I'm in the process of developing a character for a story right now, and I want to come up with some sort of mantra or repeatable quote the character can repeat to themselves over the course of the story, driving their actions. Over the course of the story, their view of this mantra or quote will start at like a fearful cynicism and then morph into a cautious optimism by the end, but I'm having trouble coming up with something like that.

For those who need some more details about the character, most of their life is ruled by fear, but after an accident, get a second chance at life. They try to make the most of it, but end up failing in the beginning, and this mantra will be what hammers in the lesson of, like, not trying anymore, the fear is too much. They'll then learn to see everything from a different perspective after meeting several passionate and principled characters during their time in their second chance.

It just seems like there's too much emotion to try and capture in a few words, but I'm sure I'm wrong.

How can I find a fitting quote or come up with one on my own?

4 Answers 4


So they have a horrible accident, but recover.

I would draw inspiration from that. Make this quote a personal one, something their doctor tells them. Or a nurse, or a physical therapist. That last is often good at inspiring quotes.

Let's go with the physical therapist, as an example. Give them some noticeable handicap. Say, burn scars on their face, arms and legs. Something that the physical therapist himself had to overcome, in order to become who he wanted to be. The physical therapist tells him something about how he overcame his injuries, perhaps these are war injuries. and that story becomes the core of this mantra your protagonist needs, to overcome his fears and act anyway, even if it hurts, in pursuit of the larger goal.

The physical therapist becomes your protagonist's hero. It is not just "no pain, no gain." For one, that is not always true, and secondly the constant fear is already a pain that is gaining our protagonist nothing!

The truth is, for most things worth having, we have to work despite the pain, despite the hardship, despite the difficulties.

That is the quote your protagonist uses. To not give up, despite the odds. Despite the despair, the fear, the pain. Because they cannot win if they won't even play the game, for fear of failing, or losing.

He has to adopt the mindset, both during his physical therapy and afterward pursuing his goals, that even in despair, in pain, in terror, he will continue to try, because you may lose, but you will never win by giving up.

(In fact I consider this the defining characteristic of story heroes; like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, or Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible movies -- They'd rather die than give up.)

Turn that sentiment into the mantra you need.


Coming up with a turn of phrase that has multiple interpretations and still sounds like it means one thing is hard. I'm talking about something like "Success has many fathers. Failure is an orphan," which has two distinct and truthful interpretations, and goes back, in one form or another, to the Roman Republics.

One approach might be to let it emerge organically from your novel. Don't try and come up with it until you've finished your draft. Then, read your novel and see what symbolism and thematic elements you've leveraged. That might provide you better insight into an existing mantra or give you a better idea at creating something original for your story or modifying something that already exists but doesn't quite work.

You don't have to know the what the phrase is to write the novel. You can use some meaningless stand in, since you'd be planning on replacing the text once you know what it is. Use a fragment of lyrics from a song. Or a catch-phrase from a 70's era sit-com -- Dyno-mite, I'd buy that for a dollar. It doesn't matter since its just a placeholder for the actual phrase.


Begin by identifying the motifs of the character. A person will choose a guiding phrase or sentence because it is meaningful to them and because it seems to give them the guidance they seek. So:

  1. What does your character seek?

While a person hasn't reached their goal, they will feel different kinds of emotions, depending on their personality. They might feel excited that they are on their way towards their goal and optimistic that they can reach it. Or they could feel guilty for wanting it, convinced that they don't deserve it, worried that they won't reach it, or afraid of reaching it and the consequences of that. The guiding sentence will help the person to cope with these emotions (if they are negative) or reinforce them (if they are positive). So:

  1. What are the emotions that your character has regarding their goal?

  2. Try and write out a meaningful sentence that summarizes your findings so far.

Write it from the perspective of your character. (E.g. Frodo: "I must destroy the Ring, nothing else is meaningful while it exists, this task comes before everything else, though I am convinced the attempt will destroy me.")

Now you can begin

  1. Brainstorming:

What are the elements of that attitude? What more abstract terms would you use to name them? (E.g. Frodo: devotion, self-sacrifice etc.) Perhaps, what are characters in fiction or historical figures that performed with a similar attitude?

Once you have a list of abstract concepts or historical examples,

  1. Research:

Search for ideas, quotes, proverbs, devotions, sayings, words of wisdom and so on related to those concepts and persons (e.g. google for "quotes sacrifice"). Browse the results and

  1. Collect everything that would resonate with your character (not you!).

While you research and/or after you have collected as much material as you want, begin to play with it.

  1. Rephrase the sentences and phrases that you found, combine them, adapt them to the world and specific goals of your character.


  1. Choose the best sentence or phrase.

If you are unsure, get feedback from beta readers. Then,

  1. Stop worrying about it.

Many famous mantras, tag-lines, titles of films and so forth come from poetry. Often not the lines that we'd expect.

A central theme that you seem to have for your character in their renewed life is the idea of perseverance or persistence. So I looked up "poems persistence" (without any quotes) on a well-known search engine.

The top result was a list of poems about perseverance from Discover Poetry. Here they are:

1.Persevere by Anonymous
2.Keep A-Pluggin' Away by Laurence Dunbar
3.The Hustling Pumpkin Vine by Ed. Blair
4.Perseverance by Alice Cary
5.Good Company by Anonymous
6.How Did You Die? by Edmund Vance Cooke
7.Keep a-Goin by Frank L. Stanton
8.Perseverance by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
9.God Will Count Your Honest Try by William Henry Dawson
10.Endeavor by Anonymous
11.Try, Try Again by William E. Hickson
12. Boys Wanted by Anonymous
13. Effort by Edgar A. Guest
14. I Will Be Worthy of It by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
15. Clinching the Bolt by Edgar A. Guest
16. Earnestness by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
17. Resolve by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
18. His Other Chance by Edgar A. Guest
19. Do Your Best by Kate Louise Wheeler
20. Resolution by Ruby Archer
21. What the Birds Teach Us by J. R. Eastwood
22. Keep Going by Edgar A. Guest
23. See It Through by Edgar A. Guest

Without looking at any of the poems themselves yet, there already seem to be some possible candidates here. It might be that if the title is itself one of the lines from the poem, they could form part of a longer tag phrase. But I'd say at least these might be candidates for a character in one book or another:

  • Persevere!
  • Keep plugging away
  • Keep a going
  • God will count your honest try
  • Try, try again
  • I will be worthy of it
  • Resolve!
  • Do your best.
  • See it through!

A lot of these are quite short, so without a following line from the poems themselves might not be quite what's needed. So: let's have a look inside some of these poems:

Perseverance, Anonymous

The fisher who draws in his net too soon,
Won't have any fish to sell;
The child who shuts up his book too soon,
Won't learn any lessons well.

If you would have your learning stay,
Be patient,—stick with it and hold fast:
The man who travels a mile each day,
May get round the world at last.

If you have a look in that poem, the first one on that page, I think there's four potential taglines there. Each rhyming couplet could be a contender. For example consider the last one:

The man who travels a mile each day,
May get round the world at last.

Or the last three lines together might be workable too:

Be patient,—stick with it and hold fast:
The man who travels a mile each day,
May get round the world at last.

And then there's all the other poems therein. Here's some potential tags from those poems:

  • Perseverance still is king, time its sure reward will bring: keep plugging away.

  • It ain't the fact you hurt that counts, but only how you take it.

  • Life's field will yield as we make it, a basket of thorns or of flowers

  • It's pluck that wins the day

  • Better far than brilliance is the effort that you make

  • Build on resolve, and not upon regret, the structure of thy future

So, how about the question, then?

Well, you can take the above as one kind of methodology that you could undertake to find a tag line or guiding quote. I think all of those poems are out of copyright. However, if you find a line in a poem that's not, all that';s required is that your character has read or heard a poem once. Remember that that was just the very first page that came up on the search engine!

Of course, in fact, you could write your own poem - either about the character, or by the character. Or by one of their friends or confidants. And then you can just steal a line from that. It might not be the line you foresaw when writing the poem. But that doesn't matter.

NB: this is not the only way, is maybe not the best way, might even be a poor way, but nonetheless is a relatively easy and enjoyable and effective way to find a mantra or guiding quote. Other places to look, of course, are famous religious texts and books of quotations. Good luck, and never give up!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.