Writers have always used all sorts of random generating tools to prompt and help develop their writing. Popular choices include the random story making dice or cubes available, the many writing prompt books and posts, or using images for inspiration.
Tarot Card Decks provide some very beautiful images (with meaning) as inspiration for both plot and characters. In fact, proper tarot decks are organised into archetypal groupings which can be helpful for character development. This post features some of the best resource links out there for using the Tarot for writing inspiration.
Corrine Kenner, author of “Tarot for Writers”, explains that well-known writers, such as John Steinbeck and Stephen King, have used tarot cards for inspiration.
Despite the past association with mysticism, nowadays tarot cards are seen as a tool for asking questions and receiving insights from one’s own intuition, much as writer questionnaires, random prompt generators and image banks (like Pinterest) do. In fact, tarot decks these days come with so many excellent illustrations and themes to the cards that they can work at many levels as intuitive tools for our muses. As with any writing tool, and certainly any story being engineered, your milage may vary.
My own introduction to using the Tarot for writing has come only recently, with my enrollment in a current online course on the subject, led by Mary O’Gara at SavvyAuthors.com. While over the next few weeks Mary leads me through learning in-depth what the tarot cards actually mean, I went off to find out if I could also learn a little about the tarot from a writing perspective elsewhere. I found a lot of helpful articles and directions, which are shared here with you.
This post is split into a series of sections for brevity (Sadly, the post pagination code doesn’t work to break the post up further). Indexed, the sections are –
- This Section- Introduction and General Tips on the Tarot
- Section 2 – Using the Tarot for Writing Resource Lists
- Web Resources
- Writing Craft Books
- Section 3 -Using the Tarot for Writing Resource Lists cont.
- Tarot Spread Templates for Writers
- Tarot and Writing Courses
- Section 4 – My Own Example Card Readings
General Tips on the Tarot
- Find a good tarot deck which is personal to yourself – there are hundreds of these out there, available at retail shops or online. Choose one which speaks to you with the images. There are some beautiful animal ones, nature ones, fairy-tale decks, and even a zombies deck, if you want to avoid those which are themed more towards occult or other practices. I currently have a steampunk one, and an app deck with cats.
- If you can’t find them locally, major online book retailers have these. I found many on Amazon, but ordered from my largest local online book retailer here in Australia called Booktopia.com, which also had a huge selection.
- Choose a deck which is a proper tarot deck of 78 cards (or more) broken into major and minor arcanas. A good popular starter deck is one by Rider-Waite (with medieval images and interpretations). But it’s also a good idea to get a more modern deck, as these are less harsh in meaning for some of the cards, and the illustrations themselves will be more applicable (unless you’re writing in the medieval genre, that is).
- You want the minor suites to include images – not pips (or numbers)- so make sure every card in your deck has an image on it.
- Note that there are many other decks called Oracle Decks, which often feature less cards. These are useful for inspiration also, but the cards often don’t have the same meanings as traditional tarot.
- Tarot cards have meanings and are set into archetypes. Most new tarot decks come with instruction books as guides to what each card means, often these guides are in the form of a prompt or questions for you.
- Whilst waiting for a couple of decks to arrive to play with (physical play is the best) I also discovered that many of the same decks of cards are available as apps on my iPad or iPhone. This is a much cheaper option to get yourself a few full tarot decks (with deck guides also) if you want a selection of image themes to inspire you with.
- Selecting a display of tarot cards by drawing them, and then looking at their meanings, or simply being prompted by the images, can help with both plot and character. A plot spread template is provided below.
- I am using the major arcana as an archetypal prompt for my characters. The minor arcana suites are also interesting as prompts go, because the four suites represent the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – each is another way to catergorise character types and provide relevant traits (another topic for a post later).
Using the Tarot for Writing in General [Resource List]
Web Resources –
- Start by reading this brief post at Write to Done, published way back in 2009. It quickly describes the Major Arcana archetypes, and how the minor arcana cards are grouped. The Tarot as a Tool for Writing Your Novel
- Top Pick –> For a comprehensive overview, Raelyn Barclay provides an eight part post series published in May 2011 with the first part here: Using Tarot in Writing. Whist the middle posts deal with plotting, character creation and the hero’s journey, the final post also mentions the card links with the four elements. The series also includes many good resource links.
- Here are some other ideas for using tarot cards for various writing projects – Tarot: ideas generator tool for writers and creatives >>via Tarot Study; and Writer’s Toolkit: Tarot Cards >> via Inkpunks.
- Tarot for Writers: Using Tarot to Find & Nurture Your Creative Muse by Sarah Ockler >> Adventures in YA Publishing (2013). This article also includes some examples of tarot being used in YA novels.
- This brief article at Llewellyn explains some of the many writer benefits of using tarot cards, but I particularly like the ending quote –
“According to mythology, there were nine muses. With the Tarot, you’ve got seventy-eight! And that is just one deck!”
Writing Craft Books –
There is one writing craft book on the subject, and it has good reviews –
Tarot for Writers, by Corrine Kenner.
Note that Kenner is also the author of a writing craft book on astrology. Other more general books on learning the tarot can be found listed in several of the web resources listed above.
Tarot Spread Templates for Writers
There are several spread templates engineered for writers. Many can be found shared on the Aeclectic Tarot forum site. Where those are listed below, I’ll indicate with an AT beside the link. You can use these spreads in the full tarot reading method of using intuition and energy polarisation, or simply pull cards out randomly to meet the spread positions, to see what inspires you from the images on the cards.
- Jennifer Neff has gathered a few tarot spreads on her Pinterest board: Writing – Storytelling with Tarot/ Working with Tarot.
- In 2012 a blog was started called Tarot for Fiction Writers. There were only 3 posts published there, but each holds a spread template – in text and graphic form. You will find –
- The Tarot Parlor also has a few spreads specifically for creative writers. These are great because the posts show the spread design, and a draw of cards, with explanations of reading/interpreting those cards.
- Story Idea spread for writers (AT)
- Possibilities: What happens next? (Tarot Spread for the Writer – created by Arwen) (AT) – uses a female and male character, so good for romance. This spread has also been shared in graphic form on a Tumblr blog (see final bullet point below)
- Goal, Motivation, Conflict (Tarot Spread for Writers) (AT) This spread has also been shared in graphic form on a Tumblr blog (see final bullet point below)
- Plot (For the writer with writer’s block) (AT) – this is a two part spread, one for the writer herself, the other for plot.
- Characterization Spread (Tarot for Writers) (AT) – character development, with some relationship work also.
- Character Creation (or “Smiley Face”) Spread (AT) – basics on new character. Similar to the graphic template below.
- People Spread (AT) – I would call this a more character basic traits spread.
- for writers – short story spread (AT) – elements of beginning, middle and end plot, and character journey. Read down in the comments also, as this spread was modified for a music piece.
- A couple of spreads for questioning your own writer/artist muse – For the artists…(AT) and Exploring your Artist’s path – SPREAD (AT)
- Tarot Spreads for Writing >> Happy Fish Tarot.
- The Character Insight Spread >> One Word at a Time
- Plot Wheels And The Tarot >> Karen Woodward developed a comprehensive spread explained through this post, and completed in Part 2.
- Author Jenna Reynolds held a yahoo group called Tarot and Writing (not used for years) where several spreads for writers were shared. You can see some of these spreads used in the series of posts by Raelyn Barclay (top pick above).
- The Fandom Hipster tumblr blog has a couple of graphic tarot spreads which are accredited to Arwen Lynch (mentioned above and below). I can not find these on Arwen’s blog, so in the meantime, here they are reblogged at Fandom Hipster – Writer’s Possibilities Spread and the GMC Spread.
Tarot and Writing Courses
There are several courses available for writers wishing to learn to use tarot cards. Several are made available from time to time in major cities. I have a small list of e-courses below also –
- Corrine Kenner, author of Tarot for Writers, offers workshops on the topic.
- Your Characters are in Your Cards with Mary O’Gara via SavvyAuthors.com – keep an eye on this course being repeated or elsewhere.
- Tarot for Writers: Mapping the Hero’s Journey E-Course by Arwen Lynch. Arwen is the person behind several of the writing spreads linked to below. She also has an ebook available – Fairy Tales Tarot Spreads eBook by Stephanie Arwen Lynch
My First Reading, An Example
In a previous post I discussed the fact that this year has a one word goal for my writing – “characters”. That’s because my WIP is complex, but well plotted. My difficulty lies in a few cantankerous master characters. I decided to put these tarot spreads above at test.
My sample problem is the fact that I don’t have a well-considered villain as yet. I have an antagonist, who may change through the book, but a real villain – not so much. I decided to randomly draw cards from two-three decks onto the same small spread (below) and see what they triggered from the illustrations themselves, then I read up on what each card may mean regarding a more concentrated tarot reading. I also asked myself a specific question – “Who is the narrator?” and drew only one card for the answer (second sample below).
I found that randomly drawing cards has a zen-like quality that both surprised me, and added a sense of mystery. I had been so busy thinking and thinking… and thinking(!) over the issues that I’d wound myself up into a conflicted ball. By using a random tool to prompt me, I turned my brain off enough to allow my muse to jolt me with fresh ideas on several of these cards. It gave me a big push forward.
Not all of the cards drawn were productive, of course. And I have a very mediocre understanding of the cards, so most of my thoughts are very primary, but a good start. I have the Tarot for Writer’s book on order, and given the good reviews, expect that the book will clarify some of my own character development and card readings.
Here are those sample spreads –
My Villainous Spreads
For a base spread I chose a very simple three-card spread, this one from The Tarot Parlor –
And here’s the randomly drawn cards through three different decks (drawn in the order above) –
Deck 1 : The Victorian Steampunk Tarot
Note: it seemed almost sacrilege to draw these beautiful cards onto a table, should have been onto velvet cloth for sure. On the other hand, I’m a writer, and the coffee rings on the desk prove it!
Deck 2: A Giant Rider-Waite
This is the standard tarot deck, just in slightly larger size. I like the happy yellows used on the cards. This deck has the basic minor arcana suites –
- Wands correspond to Clubs, representing the element of Fire (wood burns), – spiritual experience.
- Cups or Chalices correspond to Hearts, represent the element of Water, – emotional affairs.
- Swords correspond to Spades, representing the element of Air (swords cut through the air – thought and communication.
- Coins or Pentacles correspond to Diamonds, representing the element of Earth – physical, material, and financial realities.
Note – I didn’t shuffle and mix this deck well, as I didn’t want another reversed card. I simply cut and drew where I felt it. Second note – when I was putting this deck away, I turned the full deck over to find the Magician card looking out at me. Now, that magician really spoke to me regarding my villain.
Deck 3 – Rosetta Tarot (ipad App)
I was tempted to show you a Mystical Cats draw, but went with this one just because. This one surprised me because a voice came out of my device to guide me. Apps allow all kinds of customisation, such as choosing the cloths the cards draw onto. Most tarot apps come with a number of inbuilt spreads also. For this three card spread I went with the past, present and future 3 card reading, letting the past be Card 1 (how the villain appears externally), Card 2 being the present (how s/he really is) and Card 3 as the future – what they want.
Card 1 -How the Antagonist appears on the outside.
- Deck 1 (Steampunk) – Three of Bees: in this deck, the bees represent the air element, signifying thoughts. Three has a perspective of creativity. Quick interpretation – my villain shows to the world that s/he is a creative thinker.
- Deck 2 (Rider-Waite) – Knight of Cups: Graceful, higher graces, arrival, approach. This doesn’t sound like a villain at all, but…combined with the above, this person is certainly looking like a very secure and welcomed (trickster) outwardly.
- Deck 3 (Rosetta Tarot – App) – Knight of Cups: Already had this card above.
Card 2 – How this character is actually, on the inside.
- Deck 1 (Steampunk) – Inverted Fool: The fool’s element is also air (thinking). Normally this card means following a dream, yet innocently – leaping into the unknown. But reversed, it means the fool leaps before he looks. This doesn’t sit well for me, as a primary villain, so I reversed the reversal. The butterfly speaks to me of a profane vanity and flittiness, but I’m not yet ready to fully insert this into my character.
- Deck 2 (Rider-Waite) – Justice: Equity, Rightness, Executive. Say what?! This sounds more like a dangerous motivation form. A foolish justice seeker? Hmmm…
- Deck 3 (Rosetta Tarot app) – Two of Swords / Peace: the two of swords shows a dualistic mind, only temporarily balancing peace against the inherent element of tension. My villain currently has a balance of thought and emotion inside. S/he’s very calm about his rightousness, perhaps?
Card 3 – Hidden motivation / Ulterior Motive
- Deck 1 (Steampunk) – The Emporer: Whoa. I pulled the most authorative archetype of them all. This person represents dominion, strength, organisation, and advice. For a villain, as a motive? Does this mean my villain wants power which s/he believes is ultimately for the world’s good? Whoa again.
- Deck 2 (Rider-Waite) – Six of Pentacles – this card shows a merchant distributing coins to the needy. It can mean gifts, or gratification, although another meaning which speaks to me for a villain is attention and prosperity. So my villain under creation is seeking to be accepted as a powerful authority who weighs out and gifts to those he considers more needy. Or something like that?
- Deck 3 (Rosetta Tarot app) – Nine of Cups / Happiness: this card is known as the wish card, which seems right for what my villain really wants. So he’s heading for satisfaction and will be immensely grateful. He has faith that the universe will answer him. Obviously he’s seriously warped, or doesn’t realise he’s actually the bad guy in all of this.
Final thoughts from looking at three decks – some of this works, some doesn’t. It certainly works to make a much more interesting villain, but requires further development.
One Question – Who’s My Narrator?
Note that I currently have two narrotors, telling the same story in different structures. One’s a teen, the other an adult. As I’m working on a YA, I’m mindful that most in the genre are written in first person, from the Young Adult’s perspective, but that is causing me issues, as there is a lot going on in any teen’s life which is simply too large to involve in the main story, and can misdirect the narrative. On the other hand, the adult narrator isn’t as much fun. Both have different witnesses of the story also. At the moment I know I have a major problem in narration.
Here’s my final sample. I drew from four decks this time, just one card.
- Card from Steampunk Deck : Eight of Moths : element of fire – this is a card of travel, communication and great news. Journey, action, speed, business.
- Card from Rider-Waite Deck: Five of Cups: a card of loss, but only three (cups) have been lost, two remain, it’s a card of inheritance, transmission but not living up to expectations.
- Card from Mystical Cats app: Six of Sea : Dignity and maturity are valuable qualities, but we must always keep the ability to play. Youthfulness of spirit keeps life joyful. The card goes on about innocent happiness. It’s also a card which distracted me from purpose – as a lifetime cat keeper, I know full well that cats just don’t go swimming in packs like that.
- Card from Housewives Tarot app: Ten of Pentacles: wealth, achievement, family. The card image speaks of a priceless family heirloom, passed down through generations or accumulated through hard work or business sense, this should be shared.
Final thoughts on the one card draw for a narrator. I don’t have any. The cards drawn above seem to indicate I go with both the youthful point of view, and that of the adult inheritor. I have more to think over on this issue. But at least I have some card samples to use for the header image for this post.