While cleaning out my childhood bedroom this weekend, I found an old deck of tarot cards that I’d once received as a joke gift. I remember having a lot of fun with the deck in college, predicting which of my friends would encounter tall dark-haired strangers and whether their relationships would end happily ever after. I’ve never taken this sort of thing seriously, but there’s something highly persuasive about the simple magic of laying out randomized cards in a deck, hoping to learn your future.
This weekend, years after I’d received the deck, I laid out the cards according to the instructions and asked a question or two about how events in my life would shape up. I found myself trying to explain the cards’ presentation to myself, applying it to my own life. It all seemed to make an odd kind of sense, if you were willing to be creative in the interpretation. It got me thinking about the future, and how we hope for knowledge of it, even trusting absurd superstitions in exchange for a little certainty.
Planning for the Future Only Gets You So Far
Writers may be even more anxious about the future than your average person. I think they tend to want control over the narratives of their lives; that’s one reason why they create stories, enjoying being the master of someone’s fate. We all seek the degree of control of writers. The problem, of course, is that real life is not a novel, as much as we want it to be. Things get in the way of our best-laid plans. So we play with cards, or star patterns, or even the entrails of animals, hoping for a little reassurance that everything will work out in the end. I laid out my tarot deck without belief, and yet still hoping the cards would show something positive; some part of me hoped these little rituals could stave off bad luck.
How does this relate to writing?
The lack of control we sometimes feel about the future is a big part of real life. But when we’re writing a fictional story, we sometimes forget this part. We are in total control, so we make everything feel certain, planned, and predictable. It’s almost as though in a fictional world, the tarot deck has real magic, and is never wrong. It removes a great deal of the uncertainty that is part of normal life.
So when we’re creating fictional worlds, we have to build in the uncertainty that we feel in reality. We have to make the character feel that he is not in control of his own life. It’ll give your story a jittery, suspenseful feel — and it will convince your reader that this story has a real engagement with the uncertainties of life.