Sometimes, even when you have hundreds of stray ideas that could potentially be used for writing, it's hard to concentrate on ONE story idea. And sometimes you need to craft a character, but your ideas fall short, or don't fit quite right with the story. Well, there are plenty of ways to get inspired, but one way is to get out your Tarot cards!
What are Tarot cards actually? They are similar to a usual deck of playing cards, except they are larger, feel nicer, and besides the four suits (which are Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles in Tarot), there are 22 Major Arcana cards with characters such as The Magician, The World, The Hangman, Death, etc. (fun fact: regular playing cards originated from Tarot cards). There is plenty of symbolism involved in the Tarot cards, and plenty of ways to use them, but I'll just write about how I use them to inspire writing, and I'll give a detailed example of creating a story from them. Here are the steps to follow:
1) Get some Tarot cards:
Preferably ones that are applicable to the kind of writing you do. If you do fantasy, you'll have no problem whatsoever, because there are many beautiful Tarot decks with mystical themes. I have Stephanie Pui-Mun Law's Shadowscapes Tarot, which are absolutely beautiful and inspiring (the images of the cards I'm using in this post are ones from that deck). Ones with a lot of detail like this are the best.
Going online and looking pictures of them won't cut it. You need to have them to shuffle about and lay down in front of you.
2) Learn a little about Tarot and play around with your deck:
Ok, this is optional, and I went a bit overboard by reading a whole book about the cards. It was a great book though, and I learned a lot. In any case, at least look at the mini-book that comes with the cards, and play around with them pretending to be a fortune-teller and such. And go ahead and do some readings of yourself and other people (gypsy scarf and candle optional). Even if you don't think it "works", it's still fun! Oh, and don't cry if you ask something like "What is my true destiny in the universe!" (not that I have ever asked that...) and get The Devil, or The Fool. Things are symbolic, and may reflect your state of mind at the time you're reading them. Or it might be giving you another message. Or if might be saying you have to defeat your own "Devil", or grow out of being a Fool. There is no one right interpretation for the cards: a lot depends upon you to read them and see how they apply to what you already know about yourself. So try to use your intuition and see what you can interpret. It's not all "in the book": let's say you get the card "The Magician" (see pic above with guy with green orb). There's an "official" meaning in the book that comes with the deck, but let's say that green orb he's holding means something to you personally. It's very likely that that is what the card is trying to tell you rather than the official meaning. And maybe that infinity sign above his head means something to you too. Anyhow, you get what I mean.
3) Now for the writing part:
You can do a host of different things depending on what you want to use this for. I'll give a few examples.
a) If you want to get ideas for a plot:
Shuffle the cards and decide that you want the cards to show a plot arc. Place as many as you want in front of you, perhaps in a sort of "pyramid-style" plot chart. Or make a circle, or do whatever you want! Even if you pick a random design, it can be part of the interpretation of your story.
Then flip over each card in order and think about how they can create a story. Don't just base it off of what the card is supposed to mean, but for this, it's best to use what the image means to you. If you use reversed cards*, then there are an enormous number of options that can come up.
I'll do an example of this right now.
It's the 4 of Wands (see picture below. I put all the cards I got in one big picture labeling what each card is). This card clearly marks the start of an adventure, or perhaps the start of a life. You can take the pictures literally or figuratively. If literally, then there are 4 unicorn-like creatures prancing through a rose patch with an entourage of fairies. Or just snatch one thing from it you like. But we need to see how the cards relate to each other too, and that's where the real story will come in.
The next card I put down is a reversed Knight of Cups. This will be my protagonist. He is riding a unicorn, so this will be the same unicorn as in the first card (it's best to try to relate them). He captured the unicorn in the hopes that he can achieve something, to reach that metaphorical "Holy Grail" in the sky with the fairies picture on the card). But he's riding a horse in the water: he can't swim, and he can't fly, and so he can never reach what he desires. The horse can, as seen from the first card, because the unicorn was from a better world where they can leap and fly. So maybe this knight has summoned the unicorn into his own world, and wants to ride the unicorn so he can get to whatever higher and greater world the unicorn is from. But the unicorn will not bear him there. This is his initial failure. Why he wants to go there, perhaps the next card will tell us.
The reason I'm putting a negative twist to this is because the card was reversed. And note that I'm not even referring to what the card is "supposed" to mean, except for any general ideas I already have of it.
The next card is the Page of Cups reversed. Hmm...The cups theme is good. This must be the original life that the Knight is coming from that he wishes to leave. Maybe in this world, people are sort of intoxicated with something that dulls their senses and blinds them to the reality of other worlds. The bowl that the mermaid holds might be this. For risk of making this too much like The Little Mermaid, I won't make her the main character, but she could be someone holding the knight back, trying to tempt him to stay in a world that is safe and known. The knight is not a mermaid though...maybe he was, and he's trying to leave the sea. His first step was to give up his fins Ariel-style. The other place he wants to get to is not just the world above the sea though, but another realm entirely. It is the place where the unicorns prance in the sunlight. But he still likes the sweet smell of that misty potion...
The next card is the Knight of Swords. Ok, so we're leaving the Cups suit for now. This could be the next step on the knight's adventure (I mean the knight of cups...he needs a name. I'll call him Delwin) Now the Knight of Swords (henceforth called Phillip) is much more powerful than Delwin. He comes from the stars, and I can even make this a part of my Soul Wanderers series and make him a Soul Wanderer! So Delwin meets a Soul Wanderer and realizes what he's missing. Yet Phillip is dangerous, hence the sword, and he is on his way to do something dangerous too. He has a retinue of minions (symbolized by the geese) and Delwin gets metaphorically (and physically?) swept away with them. Or maybe he sneaks along. In any case, he joins Phillip on a journey that is not his own, but that will become his own, as we will see (BTW, I'm making this up as I go along, so I don't know where this is going!).
The next card is the 7 of Cups. Perfect! This is about exploring other worlds, and dreaming of going to far places. Perhaps it's no coincidence I got these cards, since this is what I usually write about. In any case, as Delwin is getting swept along with Phillip's minions travelling through the stars on some mad mission to destroy some universal foe, he gets "dumped" in another world on the way, all injured and shaken, since he's never done anything like this before (details will come later: this is just the outline). Here, there is a monastery-like place where he can retreat and learn about other worlds and magic and things he never knew in his "sea world". He meets someone who helps him, a teacher, and together they explore this world and he helps her chart it on these maps. He becomes a student, but learns quickly, and so helps the people there greatly. Maybe he and the girl in the card (I'll call her Syva) become friends or fall in love.
Up next: Death reversed! I love it when I get Death--it adds so much more to the story! But death reversed is PERFECT for the Soul Wanderer theme. Soul Wanderers don't "die" like regular people do. They keep coming back to be reincarnated in other lives, other worlds. But Stephanie Pui-Mun Law's tarot deck already has Death represented by a phoenix. It is not really a complete "death" but a death of an old way of life and a transformation to something new. Good: we needed some conflict to offset the too-good and too-easy progression of the previous card. So what will happen is this: Delwin is living quite happily on this new world of his with Syva, though he starts getting a nagging feeling that he still hasn't achieved his goal. Maybe, despite his learning here, he still hasn't found out anything about that special world with the unicorns (perhaps he had a vision of it before, and that's why he wanted to go there in the first place. Actually, that could be the start of the story: his vision of the unicorn world). In any case, something happens (a writer's way to say "I need to get from A to C, but I don't know what B is yet, so I'll just ignore it for now") and he ends dying and his soul travels someplace else. Maybe Syva doesn't want to go with him, but Delwin feels he must go, though he promises to come back for her. This event could have been spurred by the return of Phillip or his minions, or perhaps they're wreaking havoc somewhere else in the universe and Delwin wants to stop it. So he "dies" and goes somewhere else...
The World! (such a beautiful card!) This is the world Delwin is "born into", one with great magic. He meets a sort of sorceress/magician with a device that can let him see into other worlds, but she does not let him use this. She realizes that Delwin has much potential, and that only he can stop Phillip and co. from destroying the universe. She tells him where they are headed next: the unicorn world (ok, this world needs a name! I'll call it Tenaria). "Tenaria?" Delwin says, shocked. He had been unconsciously preventing himself from thinking of Tenaria, what with his failure so long ago now, and the memory of that unicorn he had taken (and maybe the unicorn died, and he feels bad about it. His learning about other worlds with Syva was in part a way for him to forget how he used to be so reckless and maybe a little heartless). The sorceress (her name is Letaria--yes, her name is similar to Tenaria. She is connected to it somehow) helps him get there, though Delwin has to do most of the work, and gains more knowledge and skills at travelling between worlds and such, preparing him for the battle with Phillip.
Next is the Page of Swords. So the birds are Phillip's minions, and Delwin has to "tame" them by using his new magic, so that they will trust him and take him to Tenaria where Phillip is. Delwin has to become a sort of "page" of swords himself, because this is the only way he will get there. It is dangerous, but he blends in with the minions and gets to Tenaria.
Now for the LAST card: Five of Cups reversed. Oh. Not too exciting, after Death and The World. Yet when you get a "meh" card, don't put it back! Work it in, and it might save your story. This will have to tie back to the sea world he left (no, not Sea World :) but the one with the mermaid girl). When he gets to Tenaria, he finds his sea world reflected in it *somehow*, and realizes that he can fall back there with one longing glance into the "fishbowl". He will have to surmount his fears and ignore the bowl, break it perhaps, which breaks his connection to the lower worlds. Maybe this will leave Syva behind, or maybe he uses it to get her first, bring her here, and then he breaks it. As for Phillip...well, no one said this had to be a happy story so here's a potential ending: Delwin cannot kill Phillip unless he is entirely pure of heart, and to do that, he must deal with the unicorn he let die long ago. He has brought Syva here, and so he sacrifices himself in part for her sake and in part for the unicorn, dying in such a way that he will not return anywhere (he's learned all about this "practical metaphysics" in Syva's world, so can be sure of it).
So Phillip is banished from Tenaria, the universe is saved, and Delwin finally reaches his goal, but he has to die, or else will not compensate for the death of the unicorn, which is the death of the purest kind of creature. He ends up wanting to die, and at the very end, the unicorn rises again, and there is a little inkling of "maybe Delwin's soul is now in the unicorn", as we see when Syva looks into the unicorn's eyes, but we never know for sure.
Phew. So there's the story. At least a fairly substantial first outline that I could build from.
See how just picking up cards and looking at them can create an awesome story?!
[BTW, I probably don't have to mention this, but please don't steal this story! I might want to write it sometime.]
b) If you want inspiration for creating characters
You can do the same as above for one character, laying out an arc for them as they progress through a story. Or you can have one card represent each character, and can insert some cards between them to represent how they interact with one another, and how they change each other in the story. Make sure to do this all at once, so you can see how the characters are related to each other.
I did this for my short story The StarCompass, in creating the 3 main characters: Wyndor, Larwick, and Gideon. I found it worked quite well, though as I wrote, I did deviate from my initial ideas I got from the Tarot cards. But it's not like this should be the be-all-end-all, because the cards are supposed to be inspiration for you to build on, not full story ideas.
c) If you want ideas for a conflict
You can have 2 columns of cards and put cards between them to represent the tension between 2 different ideas, characters, concepts, etc. You can build a plot out of this too, but this focuses more on different forces at play rather than certain events in the story.
These are just a few examples, but there are so many more things you can do with Tarot cards. The best thing is often to just make up how you use the cards as you go along.
So have fun, and be inspired!
*A note on "reversed" cards: by "reversed", I just mean that if you don't keep all the cards one way up, when you lay them out, some will come out upside down. This can be taken to mean the opposite of whatever the card means. For example, if a card is supposed to represent courage, then that card reversed would mean a lack of courage, or someone who has problems summing up courage in the face of adversary. Sometimes it annoys me to have reversed cards, so you can choose whether or not to take an upside down card to mean reversed qualities, or if you just ignore that and flip it right-side up