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.