How To Develop Characters and Worldbuild: Free-Flow Writing, Interviews, Oracle Cards

The Snips (aka free-flow writing/stream of conscious writing)

I started writing snips set in my novel world a few years back. Every main story player received a snip — a piece of free-flow writing written in the first person. My choice is the third person point of view when writing and reading stories, but something about the first person locks in the character. Giving each character a voice cement who they are. My snips are usually short, about 200 to 500 words, but they can be longer. Snips are akin to a monologue or a character journal entry. Secrets are uncovered, character motives revealed, and psychology spotlighted. These little character snips are a diamond in the rough. On occasion, I have found side characters have their own unexpected stories to share. For my current novel, I even recast my protagonist after writing snips. Not a decision I took lightly, but a supporting side character outshone the planned protagonists. Accessing Lucy’s story was easy and exciting compared to the lovers, Jury and Rici. Their snips felt forced, distant. Forcing characters becomes a chore in the long run and a sign something is wrong. (When To Recast Your Characters)

Originally, all my snips were character driven, diving deep into their souls. Recently, I discovered snips can also be a tool for unlocking worldbuilding elements, exposing plot device items, and shining a light on new settings. It’s happy dance time when plot dots/pieces are connected. The bigger the story, the bigger the mental chaos. Story pieces float around in the brain and written notes are over the place. I’ve found world snips are fantastic for remembering details and tying them together. Some details appear unrelated, but a snip forces a different way of looking at story elements. Many “oh cool” moments as story pieces fit together. Some of the world snips, the protagonist is unknown to me (world snips come out in the third person). I have faith all will be revealed… one day. 

Quick Note:
Snips are a free flow or stream of conscious writing set in an established story world. They are used for character development, worldbuilding, discovering other hidden story details, and weaving story elements together. Snips are not stories (a story needs structure — beginning, middle, and end), they are more akin to vignettes. 

There are two types of snips
1. Character snips (best in first person)
2. Worldbuilding snips (no point of view preference)

Techniques

There are three ways to do a snip. The first is pretty simple, the standard stream of conscious writing method. Relax, focus on the character in question, and just write. Write whatever comes to mind, no matter how crazy. My muse is wayyyy too lazy to offer words freely. She needs manipulation to get going. Perhaps you don’t have this problem. I’ve met writers that claim they can write on command. Hate them? Me too. For the rest of us, manipulating the muse, or a more politically correct way of putting it, enticing the muse, can be achieved by using one of the following two techniques.

  1. The Interview
  2. Oracle Cards

The Interview

Pretend you’re interviewing your character. It can be a cop interrogation, a job interview, or talk back radio session. Ask the interviewee character a series of questions and record their responses. Try not to overthink the answers, try to free flow. Questions can be personal, superficial, focus on a plot element, secrets, character relations… your imagination is the limit. Some writers like to visualise their characters and take note of body language and tone. 

I’ve done the interview technique a few times and received lukewarm responses, shrugs and butt scratching, but my friend Julie loves interviewing her characters and has written some amusing and enlightening interviews. One snip she shared with our writers’ group starred her villain being interviewed on the radio. The snip brought the character to life — his mannerisms, motives, and ego on display.    

Sometimes I have success asking a character just one question, and free flow an answer. It doesn’t always work for me, though. Lazy muse syndrome. However, I have a 100% success rate working with characters when using oracle cards. Perhaps I’m more of a visual person? What works for one writer may not work for the next. 

Oracle Cards…

My latest go-to deck for snips

Oracle decks have grown in popularity over the past couple of decades. They can be found in pretty much every book store and the mass produce decks are cheap. Each card has a different image and a few choice words. Perfect for creative writing, think of oracle cards as a deck of image prompts. Oracle cards are how I manipulate The Muse to come forward and play. Ok, I’m just going to blurt it out — I am a deck-a-holic. However, I’ll leave tarot and other types of decks I use as writing tools for another post. For snips, I find oracle cards do the job best and take less effort to use than tarot. My muse loves working with images, as can be seen on our flash fiction blog. Oracle card images do not need to be taken at face value and can work for any genre (not just fantasy) because cards are designed to deep dive into psychology (motives, mental barriers, feelings, understanding). 

Deck Shopping

Pure Sugar: Magical Unicorns Oracle Cards by Doreen Virtue

Picking out a deck is an individual choice. What inspires one writer might fall flat for another writer. Sometimes it isn’t even about stunning imagery. In my collection, I have many sugary decks with gorgeous images. What can I say? My inner child never stopped riding unicorns. The sugar decks are too sweet and The Muse scoffs. No creative sparks, just mockery. The Muse likes dark decks. The type of decks that give card readings a bad name amongst religious types. Darker-themed decks evoke more pain, suffering, and drama. Storytelling is drama telling. Pick decks that match the tone of what you write. I write dark fantasy, so brooding decks are a no-brainer. If I were to switch to comedy, I’d pull off my shelf a deck with a different tone, maybe something I find sarcastic or whimsical. For creative writing, I also like busy cards with loads of symbolism. Symbols and random creatures/objects offer The Muse more elements to draw on when writing. She doesn’t have to use them all, only what triggers. 

To summarise, my recommendations when picking a deck for snips are;

  1. Appealing images (YouTube has many deck reveals) 
  2. Themed decks, such as unicorns, angels, mermaids, fairies, and goddesses, may hinder creativity because of the lack of variety within the images (unless that’s the story’s genre)
  3. Match the tone of the deck with the tone of your writing 
  4. Busy cards with many elements to draw on
  5. Look for decks with more cards (optional, but I prefer larger decks. Most oracle decks have about 40 cards — my current creative writing deck, The Shaman’s Dream Oracle, comes with 64)

How To Read a Card

When using oracle cards, no previous knowledge is required. Good to go straight out of the box. Shuffle the deck and pick a card. I fan my cards out and pick the card I’m most curious to turn over. It’s all preference. The cards are nothing more than creative writing picture prompts. For a character snip, you’ve probably already decided on the character who needs working on. The drawn card will provide character insight. For a world snip, inspiration on who or what to write about will be determined by the drawn card.  

Look at the card, take your time. Make a mental note of your first thoughts. Does the card remind you of the scene or character in your story? Note any symbolism, creatures, objects, or words that trigger details or emotions. Write. Don’t overthink it. Don’t correct. Usually, the odd or contradictory story details are new elements or perspectives to consider. Don’t be afraid to go off tangent, the card is only the focal point to start free-flow writing. The snip doesn’t have to include every detail on the card. It only needs one but may host many. Only use what triggers story details and fits within the story, otherwise, there is a risk of breaking the established story world.  

Cards do not have to be taken literally. I advise you not to take the cards seriously when using them for creative purposes. Let muses play.   

Tips for reading cards — beyond the obvious

  • To pull more details from the card, refer to the description of the card in the guidebook. The guidebook may offer a different perspective to draw on. Sometimes a word or a phrase in the guidebook will trigger more than the card. 
  • What’s happening in the background? Ignore the focal image. Does the number or words on the card trigger any ideas? What about the colours in the image?
  • To see beyond the fantasy element, look for metaphors within the image. For example, we could interpret an image featuring a mermaid swimming in deep water in different ways. Emotions can run deep. Or an item might be at the bottom of the ocean? Was there a drowning accident? We can even “jump into the deep end” as the saying goes. 

EXAMPLE IN ACTION: DEEP DIVER

The Shaman’s Dream Oracle by Colette Baron-Reid

I drew the card “Deep Diver”. My mythological dark fantasy, ImmorTales world, is huge with bits of story details here there and everywhere. Every so often, the pesky thing called life requires me to take a hiatus. The only so many hours in a day thing. Returning to ImmorTales felt cold and distant. I couldn’t get back into the world. Desperate, I wrote a number of snips over a couple of weeks. It was fun and prompted this post. The “Deep Diver” card reminded me of Mac. Mac is a character I hadn’t thought about in a couple of years (did I mention this world is epic?). The image took me right to him. And I learnt more details. Details that could be major plot points when his story comes to fruition. I ignored the text on the card. The image gave me the only trigger I needed. Mac isn’t a mermaid, although they do play a role in the world. I took the idea “deep in the bottom of the ocean” as my starting point. 

The waters, secrets kept. Nothing is truly lost. Not even Atlantean technology. The cold draws the shadows… of lost souls. Mac is trapped between awake and death. Unconscious he dreams. Awake he is reminded of his fate and drowns over and over again. Lungs burning. The curse of being immortal in a watery grave. No one will come for him. Enough pain and suffering scaring the ruins. Night and day are irrelevant. How many sunrises has he missed? His only respite travelling the dreamscape. Even that is monotonous. No real connection. In their dreams, his siblings believe he is only a manifestation of their guilt. But then there is her… she seeks him out. Why? What could he possibly offer her? Why are the entities chasing her? And Manea. Why is death so interested in a human?

In the distance, just to torture him, the flame burns in an eternal pocket of air. Fed by a tree of life. So close, but so far. His body trapped. He shouldn’t have run back to save—oh never mind, it doesn’t matter. Not even The Mer ventured this deep. 

Tannille’s Snip

Conclusion

Snips are an easy way to entice muses out and to get the creative juices flowing. The little gems remind us of the creative world and are a great tool for writer’s block or starting the creative engine. The discoveries free flow writing uncovers are invaluable.  



Categories: Characters, Writers' Tool Box, Writing

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