Barrymore Tebbs: Creating Characters Using Tarot Court Cards
Welcome my pal and psychological gothic fiction writer Barrymore Tebbs to The Writing Life. He’s blogging about something I often find challenging—creating characters, and he has a spin I bet you haven’t seen before. Read on…
This morning I worked on a scene with two teenagers, the MC and his love interest, eating lunch at a Woolworth’s counter in 1962. I wanted their waitress, Doreen, to be more than a name tag and a beehive. I shuffled my Tarot deck and the first court card I came across was the Page of Wands, reversed. Guess what? Doreen is a Prima Donna, thinks her stuff don’t stink, talks dirt behind people’s back, and though she’s the major breadwinner in the family, she can’t hold a steady job.
Tarot is a fascinating tool which can be used for so much more than charging someone twenty bucks and telling them they are going to meet a dark haired stranger with lots of money (that would be the King of Pentacles, by the way). For those of you who don’t know, our playing cards are descendants of Tarot (minus the Major Arcana)… four suits with ten cards each, along with a King, Queen, Knight and Page. The last two seemed to have been combined into the Jack somewhere along the way.
As writers, we come equipped with a strong sense of character and story, which is exactly what the Tarot is all about. The court cards are fairly easy to understand, especially when we consider that these sixteen cards have a direct correlation to Jungian Personality Types as identified by Meyers/Briggs and others. (A more detailed comparison of the Tarot court cards to the Meyers Briggs Personality types can be found here http://tarot.lindagailwalters.com/Tarot-Minor-Arcana-Court-Cards.html )
The suits of Pentacles, Swords, Wands, and Cups correspond to the elements Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. This is a simplistic distillation, but Earth represents money, product, commerce; Air represents the intellect, education, the law; Fire, creative and sexual energy; Water, the emotions, the subconscious, and the arts. Combine these with the mature male and female (King and Queen) and the immature, or underdeveloped or undisciplined qualities of the youths (Knight and Page, also referred to as Prince and Princess) and you have the sixteen personalities.
When I wrote my book, Night of the Pentagram, I was challenged with creating a sanitarium full of unique personalities. Given the nature of the plot as psychological thriller, they each had to be fully realized and their stories revealed through multiple scenes of group therapy and one-on-one encounters with the heroine. The story is set in Hollywood in the late 1960s, so I started with a handful of “types” which older readers recognize from that era.
One of the more colorful ones is Jewel St. John, writer of trashy Hollywood novels a la Jacqueline Susann. I knew going in that Jewel was a real bitch, but that’s not enough to carry through a 70,000 word novel. Drawing on my twenty-plus year knowledge of the Tarot, I used traits of the Queen of Wands, reversed, to create the background and personality of Jewel on her profile sheet.
In the Queen of Wands, we have a mature, fiery female with a strong personality and creative drive. She is warm, vivacious, and witty. When the card is reversed, these and other positive attributes are disgraced. Here are a few excerpts from the profile I created for Jewel:
Outgoing and egotistical, can be abrasive, especially when drunk, which is frequently, expects most people to kiss her ass, temperamental, demands her own way, busybody, mischief maker, shit disturber, interferes in others’ affairs, poor listener, bitter, self-centered, despises male authority.
Jewel is a closet lesbian. She is an alcoholic and is prone to public acts of violence. She has assaulted sales clerks, photographers, and wardrobe assistants at television studios. Her psychiatrist and attorney were able to plea bargain with the judge after her latest fiasco, so she has voluntarily had herself committed to the Abernathy Clinic.
Lonely, though she is often in the spotlight, she has made a career out of writing vindictively about people she has known, thinly disguised in her trashy Hollywood best sellers, the first of which was deemed a Roman a clef because it was similar to her own early, failed career as a fashion model and bit part actress. She is twice divorced; both men died and left her their fortunes. She is extremely wealthy, though some have referred to her as a black widow. She is a regular on the talk show circuit.
Once the novel was underway, these aspects of Jewel’s personality manifested themselves through incident and anecdote. In the story as published, Jewel makes an unwelcome pass at our bewildered heroine, and there are several references to Jewel’s physical power when she is enraged, most notably that she picked up one of her critics and threw him through a plate glass window.
Many writers like to go with the flow and discover their characters along the way. Though I apply a Gothic style to all my stories, what I write are psychological thrillers, meaning that the plot and denouement rely heavily on fully realized personalities rife with secrets and hidden motivations. For me, developing characters in advance of writing is a necessity.
I’m not suggesting the use of Tarot as a replacement for the joy of characters sculpted from the writer’s own mind, but as a tool for added dimensions to bring greater subtlety and form to existing characters. Those who enjoy experimentation in the creative process may find something useful in this “mysterious pack of cards.” For more about the Tarot, this online course is an excellent starting point for beginners.
Thanks, Lisa, for letting me share one of my “tricks of the trade” with your readers today.
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