Tetraktys Tarot Card Reading

Many writers make up questionnaires to try to get to know their characters better. But does it really help your story to know what your character’s favorite food or color is? When I need to deeply understand my protagonist, an antagonist, or any of my secondary characters, I often do a tarot card reading.

The insights help me develop the character’s backstory and motivation, as well provide new ideas for how he or she will transform and take action across the story arc.

If you’re not familiar with tarot, you might want to read my Sept. 29th post on using this divination practice. The Character Cross is a good starting place for trying out tarot as a writer. Here I’m introducing a slightly more involved tarot spread called a TETRAKTYS. The cards are arranged bottom to top with a row of 4, a row of 3, a row of 2, and crowned with a single card. The winding movement from bottom to top is like a climber ascending a mountain (appropriate for a character arc).


I hope you’ll share this writing exercise with others!

I’d love to hear how the Tetraktys tarot spread works for you. Shoot me a message on Facebook.

Here’s the way to interpret what each card means for your character:

TETRAD (bottom 4 cards, right to left)

1.       Signifier – What is the (possibly false) sense of self your character possesses at the opening of the story?

2.       Past influence — What events, issues, friends, or family in the backstory have had the biggest impact on shaping your character?  

3.       Desires — At the beginning of your story, what does your character most want in the world?

4.       Fears — What fears or anxieties are keeping your character from becoming her best self?

TRIAD (second row up, left to right)   Traditionally the Triad row is about destruction, creation, and sustaining.

5.       Destroyer — What inciting incident, unexpected arrival, or catalyst will destroy your character’s old way of life?

6.       Creator — Even if your character has little control over the catalyst, there should be a powerful choice that your character has to make to create a new life. What must your character choose between if he is to move forward toward a resolution of the conflict?

7.       Sustainer — What unique qualities or talents does your character possess to help in resolving the story conflict?

DYAD (third row up, right to left)   The Dyad row focuses on the oppositional forces of light and darkness.

8.       Conflict – What difficulties are in your character’s path, creating obstacles to overcome (darkness) as well as opportunities for personal growth (light)?

9.       Consequences — If your character does or doesn’t succeed, what good or bad consequences will occur? These should be big and important not only to your character, but also to your reader.

MONAD (apex card)

10.   Unity — For your character to succeed in overcoming the central obstacles, she will need to unify her sense of self with the climactic action she must take. In other words, your character must discover a deeper sense of self that will allow her to resolve the conflict. How does the character arc and story arc come together in a powerful resolution?

Tarot Readings for Characters

Like many divination practices, my belief is that activities such as Tarot use ambiguity to tap into the ideas already waiting in our unconscious minds. When you purchase a set of tarot cards, they will come with a booklet that explains what each of the cards means and how to do a “spread.” Use your imagination to find connections between the cards’ meanings and the question you are posing for each position of the spread.

The cards displayed above are just one example of what you might lay out. You'll have to interpret the meanings using the Tarot guide book. For example, the card I drew for the Mask of Identity above is the Ace of Wands. The Ace of Wands, with the hand extending from the cloud, generally refers to new beginnings. So maybe at the start of your story, your character has a new baby brother, so your character identifies positively or negatively to this new addition to the family. Maybe she feels resentful about this disruption to the old order of life. As the story progresses, your protagonist might evolve in how she sees her place in the family as a big sister. How you interpret is up to you.


The Character Cross

There's a spread called a Celtic Cross, that I've renamed here the Character Cross. Shuffle the deck and lay out five cards in this cross pattern. Each of the five spots has a particular question for you to ask about your character. 

1.       Mask of Identity: What is the false sense of self your character holds at the beginning of your story? Characters often transform in a story from having a misguided sense of self at the beginning (based on her own beliefs or those imposed by others). But by the story's end, she'll find...

2.       True Self: What is the true sense of self your character will discover by the end of your story? Through the difficulties faced, a character often gains a new understanding of her place in the world. This is the true identity she will now adopt (and will probably assist with the conflict at the story's climax).

3.       Obstacles: What is keeping your character from discovering his/her true self? These can be characters or situations. They can be internal or external in origin.

4.       Sympathy: What difficulty is your character facing that will create reader sympathy? Readers emotionally connect with characters facing hardship. Give us a reason to want to see your character's life change.

5.       Admiration: What are your character’s greatest qualities and talents that will create reader admiration? Like with sympathy, readers also connect with characters we respect and admire. Get us on board with your character by making them interesting and appealing. What can she do well that others can't?


I hope the Character Cross delivers some interesting insights about who your character is. I'll share other Tarot spreads soon for you to try with your characters and story. Happy divining!

Reversing Misfortune

So you've made a Misfortune Teller. (If not, check out my post about this fun tool for raising the stakes in your story and getting your character deeper into trouble.) So now that you've painted your character into that dreadful corner, how are you going to get her back out again?

I've got some suggestions. 

When I was watching Jurassic World, I found myself noticing the ways the characters got out of all that dino danger. How do you escape from a nine-ton carnivore chasing you? Well, just jump off a waterfall (something more foolish or daring than your pursuer is willing to do). What do you do when you're cornered by a killer like the Indominus rex? Release your old enemy T. rex to fight the thing off (the enemy of my enemy is my ally).

So I started a list of general categories for these sorts of escapes. The next time you're trying to get your hero out of a nasty spot, take a look at this list and see if any of these ways of reversing misfortune help.

1.        Getting help from a hidden ally

2.       Discovering a hidden or veiled talent

3.       Doing something more dangerous or foolish than the adversary is willing to do

4.      Advancing with trickery, cleverness, or deceit

5.       Having kindness pay off

6.      Having an ally create a distraction

7.       Having an ally sacrifice him/herself

8.      Capitalizing on your protagonist’s unique personal qualities or talents

9.      Turning the tables on your antagonist

10.    Exploiting the antagonist’s fatal weakness

11.     Third time’s the charm

12.    An ordinary objects sparks an ingenious solution

13.    Rounding up the scattered allies

14.    Turning lemons into lemonade

15.    Getting help from an archetypal “fool” character

16.    Giving up a treasured belief or possession

17.    Trusting the gut when others disagree

18.    Learning from past mistakes

19.    Capitalizing on the moment

20.   Utilizing the setting

21.    Putting an odd-ball interest to good use

22.   Having persistence or determination pay off

23.   Piecing together seemingly unrelated clues

24.   The enemy of my enemy becomes my friend (temporarily)

25.   Having a forgotten or missing ally come to the rescue

Let me know if you come up with any others! Comment below or post a comment on my Facebook page.

The Misfortune Teller

Writers need to be mean to their characters! Right? Exciting stories have high stakes and tons of conflict. If you're looking for ways to ratchet up the tension and get your character deeper into trouble, I've designed a fun activity for you.

I've coined it THE MISFORTUNE TELLER. It's based on the childhood folded-paper game called a Fortune Teller (or sometimes a Cootie Catcher). This one won't predict good fortune for your character. It delivers lots of horrible misfortune.

On the inside, you'll find general categories of misfortune: Public Humiliation, Secret Exposed, Something Crucial Lost, Mortal Danger, and so on. The possibilities are endless. Once your character receives a misfortune, it's up to you to decide what specific disaster will unfold (pun intended). For example, if you land on Unjust Accusation, maybe a teacher has accused your character of cheating on a test, or a parent thinks he's lying. Maybe a king arrests your character for a crime she didn't do or a government thinks your protagonist unleashed the zombie-kitten apocalypse. You'll find something perfectly dreadful, I'm certain.

Here's a template you can print off. If you don't have a seven-year old around who knows how to fold it, try these instructions: How to fold a fortune teller?

I'd love to hear how it works for you! Or let me know if you discover another misfortune you want to add. Send me a comment at my Facebook author page.