Tarot as a Tool for Characterization

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The Queen of Wands from the Rider-Waite deck art.

A few weeks ago, I posted to Tumblr a link to a game I wrote in Twine. Well, not exactly a game. This Twine story contains images of the Minor Arcana, the lesser-known component of the Tarot deck. The code allows you to select random cards and arrange them in one of three different ways, the better to exploit Tarot’s rich history of symbolism as an aid to characterization.

Normally when I use Tarot cards, they serve primarily as a handy go-to source of writing prompts, perfect for little warm-up exercises when I’m having difficulty revving up the writer’s engine. I don’t really put much stock in cartomancy and I don’t use the cards to divine the future, although I read a lot of Tarot sites and gather different, contrasting interpretations of the cards and their meanings. Symbolism, particularly that of mythological origin, is incredibly useful to me as a writer. The Major Arcana are an excellent writing tool because the twenty-two trump cards are arranged such that they deliberately draw from the Hero’s Journey.

While the Major Arcana are well-loved staples of symbolism, both in art and in writing, the minor cards receive much less attention. For artists, this may be because of their far greater number. Drawing twenty two unique cards is an extensive undertaking, but drawing fifty six is downright daunting. On the face of things, the cards also seem repetitive. They do, however, draw from some of the same sources of symbolism as those other ones. The four suits are more fanciful counterparts to the ones in regular playing cards, and also correspond to the four classical elements.

As anyone who has ever taken a Harry Potter Sorting Hat quiz knows, arranging things in fours is just grotesquely satisfying.

Classical elements have existed long enough to have accumulated some contradictions in their symbolic meanings. This is only to the better, as the diversified meaning gives the card-reader even more freedom to twist and shape the meanings of the cards to suit their needs. For example, while it is simplest to attach them to the zodiac, which is explicitly elementally divided, you can also extrapolate the cards into another personality system, the MBTI. Detractors consider the MBTI not materially different from astrology, when it comes to its use in personal psychology. whether this is true or false is immaterial to me, since I use both of them exclusively in the creation of fictional characters.

The Myers–Briggs personality typology bases itself in part on the psychoanalytical work of Carl Jung. Given Jung’s investment in the power of symbolism, this makes it a system particularly apt to me. In Jungian theory, cognitive function is divided into four functions, and each person uses all four functions, at different strengths and oriented either inward or outward. Functions are complement; if one had a strong, outwardly-oriented thinking function, expect also a weak, inwardly-oriented feeling function to complete it. The four suits can easily be made to correspond to the four functions: swords to thinking, wands to intuition, coins to sensing and cups to feeling.

I like the flexibility of having a visual display tied to these fairly abstract ideas, anchoring them geometrically. In the four-card spread I can play with randomizing and arranging a characters strengths and weaknesses, with just enough structure built in to inject the randomly generated cards with some pre-built sense. For a character to whom logic is a conscious strength, for example, emotion would be an unconscious weakness. The rich imagery of Tarot art is a check against flat characterization because it reminds you, the player, that there are many possible variations on each of the functions, aside from the commonly associated stereotypes.

Other than the four-card strengths and weaknesses spread, the game has two other formulations. The three-card setup is based on the divinatory three-card spread, for past, present and future. I find it useful in terms of tying character and plot tightly into each other. A character’s past is also the origin point of their personal arc, and also the basic want that drives them. The future card shows the arc’s resolution, in which the character achieves whatever strength or virtue they were lacking. In between them is the present card, which can be used to show the major conflict they need to resolve, or their basic fear. Clarifying the relationship between the character and the plot will strengthen both.

The five-card spread is more plot-oriented. Like the three-card spread it also has an origin and a conclusion, both of which represent more-or-less static states. The three middle cards can represent three phases of an escalating conflict, or a three-act structure, or three different threats of growing intensity. Three specific antagonists that the hero has to go up against, or else three twists in the plot that cause the hero’s fortunes to turn for the worst.

The game still has some technical difficulties that I would like to address. I would also like to make some changes to the interface to make it more flexible, possibly to allow selecting the cards in any order of the user’s choice, or drawing a full hand at once. Adding more explanatory text is also a possibility, though that would be a lot of work for something that can be easily found through Google. Since I used the images most readily available to me, the cards themselves are not very clearly visible, so I might replace them. On the whole, I’m very pleased with this game and have found great use for it.

Find the Tarot for Writers version 1.1 on philome.la.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

3 thoughts on “Tarot as a Tool for Characterization

    theorangelynx said:
    May 25, 2016 at 7:12 am

    I’m a tarot reader. While it is a little sad to hear someone say they use the cards but don’t believe in their primary purpose- divination, I’m also really glad that I’ve come across your post. You should really check out other decks out there. For example, the medicine cards. These are based on native american concepts of spirit animals each embodying a specific trait. While the regular tarot cards are better for events ( like if you want to explore a character’s back story). Medicine cards are much better for characterisation. See for yourself : http://www.crystal-reflections.com/animalspirits/
    You can even use relationship readings (any deck) for your fictional characters to give you ideas about the dynamics between them. It helps break out and write about different kinds of relationships if you find yourself creating similar ones over and over again. There are plenty of good relationship spread out there that you can check out on the internet. Have fun!


      lhazelgold responded:
      May 27, 2016 at 9:53 am

      I don’t understand you. Why would you come here just to berate me for not believing in fortune-telling? I don’t go to tarot blogs and their comment sections to go on about why I don’t believe in it. It’s only the bare minimum of human courtesy.


    theorangelynx said:
    May 27, 2016 at 10:32 am

    Oh wow. Didn’t you read the rest of my comment or did you just stop at half of the second sentence? Because the second sentence is the only one that mentioned anythin about you not believing in fortune telling. I’m sorry I wasn’t clear enough but I did not mention anything bad about you only that i was a little sad which is a mild reaction for any tarot reader that does not have any implication on you (just me). In fact I have provided you links to other cards for characterization that I thought you might like better. Also suggested other spreads that could help you as well ( again with characterisation). The entire comment except for half of that sentence was focussed on that your topic and additional info regarding the same.


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