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Mother of all Tropes

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Average Everygirl #19, Everygirl Family: problems with parents | Panel 1: Average stands beside a fair-haired man wearing a necktie. The narrator says, "Average and her dad don't get along. He doesn't communicate well, and that hurts her feelings." Average, smiling, says, "Actually, we get along really well." Her dad, with humble appreciation, says, "Average is such a good kid." | Panel 2: The narrator, bemused, asks, "…Really?" Average says, "Of course!" Her dad says, "Our relationship is so important to me." | Panel 3: The narrator says, "Oh. That's good, since Average's mother died such a tragic death and all." A dark-haired woman appears in frame, saying, "What? No, I'm still alive." | Panel 4: The narrator concludes, "I'm starting to understand why Average's plot never goes anywhere." While her parents smilingly hold hands, Average acknowledges, "Orphans get a lot more traction in the literary world, don't they."

I am so guilty of the “dead mother” trope. So guilty. When you’re writing fantasy, it’s almost like a default condition for the main character, to the point where I’ve had to stop myself and say, “No, really, why would his/her mother be dead?”

I could postulate a number of theories on the prevalence of this trope. Sometimes it’s simply because the story wouldn’t take place otherwise. It says a lot about the stability a mother brings into her children’s lives, that her absence creates conditions for danger, adventure, and difficulty. Often, the death of a mother becomes one of the driving forces for the main character’s actions. If her death was sacrificial, even more so.

It’s an easy plot mechanism, in other words.

Decisions behind the scenes

Sometimes, a character has no mother because that’s one less character to muddy up the narrative. If a plot doesn’t call for a mother, the mother gets left out. The author doesn’t have to specify what happened to her; the reader can deduce that she died (or more generically, that she’s not in the picture) and move on.

Writing often involves keeping character lists trim and efficient. Readers only have so much of an attention span, and extra characters who have no great bearing on the plot can become a distraction or, worse, an annoyance. When making cuts of this sort, family members often don’t survive.

Convenient plot devices and efficient casting are superficial excuses, though. In my view, the “dead mother” trope has another likely source: it’s a narrative drawn from the unfortunate realities of life.

A mother or the lack thereof

Although modern science and medicine have drastically reduced maternal mortality rates, only a hundred years ago a woman would take her life into her hands to deliver a child into this world. Women had more children back then, and the risk didn’t change with each successive birth, which meant that, for the greater part of recorded history, a multitude of mothers died during or immediately after childbirth.

And their children grew up motherless. (If they survived, that is. Infant mortality above-and-beyond overshadowed maternal mortality.) Having no mother wasn’t an anomaly. It was a relatively common occurrence. The narrative appears in fairy tales and folklore. Motherless characters abound in classic works and history alike. If childbirth wasn’t the culprit, a dozen other potential executioners waited in the wings.

A mere century of good hygiene and medical practice isn’t enough to eradicate a narrative that’s existed for thousands of years, a narrative that yet exists in many developing nations. Maternal mortality rates continue to drop worldwide (thankfully), but the effects of bygone years don’t vanish.

In that respect, it makes sense for writers who look to the past for inspiration to include what was once a very real possibility.

Still, it’s not a trope to take lightly. I can’t imagine my life without my mother. She knows me better than anyone else, she loves me more than anyone else (probably, haha), and she keeps me emotionally grounded. When I think about my relationship with her, I realize what a crummy thing it is to deprive a character of that same relationship.

But, granted, not all mothers are as amazing as mine.

The antagonistic parent is a trope for another day, however.