• Ashley Christiano

Tarot for Storytellers: Character Development

As somebody who uses tarot regularly, I've come to love the magic of coincidence and symbolism it's opened my eyes to on a daily basis. It helps me spot connections, understand patterns, psychoanalyze co-workers and family members, and provides a useful tool for creative inspiration.


Because there comes a time in every project where you don't know how to make your plot more exciting, why a character might decide to do what you need them to do, or how to fill out the backstory of your minor (but important) side characters. This is where tarot can really come in handy. Instead of staring at your blinking cursor, turn to your deck(s) for some guidance.


Here’s an example spread that can help you develop a character’s backstory with tarot. If you'd like to get really wild, you can read the first post in this series, which is all about using tarot to plot out the overall arc of your entire story. But since most stories start and end with Character, let's dive into a spread that can help you formulate just that.


This spread is adapted from one of Biddy Tarot's many fabulous resources. I've condensed it and made it not about YOU the reader, but the fictional character you're seeking to give depth and tension to.


It consists of 9 cards.

  1. Where they are in life at the beginning of the story

  2. Where they want to be by the end of the story

  3. Who do they want to be by the end of the story?

  4. What do they really want from their career?

  5. What do they really want from their relationships?

  6. How can they live in tune with their own interests, principles and beliefs?

  7. What is their greatest talent or potential?

  8. How can they get from here to where they want to be?

  9. What is their first step?

Here’s an example of what you might get from this spread! 



My vague character sketch: Padma has been the the protagonist's funny best friend since college.  

Now let’s dig deeper. Here’s how the cards fell. 



Where they are in life at the beginning of the story?

Mother of Cups


At the beginning of the story, Padma has some serious mama bear energy. I'm going to choose to interpret that literally to mean that she is a mother. From the outside, her life seems hunky doory, full of love and laughter. She seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Her humor has a tendency to verge into self deprecation and sarcasm when she gets tired. And when pushed too hard, she plays the victim.

Where they want to be by the end of the story

Eight of Wands


Now this is where it gets really interesting. By card two we've already got some serious conflict in the mix. And conflict is what makes stories a thrill to read.


The Eight of Wands is a card of sudden change. That lightning strike of inspiration that activates and accelerates to life change. So perhaps Padma isn't quite as happy as she appears, eh? She's craving a sudden shake-up in her life, but one she isn't quit ready to voice to anybody yet.


As the writer, your wheels would be turning. What shake-up would she want? A divorce? A new job? To move to Europe? To die her hair purple? To send her kids to boarding school? Does she have a cool business idea she's too scared to share? There are so many conflicts. Pick one that fits your larger story arc, but also gives Padma her own special path and purpose.


If you need more inspiration, you can always pull an extra card :) Or see if the next card in the spread has some inspiration for you...

Who do they want to be by the end of the story

Ace of Swords


While card two asks "where" they want to be by the end of the story, card three asks "who." This might seems like semantics, but semantics are literally everything in writing. To me, where is about status, career, location, finances.


Who is about character, mood, satisfaction, persona. At the beginning of Harry Potter, Harry is a sad orphan. At the end, he's a hero. That is a "who" change, not a "where".


So with that in mind, who does Padma want to be? Well, with the Ace of Swords, we're certainly getting some badass genius vibes here. It's starting to feel like that change Padma's hiding up her sleeve is some big idea or vision, one that she thinks has the potential to change not just her world but the communities.


There are a few ways to read the symbols in the card. Again, you'd take those the fit your larger story best. For example, the snake could be related to health and wellness (maybe it's a meditation app?), or it could be related to medicine. The rainbow could mean happiness or something related to LGBTQIA+ themes. The lightning could reinforce the eureka nature of her idea, or be related to harnessing the weather. It's really what you make of it. Let the card guide the way, in partnership with your plot.


For me, I'm going to interpret this as Padma wanting to start her own company, a meditation center that offers free classes to LGBTQIA+ youth in the area. She wants to help others harness the power of their minds more fully.


What do they really want from their career?

Four of Swords


The Four of Swords is interesting in this placement because it reinforces the "who" of Padma will be by the end of the story. This is where seeing the cards as a collective and not just individual pieces, can start to create magic and depth.


Fours are all about stability and security. And swords of the mind. So she wants a career that allows her to tap into her mental strength and clarity (i.e. meditation). The sweet lamb could mean that this will be a totally new venture for her, but she's not afraid of the risk. She knows those swords could drop, but she feels strongly enough in her vision to go for it, naive or not. This could be another source of tension. Maybe her confidence is triggering for the protagonist, or maybe Padma has some tricky marital issues to navigate as she blows her current career up.


What do they really want from their relationships

Four of Wands


Another four pops up in Padma's backstory. She's clearly craving an interesting mix of sudden change, but in the quest for some grounded stability. Sometimes you have to burn a bridge to save the town. That's the feel I'm starting to get for Padma's approach to life.


Wands are the card of passion, inspiration, and energy. So Padma draws a lot of inspiration out of her relationships. Or at least, she wants to. Perhaps this is another source of tension for your story? Maybe the protagonist is self-centered, sucking up all the air and energy. Or Padma's partner is down in the dumps and bringing Padma down with her.


Feeling further into the symbolism of the card, we can look at the colors. The main eneregy of this card is bright and vibrant. But at the center is a cool blue burst. Padma needs balance. She likes to have fun, but she also needs people to take her and their bond seriously.


How can they live in tune with their own interests, principles and beliefs?

Seven of Pentacles


So if Padma has a vision, she wants a change, and she wants to build a better, stronger life for herself and her family, how can she live that aligned life? What does she need to change about her current status quo to make those dreams come true?


The Seven of Pentacles is saying that Padma needs to get organized and cultivate some tangible and strategic skills. Stability often comes from experience, and Padma has none. She may be ready to quit her job and start a business...but life isn't that easy. As she races ahead, another character may encourage her to slow down and rethink her plan. Another source of tension?!


What is their greatest talent or potential

Seven of Cups


Padma's greatest talent and source of potential is her ability to cope with and adapt to ambiguity. She may have a natural intuition or gut intelligence that steers her.


Sevens are an odd number, in both meanings of the word. In numerology, 7 is often tied to spirituality or mysticism, but can also mean uncertainty or even paranoia. The suit of cups is tied to emotions and relationships. So Padma navigates the murky and emotional terrains with a natural ease. Most of the time...


How can they get from here to where they want to be

Three of Cups


If Padma wants to go from where she is now to the founder of a community meditation center, what will she have to do?


Well, the Three of Cups is saying she's going to have to make some friends. This isn't a journey she can, or should, take on her own.


Threes are a number of activation and often symbolize the first tangible step on a journey. The idea is fully baked. The resources have been collected. Now the action begins.


For Padma, that action will be networking. Reaching out. Fundraising. Afterall, for a meditation center to be successful, there must be meditators. And if she wants people to fund the free resources for her youth audience, she'll have to get donors. And nobody donates just because.


What is their first step?

Temperance


Padma's first step in your story to get her from her characterization in the beginning to her businesswoman goal in the end is a simple one: Calm Down.


Temperance is all about balance, harmony, protection, and moderation. Padma clearly wants to race ahead and get shit done. But in the process she might risk destroying the very dream she wants to build.


How can you as a writer play with the feeling of impatience tempered by her more rational and logical side shining through? Perhaps its this inner tension that propels her from shallow sidekick to fully fledged character.

Not gonna lie. Padma seems like a total badass and a worthy partner for an equally strong protagonist.


Do a few of these yourself and see what pops up. Any characters coming to life before your eyes?


Happy writing.

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