As writers, we all want to bring dynamic and memorable characters to life. This is easier said than done, given how many barriers can hinder us from truly reaching our potential at work. Between imposter syndrome and writer’s block, language and research barriers, and so many other challenges, we writers have a lot to battle on a daily basis. Moreover, there’s also the simple struggle of running out of ideas for spicing up a character or plot!
The good news is that if you’re a stumped writer at the moment there are all sorts of useful ideas out there for how to turn things around and add some “oomph” to a stalled-out character. In this piece, we’re going to look at one somewhat surprising, but ultimately powerful literary device that can serve this purpose: playing cards.
Look for motifs and symbols
Cards have long been used in literary works as motifs or symbols. For one thing, they conveniently display four different suits: symbols that represent the four pillars of the economy in the Middle Ages. Hearts, Spades, Clubs, and Diamonds were meant to symbolize the church, military, agriculture, and the merchant class, respectively.
That in itself opens up opportunities for sociopolitical discourse within your work, which can be an important device for your plot or characters (even if it’s essentially subtext). There are also several specific cards that have meanings or stories behind them, such as the Ace of Spades (or “Death Card”), which is the most valued card in the deck, and the Queen of Hearts, which represents beauty, magnetism, and idealism.
Know the rules of the game
Card concepts can also be directly incorporated into the plot and characters. But it’s necessary to do your fair share of research to understand cards and their symbolism, meanings, and gameplay. Fortunately, even a quick look at the basic rules of poker can not only help you understand one of the oldest and most iconic card games out there, but also provide insights into card play in general –– which can fuel all sorts of fun character ideas.
Studying the rules of card games ranging from classic Texas Hold’em, to Solitaire, or even Go Fish, can also tell a lot about a certain character. For instance, James Bond’s game of choice is Baccarat — a game preferred by high rollers — which mirrors his willingness to take astoundingly great risks for even greater returns. On the other hand, you could use a grandfatherly character’s engagement with Go Fish to give him an avenue through which connect to a younger protagonist.
Use as a potential plot device
For the most part, authors make sure that their placement of card games in the story is purposeful. In Henry James’s “The Golden Bowl” for instance, the four characters play a game of bridge together. Bridge is a game of partnership and strategy, which cleverly contrasts with the book’s overarching themes of betrayal and relationships in peril. At the same time, the game motivates certain characters in the story to come to certain realizations and thereby drive the plot forward. The same can be said for Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations,” wherein scenes of card games portray the courses of love and war that the characters experience throughout the novel.
Build characters’ identities
Some personalities with unique characteristics and craftiness can also be comparable to specific in-game techniques, or cards in the deck. As mentioned above, the Queen of Hearts represents beauty, magnetism, and idealism –– attributes that are not coincidentally embodied by The Queen of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland” (albeit in a twisted, cruel way).
The iconic comic book antagonist the Joker’s identity is also heavily tied to the card of the same name. The Joker card is often used as an informal replacement for lost or damaged cards — an unpredictable wildcard at times, just as the Joker character represents chaos, anarchy, and mischief.
In the end, all characters are essentially written to perform according to the cards dealt to them. As the author, you are literally in charge of dealing these metaphorical cards yourself. This is not to say that you need to infuse your next story with a Queen of Hearts or Joker. But as evidenced above, there are numerous ways to tap into the rich canon of card games to develop richer characters when you get stuck.
If you are a creator of any kind, Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s Big Magic is a must-read.
I’m kicking myself that I had not read this book earlier, way earlier when it first came out in 2015. It could have saved me so much time, anguish, and tears, ah, so many tears, but anyway, water under the bridge. Moving on.
Here are some of the golden nuggets that I got from this gem of a book:
#1. Writing is a gamble
Writing is not an exact science, and every time you are shipping something, you are at a casino, playing a one-arm bandit, hoping, and praying to win big. Gilbert, of course, is better with words than me, so here is how she eloquently described the creators’ gamble:
“Artists, by nature, are gamblers. Gambling is a dangerous habit. But whenever you make art, you’re always gambling. You’re rolling the dice on the slim odds that your investment of time, energy, and resources now might pay off later in a big way—that somebody might buy your work, and that you might become successful.”.
#2. Dealing with negative feedback
I’m someone who struggles with negative feedback. Although my skin gets thicker as I get older (literally and figuratively), I still get heart palpitations when someone trashes my writing. Here is what Gilbert says about that:
“What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest—as politely as you possibly can—that they go make their own fucking art.”
#3. Dealing with frustration
Being a writer is not for the faint-hearted. Do you know how many times I wanted to shred my manuscripts into one million pieces and toss them in the Potomac river?
“I remember thinking that learning how to endure your disappointment and frustration is part of the job of a creative person. If you want to be an artist of any sort, it seemed to me, then handling your frustration is a fundamental aspect of the work—perhaps the single most fundamental aspect of the work. Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process.”
#4 Having a creative mind is like caring for a dog
Yes, if you ignore your dog and don’t take it for a walk, it will trash your house.
“Possessing a creative mind, after all, is something like having a border collie for a pet: It needs to work, or else it will cause you an outrageous amount of trouble. Give your mind a job to do, or else it will find a job to do, and you might not like the job it invents (eating the couch, digging a hole through the living room floor, biting the mailman, etc.).
It has taken me years to learn this, but it does seem to be the case that if I am not actively creating something, then I am probably actively destroying something (myself, a relationship, or my own peace of mind).”
#5 Dealing with failure
I’m someone who keeps picking at the stab. Analyze, rethink, revisit. What if, what if, what it. I should not have. I should have. I could have. I would have. Vicious circle. Gilbert addresses this corundum:
“Whatever you do, try not to dwell too long on your failures. You don’t need to conduct autopsies on your disasters. You don’t need to know what anything means. Remember: The gods of creativity are not obliged to explain anything to us.”
Do yourself a favor and get Big Magic by Elizabeth’s Gilbert.
You would think that after writing in English for over twenty years and publishing a novel, short stories, and articles in prestigious publications such as The Washington Post, Elle, and Esquire, I would overcome my imposter syndrome, but the answer is no. I still feel like a fraud for writing in a language that is not mine.
If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, here are my tips that will push you to keep creating, even if you mistakenly think that the odds are against you.
- Remind yourself of the greats: Nabokov was Russian. Joseph Conrad was Polish, and Kazuo Ishiguro is Japanese. They did it and did it brilliantly.
- Invest in some copyediting tools to ease your mind. My favorite is Grammarly.
- Use your native language to your advantage. I throw in Arabic words in my writing and readers love that.
- Remind yourself that many of your readers speak fewer languages than you do.
- Ask for a peer review from a native speaker.
- If you are self-publishing, invest in an editor so that you can focus on the structure and not drive yourself crazy over typos and grammar.
- Remember that “everything is figureoutable” to quote Marie Forleo. If you are in doubt, Google. Everything is there. The use of propositions, grammar, sentence structure, you name it.
- Joke about your accent. Greek-American media entrepreneur Ariana Huffington often starts her public talks with “I have an accent” which is usually followed by laughs.
We all have self-doubt. Sometimes, simple mind tricks will give you the confidence you need. Give yourself a pat on the back and say, I got this.
Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash
Imagine every morning is a Christmas morning? How wonderful life will be then?
That’s the idea behind Hal Elrod’s book The Miracle Morning, one of the best books that I have read this year.
He starts off by saying that many of us live a mediocre life, although we all have the potential to be successful.
According to him, The average American “wallows in $10,000 of debt, is overweight, doesn’t like their job, and is mildly depressed.”
Based on statistics from the Social Security Administration, Elrod argues that “95 percent of Americans aren’t living the life they wanted for themselves.”
The author himself actually died for six minutes following a car accident. After spending several days in a coma, he awoke to doctors telling him that he had permanent brain damage and might not be able to walk again.
Yet he was able to recover. Later on, he found himself in extreme debt and down in depression, but yet again he managed to turn his life around.
He attributes his success to his own miracle morning.
His solution to setting up yourself for success and living to your full potential is is to wake up early every morning and perform certain actions that will set you up for success
After all, famous successful people like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, and even Aristotle. have one thing in common: getting up early!
Elrod encourages us to use six steps every morning to start living the life of our dreams: He calls his technique S.A.V.E.RS:
Silence: This includes prayer, meditation, gratitude. He encourages silence for at least 5 minutes.
Affirmations. Program yourself to be confident and successful in everything you do.
Visualization. Imagine what you want to achieve. One example he cited is the actor Jim Carrey who wrote himself a check in 1978 in the amount of 10 million dollars and dated it for Thanksgiving 1995. In 1994 he was paid 10 million dollars for his starring role in Dumb and Dumber. He also encourages creating vision boards.
Exercise: He quotes Robin Sharma .” If you don’t make time for exercise, you have to make time for illness.” What a powerful thought, and true sentence.
Reading: To learn from the experts and model successful people who have already achieved what you want
Scribing. Writing enables us to document our insights.
He argues that all the S.A.V.E.R.S steps can be done in 60 minutes.
Now if you have trouble wake using early and staying awake, he was what he called his 5-step snooze proof.
1- Set up your intention before bed: Create a positive expectation for the next morning the night before. It’s Christmas Eve and you are waiting for your Christmas morning.
2- Move your alarm clock across the room
3- Brush your teeth
4- Drink a full glass of water
5- Get dressed in your workout clothes
So what did apply from his advice?
I have always been an early riser, but his book has helped me map out my morning in a more strategic and productive way. I now exercise and journal and say affirmations. I’m still working on making meditation a habit.
I’m still having a hard time waking up at 5:00 instead of 6:00 but it’s mainly because I go to bed at around 11:00 PM, not because I’m watching TV but it’s mostly because I’m trying to take care of the house chores after everyone is asleep.
I’m going to keep trying to adjust my night routine until I manage to go to bed at a decent time so that I can achieve my goal of waking at 6:00 am.
This book is short, inspirational, and would definitely improve your life.
I have great news to share. My novel They Called Me Wyatt was acquired by the amazing Texas-based publisher, Rebeller. You can order it from Amazon today. You can also read the first chapter here.
You can also read an interview with me about the book and what I went through last year during my publishing journey.
Hope you get the chance to read my book and enjoy it, feel free to read out!