Building Character Arc: Why a Motto Is Vital


Old Sunglasses
Photo by Donna Marijne

When developing characters, many of us use the method of "interviewing" them before we start the story. We need to know who they are and how they approach the world. What colors the view through their personal glasses? One of my favorite questions to tease out that issues is "What is his or her motto?" 

Yes, you can write notes and notes on their backstory, what they look like, what clothes they like to wear, whatever. But usually the essence of who the person is and how they're going to react in your book is the answer to that simple question--what is their motto? 

Susan Gable defines a motto as: A deeply held personal belief, stemming from the characters backstory, that impacts the way s/he views and world and behaves.

This motto is  a quick way to boil down to the bones and find your character's internal motivation and conflict. What world view do they have to change in order to resolve their internal conflict? What is ground zero for their character arc?

Here are some examples:


People always leave.
(Old school One Tree Hill fans will recognize this as Peyton's motto.) 

This is actually the motto of my current heroine as well. So from that simple three word motto, I can tease out so much more about her. If people always leave, then that means she's slow to trust, has feelings of inadequacy because if people always leave her that must mean something is wrong with her, and believes that love must be conditional. This also gives me my arc endpoint. At the end, she's going to have to trust someone and make herself vulnerable, will have to believe in her own self-worth, and have to accept that there is real love out there. All that from one motto.


Get them, before they get me.
(Puck on Glee)


It's better to burn out than fade away.
(Def Lepard lyric and a line in Kurt Cobain's suicide note)


When you know better, you do better
(Oprah's mantra from Maya Angelou)


Second place is first loser.
(The Karate Kid)


People who think they know it all, annoy those of us who do.
(Dwight, The Office)

(Barney, How I Met Your Mother)

Revenge is the only answer.
(Damon, The Vampire Diaries)

So what is your character's motto? Or what is your favorite book/tv/movie character's motto? I'd love to hear your own examples. Do you this this is a helpful exercise in developing internal motivation?

*This is an updated post from 2009