By S.T. Gibson
The woo is on the rise.
Astrology, tarot cards, and talk of low vibes and good energy are cropping up in magazines, primetime television, and social media feeds. Guided meditation books and healing crystals are sold alongside laundry baskets and decorative mirrors in your local big box store. The new age is back in vogue, it seems, and it’s gotten a chic facelift since the purple haze and crushed velvet heyday of the 1960s. Old taboos around being interested in the esoteric, especially among younger people, are dissolving. People who were once private about their spiritual practices are discussing them openly, and people searching for meaning outside of traditionally organized religion are dropping into ritual circles or tarot reading meetups just to see what all the fuss is about.
Alternative spirituality has gone mainstream, and everyone, from The Atlantic to The New Yorker, is noticing.
The driving factors behind any cultural trend are always multifaceted. The more ubiquitous something seems, the more difficult its origin story can be to trace. But widening wealth gaps, climate despair, and anger toward increasingly authoritarian governments are certainly motivating some spiritual seekers. In a world where so much is out of our control and rising tides of fear and extremism flood in through our screens, it isn’t surprising that some are turning inward to find a sense of peace.
In the same way science fiction helps us imagine a better future, alternative spirituality helps practitioners live a better here and now. After all, you might not be able to control the outcome of the next election, or whether or not megacorporations adhere to environmental protection laws, but you can lay tight hold to any little scrap of hope and meaning you can find, even if you have to witch it up yourself.
Time for some full disclosure: I’m more than a little woo. My house is full of votive candles, quartz points, and an ever-spawning incense collection. I’ve got a bottomless appetite for all things spiritual, a master’s degree in theology, and a voracious, indiscriminate affection for the little ways people try to answer the big questions of existence. We all have our preferred modes to filter data points through to find patterns in our lives and change them for the better. The spiritual is mine.
So, it’s probably no surprise to anyone that I’ve been reading tarot — both professionally and for personal enrichment — for over six years. It may, however, surprise you to learn that tarot is also an essential part of my worldbuilding process as a writer. And I’d argue that even the most secular authors, artists, and game masters could benefit from getting more familiar with the tarot, no spell book needed. After all, Philip K. Dick used the I Ching while plotting The Man in the High Castle. You never know when an unexpected tool is going to give you the worldbuilding advantage.
Interested in picking up a secret weapon for your next character build? Step right up and pick a card. Any card.
A Crash Course in the Cards
The tarot is, at its core, a system of narrative symbols. It doesn’t so much deal in yes or no as it does in stories, in interconnected archetypes that are meant to be read in conversation with each other. In even the most no frills, quick-and-dirty, one-card reading, your deck is still presenting a story to be interpreted through your lived experience. Fortune-telling is just a parlor trick compared to the deep self-awareness that can come from reflecting on the cards, and they can be combined in endless permutations to deliver endless messages to endless audiences. Like the world’s greatest novels, the tarot has endured for hundreds of years precisely because of its ability to tell universal yet deeply personal stories.
The most recognizable tarot deck today is the Rider Waite-Smith deck, which is full of symbols pulled from Western alchemy, Christianity, Egyptian mythology, and the Kabbalah, but the proliferation of decks in recent years has been exponential. You can find tarot decks featuring classical paintings, cats, Star Wars characters, faeries, pinup models, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. Some decks are abstract and intuitive, while others stick to the traditional figures laid out in the Rider Waite-Smith. But they’re all storytelling tools.
It’s crucial here to point out that you don’t need to adhere to any particular creed or dogma to find meaning in the tarot. Some of the best tarot readers I know are a practicing Catholic, an agnostic, and a devotee of the Greek god Poseidon. The tarot is a tool, neutral and full of potential in the hands of its owner. But with so many options out there, how do you know which deck is right for you?
My advice is to choose a deck that feels good to you, with symbols you connect with. Don’t overthink it. Pick something you’ll get pleasure looking at for long periods of time. Just watch out for anything called an “oracle deck.” Those decks, beautiful though they are, aren’t structured like traditional tarot decks, and can’t easily be used for any of the following exercises.
Arcana and Archetypal Worldbuilding Eternal
Your average tarot deck has seventy-eight cards. Of these, twenty-two make up the Major Arcana. These are the cards you’ve probably seen in movies or screen-printed across T-shirts: the Lovers, Death, the Moon. The rest of the cards — the Minor Arcana — fall into four suits: the Cups, Pentacles, Wands, and Swords. The Minor Arcana are numbered accordingly from one (called ace) to ten with pages, knights, queens, and kings acting like face cards to round out the suit, very much like a mundane deck of playing cards. Whatever deck you pick up will likely come with a little book of associations, and that’s a wonderful place for the novice reader to start from. But remember, tarot reading is just as much about trusting your gut as it is about knowing the cards’ traditional meanings, maybe even more. You should feel empowered to read the cards in whatever way feels right to you. There are few rules in tarot, so the only limitations on what it can teach you are the ones you put on yourself. Interpreting the Major Arcana will be easier with a deck that makes use of the traditional suit symbols, like the Rider Waite-Smith. But with a little practice and a couple of glances into your association book, you can hop from deck to deck.
You could, hypothetically, separate the Major Arcana out from the rest of the deck and use those twenty-two cards as the raw archetypal material of your character build. There would be a lot fewer associations to learn than an entire deck, and some of them may already be familiar to you. If you were to go that route, here’s what the process might look like.
The Major Arcana could represent major players or turning points along your hero’s journey. The Hierophant may represent the figurehead of your created religious institution, the Devil a figure who tempts the protagonist away from their purpose, and the Tower a terrible revelation that makes your hero question everything they’ve ever known. It can be helpful to assign your major players a card during the character build process. Think about who in your story is a High Priestess and who is an Emperor, for example, and remember that these archetypes aren’t limited by age, gender, race, sexuality, or any other factors! Your sixteen-year-old girl protagonist who’s dedicated to providing for her adopted siblings at all costs and maintaining control of their unruly household might be a natural born Emperor, and the thirty-year-old male warlock you play in D&D who is obsessed with protecting eldritch secrets might be the High Priestess in your party. Returning to that touchstone card while writing can keep you tuned in to the way your character manifests or undermines that archetype’s common traits.
As an example, I’m currently writing the next contemporary fantasy book in my Odd Spirits universe, and I’ve assigned tarot cards to all the major characters. The protagonist David, a lawyer who moonlights as a medium in an attempt to regain the glory of his childhood as a psychic prodigy, is best represented through the first half of the book by the Hanged Man card. His life has reached an impasse: his relationships, career, and sense of self are imbued with the Hanged Man’s stalemate and indecision. When you pull the Hanged Man in a reading, it can indicate that transformation or enlightenment is nearby, but that the only way to attain it is to surrender to the waiting game. Once new characters enter my protagonist’s life, they catalyze his transformation, and by the end of the book he has moved from a Hanged Man season of life into a season better represented by the triumphant, showy Sun card. Choosing a card to represent your characters’ start points and their end points is a great way to plan the course of their arcs.
The Major Arcana can also reveal what sort of archetypes you’re constantly drawn to, or ones you may be lacking. Maybe you’ve got a cast full of Magicians, cocksure wunderkinds who love to remake the world in their own image. What happens if you introduced a diametrically opposed archetype into the mix, or put your protagonist into one of the Major Arcana’s uncomfortable cards of self-transformation? Tension, dynamism, and potentially, a more interesting story than the one you started with.
Harnessing the Suits
If you’re feeling confident in your Major Arcana-wielding skills, or if you really just love a challenge, you might dig your teeth into the Minor Arcana next. There are so many different ways to interpret the suits, and every deck handles them a little differently, but for now, let’s play with the following associations.
- Swords — Thoughts and their resulting actions
- Cups — Emotions and relationships
- Wands — Luck, destiny, and/or spiritual influences
- Pentacles — Environmental and material resources
You can cheat-sheet your way through interpreting the suits on behalf of your characters with this key alone. Again, your little book of associations might be helpful at this point or a layman-friendly online resource like Biddy Tarot. I also suggest the book WTF is Tarot? …& How Do I Do It? by Bakara Wintner for an easy-access exploration of the tarot in storytelling terms.
Let’s circle back around to that psychic protagonist I mentioned earlier. Of all the suits, David is probably most comfortable in the Swords (this lawyer will happily turn dinner chatter into a debate he’s determined to win) and least comfortable in the Cups. He’s not very emotionally articulate, and he’s bad at opening up to people and maintaining intimate friendships. This tells me that the most interesting cards to deal this character, narratively speaking, are Cup cards. They’re the ones that will cause the most tension and character growth. One card I keep in my mind when working on his arc is the Three of Cups. This card is all about deep connections with close friends. It encourages collaboration and warns that if you don’t work to maintain your friendships, they’ll fade. It’s a pretty fitting card for a guy who has to team up with his estranged ex and the ex’s wife to unravel a curse. For this character, breaking a curse is the easy part. Doing the hard work of mending broken relationships is way harder, so that’s where I dig in deepest.
You may have noticed by now that if the Major Arcana deals with character archetypes and the Minor Arcana deals with internal and external forces exerting influence over them, you’ve got the bones of countless stories stacked neatly together in a single deck. The possibilities are truly endless.
If you wanted, you could draw cards at random and come up with an entirely new story idea based on the narrative connections that you see between the cards. Or, to fix the mushy middle of a writing project or amp up the tension of a campaign in progress, try drawing a suit card at random. Maybe the Five of Pentacles tells you a financial loss is about to rock your character’s world, or the Seven of Swords warns you that someone is going to get double-crossed. Ask yourself what story the cards are trying to tell you, and then ask yourself what happens next.
Whether you consider yourself a particularly spiritual person or not, the tarot is a great way to kick-start your creative process — and learn a little more about your own inner world in the process.
S.T. Gibson is a Boston-based poet, novelist, and professional tarot reader. Her latest book is A Dowry of Blood, a lyrical and dreamy reimagining of Dracula’s brides, a story of desire, obsession, and emancipation.You can connect with her on Twitter @s_t_gibson or learn more about her tarot practice at holyrootstarot.com.
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