Character Flaw

Yesterday I looked in on a Twitter chat about character flaws that seemed to circle around these statements: “flaws! Yes! Characters have them! What about addiction?” and the whole thing looked just a bit too much like the reason people make fun of Twitter.

Though there were standouts, like Eugenia Kim.

I was observing because I like to watch for new uses for social media and writing, no matter how much eye-rolling is happening around it–technology does occasionally provide more than distractions–and while there may have been something to the 140 character limit that made the whole thing a little blunted, I gave them credit for trying. But in general I’ve lately been greatly discouraged by the way I feel like the contemporary rhetoric about creative writing meant to aid writers too often guides them into sad little corners, where they end up too much like Roombas that can’t turn themselves around. This of course is why Joseph Conrad was afraid of Ford Madox Ford’s pursuit of knowledge around writing–he feared it would harm more than it would help to know what exactly what one was doing. And I do think there’s a kind of advice that doesn’t help, and nowhere do I see this more than with the idea of the Flaw in character design.

Consider instead Adrien Tomine’s Shortcomings, a tiny modern masterpiece (to my mind) about Ben Tanaka, a bitter young man who drives everyone out of his life with his attempts to shore up his insecurities. Part of what is fascinating about the book is how Tomine allows the reader into the gap between who Ben wants you to think he is and who he really is. On one page he’s loudly complaining to his girlfriend about having to see a film on Asian American identity, and on another, he’s upset because she’s leaving him for a white(ish) man. He goes from loudly deploring someone for using being Asian as a way to complain constantly about everything in his life to bitterly fearing rejection by a potential lover for being Asian. He lacks that famous other creative writing hobgoblin, character consistency, in one way–he is absolutely inconsistent in his views–and yet that ends up being what the book is about: he has no core, except a shame at who he is that destroys all his relationships. THAT is his consistency, that is his ‘flaw’. And what’s more, this gap is precisely what creates the dramatic irony that moves the whole book along.

Among the strategies I teach for character design is an idea I got from the writer Rachel Pollack, a friend and former colleague. Rachel is a fiction writer and also one of the world’s foremost experts in the Tarot. I’d seen her use the Tarot to great effect in her classes on writing and I came up with this from discussing with her how she would use the Tarot with her own work.

The idea here is for the writer to ask the questions a Tarot reader asks the cards of the querent, but to apply them to the character.

All Tarot card readings begin with a card that represents the Querent. Across this card is another representing the Situation. Then cards are rapidly laid out: What is leaving the situation? What is entering? What crowns it, i.e., what is the querent aware of? What underlies it, or, what is the querent unaware of? What is the way this looks to the world around the querent? What ally do they have that they are unaware of? What is the unexpected that is entering the situation? And what is the outcome?

Some readings include the question “What is the outcome if the querent does nothing?”

Replace “character” for “querent” inside this and proceed. And, if you own a Tarot deck, for bonus points,  perform a reading for the character yourself and engage in some Jungian coincidence experimentation (somewhat related, the tarot reading in my first novel, Edinburgh, is one I drew for that character).

Part of what this exercise emphasizes is how one way of looking at a novel as you write it is to see it as the life of a situation over time. But more, to my mind, every character is a mix of what they are and what they think they are, what they can change and what they cannot change, what they desire and what they fear. And what this exercise does is to draw lines between these forces, and put them into conversation. And it works best when a writer has written a scene they like but otherwise don’t know where it goes, though it can also work well with material that is perhaps too familiar. Because what I like about this exercise is that no matter what you think of fortune-telling, it works from the writer’s relationship to mystery, using the Tarot and the Tarot cards as metaphors for structure, and as links to archetypes. And it draws the writer’s attention into the rest of the story, out of the Flaw.



  1. This is a really cool way to bring confidence, structure and direction to writing. I tried to write a children’s book once and it made me nervous because I didn’t know how to end it. This makes me want to get out that old manuscript and my tarot deck and see what ending the oracle suggests.

    Sometimes I use the tarot to ask about a transit. I’ll say, okay, the transit is Neptune conjunct Sun – what’s going to happen? This helps bring imagery to the timeline.

  2. Funny you should post this now. Your introductory remarks about the dangers of knowing too much about writing, or rather of getting too much advice . . . well, you put it so much better (and I love the Roombas analogy) . . . anyway, those remarks put me in mind of the experience I am having now reading Byatt’s Still Life. The book is so NOT structured in any of the ways I would know to teach about how to structure a novel. And yet, after a slow but lovely start, I am completely hooked, simply by the depth of the characters. I want to know what is going to happen to them because I care about them, much as I do my close friends. Sure, they are flawed, but not by formula. They are constructs of human beings and hence cannot help but be flawed, as we humans are ourselves.
    My father, a devout atheist and committed scientist, collected tarot cards. I’ll have to dig up one of his decks and give your suggestions a try. I love your intimations about the experimental, the coincidental, and its role in writing fiction. More on that perhaps? Many thanks for your blog!

  3. I have Rachel Pollack’s books on my shelf. I did tarot readings (as a conjunct to my evolutionary astrology charts) for over 15 years, and Rachel’s books are great tools because they give such wonderful in-depth interpretations of the cards.
    This year I stopped doing both charts and card readings to focus on my writing.

    I’ve used tarot cards in my writing for years (especially when I’m stuck in a scene – they can help give vivid imagery that get’s the muse flowing again!) so I can highly recommend this method.

  4. Hi there, following on from this post I just wrote a short story using a tarot layout. For your reader’s interest, I used the Osho Zen tarot pack, and drew the cards Travelling, Trust, Turning In and Transformation. (I’ve just noticed the “T” alliteration!) The resulting story is posted my blog if any of your readers would like to see how this can work. 🙂

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