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Use Mottos For Maximum Impact by Stephanie Spann

What’s a sure-fire way to stir up your character’s faith, rekindle their confidence and will have readers holding their breath even after a scene has finished? Push-ups! Okay, yeah, I heard a collective groan. Let’s table that idea for a moment. The second best way to do all of the above? Give your characters a motto.

Whose Motto Is It, Anyway?

First, a fun quiz.  Who said it?

  1. “I mustn’t tell lies.”
  2. “I can do this all day.”
  3. “I am Locutus of Borg.”
  4. “I shall live and not die.”

If you weren’t able to guess, answers will be at the end, but don’t peek. There are interesting tidbits to come, I promise.

What’s A Motto?

As a dedicated author, it’s within your control to inspire a character when they’re feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, afraid and as if they’re not good enough. You can’t leave them, and by extension, your readers, without a glimmer of hope at the crossroads or cliffhanger.

To the heroine or hero, a motto, can be important in so many ways. They serve as inspiration, encouragement and reminders. Readers are given the opportunity to peer inside a character’s soul through the benefit of a motto. Rather than wading through chapter upon chapter of exposition, the author can make the character’s intention crystal clear with a time efficient word or short sentence that summarizes core values. We call it a motto. Repeated often enough, it becomes a mantra.

Iron In The Soul

The reader’s experience is different. A motto is like a promise from the author to the reader saying, “Psst, it’s okay. She won’t really go that far. He knows his limits. Trust me.” It keeps the reader safe. But if you break that promise and your character goes against their set values? Well, I can tell you firsthand, there’s no better way to have a book chucked across a room. (No hardbounds were injured despite this tantrum. Just a paperback and I’ve since apologized to the bent cover.)

Yes, there are negative mottos that, when watered and properly fed, will take root and lead characters down dark roads. Unsettling as they are for readers, they serve as wonderful setups for plot twists or character development, and involve the same amount of commitment to action as positive mottos.

One word, a short sentence or even a tune is all it takes to bring them back from the brink of despair, get their feet back on the right path to success and prod them towards a happy ending. Most importantly, it allows your reader to trust you to bring them to a desolate precipice where there’s no looking back and land them gently on solid ground.

Consider the lyrics from, “I Whistle A Happy Tune,” from the musical, “The King and I,” as they explain, “While shivering in my shoes, I strike a careless pose, And whistle a happy tune, And no one ever knows, I’m afraid.”

“For As He Thinks In His Heart, So Is He.”

In your plot, no matter the genre, there must also be an opposition or crisis of faith, that helps the heroine and hero prove their mettle. With each challenge met, they grow and stretch their muscles. What your character speaks corresponds with their beliefs.

Remember those push-ups I mentioned earlier? In reality, it turns out that if you speak negatively about yourself while trying a set of push-ups (“I can’t do anymore. I’m so tired.”), you won’t get as far as if you speak positively (“I’m just getting warmed up. I can do twice as many as yesterday.”).  Besides, push-ups build self-control, resilience and improve adaptability.1 But, if that point in the character-arc hasn’t been reached yet, it might be a good time for them to explore why and how to move forward.

There’s a difference between bluster and honest-to-goodness belief.  We’re not linking mottos with showmanship. Readers will quickly ascertain if the lead character is, “all talk,” through their behavior and actions. If they proceed for glory or shallow reasons, they’ll be the first to run during times of trouble. Heroines and heroes with deep, underlying motivations engraved on their hearts are celebrated. Those are the stories readers will remember.

Can circumstances or other people change this belief for better or for worse? Absolutely. Ultimately, when characters have a motto they develop a new way of checking what’s right and what’s wrong. They won’t be, “stampeded into fear,”2 because their reality is different. They won’t rely on what other people tell them or believe. In the end, they’ll develop a personal moral code to use as a gauge.

The Recipe

For those moments of sheer panic, I think there’s more power in quotes that begin with, ‘I.’  In “Man of La Mancha,” we hear, “I am I, Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha, Destroyer of Evil am I…” Cool. In the same way, the importance of Tony Stark’s personal journey from the first Iron Man film through Avengers: End Game can be summed up in one sentence, “I am Iron Man.” What a satisfying use of a such simple phrase.

A few tips to create your character’s motto?  Keep it short, easy to remember and emotionally intelligent.3 Or, “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” That’s K.I.S.S. for short.

Use Them Effectively

For Plotters, when creating your character sheets, mottos can be written right under the character’s name for easy reference when fleshing out GMCs. For Pantsers, it’s an easy-to-remember tool for course correction that won’t weigh you down as you are flying through possible narratives.

Back to real life heroes. I’m inspired by the story of a young man with cortical blindness who serves as a swim coach. How so? He can hear and correct the strokes, kicks and breaths of swimmers across the pool. His motto?  “I don’t like boxes.” He explained, “We have these ideas in life. Well, here’s your box and you sit in your box. Well, I don’t like boxes.”4 Bravo!

Sidenote: Fabulous writer, what about your motto? Ooo, did that catch you off guard? If so, give it a whirl. One word, phrase or sentence that sums up your beliefs. Like in Game of Thrones. (Did I get that reference right? I really need to watch, like, the last three seasons. Oh, there were eight seasons in total? Then, I only have seven to go…yikes!) Don’t limit yourself to just one. You can have a motto for writing, work, home and what falls in between. The idea is to use it as a tool to encourage and propel yourself forward. Don’t lose momentum.

And, of course I didn’t forget about the answers to our quiz earlier:

A. Harry Potter / B. Captain America / C. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s assimilated Captain Jean-Luc Picard / D. The Psalmist (Psalm 118:17).

So, how about your characters? What events and experiences have shaped them before and during the story you’ve plotted? The next time you want to add a bit of zing to your plot, help your characters keep sight of their goal and keep your readers along for an exciting ride, why not give mottos a try?

Love this?

Check out Stephanie’s class starting Monday:

A Heartened Deep POV with Stephanie Spann 



2Rev. Mottel Baleston, “Outward Appearance vs. Inner Reality.” (Video, March 8, 2020)




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Stephanie is wild about Danish, Swedish and French police dramas and sci-fi adventures. Her dream rock concert would be, 'Jem and The Decepticons.' Wh...