Using Tarot to Help Design Characters

Using Tarot to Help Design Characters

This summer, I had the pleasure of hosting my sibling, Lou. During that time, he was building his comic’s universe. He wanted to have a grasp of each of their character’s intrinsic motivation and purposes.

However, as he was going through his main cast, he got stuck on their #1 villain.

Usually, when you build a story, your main antagonist or important plot is quite clear, and it usually is what drives your cast of heroes. Sure, you can always build some more character into villains and there are a lot of clichés, but that wasn’t Lou’s current issue.

The villain Lou designed just felt like a total stranger to him.

Let’s call this villain George going forward, as I don’t want to spoil any of Lou’s story by revealing who he is.

It was a tricky situation because, in Lou’s story, there’s a lot of anti-hero or villainous figures who aren’t actual villains. However, George was supposed to be the One True Evil who manipulated the others into doing his bidding. It’s not like he isn’t able to write a villain, but this character was somehow alien to him. After a while being stumped, Lou asked for my help.

Quickly summarized, George’s a traditionalist, his ultimate goal is to protect the status quo, he’s highly charismatic and he has a cult of his own.

Now, something you have to know about me is that this description is my actual living nightmare. Of course, by its virtue of being terrifying, it immediately rang the Arcana V – The Hierophant (The Pope) all over my brain.

At the risk of sounding annoying and bringing up Tarot yet again in our conversations, I couldn’t help but telling Lou:

« hey, George can be summarized by someone who’s dominated by the Hierophant Arcana then went downhill that rabbit hole instead of trying to subvert it and learn from it. »

Not long after that, Lou had adopted the Hierophant’s stereotypes and understood George, which made him a dozen times easier to write.

At that moment, I realized it’s more than possible to use Arcana to channel their archetypes into fictional characters. Major Arcana are basically fictional characters, too!

And now, let’s dive into how the Arcana of the Pope/Hierophant helped Lou materialize George.

What are Tarot Arcana?

First thing first, for people who aren’t familiar with Tarot, the Arcana are 22 archetypes who follow some sort of initiation and growth humanity is supposed to go through in some form or another. They usually start at 0 – The Fool and go all the way through XXI – The World. It then loops back at the Fool for another round of cosmic growth.

Vague description aside, Arcana are the Big Trump Cards™ of Tarot. Among them, cards like the VI – Lovers or XIII – Death are pretty popular. V – The Hierophant (The Pope) is one of them.

Being widely used archetypes, the Arcana are usually known for their general energy or general signification. Most of them, such as the Lovers and the Death, are self-explanatory, however, they do have deeper meanings and symbolism tied to them despite looking simple enough.

For the purpose of this article, I’ll use the Pope/Hierophant, only ever using another Arcana if I need more defining examples.

A profile for V – The Hierophant

If you do any Tarot reading and draw the Hierophant, here are the main elements that are usually brought up:

  • He maintains tradition, he is a guide to the lost souls
  • He is highly spiritual, has the heart of a teacher
  • He is the guardian of rituals, knowledge, and humanity
  • He is the bridge between humans and the divine (being obviously a priest)
  • Addendum: In the Zen Tarot, the fifth Arcana is called Vacuity, and pictures just an entire black card (save for the name). I like to think it highlights how the Hierophant sees through what is seen and invites you to do the same. Or something.

Pretty nice, right?

The Hierophant is usually pictured with the Sun and golden colors and a crown and even holy light coming from the sky (or total abyss if you look at the Zen Tarot). All in all, it looks like a positive card, especially compared to something scary like the XV – Devil or XIII – Death, right?

Personally, I used to hate this card.

Being pretty much anti-religion myself, a picture of a Pope really pushed my buttons. Even the Vacuity version used to rattle me in my readings. Whenever it came out, I had this gut feeling something terrible was going to happen.

Why was this Arcana bothering me so freaking much?

Turns out I am terrible at asking for help and am dangerously prone to envy, ahah.

Self-deprecating joke asides, going back to my fears, it was sort of normal this card always brought up disgust. If my heart and soul believed in living an entirely independent life (which is from where my anti-religion beliefs came from) and that people trying to lead you were always misleading you in some form or another, the Pope would justly always be bad, being itself the symbol of a cult-leader.

« No one needs someone to be the bridge for them, » I used to believe. Everyone should carry themselves, be their own mentor, their own light.

Though I eventually realized that, fundamentally, without any bridges or any help whatsoever, you just end up isolated and alone, real fast. It is just untrue that for anyone to make it in the world all by themselves. We at least need some guardian to raise us, somehow.

Though this guardian, or mentor, or parent, doesn’t have to be this perfect picture of holiness and purity and freedom of sin. Nobody is perfect, and most of the time you get one of those roles out of necessity. But I do believe that if someone takes on that role of the Mentor with any type of authority pyramid model at heart, they can become as dangerous as a cult-leader. then it only becomes a matter of how many lives has to be dominated before they feel satisfied.

So yeah. I have Big Issues with this usually fine card. I mean, to this day, I never read anything about the Hierophant that could indicate the looming presence of a Cult Leader. But, how I see it, you can be or do too much of a thing. On other Arcana, we could extrapolate that someone ruled by the Lover’s archetype could very well end up like in Romeo and Juliet, and someone obsessed by the Hermit’s archetype ends up like Chidi from The Good Place.

For this reason, I do think that if someone is dominated by the Hierophant ideology and archetype, they can turn out like a Cult Leader. I think it’s an appropriate parallel that can be done. Now that we know Arcana aren’t just what they look like or what is told about them and can be extrapolated, we can look at them as a starting point in a character’s development and see where we go from there.

How can you use Arcana to create interesting characters?

Finally, we’re out of my rant on the Hierophant. Phew. We’re finally tackling the good stuff.

Understanding the role of the Arcana

Being archetypes, the information behind any Arcana will be easily recognizable to your audience. However, if you only use the barest and stereotypical interpretation of the Arcana, you’re probably going to create something cliché.

To avoid that, you will need to build on top of the essence you bring out of the Arcana. Using Arcana is great to start, but it can’t be your character’s only defining elements.

Fortunately, there’s a lot to build onto and to work with, so it shouldn’t be too hard.

Fictional character development

Arcana really shine when we work on the intrinsic values of someone. I’m talking of the strengths, challenges, and goals of a character. They are the tools present within themselves that they can use to navigate within their environment and their setting.

Strengths

Obviously, all Arcana has a set of positive strengths associated with them, even the worst of them. In our case, the Pope has a very easily distinguishable set of qualities:

  • He represents strong leadership that the people trust naturally;
  • He is able to vocalize abstract thoughts easily;
  • He is a comforting presence;
  • He casts away doubts;
  • He is well grounded despite being spiritual.

This is nice when we need to be inspired to create a character. Strengths are just that, though. Just nice tools that highlight what the character is known for.

For Lou’s character, George, these tools were what makes him dangerous, as a cult leader. His speech is his greatest weapon. He would be able to change the people’s own perception of themselves within the broken world they all live in and keep them docile and adverse to any type of change, which would lead to keeping the status quo. Win-win!

Challenges

Every Arcana has a set of challenges, just as they have a set of strengths, as they help the card readers to realize deeper truths about themselves and guide them through their hardships.

When the Hierophant card shows up, the different challenges that can highlight are:

  • How hard asking for help can be, how maybe you want to do it all by yourself, be the one in the spotlight, have the power, etc;
  • The danger of blindly following authority and power without asserting yourself as an equal but learning individual;
  • How breaking rules and tradition may be the only way to grow;
  • How speaking is well and good, but you should probably act on it too (though speaking is an action and, bear in mind, an important one!!);

There’s more, but those are the most common ones.

What did those challenges mean for George? Well, the two most important ones are the last two: how breaking rules sometimes is the best way to go, which is definitely against George’s main interests; and how his speech and his word are very important to him, and not just some random feel-good speeches he says to get people to follow him. He truly believes his ideas are the Truth, and if someone were to point out he speaks any type of contradictions, it would hit him pretty hard.

He is also, as a byproduct of his authority-pyramid model he has others to abide by, very alone in his process. He himself doesn’t trust anyone else to help him as an equal. He may find equals in others who hold some sort of Power but never equals in ideology and understanding of the world and the importance of his mission.

Goals

This is where my big rant on how Arcana can be extrapolated really shines. 😎

Because, usually, as each Arcana has strengths and challenges, they also all have goals; reaching that goal is like going through awakening and being able to go to the next step, which is an upper Arcana.

However, as I stated before, people can get comfortable in their position and become somewhat corrupted. So we can really underline two different types of goals for each Arcana: the True Goal, and the Misguided Goal, the same one I explained before during my rant, one we can extrapolate if we imagine someone dominated by the archetype.

For the Hierophant, his misguided goal is to focus on the ideal. He would try to unite the people around it at all costs, under a single banner or mindset, using his power to gather for his own power and standing. He could help change people for the better or the worst, but never for the people themselves. The greater good is only an excuse to justify the means. He is about stature, authority, control.

His true goal, however, revolves around his faith in his people and their successes. He helps other help others. He is much more of a guide, a figure of trust and respect that is well deserve, instead of an absolute leader. He nurtures energy instead of taking it. He is about collaboration, support and bringing people to their best selves. His position and authority is only a by product of his work, instead of being the goal itself.

If we roll back to Georges, him being a villain and all, we can assume he’s deep within the misguided well. Which is fine for this villainous purpose. Will he ever be able to make peace with his calling and change? Perhaps not. That’s the beauty of storytelling though, so it’s all fine.

Conclusion

Of course, despite this whole talk on the Hierophant, this can be done with any major Arcana, or a couple of them, or even a mix of minor ones! You can go wild and mix them up!! It’s fun! And you may even find new things about your characters, just by trying to assign them a single major Arcana. It opens up new horizons. Woo!

As for Georges, Lou at first only knew his goal of trying to quash a resistance, to prevent change and keep status-quo. Now he knows fundamentally how he does so, but also why, how he thinks, what are his motivations, how convinced he is of his ideals, and whatnot. However, this was just the start. Of course, his villain isn’t just some misguided cult-leader. Lou was able to use that as a starting guide to mold his character, his back-story and his environment to this in order to create a full-fledged respectable villain.

Ok so I’ll stop here because I could write a book on every Arcana extrapolated into their darkest desires and paths. Don’t test me, I’m a Leo, ruled by the Sun and the XI – Strength major Arcana. Great, now I sorta wanna do it… I could make a short version into a small e-book or something, just to start… Also this prompts another article, yeah? This one is about helping unstumping character development using Arcana, but we don’t want to create clichés, so you still gotta work on top of what the Arcana provides, so there’s still work to do! Next time, I’ll use an example without any spoiler material so I could further give details, ahah.

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