Every human perspective has value, but some are second nature to writers while others are more unfamiliar and intimidating to explore. That isn’t an excuse to exclude characters who are in different life stages than us, however. As Christian storytellers, our goal is to represent the full spectrum of the human experience, no matter how tricky it can be.
One of the perspectives that tends to get neglected is a mother’s. This happens for two reasons. First, if you’re a man, a mother’s viewpoint might seem downright foreign to you. Second, if you’re a single woman or don’t have any kids, you may struggle to imagine what goes on inside a mother’s head. While both of these are legitimate (but not impossible) hurdles to overcome, a mother’s perspective shouldn’t be cast aside because it’s difficult.
But how do you accurately portray a mother’s POV if you aren’t one yourself? The method is similar to one you might follow for any character you’re having trouble fleshing out: pinpoint the truths or lies that influence her choices, learn from examples in real life as well as literature, and don’t resort to stereotypes.
Tip #1: Diagnose the Health of Your Character’s Identity as a Mother
Before you even begin, you must decide if your character has a healthy (but flawed) attitude about motherhood or an unhealthy (and therefore destructive) one. Her every move depends on it. Setting a baseline will help you know how events should either push her toward change or further entrapment.
Some women love being mothers. Others secretly hate it. Some regret having kids. Others don’t feel fulfilled until they have kids. Some blame their children for their own failings. Others fight their failings in an effort to give their children a better future. Some become entirely wrapped up in their children. Others are disconnected. The list goes on.
Are your character’s beliefs true or false (or partly true)? Will the lies she’s clinging to crumble over the course of your novel, leading to redemption? Or will the lies become further ingrained, leading to her downfall? Does she fundamentally accept or reject her role as a mother (even if she isn’t conscious of it)? Are her children her sole reason for existing, or is her affection more balanced? Does she vest her worth in motherhood, or in the larger purpose of serving God?
In Les Miserables, young Fantine’s foolishness saddles her with a child (and no husband). Her tragic story reveals that, in spite of her mistake, she’s determined to provide for her child no matter the cost to her dignity, her body, and, ultimately, her life. She embraces her responsibilities, which is good, but she flies from one bad decision to the next. She’s a stark illustration of how devoted mothers who face appalling situations will go to extreme lengths to protect and care for their children.
When you have a starting point, finding the route you wish to take with your character, and predicting how she might behave, will be much easier. Try to answer the above questions as thoroughly as you can, and let your character’s interpretation of her identity shape her from the onset.
Tip #2: Study Mothers in Fiction and Nonfiction
When you’re preparing to write in the POV of any character, you need to understand how she thinks, at least most of the time, or she’ll come across as artificial. Although the nuances of her internal voice should be unique, you’ll recognize trends and patterns she might share with others in her demographic if you do your research.
The best source to begin delving into is the Bible. Within its pages, the good, the bad, and the ugly of motherhood is on display. From Rebecca’s willful deception of her husband, Isaac (on behalf of her favorite son), to the widow in 1 Kings 17 who offered her last meal to the Prophet Elijah, to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Each story will deepen your understanding of how a mom processes and reacts to a multitude of scenarios, especially when her children are involved.
For memorable fictional mothers, I’d recommend Jane Austen’s works. While her stories aren’t palatable to all readers, her command of human nature enabled her to create characters who are—with all their vices and virtues—incredibly relatable. Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park, and Mrs. Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility are wonderful characters to analyze if you’re hoping to discover what makes a mother tick. Look at their interactions with their husbands and children. Do they at any moment make you want to roll your eyes and mumble, “Come on, Mom.” Do their children tolerate or respect them? Why or why not?
As you answer these questions, you’ll form a clearer picture of how mothers see the world and how their role as nurturers often motivates their actions. Styles of mothering vary as widely as the number of moms populating the earth—and your character is one of them.
Tip #3: Avoid Caricatures of Mothers
While this piece of advice should (and does) apply to all kinds of characters, it’s crucial when you’re depicting a mother. Moms, like all human beings, are complex. Rarely will one trait or conviction overshadow all others, but that’s how fictional moms sometimes appear, as in the case of Petunia Dursley from the Harry Potter series.
Petunia’s persona revolves around her hatred of Harry (stemming from jealousy of her sister, Harry’s mother) and her habit of spoiling her horrible son Dudley. While the books show little else of Petunia, a deleted scene from the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 would’ve humanized her. The Dursleys are being forced to leave their home, and Harry tries to reason with his aunt. In the course of their conversation, Petunia tells him, “You didn’t just lose a mother in Godric’s Hollow that night. I lost a sister.” Though Petunia’s bitterness is still inexcusable, this short exchange of grief could have helped the audience sympathize with her.
When you use a single, simplistic trait to define a character, it can cause two problems. First, readers may not take her seriously. Caricatures rely on one (maybe two) overly dramatized traits that lean toward humor and ridicule. Second, readers may feel that the character is flat, preventing them from connecting with her. While everyman characters have their place, as a Christian writer, you have a calling to be a truth-teller. You should strive to represent the human experience as it is—complicated.
You Don’t Have to Be a Mom to Write about One
Writers are always saying that story crafting is so much harder than it seems, and that’s not an exaggeration. We set out to transport audiences into another person’s time, culture, and mind. The task is daunting, but if we’re willing to stretch outside our comfort zones to embrace new perspectives, we’ll enrich our stories and broaden our ability to empathize with readers.
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.