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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Hey, What's a Motto With You??? by Susan Gable

Okay, look, I’m from Jersey. You wanna make sumpin of it? Whazza motto with you??

Better yet, whazza motto with your characters? You want them to have conflict, dontcha?

Conflict, conflict, conflict!

Editors love conflict. Readers love conflict. Writers should love it, too.

Because let's face it, fiction without conflict is about as interesting as watching paint dry. And almost as bad is the bickering-that-pretends-it's-conflict. So we need to dig deep.

I'm a character-driven writer, which means I go heavier on the inner conflicts than I do on the external conflicts. Good fiction always has both, but some of us rely more on one or the other. There's nothing wrong with either choice -- it's the kind of writing you do.

I've discovered that I tend to use character motto as the basis for my conflict, as well as for help in plotting.

Character motto is your protagonist's life philosophy. Their core value, the way they view the universe. Mottos tend to come from your character's backstory. The things they've gone through before have shaped their view of life.

For example, in the book I'm racing to deadline now (A Real Comic Book Hero, w.t., Superromance, early 2009), the heroine's motto could well be termed, "Life is a catch-and-release program." She doesn't believe anything or anyone is permanent. Naturally, this stems from things she experienced as a child. (I'm fascinated by character psychology.) She thinks she's very Zen about life, enjoying things for the moment and then letting them go. (And none of that crap about them coming back to you and being yours to keep, either. Once it's gone, it's gone. Deal with it. Nothing to see here, move along.)

The hero of the story believes "Anything worth having is worth fighting for." That puts them in immediate conflict, especially when she's granted custody of her young nephew, who watched his father murder his mother. The boys' grandparents sue for custody, so she's forced to to fight. The idea of falling in love with this woman scares the pants off my hero -- whose parents have been married for forty-six years. He's not looking for someone who's going to let him go -- he wants someone who's going to keep him. (This answers that dreaded question editors like to ask -- What keeps them apart? What makes them All Wrong for one another?)

In my last book, The Pregnancy Test, the heroine's motto was "Life's short, eat dessert first." She was all about living life to the fullest and squeezing every last drop of fun out of it. My hero's motto was "Do the Right Thing." You can see how those two would (and did) clash. He's Mr. Responsible, she's Ms. Have a Good Time. That didn't work too well for him when she got pregnant -- at the same time he was struggling to deal with his teenage daughter's accidental pregnancy. Two hormonal women in his life who at first liked each other a lot -- until his teen daughter realized he'd been sleeping with a woman she counted as her friend first -- until he had to go and screw things up by knocking her up.

Mottos impact choices your characters make, which drives the plot. They impact setting and detail choices. A woman who believes everything in life is temporary lives a certain way, far different from my hero who fights for what he wants. Interestingly enough, this heroine likes really wonderful lingerie. (Why? Because nobody makes you give your UNDERWEAR away!) She also has fine taste in foods. Why? Foods are "disposable" items. Food isn't intended to be kept in the first place. She can indulge herself with those items without any guilt.

In Star Wars, we can look at character motto and conflict using Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. In the original first movie (A New Hope for those who go by the new titles ) Han's motto is "What's in it for me?" Luke's more of a "Do the Right Thing" kind of guy. He wants to save the princess and the universe because it's the right thing to do. Han's in it for the reward money. (Of course, he's also got the motivation that he needs that reward money to save his good-looking behind.) The two characters have differences of opinion throughout the movie because of their two different outlooks on life.

But when push comes to shove, Han flies to the rescue, proving his character growth.

By the end of your book, your character's motto may change. The heroine in Comic Book Hero has to learn that sometimes you DO have to fight for what matters to you... or you spend your life very lonely. The hero has to learn that sometimes fighting isn't the right option, and sometimes you have to let go. And you cross your fingers and hope that what you love boomerangs back to you.

Character's mottos don't have to be diametrically opposed to provide conflict. You could team up a "You'll never be happy with more until you're happy with what you've got" character with a "Success is the best revenge" character, and get plenty of conflict. It all depends on how your one character defines success, right?

Mottos are a lot of fun. I'm going to offer a list of a few more. Then I want you to think about your WIP, or a book you've read recently. Can you give the main characters' mottos? And can you see how those viewpoints turned into conflict between them?

More Mottos:

Life's fatal.
You'll never be happy with more until you're happy with what you've got.
Success is the best revenge.
Lace up your boots tighter and carry on.
Go hard or go home. (That one belongs to a Diana Duncan hero. YUM! I borrowed it from her for this blog because I loved it. If you love it -- read Diana's books. LOL!)
Do unto others before they do unto you. (Pair this character up with a believer in the REAL Golden Rule. Ding, ding, instant conflict.)
Trust no one. (This character's arc will teach him or her to trust. And what's going to happen on the way? Oh, he's going to get burned all right.)
Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.
If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.
Those of you who think you know everything are annoying to those of us who do.
It's my way or the highway.
Service to others before self.
Beauty is as beauty does.

Susan Gable's The Pregnancy Test reached #9 on Waldenbooks Romance Series Bestseller List and won the 2005 Readers Choice Award for Best Long Contemporary. Learn more about Susan at

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At 7:09 AM, Blogger Chicki said...

Hey, homegirl! As a Jerseyan living in metro Atlanta, Georgia for the past thirteen years, I still get people telling me that I "tawk" funny! :)

Great post. I love the idea of using a motto as the basis for my conflict. You've already got me thinking about a motto for the hero and heroine in my next story.

At 7:32 AM, Blogger HollyJacobs said...

This is a please-don't-shoot-the-messenger post. Susan's internet connection is down. She'll be checking in as soon as it's back up!!


At 8:32 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Hey, Chicki, how ya doin'?
(I went to Fairleigh Dickinson U in Teaneck and learned how to speak "Jersey" and learned to love the place, too) Thanks for stopping by.

Holly, thanks for being the messenger (Remember the movie 300? This is Sparta!)

I'd welcome Susan but she's lost in cyberspace at the moment. My friend , Superromance author Darlene Gardner, sent me to Susan's article on "motto" and I thought it was such a useful concept, that we had to have Susan guest blog on it.

I love that it is so easy to write a motto (I can somehow agonize over GMC and Hauge's "Essence" and "Identity" are just as hard) Motto seems easy.

I hope you all will give it a try and write mottos for your characters. If you comment, you have a chance to win our prize this month, and autographed Jo Beverley book.

At 8:34 AM, Blogger Jen said...

Hiya Susan. Really good information here. I like the way you make it so integral to character and plot -something that seems to always hide from me. Thanks for the post!

At 9:23 AM, Anonymous Susan Gable said...

I'm here, I'm here! My connection with the world has been restored!

Chicki, I'm glad you found the idea helpful. I get people who want me to say "water" all the time. I don't know why, just because it sounds sort of like wa-der. I talk normal. They talk weird. lol.

Holly, thanks for passing on my message. You're a good friend!

Diane, thanks for inviting me. I'm delighted people are finding the concept helpful. I am going to be doing a workshop at National that will include Motto. It's called Story Superglue: Make It Stick with Readers. So I hope some people will come to that if they'll be at National this summer.

Hey, Jen! Thanks for stopping by. It really is all interwoven. One piece leads to another, which leads to plot. I often don't know if I actually HAVE a plot. LOL.

At 9:35 AM, Blogger TinaFerraro said...

Susan, I tend to rely more heavily on external conflict in my books, so there's plenty of room for me to grow with internal. Thanks for this post!

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Linda Barrett said...

Hi Susan,

I really like this idea of using mottos to delineate character. They're pithy, to the point and easy to remember - especially if you keep them tacked to the computer screen as you write:)

Linda, who can't remember squat.

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Carrie Weaver said...

Susan, I love the idea of using mottos. I tend to be a bit challenged at coming up with something short and pithy, but I'm game to give it a try. More caffeine first, though!

At 1:02 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

You have GREAT conflicts, Susan!

In my first book, elven Galan is resigned to his own demise and the destruction of his race by humans. Then he meets human Erin, who is a go-getter optimist. She give Galan hope through love, but then they sort of switch when the villain really gets going, so that Erin is frightened by the first life-threatening situation she's been in, and Galan, who is used to horrible things, is determined to hang onto his new, hopeful love. So, Galan's motto might start out as, "You can't change your fate," and Erin's is "Anything is possible!" Then Galan's motto becomes, "Don't give in without a fight," and Erin starts thinking, "You can't risk other people's lives."

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Love this, Susan! Thanks for coming today.

My husband grew up in New Jersey (but he's in California with me now) and when I took our son to a speech therapist to see what the problem was since I couldn't understand a word he said, the therapist said, "Your son has a very strong New Jersey accent!" Ha! He got it from his dad and grandparents.

Love all of the conlict in your books, Susan, and using the mottos sounds like a great idea.

In my last book the motto for the heroine would be the "fool me once, fool me twice" one, and the hero's would be "life is short, make the most of it."

I like this. Now I have to find mottos for my WIP characters. Thanks, Susan!

At 1:46 PM, Anonymous Susan Gable said...

LOL, Teresa! That's cute. I assume your husband could understand your son? LOL.

I'm loving that so many of you are finding this to be a helpful technique.

At 2:15 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Ha! Yes, my husband could understand my son. It was the oddest thing. My younger daughter had a problem with "s" so I figured my son had a problem with all the other letters of the alphabet. :)

At 2:37 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Theresa: Oh, that is too funny.

At 3:19 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

It's WAH-der, Susan. And, Theresa that is just too funny about your son and cute as pie that he talked like his daddy.

I always loved how direct New Jersey people were, and I think this motto thing is pretty direct, too.

I also blog on Risky Regencies and I tried doing mottos for some Jane Austen characters.

At 3:19 PM, Blogger Linda Warren said...

Hey Susan,
Love the motto idea. I'm trying it with my WIP. I'll let you know how that turns out.
My heroine's motto is: life is a party. Have fun.
The hero is: life is precious. Don't waste it.
I think it's working. Maybe.

At 4:20 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

My hero's motto could be:
Trust only in logic, never in emotions.

My heroine's motto is:
Let your heart guide the way.

This is conflict, yes?

You Posse gals and guests have given me SO much to mull over this last week...and I thank you, because I certainly believe my story will be stronger for it!

I must admit, it made me feel the tiniest bit better to hear Diane say she sometimes "agonizes" over GMC. It can freeze me in my tracks. But her books are loaded with story-propelling conflict, so hopefully I'm on the right track as well. :)

Theresa, your story cracked me up! I'm a speech path in the "day" job, and boy, does where you live make a difference in what qualifies as a "speech disorder"! ;)

At 4:22 PM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

Great post. I'm character oriented as well, so it's a lot of inner conflict for me. One of my heroine's would be "keep your friends close but your enemies closer." For the hero of that book, it was less a motto and more of having to discover that his live had been driven by not admitting how much his father really meant to him. I'm sure there's a motto in there, but that inner conflict worked well enough for me.

At 5:13 PM, Anonymous Susan Gable said...

Diane, I didn't realize that my bluntness came from Jersey. LOL. I tend to like to tell it like it is, but didn't realize that it was a characteristic I shared with a lot of people from my home state.

See, I'm learning interesting stuff today, too.

At 6:56 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Gillian, I'm ROTTEN at nailing the GMC. But I think I can do mottos.

In my current wip (the one due June 1 and I'm almost done with Chp 2)
the hero's motto would be:
Trap your feelings in your work; don't feel them.
The heroine: Let your emotions guide you.

See? Even that isn't really spot on, is it?

At 7:19 PM, Anonymous Susan Gable said...

Diane, it sounds like you've got a head person, and a heart person. (I've got a lot of little different characters things I use to help create my people.)

If one person runs their life by way of their emotion, and the other is all about logic and surpressing emotions, well, there's going to be conflict there.

I think maybe your hero's motto is something like: Busy Hands, Busy Brain, Numb Heart. (Or something like that. You know him best. You make it up. (g) ) Maybe: No Time for Emotions, I'm Busy. Or Don't feel, think.

And she's Don't think, feel. LOL. Yeah, yeah, that's it. LOL.

At 8:22 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Thanks, Susan!

That does help.

At 9:17 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Hello to all the Jersey Girls! I have two cousins who grew up in Trenton so I know all about Jersey Tawk!! Hey, yous guys!

I really like the idea of a motto to get to the heart of your conflict. Now if I could just think of some for my hero and heroine. Let me give it some thought. This has been the BEST month of blogs with the Posse for me! I cannot tell you how much clarity I am getting from this discussion of conflict. Count me in the freezing up on GMC, O Divine One and Gillian!

At 11:03 PM, Blogger Prisakiss said...

Hi guys, I'm posting late tonight and boy am I glad I decided to check out the blog.

Susan, this is a great idea. The essence of your character's mindset in one sentence.

You've given me something to mull over with my latest wip.

Posting the motto by my computer, or adding it to my collage is a definite way to stay true to my characters.


At 11:43 PM, Blogger doglady said...

great idea, prisakiss!!

At 7:16 AM, Blogger MaryF said...

Wow. This puts it all in a nutshell, if you can find that motto, doesn't it? Very insightful! Thanks, Susan!


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