Q&A

How Do I Refer to the Viewpoint Character’s Parents?

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This is very specific, but what do I call the protagonist’s parents in narration?

For example, my story is in third-person limited and my hero’s mother has just entered the scene. Do I refer to her as ‘her mother,’ ‘mum,’ ‘her mum’ or by her name? No matter what I pick, it always feels unnatural. Are all acceptable? Can I interchange between them or should I stay consistent?

Thank you,

Alice

Hi Alice,

Yes, it’s specific, but I’ve actually gotten this question before, so you’re not alone.

I think this partly depends on how distant vs close your third-person narration is. The most common way to do it is say “her mother,” but that’s a little formal and distant, and the average third-person limited story is on the distant side. In distant books, I’ve also seen it start with “her mother” to introduce the mother’s name, and then use the mother’s name sometimes as well. Unless the viewpoint character calls their parent by name, using the first name will feel pretty distant.

If you’re using a closer perspective, try just “mother,” “her mum/mama,”  or “mom/mum/mama.”

Ultimately, you’re just looking for something that matches the rest of the narration. How formal or casual the character sounds matters, as does the setting. “Mom” obviously doesn’t work so well for history-inspired settings. If nothing feels natural, you might just be staring at your prose a little too hard. Things stick out more to a writer than to a reader. Write the same sample out several times with different labels for the mom, then go away for a while, and come back to look at them another day.

You can switch off a little as long as the tone is consistent, and it’s really clear who you’re talking about. Giving a character more than one label means the reader has to learn and remember all of them. I wouldn’t switch off “mom” and “mum,” because what’s the point, but for distant narration I might switch “her mother” with the mother’s name to suit the context, or for close I might do just “mom” when it feels natural, and “her mom” otherwise.

Happy writing!

Chris

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    As Chris wrote, there’s many things to think about before you decide how to refer to a parent.

    If you have a historical story, ‘mother’ or ‘father’ would be fitting. The same goes if your character isn’t close with their parents or one parent and would, therefore, have a bit of a distance in thinking about them, too. I’ve written a novel where my main character thinks of their mother as ‘mum,’ but of their father as ‘father,’ because he was mostly a distant authority figure for her so far. They do grow closer during the novel, but like that, it’s easy to show her different connection to both parents. If you want it more distant, refer to them by name instead. If you want it closer, use ‘mum’ (or mom) and ‘dad’ or an equivalent (mama, papa, whatever is regular where your story is set).

    It also depends how close your point of view is. At a far third, you’d refer to parents with mother and father or even with names (or use that interchangeable). In close first, you’d use whatever the character also uses in dialogue, because they clearly think of their parents the same way they refer to them when speaking.

  2. Sam Victors

    I have this idea of making one of my time-travel romance novels into a multi-character narration (having more than one character narrator).

    My main protagonist has the full narrative, with her romantic interest and parent have a chapter devoted to themselves.

    Since my romance story is modeled after the myth of Persephone, the Mother is the Demeter figure and she has a chapter told from her perspective; mourning the disappearance of her daughter, suffering from depression and ennui, and observing the supernatural mess she caused in her village (spring and summer has dried up/withered everything, fall and winter are bitter cold, with nothing growing, libidos begin to lower, hunger increases, and infertility starts spreading). She also has mild Borderline Personality Disorder, explaining her extreme grief and ennui. The Mother also explains how, since the deaths of her husband and stepchildren (the Heroine’s half-siblings) in the Troubles in Ireland, she has been holding tight on her daughter for fear of losing her and also worrying about being alone, and now with her daughter’s disappearance, she’s been feeling nothing but emptiness, grief, boredom, and contemplating suicide.

    Can her narration count as a perspective?

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