Using the Tarot to Create Characters

Using the Tarot to Create Characters

More than likely many of you are familiar with the Tarot. Either you’ve heard about them, read them, had a reading done for you or seen them used in any number of movies or television shows, usually to warn some hapless character of their impending doom.

For those of you who, by chance, have not heard of the Tarot, it is a divination system that typically uses 78 cards which are broken up into two groups, the Major and the Minor Arcana.

Depending upon whom you read (and there are no lack of books on the Tarot out there), the Tarot was invented by the Egyptians, or the Gypsies or possibly even bequeathed to mankind by wise and benevolent aliens from out of space.

However, historically speaking the Tarot has been around for centuries. It wasn’t, however, until the 1960s that the Tarot began to spark the interests of people outside esoteric disciplines and since then the Tarot has exploded into the cultural landscape.

The purpose of this post, however, is not to talk about the origins of the Tarot but how you can use it to create characters.

Character creation is one of those topics that never fails to spark intense conversation among writers. Some writers prefer to learn about their characters as they write. Others must create entire dossiers and family trees for their characters. Some writers insist that their characters often take over their stories while others prefer to keep tight control over their creations.

Some characters spring full-blown from writers’ imagination like Athena from Zeus’ head, while others are created, almost in a Frankenstein like fashion, cobbled from bits and pieces of a writer’s experiences, dreams and, in some cases, nightmares.

The Tarot is just one of dozens of tools that the writer can use to create characters. I would suggest that if you are not familiar with the Tarot you pick up an introductory book on it before attempting to make use of it as a tool for character creation. I did a workshop last year on using the Tarot for writing and found that it was difficult for people who were not familiar with the basics of the Tarot to truly see what use it could be for them.

If you are somewhat familiar with the Tarot, I hope these suggestions will prove useful to you in your writing. So, here are some of the ways that I use the Tarot in creating characters.

Doing a Reading

If you are familiar enough with the Tarot that you are able to read the cards, how about doing a reading for your characters? It’s similar to the technique one uses to interview characters. In this case, instead of asking your character questions, they are asking you questions and you answer them by reading the cards for them. This technique can prove helpful in working through a knot in your plot or, perhaps, if you’re blocked for some reason and need to work your way through it.

You can let yourself imagine what kind of questions your character would ask a tarot reader, why would they go see one, and what would be their reaction to the reading. Maybe one of your characters thinks it’s all nonsense and foolish superstition. Perhaps another can’t start her day or make a major decision without consulting the Tarot.

Once you’ve laid out the cards, look at what the cards have to show you about your character. You might discover hidden aspects to their personalities, fears or desires that you did not know they even had.

As I like to tell people, the Tarot is one of the best brainstorming tools around. For one thing the images of the card can not help but to spark your imagination. There are so many cards available, with subject matter ranging from baseball to vampires, that you can not help to find a deck that will speak personally to you.

Depending upon the layout you choose for the reading (and there are as many layouts as there are Tarot decks) you might also be able to brainstorm possible twists and turns for your plots.

Once you’ve completed the reading, you can save it in your files. Or, if it’s served its purpose, forget about. It might, however, prove useful to do additional readings during the course of the writing process.

The ideal is to find what works best for you.

Using the Court Cards for Character Creation

As I mentioned earlier, the Tarot deck is made up of two parts: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana usually deals with, as it says, major events in one’s life: birth, death, love, fame, etc.

The Minor Arcana—which is comprised of four suits (usually called Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles) of 10 cards and four cards called the Court Cards—typically deals with the day to day aspects of living.

The most well-known names for the Court Cards are King, Queen, Knight and Page. However, depending upon the deck you own these names may be different. Each of these four court cards represent the human aspect of a particular suit. Also, many readers use a court card to represent the person they are reading for, who is usually called the Querent.

If you are familiar with Carl Jung’s personality typology, you will discover that the four suits of the Tarot coincide with what Jung called the four functions, which are the ways we typically deal with the world.

First, there is the how we gather information about the world. According to Jung, people either make use of sensation or intuition. That is not to say that we only use one or the other exclusively but that we typically use one over the other.

Sensing, which correlates with the suit of Pentacles, means that we get information primarily through our senses. If we can see it, touch it, taste it, feel it, then it has reality and it has value.

Intuition, which the Wands typically represent, works outside and beyond the sensory perceptions of sight, touch, hearing, etc.

Once we’ve gathered information about the world, we need to make judgments as to the value of that information. That is where the functions of thinking and feeling come in.

Thinking, which is typically associated with the suit of Swords, means that we evaluate the information we gathered by means of logic and reason.

Feeling, which the Cups usually symbolize, involves our emotional responses about the information we’ve received about the world.

Therefore, the Court Cards of each suit can be thought of as psychological manifestations of each of the suits. The King of Swords, for example, can be seen as either a man or a more advanced stage of the Thinking function.

So you could imagine someone like Mr. Spock being a typical King of Swords type. The Page of Swords, on the other hand, could either be a child or perhaps a less advanced stage of the Thinking function.

There are tarot books available that focus just on the Court Cards and offer more detailed descriptions of each. You can therefore use the Court Cards the same way you might make use of astrology or the Enneagram or the Myers-Briggs personality systems.

For example, you might decide to write a story where a Queen of Swords type, a woman who’s all logic and thinking meets a King of Cups, who is all imagination and feeling. Or whatever tickles your fancy. You’re only limited by, yep, you guessed it, your own imagination.

Again, there is no one right way to decipher or use the Tarot cards. There are plenty of books out there that can tell you all the meanings of all the cards. However, once you have your own deck you will find that working with them on your own will prove the most beneficial to you.

I would suggest that if you really are interested in using the Tarot, not only for character creation, but for all aspects of fiction writing, from plotting to world building, check out the following links.

They are excellent resources to start with, but I can assure you that once you start down the path of the Tarot, you will find that not only are there many branches, but the road goes on forever.

Aeclectic Tarot: A great resource for finding Tarot decks and learning about the Tarot

Learning the Tarot: A on-line course for learning the Tarot. The course is free or you can purchase the book instead.

Tarot for Writers: The website for Corrine Kenner, who has just published a book called, appropriately enough, Tarot for Writers

Carl Jung’s Personality Theory Information about Jung’s theories on personality.


8 Responses to Using the Tarot to Create Characters

  1. Digital Dame says:

    I like your suggestion of doing a reading for a character. I’ve pulled cards for character traits, but never thought to try an actual reading for a fictional character.

  2. WOW! That is amazing! Totally clever! I never would have thought to use a tarot deck that way!


  3. Joely says:

    Thanks so much for writing this up! I find the idea so intriguing. I love the correlation between Jung’s four functions and the suits — I can’t wait to try that part out!

  4. jennareynolds says:

    Digital Dame – What’s even more fun is to write an actual reading into a story.

    Ceylan – You’re welcome.

    Joely – You’ll find that there are quite a lot of books on the correlation between the Court Cards and Jung’s four functions which can be very handy for character creation.

  5. Digital Dame says:

    Hehe! I was actually planning to do that (write a reading into the story) in the story I’m working on now! 🙂 Haven’t quite gotten to that scene yet but I know I’m going to have a Tarot reading in there somewhere.

  6. jennareynolds says:

    Sounds great! And what’s cool about the Taarot is that you can create your own spreads to suit you or your story!

  7. What a great blog. You really know your tarot. I have done card readings for my characters, especially the last book, where my character used tarot cards. Seemed especially appropriate then :o)

    But what a cool idea–use them to build characters and spark ideas for stories. Great!

  8. jennareynolds says:

    Thanks, Kathy! They are a useful tool for writing, I’ve found.

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