While I sometimes criticize fantasy classics for their lack of strong female characters, several use women as the strength behind their children, (sons usually) pushing them up the power ladder. Often these characters cannot achieve full power because gender, thereby manipulating events for the next best thing: their sons at the top.
My overall favorite power-mother was the character Livia in “I, Claudius.” For those interested, I highly recommend watching this old mini-series masterpiece starring Sir Derek Jacobi as the lead character. Early in the story, Livia, mother of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, stops at nothing to ensure that her son reach the top of the Roman leadership. Many in line fall to her “poisonous” techniques; leaving her a very memorable character.
In the oldie but goodie story of Beowulf, Grendel’s mother wanted revenge over the death of her monster son. As a kid, Rikki Tikki Tavi was a favorite story of mine, with Nag’s mother Nagina standing as another dangerous challenge to the feisty mongoose. Though the examples are numerous, one thing in common usually is the mother is protective of her child (or offspring), and is often willing to manipulate or kill to advance their children out of desire for power, wealth, or vengeance. A more recent example is Cersei in “A Song of Ice and Fire” which I’m still reading, and hope to finish someday.
Why do mothers make such powerful characters in fantasy/fictionalized stories? Answer: One of the most important relationships in our lives is the one we have with our mothers. Therefore to use mothers in stories, either human, cobra, or monster, relates to us on some level, as generally they are protective and want the best for their children.
Can the use of mothers add to character development in fiction? Of course! It would hardly apply to all characters, but as in my article about fantasy families, sometimes the mother takes the foreground instead of the father. Female characters can be every bit as horrific, intriguing and vengeful as their male counterparts, and though I prefer my benevolent, supportive mother I have in reality, they need not be that way in the stories we create in fantasy.