Writing and the Tarot

tarot cards for writers fortune-telling-2458920_960_720Everything old is new again, if you wait long enough. Every now and then, I run across an author on the internet who says, “I just had an amazing idea! I’m going to use Tarot cards in my next story! I bet nobody’s ever done that before!”

Um, well, actually, lots of people have. Goodreads even has a list of books in which a Tarot reading figures in the plot. And that list is hardly exhaustive. I can think of two books published in the late 1960s whose authors used Tarot, or a variation on Tarot, as a plot device. One is Samuel R. Delany’s Nova, in which the main character, a member of a spaceship crew, palms the Sun card so that a crucial reading cannot be finished – thereby jeopardizing the ship’s mission. The other is actually a series: Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels, in which the characters correspond to certain cards in a Tarot deck.

I’ve done it twice myself. The first time was in a short story, in which a Tarot reading presaged the main character’s critical role in global events to come. The second time, I sent my main character on a Fool’s Journey by means of a labyrinth.

I hear you out there: “Fool’s Journey? Tarot cards? What are you getting us into, Lynne?”

I know, I know. A lot of people eye Tarot cards the same way they regard Ouija boards and the supernatural in general: with skepticism, or scorn, or dread. Let me assure you that Tarot cards are nothing to be scared of – and in fact, you can benefit from using them, even if you have no interest in putting them in a story.

First: A standard Tarot deck has 78 cards. Fifty-six of those cards correspond roughly to a normal pack of playing cards. They’re broken into four suits – usually Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles. Each suit has cards numbered from Ace to 10. But instead of the King, Queen, and Jack we’re familiar with, Tarot suits have four court cards – King, Queen, Knight, and Page. Collectively, these 56 cards are called the Minor Arcana.

The remaining 22 cards are the Major Arcana. They are numbered from 0 to 21, with the 0 card being The Fool, and you can use them to tell a story called the Fool’s Journey. In fact, the Fool’s Journey is pretty close in structure to the Hero’s Journey that Hollywood and many fiction writers use in coming-of-age stories.

While the structure of a Tarot deck is similar to that of playing cards, the cards themselves are not. Each individual Tarot card has a different scene depicted on it, and traditionally there are meanings associated with the scenes. For example, the Three of Cups shows three women dancing, and the card’s meaning is that of a joyful celebration. The Eight of Swords shows a blindfolded woman with eight swords shoved into the ground behind her, but her feet are not tied and there’s a castle on the hill behind her; the sense is that the woman could walk away from her peril and seek help, if only she chose to do so.

You can think of Tarot illustrations as archetypes. Carl Jung, the famous psychologist, believed in a thing called the collective unconscious, and that we all draw on common images – archetypes – from this collective unconscious when we dream, or when we think symbolically. Just about anyone can see an earth-mother-type in The Empress card, or the pope in The Hierophant card. But there are shades of meaning in each of the cards, and the same card may resonate differently with you on different days.

Here’s where the Tarot can become useful for a writer. Let’s say you’re fleshing out a character, and you’re not sure how he’d handle a financial windfall. You could draw a Tarot card and see whether you can make any associations between your character and the illustration on the card. If you draw the Four of Pentacles, your character may be a miser. But what if you draw the Six of Pentacles? Is your character the guy dispensing alms to the needy, or one of the people kneeling to accept the rich man’s largesse?

Or maybe you’ve written yourself into a corner. You could draw a series of three or four cards and study their images to see if they indicate a way out.

Tarot cards aren’t just for fortunetelling, and they’re not just a plot device. You can use them like any other tool to jumpstart your creativity and get you out of a jam.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

34 thoughts on “Writing and the Tarot”

  1. This piece is right on the money!

    I love tarot cards, which is why they are critical to the plot in my YA novel, The Hypnotist. It’s a fortune-teller’s reading of my young, female protagonist’s future that sets things in motion for her and her love interest to uncover two serial killers. The interpretations gleaned from Joan Bunning’s Website on Tarot card readings—Learning the Tarot—were invaluable and provided an exceptional depth of insight into the art. Readers interested in Tarot are encouraged to visit Ms. Bunning at http://www.learntarot.com/top.htm.

    1. Thanks, Alyssa! 🙂 And thanks for the tip about Ms. Bunning’s site.

      I probably should have added that you don’t need to own a Tarot deck to consult the cards. A number of websites will let you do a reading for free. I tend to use http://www.facade.com/tarot/ the most — they have a number of virtual card decks and layouts to choose from.

      And there are Tarot apps for your smartphone, too. Alas, my all-time favorite — Real Tarot — has been dropped from the Apple app store. (Copyright infringement is my best guess for the reason; their card definitions were comprehensive, but looked to be lifted verbatim from a number of different sources…)

      1. By the way, we used to live in Waynewood, just off the Potomac, 5 miles south of Alexandria, VA, from September, 1970 through early May, 2006. We have many fond memories of Old Town and the waterfront. Sure do miss what the area offered (except for the traffic!)

  2. Interesting read, Lynne! My second book in The Judas Syndrome series features a Tarot reading prominently, encouraging the lead character to move the plot forward. Unfortunately I can’t vote in my own book to the Goodreads list.

  3. Thanks for a great article. I used a mythical tarot card in my Historical Fantasy, “BECOMING MALKA.” I combined the attributes of several cards to create one which would fit my storyline for time travel. Molly Abramovitz finds the Queen of Eight Wands, reads the Hebrew around the edges of the card, and is transported to her ancestors home in 1900 Odessa, Ukraine. I had great fun researching and writing!

  4. I knew nothing about tarot cards, so reading this was really fascinating. (And as a bonus, it taught my daughter the proper way to pronounce it; she’d only seen the word in books and was pronouncing the end t). I also really like the notion of using them as a story jumpstarter. The images are interesting on their own, of course. But, would a person have to understand tarot to use them for story jumpstarters, or just like the images?

    1. I think, at the least, you would want to have some understanding of what the various cards you were citing signified. Otherwise, whatever you were saying wouldn’t make sense. Some (e.g., Death) are rather obvious, at first glance, but things can be more subtle than you think.

      1. Yup, and Death is a good example. It often doesn’t mean a literal death. Think of it more as something (a habit, a relationship) that needs to die in order to make way for something better. 🙂

        The *really* scary card is the Tower. That’s when the whole edifice comes tumbling down — to make way for something better, eventually, but the chaos comes first.

        So to answer your question, RJ, yes, it would help to know something about what the cards mean — but you can look them up online. The website I posted above offers definitions for the cards, once you’ve drawn them. Or you can google specific cards for their meanings. Or, again, smartphone apps. The Fool’s Dog offers a ton of apps for the iPhone (and presumably for Android, too). Their sampler decks are free, but even if you pay for one of the apps, it’s cheaper than buying a physical deck, which run $25 and up.

  5. Thank you for the tarot card idea for characters actions, it sounds more fun to use than when Phillip K Dick used the iChing game to help him at major plot twists.

  6. As with borrowing from any other pool of commonly held knowledge, using Tarot is, if you’ll pardon the expression, a two-edged Sword. A little learning is a dangerous thing. If you don’t do enough research, you could end up alienating readers and maybe looking Foolish.

      1. If you’re working a layout into your story, I agree — you need to know what you’re doing or readers who do will catch you. I’m reminded of when I first read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and discovered she had put Beltane at the wrong time of year… 😀

  7. A former friend of mine once said tarot cards are a “tool of the Devil,” or something like that. I told him so are alcohol, sex and vibrators, if they’re not used right. He was raised Roman Catholic, like me, but had practiced so-called “black magic” in his teens. He even went so far as to buy a voodoo doll and a book of curses to denounce people he thought had wronged him in his young life. He showed me the curio shop in East Dallas where he bought all that stuff. By the time we met in 1987 he’d just abandoned that mess and was slowly reverting back to Catholicism. He recounted how the curses actually seemed to have effects on certain people in that they began suffering various misfortunes. Then, he told me, strange things began happening to him; usually in the form of dreams. He never thought there’d be a price to pay for wishing ill will upon others. But some of the dreams were pretty creepy and downright terrifying, at least how he described them. We became friends, in part, because I was able to decipher them. As frightening as they were, however, they gave me a great idea for a novel! That’s a writer for you! What else was I supposed to do? Some things are just too good to pass up.

    I’m no longer a practicing Catholic. I divorced myself from that madness more than a quarter century ago and consider myself more spiritual now. There’s a fine line between some aspects of Christianity and Judaism and “black magic.” Think about it: long dark-colored robes, chanting, candles, human sacrifice, bloodletting. And Europeans thought Native Americans were savages!

    I don’t dread tarot cards, but I do have a deep-seated fear of Ouija boards. My first – and only – experience with one came in 1980, when I joined a couple of high school friends to visit one of their friends in a neighboring town. It was just the 4 of us, and the girl who lived there had gotten a Ouija board from somewhere. We gathered in the dining room, in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, and started working the little triangle piece. After a while, we got the name of a male (I think it was Andrew).

    None of us had taken it seriously at first. But then, the house seemed to grow really quiet. The girl who lived there had 2 dogs. They were in the den, but we heard them growling. We just thought someone was going down the sidewalk. That one girl looked out the dining room window, but saw no one. We continued. Then a feeling of dread suddenly came over me, and I pulled away from the board. That girl asked what was wrong, and I couldn’t answer her. I don’t want to say I was terrified, but I was speechless and essentially tried to laugh it off. Almost immediately, though, the other 3 grew uncomfortable and sat back also. The girl folded up the board and set it on a kitchen counter. We spent the rest of the day outside. Later, at school, one of my friends told me that girl had trashed the Ouija board.

    You can make whatever you want of all that. But I can assure you it’s true. Such respect and concern for whatever lies in the netherworld is now part of my persona. I feel it’s wrong to try to disturb anyone who has left this life and transitioned elsewhere. They’ve paid their dues here one way or another. Trying to drag them back here to help you get through a bad day is…well, kind of rude.

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