Sunday, April 3, 2011

O mother, where art thou?

Supernatural Underground and HarperCollins author Helen Lowe has just blogged about Three Fabulous Moms of SFF. It got me thinking about why there aren't more heroines with children in character-driven SFF and SFR.

I think the answer might be found in the Hero's Journey, which most genre writers follow to some degree -- even if subconsciously. The tale of someone who wants something, can't have it, goes on a quest to get it, and succeeds or loses, is an age-old storytelling structure. It's used because it works. That is, it provides a satisfying experience for the reader.

The hero of these stories wants something -- wants it so badly that she's prepared to leave her safe world and venture into the unknown. Her adventures -- the plot -- are driven by the decisions she makes. Often, towards the end, she realizes the thing she wanted isn't as important as something else -- often an ideal such as love, honor, truth, or the greater good -- and her priorities shift. A dedicated hero will risk everything for this ideal, even her own life if she deems the sacrifice worthwhile.

Now imagine our heroine is a mother. A mother's first priority is her children. Assuming the character is going to remain sympathetic for the reader, can a mother ever change this priority? Can she put something else first? Can she ever risk her children? Even when the galaxy's at stake?

A compelling plot gives the hero difficult decisions. Each option has to tempt her -- for example, will she choose the safe option with little reward, or the risky option with greater reward? But when one choice is her children, the decision is easy. A mother chooses her children over option B, every time.

Of course, a heroine can be a mother whose children are not involved in the main plot. But in genre fiction, where a large amount of wordage is already needed for elaborate, imaginative world building, there isn't space to give your heroine attributes that aren't directly relevant. And even if her children are sitting safely at home, what mother is likely to risk her own life to save someone else or to promote an ideal, when her children need her?

So if we want a sympathetic heroine and she's a mother, we're telling the story of someone who always puts her children first, never changes that priority, and won't risk her own safety. In genre fiction, those aren't usually the ingredients for a memorable story.

6 comments:

S.E. Gaime (aka defcon) said...

I believe you're right, children are like a lead weight around the hero's neck, they limit the hero's options and can make the storyline predictable.

I did see one story on a forum that had a paranormal mother MC and her children were kidnapped, so naturally, she freaked and went on a manhunt to get them back. Not sure how it worked out, but that was the premise of this person's story.

It would probably work better if the child/children were older, then they could partner up with mum to tackle obstacles.

Definitely an interesting challenge posed to writers. Thanks for the thoughts.

Sara Creasy said...

An older child would definitely work better, I think. He wouldn't be helpless, so the mother could do things other than constantly freak out about his safety. And she would have to allow him a measure of independence to make his own decisions and mistakes.

Helen Lowe did mention Boneshaker as an example of a heroine with a child - I haven't read the book (zombies - argh!) but that was an older child.

Kristi said...

I think part of the problem is reconciling the image of a good mother with the kick-butt heroine that is so common in SFF and SFR.

Have you ever seen The Incredibles? I think Mrs Incredible (Elastigirl) actually handles both roles beautifully. I think there are a few more examples in film, at least, of Mother/Heroine, but you might have to look to family/kids films.

Sara Creasy said...

Yes, I love The Incredibles! A big difference there was that the children weren't helpless - they had superpowers, so she didn't have to be quite as worried about them as a mother usually would be.

Sam_Wiser said...

I've noticed a lot of sci-fi, fantasy and urban fantasy heroines do have pets though, or animal sidekicks, like Honor Harrington's treecat. So they can show their softer side without involving the complications children.

Sam_Wiser said...

--- the complications OF children.