Hey, What's a Motto With You??? by Susan GableOkay, 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 learn...how 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
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?
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 susangable.com