Throughout history, folklore and mythology have featured the mother archetype. There’s Mother Earth, the Virgin Mary, mother figures throughout creation myths, mothers in fairytales—for better or for worse, mothers have shaped the world, our characters, and our writing.
However, the mother archetype isn’t always a traditional mother, and the role that this archetype plays within your story can greatly impact your main characters’ decisions and development.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is the mother archetype?
The mother archetype is a character who fulfills a maternal role in a story, caring for others in an often-selfless manner. They represent safety and security in an otherwise chaotic world. The mother is often depicted as a symbol of fertility, compassion, and abundance. Though traditionally associated with the feminine polarity, “mothers” in literature can take any shape.
However, in some instances, the mother archetype’s love can be corrupted with pride, selfishness, fear, or other negative traits. Whatever the case, the mother archetype and their behavior will greatly impact other characters’ trajectories.
The mother archetype exists as part of the Carl Jung definitions of personalities that exist within the human psyche and collective unconscious—types of people that we can all recognize and know, in the real world and in stories.
Is the mother archetype always a woman?
No, just like the damsel archetype, the mother archetype does not necessarily need to be embodied by a woman character or what we might consider a true mother. Many other mother symbols and maternal figures exist.
The mother archetype does not need to be a mother in the sense of having given birth or having adopted a child. So long as they are a primary nurturer or caring figure, any character—man, woman, mythical creature, etc.—can represent the mother archetype, so long as that character fits the below common characteristics and motherly ideals.
Characteristics of the mother archetype
Here are the traits every literary mother should have.
The mother archetype possesses maternal and protective instincts
The mother archetype always aims to protect and care for the object of their affection, whether that be another character, a group of characters, a place, an inanimate object, or an idea.
As a mother is, at their most basic, a giver of life. They want to protect that life with unconditional love, and see it grow. The mother nurtures not just the child, but any other character with whom they feel that mother-child bond.
However, the archetypal mother can be corrupted and these protective instincts can have a dark side. Taken too far, these instincts turn the mother archetype into a possessive, controlling character.
The mother archetype needs her “children”
The mother archetype cannot exist and has little identity without a “child.” Whether this is a real child, another individual, or any sort of entity, the mother archetype needs something on which to express their motherly instincts.
This characteristic gives the mother archetype purpose, but also can turn dark if the mother becomes controlling, possessive or abusive in order to keep her children with her at all costs.
The mother archetype is romanticized
Traditionally, the mother archetype is romanticized and slotted into a very stereotypical box. She’s either very, very good or very, very bad. She’s a hero or she’s a villain. Mother archetype characters are black or white with little room for gray.
The mother archetype is heroic
Whatever lengths your mother archetype character needs to go to in order to protect (or at least, protect as they see it) their “children,” they’ll go to them. After all, a caring mother is caring to the end.
In this way, the mother archetype character is heroic. They will muster up needed courage in the face of danger and always do what they feel is right for their surrogate children.
Different types of literary mother archetypes
The mother archetype can be further broken down into specific types of mothers that we often see throughout literature and pop culture.
The most common mother figure, with a slew of positive traits, the nurturer is a caring, good mother that will do anything for the “children” around them.
This good mother is the epitome and idealized version of what we think of when we think of a selfless mother, constantly putting themselves and their own needs last, putting their “children” and their well being first, and doing the very best for them.
This typically healthy mother-child relationship fosters growth, with the mother providing support and keen understanding, no matter what the “child” comes up against.
The great mother
The great mother is most commonly seen in mythology or epics (think folk tales, origin myths, or even high fantasy).
She is a life giver, life force, and a creator of universes, but she’s a little more removed from her child characters’ lives than other archetypal mothers might be. She usually possesses some sort of otherworldly, godly, or supernatural appeal. This mother might represent more of an ideal than a concrete person.
The fairy godmother
The fairy godmother is a type of mother who swoops in to save the day with seemingly magic powers. They get things done, grant their “children’s” wishes, and have all the answers.
These mothers can be a little proud, because they find helping their children so satisfying.
The wicked (step)mother
The wicked stepmother represents a dark take on the nurturer. They project their own ambitions or insecurities onto their child and immediately makes the child’s life harder.
They may still fulfill certain motherly traits and duties; however, this is often not due to any great, pure love for the child. Instead, motivations lie in pride, keeping up appearances, personal gain, etc.
It’s worth noting that in older versions of fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White, the “stepmother” was a literal birth mother. It wasn’t until parents began reading these stories to their kids that the character shifted into something more distant.
The absent mother
This mother figure is characterized by their absence, usually due to being killed off or dying in childbirth. You’ll often see this mother in young adult novels, in which the parents are killed off in dramatic fashion in order to both get them out of the teenage protagonist’s way and to move the plot along.
However, just because the mother is dead, that doesn’t diminish her impact. The main hero is not only impacted by her death, but also by how she treated the child figure in life. If the mother died shortly after the child is born, the character may be influenced by the idea of who their mother was.
The all-consuming mother
The mother archetype cannot exist without a “child” to throw their maternal attributes at. The all-consuming mother takes this trait to an unhealthy degree.
They want to spend every waking moment with their child. They want to live side by side with their child. They feel an intense bond with their “child,” whether or not the child feels it, too. In some instances, these mother archetypes want to even be their child.
This sub-type of the archetypal mother could be considered the dark take on the nurturing mother.
Examples of the mother archetype in literature and pop culture
If you think about the mother archetype sub-types listed above, you can likely begin to name a handful of characters in literature that fit this archetype and its certain elements perfectly.
The fairy godmother and wicked stepmother in “Cinderella”
Whether you read the fairytale or watch the movie, these two women are a crash course in mother archetypes.
The wicked stepmother comes in and ruins Cinderella’s life by favoring her own children and neglecting her new third child, Cinderella.
The fairy godmother then comes in and effectively solves all of Cinderella’s problems for her, even though this godmother isn’t technically in a biological or surrogate mother role.
Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter universe
In both the Harry Potter books and movies, Mrs. Weasley serves as a nurturing, heroic mother who is willing to put herself in dangerous, even deadly, situations to protect her children.
She’s constantly looking out for their welfare, and her motherly instincts spread outward to impact characters that are not even her birth children, such as Harry.
Mrs. Weasley is also a good example of how this archetype can entirely consume them, as Mrs. Weasley does not have much of a narrative purpose beyond her family.
Cersei Lannister from the Game of Thrones universe
This mother takes the nurturing elements of the classic mother archetype to a whole new level.
Cersei only wants what’s best for her children and she’ll go to great lengths in order to get what she feels is best on their behalf. She is conniving, scheming, and completely immoral, which takes the heroic, willing-to-do-it-all characteristics of a traditional mother archetype and turns them on their head.
Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings universe
In The Lord of the Rings movies and books, Sam acts as a sort of maternal caregiver toward Frodo. He selflessly serves Frodo both physically and emotionally, with a level of heroism that we see in many nurturing mother archetypes who are willing to sacrifice it all so that their children can survive and thrive.
Creating a more impactful, modern mother archetype
If you want to write an effective mother archetype for a modern reader, it’s important to not get bogged down in the characteristics of the traditional mother archetype that appears in fairytales and folktales.
In other words, while giving your mother archetype traits such as heroism and a romantic slant toward all-good or all-bad, also give them a little more depth.
As we can see in effective mother archetype characters that are so much more than mere mothers—as is the case with Cersei Lannister—it is possible to turn this archetype into a well-rounded individual that captures readers’ attentions and hearts.
The mother archetype: A secondary character with a big impact
Whether you’re writing a biological mother figure, a grandmother, fairy godmother, wicked stepmother, or any of the other mother archetypes in between, remember—this character will have a huge influence on your main character or whichever character stands within that “child” role.
If the mother archetype is a terrible mother, the child character will suffer. If the mother archetype is a great mother, the child character will thrive.
Whichever option you choose, this secondary character, when well written, can help drive plot, character development, and more.