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In the story I'm writing, the character behaves differently when they're spending time with their mother - they are conflicted. They idolise their mother on the one hand, but as they have grown up (in dwarf years 45, in human years that'd be ~15-18) they realise their mother hasn't always been there as a parent and when she does fill that role, the mother is babying her daughter in a way she's finding frustrating and chafing.

I've looked at a few external articles covering finding your character's voice, as well as this very good Q&A post:

Finding the 'voice' of a character

However, because the way the character behaves is different with her mother, and how she is conflicted, I'm struggling to follow the advice from that post.

To over come this, I tried to do a bit of an exercise where it's just the two characters (mother and daughter) talking to each other, no other descriptions etc. The first character speaking is the mother, and it alternates to the main character and back every new line:

Hrafnhildur, your hair is a nightmare! It's difficult enough as it is... Is that dough? How did you get dough in your hair?

I was fighting orcs mamma! You know, the kind you used to fight?

Hmpph... I don't remember any orcs in my kitchen, anyway how does that explain the dough?

It got knocked... In the fight... I knocked it mamma. I was just trying to fight like you used to...?

Hmmm, I normally know you've been back in the kitchen by the trail of crumbs, not by dough that's been knocked over... but what did I say about moving things around?

Mama if you don't want me back in the kitchen, you can just say so!

Krummi, dearest, you now that's not true! I just haven't been free to ... Supervise you.... Fighting orcs.

I don't need supervising! It's a kitchen not a battlefield mama! There weren't really any orcs... I... Are you afraid I might take notes again?

Hrafn! You don't learn by taking notes with your hands! Use your eyes! Like you should have been doing in the kitchen when the dough for knocked over!

It feels to me a little stilted, at least to start. The character I'm trying to find the voice of is lying to soften the conflict between idolising her mother and being chafed. But the lies are too childish sounding if they're trying to act mature.

If she didn't idolise her mother she could have just replied something like:

I'm a grown dwarf mamma, so what I got dough in my hair. I can get it out myself! What I was doing in the kitchen was my own business!

If she didn't feel chafed:

Oh I'm so sorry mamma, I didn't mean to knock over the dough. I just wanted to get something to eat, so I can grow up to be a warrior like you were! Please let me back in the kitchen.

I do want the two to have a great and really close relationship when there's no other conflict (e.g. dough in hair) or certain topics aren't brought up (taking notes in the kitchen), and the chafing to be only when there's conflict. For instance, they play a sort of hide and seek together, which I want to imply is a long-standing sort of game they have.

How can I achieve a balance and find a voice for the character that communicates they're conflicted?

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    I doubt you can balance each scene, that's going to blur the message. Rather you will show (as you have) the daughter starting meek and losing, the daughter starting meek and pushing back and losing, the daughter making a good point and the mother switching tactics… The daughter finding some tactics that 'score' even if being manipulative… and ultimately the daughter being able to 'win' one honestly. Assuming this goes all the way, the end goal is the mother agreeing with the daughter which may never happen. Anyway, I suggest a long series of 'losses' to establish the pattern and 'rules'.
    – wetcircuit
    Aug 26, 2022 at 19:39
  • @wetcircuit that's utterly ridiculously genius. I don't know whether an anvil landed on me or a light bulb flashed up. Please add that as an answer, when you're able to do so. Aug 27, 2022 at 0:01
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    Jennette McCurdy's I'm Glad My Mom Died does a great job of explaining this conflicted relationship between a less than ideal mother and a growing daughter. It could be a good reference.
    – Carina
    Aug 29, 2022 at 18:46
  • Regarding "(in dwarf years 45, in human years that'd be ~15-18)". We often translate between "dog years" and "human years" like that, but I don't think it would work like that with another human-like species that just happens to have a longer lifetime than humans. Adulthood is a product of experience and responsibility, not of life expectancy. If you have big responsibilities at 13, then you have to behave like an adult at 13. If society expects you to be a student who lives with their parents until 30, then you can behave like a child until 30. Regardless of whether you'll die at 80 or 250.
    – Stef
    Jan 3 at 14:10

2 Answers 2

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Not so balanced

It would be difficult to 'balance' the dynamic in each scene, it might result in a mushy, unclear message. Since you have other situations to show their affection, I think you won't need to mitigate the 'arguments'. It will sting when the mother goes off on another trek and these feelings linger. An absent parent is often idolized, with pressure added to the time together.

Your example sets a good tone because you don't villainize the mother and you self-deprecate the daughter. It signals who ought to change at the opening status quo. As the story continues she will feel more like a nag, perceived by protagonist and reader as they look for ways to change her dynamic.

Hero try/fail

I think the trick is to treat this arc as a subtle try/fail cycle. From the Hero's pov this is a recurring challenge that is not recognized as a challenge, it's just 'I can't please my mother'. The arc will progress with each recurrence, capturing moments in their evolving relationship, and the daughter's growing maturity.

You will show (as you have) the daughter starting meek and losing, the daughter pushing back and losing, the daughter making a good point and the mother switching tactics… The daughter finding a tactic that 'scores' even if being manipulative (cheating, or a low blow)…, and ultimately the daughter being able to 'win' one honestly.

Assuming this arc could go all the way, the end-goal is the mother openly agreeing with the daughter, which may never happen. They should end on a new status quo, but it doesn't need to be a complete 'win' for the protagonist. Leveling up may come with heaps of new responsibilities, for example: even more scrutiny directly under the mother's military command.

Parents can't switch it off

The mother will also need to mature to this new status quo. I have no kids, but a friend told me they never stop seeing their adult children as 6 years old. Imagining the mother is literally seeing her small child, not an adult, will help with her language and tone.

When the daughter comes home talking about fighting orcs, well…, ironically the mother has listened to pretend battles before. It must be a weird echo of having seen the child parrot adults, and now watching them as adults saying the same words. Imagine the conflicted feelings and randomly triggered memories.

"Mother, I fought an orc at the Northern pass–"
"Mmm-hmmm. Whatever happened to that Olaf boy?"
"I… Who…?"
"Olaf, 3rd son of Gertrine. You always played together up around that pass. I often thought, well, Gertrine and I kept our doors open..."
"Mother!"
"Oh yes..., you found an orc?"
"I fought an orc."
"… just you..., alone, Dear?"
"Yes."
sigh.

Blind-sided, and unreliable narration

There are long-standing habits to this dynamic. The protagonist knows what's coming. She's not actively trying to fix the issues, just avoid the dressing down. Somehow, there is always an insult she didn't see coming.

What changes is when the protagonist has more agency in her life outside, and she's starting to push back rather than avoid. However she is not an accomplished warrior, she is not pushing back directly to address the problem. She is trying parrying tactics she never tried before, and her mother is surprisingly pre-armed against a lot of immature bs and double-talk.

The daughter's voice will often be an unreliable narrator to her own feelings as she tries on different ways of trying to get past the mother. The mother's voice then becomes the 'truthteller' for the reader. But her responses may not be direct, often taking a parental step back, or asking a loaded question and letting the answer hang, uncertain to the protagonist but clear to the reader.

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I'd suggest a passive voice; she just doesn't try to fight. Also, you need more action and description, you are writing a "talking heads" sequence.

"Krummi your hair is a nightmare! How did you get dough in your hair?"

Krummi reached up to her hair, and felt a moment to find a small piece of dough.

"Oh. That's an accident. I was shaping it, and scratched my head, I guess."

"Well you need to be more careful!"

"Yes, mama. I will."

The mother still frowned.

"I mean it! What if you went out like that? What will people think of me?"

"Yes, mama. I'm sorry."

The mother huffed. "I swear!"

She waits a beat, then says, "What you were making?"

Krummi grinned. "Kromerrian bread. Do you want to try some?"

Mama looks surprised at first, then knits her brow, suspicious.

"Did it come out crispy? I don't want it if it isn't crispy."

Krummi is enthusiastic, and rises, heading for the kitchen.

"It came out perfectly crispy. I'll get you a slice!"

To me, when we are adults and our parents treat us as children, we don't act like children and most that love their parents don't assert their adulthood. They just deflect with passive agreement that they don't mean, until the moment passes, then we re-engage. Enough passive agreement and the parent tends to run out of steam, there is no argument to keep it going.

For a contrast with others, Krummi only ever does this with her mother. You can show her in other situations where she is combative and assertive and argues. But with her mother — "Yes, mama."

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  • The point of the exercise I shared was to find the voice, without action or description. It's deliberately 'taking heads'. Also, I appreciate you think the character should be more passive, but I want a big bit of this character's development to be them switching away from being passive. Aug 27, 2022 at 0:00
  • @ProseFerret They are passive with their mother; not with anybody else. You need a contrast. Part of "voice" is how it is voiced; which is the 'action' I provided. But I will leave you to your exercise.
    – Amadeus
    Aug 27, 2022 at 9:48
  • I think you're neglecting the fact I do not want them to be 100% passive with their mother. I can write a passive character. I'm interested in writing a conflicted character. Aug 27, 2022 at 10:17

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