As readers and writers we see an endless series of tropes, both in the pieces that we create and the ones we consume. Some are used in interesting, innovative ways, some are hopelessly overdone, and some simply make the reader cringe and move on. Some tropes like love triangles or “chosen one” protagonists have become so common, however, that we fail to immediately recognize them as such. The trope that I find most interesting, is often dubbed the “dead mom” trope, which is especially common in children’s and young adult fiction. It usually involves a main character whose mother dies before the start of the story, and the death is used as a cheap way to force characterization and automatically make the reader empathize with the protagonist. There is rarely any development of the mother, and to their children, they are remembered in a perpetually positive, semi-detached manner.
There are several variations on this theme, but they all center around a complete lack of development of characters' relationships with their mothers. And it is everywhere. From Emma to To Kill a Mockingbird to A Series of Unfortunate Events, there is an exceptional number of novels, plays, poems and stories where the characters are somehow, although usually minimally, impacted by the death or disappearance of their mother. They are mentioned casually, with little emotion, to evoke a response in either the reader or another character of pity or compassion. The deaths are used as a tool to shape a character, and they rarely enter the central storyline. Mothers are often lost in a childhood not occuring in the story so that their death can be used for backstory, but an author doesn’t have to deal with the vast emotional fallout. Unless books actively center around grief and the dying process, it is relatively rare that a character’s mother will die during the book, particularly if the character is close with them. Exceptions to this rule, like Divergent, use the deaths to increase character’s intrinsic motivation to exact revenge, or similar actions. There is little developed relationship for the character or the reader to mourn, which allows us to move on quickly with the character and believe them to be inherently stronger and mature.
This doesn’t happen to literary fathers. Literary fathers are usually ambiguously missing or absent, but not dead. It raises the question as to why writers need to kill women to turn weak characters strong. For a lot of female characters, the loss of a mother is a way of showing the loss of a role model, often allowing them to be wilder and more self-sufficient, and as readers we are supposed to understand the reason why. For male protagonists, maternal death often leads to emotional hardening, which is just another plot point for character development. And many characters go on to seek some form of retribution for their mother, if, of course, it can help to move the plot along. Missing fathers aren’t the device that dead mothers become, and it is much rarer that the protagonist turns to violence, revenge or vengeance in their name. Perhaps it is because fathers are traditionally less involved in their children’s lives that they are given the privilege of living, because they need not interfere in the story, or we are less likely to notice. Either way, parents are taken out of the equation to allow their children to live wild, unsupervised adventures. But why is only one side allowed to live?
Women in literature, especially mothers, need to exist as more than a means to make other characters more interesting. Their deaths are usually unnecessary, and they’re also another cardinal literary sin: boring. The importance of representing death and grief, particularly in literature for younger audiences, should be and needs to be better represented. The characters we see with missing or dead parents are often written so that the reader believes this to be the only way they can be the independent, authoritative leader of their own lives. If you ask someone whose mother has actually died, it’s unlikely they will answer that that was the only way they were ever going to be free. In the real world, no one would welcome such a trade. The loss of a mother, or a parent for that matter, is a horrible experience for anyone, let alone a child or a teenager. Yet in books it is often treated less like the devastation it is, and more like a necessary step to move the plot forward. I would love to see more books that represent experiences like my own, without it becoming a typical tactic for easy character growth. The problem is that for many who haven’t lived it, these cheap tactics aren’t particularly notable. But for those who have lived it, they’re glaring. I didn’t see it until I lost my mother, and then it proceeded to become a constant running joke. Where have all the mothers gone?
This isn’t to say that all writing for children or teens has done a poor job representing maternal loss. Some books deal with the grief of losing a mother brilliantly, like A Secret Life of Bees or A Monster Calls, but it’s important to note that the grieving process is largely the focus of these books. Those characters remember their parents, or watched them die, showcasing that characters with deep relationships with their mothers, even if they are not entirely positive, make for more realistic and compelling writing. The pain and grief that is mentioned and dissected comes from the character’s love and pain, not just as a passing request for pity. This is an essential aspect to writing death well. If it’s ever happened to you, you know it doesn’t just enter your mind in passing. It eats you alive. If you’re killing your character’s mother, make sure it’s not a cheap way to try to make us care more. If I were to read it, I’d probably barely raise an eyebrow.
By Lucy Farcnik