In honour of Mother’s Day, I decided to delve into the topic of mothers…parents in general, actually… in fantasy settings. I addressed the manner in which the parents of adolescent protagonists are often kept out of the storyline in my blog post “Parents – They Get in the Way of Good Fiction” but this is about what happens when a writer reaches that point in a longer running series where they deem it necessary for characters who have been romantically involved to finally start having children of their own.
From what I’ve seen, this is very dangerous territory in which to tread, especially if a writer aims to preserve realism within their fantasy. More than one series has effectively “jumped the shark” by adding children to the mix. You have to consider how children will affect the plot before adding them. Continuing on as if nothing has changed never works, and trying to avoid the obstacles younger offspring pose to progression of the plot has led to some pretty blatantly abused speculative fiction tropes I know that as a reader I don’t usually like to see.
Introducing children brings up a lot of questions modern couples face when deciding if the time is right for them. Should the couple marry if they haven’t already done so? How will the new addition affect character roles and dynamics? How will this impact characters’ health, livelihoods and availability? Will it change how and where they live? If the setting is a static one, like a town or castle, children could be integrated into the story without being overly disruptive, but what about if the story centers on a quest involving a great deal of travel or action? A child isn’t something that can be added to the story as a novelty item and then just swept under the carpet when they become inconvenient…or at least, they shouldn’t be. Plus the pregnancy itself could possibly take one of the characters out of the storyline for the duration, if not permanently.
Whether there has been any consideration with regards to becoming a parent or not, if a writer hasn’t addressed the issue of birth control, which may not be readily available in a fantasy setting, and characters are sexually active, eventually you would anticipate children to be the end result. When some of the young adults in my Fervor series become sexually active with no contraceptives available, they do not do so without consequence. I would expect similar results in novels set in lower tech worlds with no contraception or perhaps with something not consistently reliable.
For example, I have allowed for magical contraceptives in my Masters and Renegades world-building but even those do not always work as expected. Sometimes magic can be manipulated to yield unpredictable results, as my dwarven character in Magic University would attest. Spells can fail or be deactivated. Nothing is perfect.
So once children do come along, what then? You could keep them out of the picture until they are older(and with them likely one or both of their parents), try to work them into the story in minor ways or put them at risk (potentially bad parenting at its worst.) Or you could do something a little more extreme. These are my three least favourite speculative fiction tropes for dealing with the situation (although I won’t promise I’m not guilty of using these myself):
1) Supernaturally rapid aging to hasten the child into adolescence or adulthood – I absolutely hate this one and it has been done to death, from fantasy novels where a pregnancy is magically quickened so the child is born within days of conception so mom warrior-woman can get back to her quest as quickly as possible with baby in tow, to the sci-fi TV series baby who miraculously develops into adult over a matter of days or even hours (or in some cases, instantaneously). This trope is almost always accompanied by some sort of hokey explanation for eliminating the offspring inconvenience.
As I mentioned – I’m guilty of applying these under different conditions. I use it in Fervor, in a way, but in that case the children have been in stasis for years and have been kept in an unnaturally young physical form for their real age. The removal of the stasis causes them to develop rapidly to catch up to their actual age, not to surpass it. That, and the children involved are not a plot device for protagonist parents but the actual main characters themselves. Stasis plays into the plot as a whole and is not a means of hastening the characters into adulthood.
2) The child is outrageously precocious for their age – In more than one way the child thinks or behaves like an adult. While this one doesn’t bother me so much with older children who have been forced to fend for themselves or perhaps been trained extensively since birth, like in the movie Hanna…or have been genetically-manipulated to have heightened intelligence or targeted for such traits like Ender… I object to toddlers and preschoolers spouting Yoda-like wisdom without any attempt at explaining why.
3) The child is the extra special, chosen one, focus of a prophecy, destined to change the world, etc, etc (I think you get where I’m going with this) – I understand this approach more than the other two. It’s an excuse for involving children in a story with their parents where it would have been unthinkable otherwise. If the child has a unique or particularly unusual background, forcing them to be inherent to a plot, it makes some sense. It still seems to be more common than it ought to be though. Just how many “Chosen Ones” are there?
Running into one of these tropes seems to be par for the course in speculative fiction involving children. Then you get the stories that go overboard, like a certain series involving sparkly vampires offering up all three in one child(ugh).
Some writers have managed to handle the introduction of children with great forethought and finesse – it can be done. It requires a certain amount of creativity along with the acceptance that there may be sacrifices required and a reorganization of how things are done, just as you would have to do with the arrival of a child in real life. It helps if the writer is a parent themselves, since the experience is eye-opening. Maternal, or paternal, instinct can be a powerful force.
And remember, parents are still people too, including step-parents, foster parents and surrogates. You don’t just cease to exist because you’ve chosen to procreate (or raise someone else’s procreation.) So if the time is right, let your characters get to it.
Cheers to all the moms out there as your special day approaches.