This article has been difficult for me to write. To be honest, I was reluctant, which told me more than anything that I should explore this idea. In Holly Lisle’s Think Sideways class (see my right sidebar), she often recommends practicing and exploring the techniques that make you the MOST uncomfortable. Don’t give up on them — they very well might be teaching you the most important thing you need right now.
So let’s explore the idea of “Chance” in creating a character.
I don’t have the source (if anyone knows, please comment with link or details), but years ago I remember reading an author’s recommendation that when plotting or developing a story, you should write down as many ideas as possible — and then throw them away and take the sixth (or some relatively larger number) idea. Reason: the ideas you come up with first are standard and most routine. If you take the sixth or greater idea, then it’s more unique and less routine.
In other words, don’t take the easy route — it’s too predictable. And that’s exactly where the idea of “chance” can come into play.
There are many ways you can introduce an element of chance, inprobability, unexpected surprise, etc. into the plot and characterization of your story.
- If you have two options for a scene and you don’t know which way to go, you could simply flip a coin. Heads, take the road to the left; tails, take the road to the right.
- You could use Story Archetype cards.
- You could use I Ching, “The Book of Change.”
- You could use tarot (which I hope my friend, Jenna, talks about this weekend).
The coin idea is rather simplistic, so I’ll talk about the two major elements of chance I’ve used in the past. In this post, I’ll concentrate on the Archetype Story Cards. I’ll try to get up another post for I Ching later today.
Story Archetype Cards
These cards are similar to and were inspired by tarot, but are specifically geared toward Story. Each of the 64 cards has several elements on it: Moon, Element (e.g. fire, water, air, earth), Numerical value, and an image, whether a person or scene that might be inspiring. The deck also comes with a handout that gives a brief description of each card and how you might use it.
For example, “The Rune” card shows an ancient stone rising into a night sky with intricate carvings. A single star sparkles to the right. From the description, some key words are “symbols, metaphors, meaning, the nature of reality, the power of words to change reality.” Isn’t that a bit spooky that I picked THIS particular card? I just picked it up out of the deck, a bit conflicted about how to write this article, and I get a card meaning the power of words to change reality. As storytellers, that’s our great desire.
Really, the whole process can get all goose-bumpy and hair-raising. I’ve found some incredible inspiration from these cards and I really believe I wouldn’t have thought of those things without it. The cards can help unlock parts of your brain that just haven’t found a voice yet. I’ve never failed to get an interesting new idea when I’ve used the cards, and there are so many ways to use them!
For characters, the handy dandy handout that comes with the cards recommends that you shuffle and deal out two cards, one face up, one face down.
- The face up card represents the face this character presents to the world. e.g. the mask.
- The face down card represents the hidden nature or secret motivation of this character. e.g. tied to the motivating fear.
The trick is to open up your mind and simply let the images, colors, and symbols on the cards spark some new element you haven’t thought of yet.
Exercise: I decided to do this method for the heroine in my current project, Morghan of Seven Crows, a “science fiction Regency spoof.” This is real, with my thought process as I worked through the exercise.
- Face up: The Avatar
- Face down: The Beast
My thought process:
- @#&*@% Why’d I draw the BEAST? I have no idea what this means. Why did I think this exercise in “live blog” would be a good idea?
- Clear mind and look only at images.
- Avatar: Face up, the Avatar is my character’s mask, what she presents to the world. Just looking at the card, I noted the following elements: winged angel, young, beautiful; sword in one hand (which said justice or righteous vengance); armor (prepared for battle), nimbus of gold about her head (glory, holy, righteous).
- Avatar: number = 10 (final resolution); element = fire (power, energy, warmth, universal essence); Moon = waxing gibbous (rest, consequence, realization).
- Avatar: from the handout: “active hand of the divine, uncompromisable, justice, righteous retribution, bearing knowledge and sword.”
- Avatar, how can I use this? Morghan definitely has a big goal coming into the story. She wants to reclaim her father’s proper place in Society, not for herself, but truly for him. She’s waging war, but not with swords, with the Game of Politics. She’s skillful and right in many ways. The big chill-raiser here are the WINGS. That’s significant to the story and her character in particular. (Hint: title involves crows.)
- Beast, face down, represents my heroine’s inner conflict. My first impressions of the card’s image: anger, rage, teeth bared, face in a snarl, red. The associated element was water, which didn’t quite make sense to me. Wouldn’t water douse the rage?
- Beast: number = 1 (beginning, fundamental essence, energy without direction or form, basic, desire; Element = water (emotion, passion, feelings, love, subtlety, creation). Moon = waning crescent (retirement, sleep, apathy, waiting).
- Beast: from the handout: “inner conflict, denied desire, censorship, urges. The battle against the Beast takes place in the heart and mind. He represents inner challenges and urges. A person afraid of own actions; ethical dilemma, betrayal, denial of truth.”
- Beast: by now, all sorts of inner alarms are blaring. Definitely, Morghan is denying a huge secret. By denying that secret truth, and going to a place of rules and “censorship”, she’s going to feel even more caged. She wants to fly — but can’t because of the fetters and blinders she put on herself. She believes Society will clip her wings, but she was clipped and hooded long before she stepped on board the ship that would take her to her father’s home.
- The water element in the beast card begins to make more sense too, and gives me an idea for how to douse some of her rage. Another chilling thing: the hero is like a Chinese dragon, which was often associated with water. Yeah, he’s going to be the key to helping her douse that inner rage.
See, isn’t that cool? I never thought of the inner rage she must be feeling. Inside, she’s boiling. She’s mad, mostly at herself, and yes, at her father, and she’s dreading every single step that takes her to the goal, while outwardly she must play cool, calm, and completely in control. She’s definitely an avatar fighting her inner beast.
Have you ever tried some element of chance to help you develop a character or overcome a block?