Back in August of 2019, I threw together some notes on character design. The TL;DR there is the Tarot Cards, used for cartomancy or divination, can seed a character’s description.

This has to be used judiciously, but, it can help to avoid creating characters with a simple cookie-cutter.

Originally, I had borrowed some material from books on Tarot, including the little pamphlet that’s often in the box of Waite-Rider cards.

The “borrowed from tarot” is tricky because the tarot folks have invented these spreads with 10 cards that provide a lot of story-telling details. If you’re charging a fee, the more cards, the easier to justify the fee.

Then, while traveling across the country (for the sixth time) I was thinking some more of this process for creating characters. I slowly came to see how I’d fallen into a kind of trap. I had borrowed too many cartomancy concepts, and not enough essential story-telling ideas.

I think can simplify my approach to four cards to start a character.

  1. What they must go to, even though they don’t know it yet. After all, the story is about discovering this and then following through on the discovery.

  2. What they’re actually coming from. This is (initially) unacknowledged by the character.

  3. What they think they’re coming from. This is the lie the character tells themselves. They try to carry this as a truth, when it actually isn’t. (I originally called this “overcoming.”)

  4. What they think they’re going to. This is their reason for declining an adventure. It’s the seductive temptations that must be avoided. I originally had a thing I called “avoiding” and a thing I called “need/embrace.” These were too complex; the didn’t provide useful drama.

One source of drama, then, is this internal confusion between what they think their journey is, and what it really needs to be.

The plot also comes from obstacles. First a character has to figure out what lie they’ve been telling themself. Then, they can uncover the real destination.

A fifth card can be used to provide a “archetype” for the character. This is simply the image on the card, and a moment of reflection on what kind of person this could represent.

The sixth card (similar to my previous arrangement) can provide a kind of mcGuffin — a thing that can act as a focus for the action.

This change is informed (heavily) by material on Plotting a novel requires putting things together in a “plotting order” distinct from the story order.

Something like this:

CHARACTER (the MC archetype)

  • VI Lovers: Choice between different benefits, misguided attraction

GOING TO (actual objective)

  • Seven Cups: Scattered force

COMING FROM (actual history)

  • Six Pentacles: Charity to henchmen

THE LIE (history/context acknowledged (the lie))

  • Knight Pentacles: Utility, competence

FALSE HOPE (what the character thinks they want, colored by the lie)

  • Two Cups: Partnership

The hard part is interpreting it, of course.

This suggests a story about someone who makes bad choices. While they think of themselves as competent, they’ve really gotten by via heavy bribes to henchmen. While they’re pursuing an attractive partnership, they will learn they need to disband the group of henchmen. The partnership may be achieved, also, but the real outcome is understanding the lie and how it holds them back.