Thursday, August 30, 2012

Character motto?

I was listening to some of the Tropical Storm Isaac coverage, and they said the convention in Tampa was postponed a day: "Better safe than sorry!" they said. And I thought about my dh's grandmother, whose motto, he said, was "You can never be too careful."

These "character mottoes" tell something about the person-- in this case, that safety is of paramount concern, but what's under that-- a persistent pessimism that you can't trust fate, that you have to be careful?

How about let's come up with mottoes for our own characters? Here's an article (scroll down) by Susan Gable which lists some of her characters' mottoes:
  • The glass is always half-full.
  • Do unto others before they do unto you. (Imagine how different that person would be than the one who believed the "right way"-- Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.)
  • Life’s short; eat dessert first.
  • Trust no one.
  • If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.
  • Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me,

 So what about your characters?  If they were to give a life philosophy, or a motto by which they live (and they were honest, which of course we can't assume), what would the motto be? To make this fun, let's use a proverb or slogan in common usage that everyone will recognize.

Examples, and as you read them, imagine what actions, motivations, and conflicts this character would have:
Grab all the gusto you can in life.
Love is all you need.
Family first.
Women and children first.
It takes a village.
Where's the beef?
Curiosity killed the cat.
A secret shared is a secret revealed.
 A man's home is his castle.
A penny saved is a penny earned.
A prophet is not recognized in his own land.
A rising tide lifts all boats.
A rolling stone gathers no moss.
Cleanliness is next to godliness.
Don't burn your bridges behind you.
Half a loaf is better than no bread at all.
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone.
Let sleeping dogs lie.
Seeing is believing.

What are your characters' mottoes? And what do they mean? How does that internal motto manifest in action?

For example, I have a character who thinks,  "You can never be too careful." That doesn't mean she's a stick-in-the-mud. She's actually had an exciting life. But at every stage, she is very cautious. She's always trying to control the situation by taking great care. She never acts spontaneously or thoughtlessly. So when someone from her past appears and is going to tell her secrets, she acts to shut him up. She first diverts her lover-to-be by making him a lover-in-fact. Then she bribes the man from the past to leave. Everything in her life is done with care and thought... because otherwise, the dire forces will overwhelm her.

Her lover, however, is a rational man who believes that everything can be figured out: "It's better to light a candle than curse the darkness." Whenever there's a mystery or a secret, he wants to find out the truth. For him, "knowledge is power." "The truth shall set you free." So of course he's drawn to the woman who keeps so much of herself secret. But he does this by "lighting a candle" rather than, say, trying to force her to be open with him. He doesn't want her to -tell- him. He wants to figure it out. So he's trying to gather clues (as well as solve the murder of the man from her past).

Your turn! What's your character's motto, and how does that manifest in his/her actions?



Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

I love the idea of trying to sum up my characters in a single motto! Oddly, I instantly knew the motto for a secondary character (who rapidly becomes a primary character), but I had to think about my main character.

The secondary character's motto would be, "Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone." He hides his real feelings with a light humor (until he can't hide them anymore).

My main character doesn't have a quotation or a motto that I could find out in the world, but she puts walls up to keep everyone out, until someone comes along who can tear them down.

Now you've given me something to think about while I edit tonight! :)

Alicia said...

"Trust no one?"

"You should stand on your own two feet."

"The best defence is a good offence."?

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

Yes, I think "Trust no one" pretty much sums up my MC at the beginning of her story. By the end, everything changes for her, but this is a good place to start. Thanks!

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

My grandmother used to say
"Hell's bells and all hands on deck!"
After a meal "I'm full as a tick!"
And when she arrived at our house "Major Domo is here!"

Those three sayings probably give a good image of her. She was our favorite grandmother.

Clare Wilson said...

I have a character whose motto is probably 'a man's home is his castle' because he has agoraphobia and, being an architect, he literally turns his house into a sort of fortification.

It's fascinating how all those cliched mottos can be twisted in so many different directions. Normally, of course, the above motto would indicate someone who takes pride in his home and wants to be in charge of his household. However, it was very interesting to think of it from a different point of view and imagine someone whose home was his castle because he's actually intensely afraid of what's going on outside.

Thanks for the interesting post!

R. E. Hunter said...

I think this is a great way to sum up a character concisely. It seems much more useful than those long character trait inventories I've tried. I'm going to try it.

I once had a colleague who liked to mash up different sayings together. One of my favourites was "we'll burn that bridge when we get to it."

Anonymous said...

This is nifty! All kinds of negatives fit my MC: Trust no one; the glass is always half EMPTY, Do unto others beofre they do it to you. But in the end it's an unwilling "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." He's stuck and has to make the best of it--or die.-Sharon

C.L. Gray said...

My character's motto is: "Never take counsel of your fears."

Alicia said...

Sharon, I have to say, I tend to the "glass half-empty" characters myself.

I think my heroine with all the secrets likes "Curiosity killed the cat." At least that's what she wants to tell the curious hero.

Solari, that "man's home is his castle" has a double-meaning-- it's his fortress, but also his artwork?