriend, friends, cat, etc., and you are in for a world of hurt. " Even in Harry Potter, the antagonistic Narcissa Malfoy and Petunia Dursley care about their sons and Lily Potter protected Harry to the tragic end. 

I won't deny that How to Seize a Dragon's Jewel struck a nerve. It did. As I emailed the author Friday evening, "Why put him in so much danger after nearly killing him in the woods . . . Did she have faith that he'd come out of the situation intact?" I was thinking of my own mother, how she would never do that, and of the fictional women I've written who protect their children. 

A good mother is always there for you, even when you don't deserve that care. Thus, given Dragon's Jewel, this mother in question wasn't a good mother until the last few chapters, when she does the right thing and supports her son. Yet it's not bad storytelling, just an unconventional approach. Sometimes doing the right thing for the sake of narrative involves not getting touchy-feely or saying an apology. And that's all right. 


Matt Anderson said...

I find that it's hard to have mothers and fathers in fiction at all, since they have a bad habit of undermining the main character. No matter what, your parents will be older, wiser and often stronger than the main character, so there's a power struggle there [It's also kinda what the Monomyth is about, so it's innate that children are trying to overthrow their parental figures.]

If the character is older than 20, then parents can be avoided, since you can say they are dead or that the child has left home. But if they are younger, then story writes often do their darnedest to find a way to kill, incapacitate or remove parents from the story, so that the kid can run around without fear or parental subjugation, otherwise the story would have to be intercut with homework, chores, family life, school and being grounded whenever they break the rules.

Turning parents into the villain or a plot device is a great way to use them, since they can still be in the story without getting in the way, but that's lead to all manner of tropes itself and can make stories seem unrealistic. But in the long run, as both a reader AND a writer, when I have a young main character my first thought is "How do I ditch the parents?" so that I can send my main character on larger than life, wild & dangerous adventures that would make any sane parent explode with anxiety & worry.

Priya Sridhar said...

Ah, I kept meaning to respond to this. Thanks so much, Matt!

Hm, "How do I ditch the parents?" sounds cavalier, as J.K. Rowling might say, but it's a legitimate issue. Parents want you to be safe, listen to them and obey. One novel I'm reading, The Bridge to Neverland, involves kids hiding a mystery from their bibliophile dad and having to trick him to solve it.

I personally like having a good parent who attempts to help but faces a villain that, for some reason, outclasses the parent in terms of a threat. Or for the antagonist to isolate the protagonist so that they can't call for help.