In storytelling, a character’s ghost is a past, significant (and often traumatic) event that shaped his worldview in a thematic way. It prepares the character arc and works as a motivator. Choose the appropriate ghost for your character and learn how to reveal it to the audience.
It’s finally the month of Halloween! And if you are like me, you’ve been chomping at the bit to get those spooky Halloween decorations up (or . . . maybe like me . . . you already cheated and started putting them up last month). In any case, talking about your character’s haunting ghost or bleeding, holey wound seems like the perfect topic to kick off a writerly October (and a great way to prep for NaNoWriMo November).
What do I mean by “ghost”? Am I saying that your character has a ghost following him around?
But . . . in a sense, yes, figuratively.
In writing, a “ghost” is a past, significant (and often traumatic) event that shaped his worldview in a thematic way. It’s almost always the most important part of your character’s backstory.
Examples of Characters’ Ghosts
- In Get Out, Chris is haunted by the night he didn’t phone for help when his mother didn’t come home from work–which indirectly led to her death.
- In Frozen, Elsa is haunted by the fact she accidentally froze Anna when they were children.
- In I, Robot, Del is haunted by the reality that a robot saved him over a 12-year-old girl.
- In Finding Nemo, Marlin is haunted by the barracuda attack that killed his family (except Nemo).
- In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Willy Wonka is haunted by his father burning his Halloween candy (see, told you I was in a Halloween mood).
If this concept sounds vaguely familiar to you, you’ve probably been introduced to it by another term. The ghost is also often called the “wound.” Same concept, different terms. Because it’s October, we are going with “ghost” today.
Regardless, the important thing to remember here, is that the ghost isn’t a person or some other supernatural entity, it’s an event (or in some cases, a string of events). It’s often a critical component of character arc (even if the ghost doesn’t actually manifest on the page) and therefore theme, so let’s get out our Ouija boards and channel the spirits—er, I mean, delve deeper into ghosts!
Spooking Your Character with a Ghost
Most protagonists will start the story with a flaw, weakness, or misbelief that they must overcome by the end. This is what creates a positive change arc (we’ll talk about other arcs in a bit).
The ghost is the event where that flaw, weakness, or misbelief originated.
Often the character (like all of us) started with a—more or less—innocent view of life.
Then BAM! Something unforeseen, something significant, something traumatic happened.
The robot let a 12-year-old die. A barracuda killed his family. His father tossed the candy corn, suckers—and worst of all—chocolate into the fire!
Life is not what he thought.
As the character tries to make sense of what happened, as he tries to cope with the trauma, he comes to a conclusion about life—the wrong conclusion.
Del will never trust robots.
Marlin believes danger is ever present—he must be over-protective.
Willy Wonka decides family isn’t important.
Each of these characters must overcome this flaw, weakness, or—perhaps most accurately said—misbelief about life to become a better, more whole person, who has a chance to beat the antagonistic force.
In a sense, the ghost is where the need for a character arc took place.
Quick Key Features of a Character’s Ghost
The ghost almost always happens in the past.
In fact, it is almost always the most important (or only pertinent) element of your character’s backstory. On rare occasions, the ghost may take place within the novel itself, which you may find in an origin story. If so, as K. M. Weiland points out in her book Creating Character Arcs, it’s usually part of the first act.
The ghost is an event . . . or a string of connected events.
It’s most common for a ghost to be a single moment—Chris’s mom not coming home and dying, or Elsa freezing her little sister. But it can also be a series of events. In Harry Potter, Severus Snape’s ghost is a series of events that cover his relationships with Lily and James. Despite how different the events may appear on the surface, they are all ultimately connected into one single haunting ghost story.
Ghosts are most often tied to protagonists, but any character can have a ghost.
. . . as evidenced by my examples. In fact, some argue that every character has a ghost, because every person has his or her worldviews shaped by significant events. The catch is, in a story, we won’t know or cover every ghost (nor does the writer need to develop and know every character’s ghost).
Ghosts often lead to poor coping mechanisms.
In The Structure of Story by Ross Hartmann, Hartmann points out that Marlin’s trauma from the barracuda attack led him to constantly cope by being over-protective. Likewise, Elsa’s trauma leads her to cope by isolating herself.
Frequently, ghosts are very dramatic—a death, an accident, abuse—but they don’t have to be.
Something like your sibling becoming famous (which happens to Tahani in The Good Place) or your dad burning your candy can be enough to shift a worldview. It can even be something seemingly positive, such as a child receiving praise for getting straight A’s . . . which leads her to the misbelief she’s only valuable if she’s smart.
The ghost can be almost anything—it just needs to be something that significantly changes your character’s worldview in a thematic way.
Motivating Your Character with a Ghost
At the most basic level, the ghost acts as a motivator.
It’s why Elsa isolates herself and hides her powers. And it’s why Kuzco in The Emperor’s New Groove is selfish (he was constantly spoiled as a child). It’s also why Katniss is so driven to survive (she nearly starved to death when her dad died and had to be saved by Peeta’s burned bread).
The ghost explains to the audience why this character behaves this way, and gives the character a reason to behave that way.
Positive and Negative Impacts of Ghosts
Most often, the ghost will have a negative impact on the character, but it’s possible it can lead to positive outcomes. Tahani’s famous sister leads her to be charitable ( . . . though admittedly, for the wrong reasons). In Zootopia, everyone tells Judy a bunny can’t be a cop, which motivates her even more to become one. And Fox Mulder is motivated to work the X-Files because of his sister’s abduction.
So, a negative ghost can motivate the character to do something positive, just as a seemingly positive ghost can motivate a character to do something negative. In my earlier example of a child getting straight A’s, the child may now decide to start cheating in order to continue getting straight A’s.
There are a lot of different ways the ghost and its impact can manifest, so to keep it simple, remember this: It’s the motivator of the dominant worldview and quality of the character.
Selecting the Appropriate Ghost for Your Character’s Arc
The majority of stories feature a positive change-arc protagonist. This means that most often, the ghost will be an event that led to a flawed worldview, which gave the character an unhealthy coping mechanism. This is what the character needs to arc out of.
But wait—there are three other types of basic arcs. What about their ghosts?
Depending on what kind of arc you are writing, the character’s ghost may be a little different.
Ghosts for Positive Steadfast Character Arcs (Flat Arcs)
If the character has a positive steadfast arc (also known as a “flat arc”), the character will hold—more or less—the same accurate worldview at the beginning of the story as she does at the end of the story. Fox Mulder is a good example of this. From the beginning of The X-Files, he believes the truth is out there, and he upholds that worldview despite everyone trying to get him to abandon it. Other popular examples of this arc include Job from the Old Testament, Diana in Wonder Woman, and Ella in Disney’s live-action Cinderella.
In such cases, the ghost is usually whatever led the character to adhere to that accurate belief in the first place. Samantha’s alien abduction is what cemented Mulder to the (accurate) belief that the government is covering up the truth. For Ella, her mother encouraging her to be kind while on her deathbed is what cemented Ella to believing in the power of kindness.
Ghosts for Negative Change Character Arcs
In a negative change arc, the character starts with an accurate worldview. But then they come to adopt a moral flaw, weakness, or misbelief. This is the opposite of the positive change arc. Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith is a famous example. If you wanted to include a ghost for your negative change character, it would be similar to the positive steadfast ghost. It would be an event that gave him the positive belief system he has in the beginning.
Ghosts for Negative Steadfast Character Arcs
In a negative steadfast arc, the character will start with a flaw, weakness, or misbelief. But they will refuse to arc out of it, and therefore remain negative. Estella in Cruella and Javert in Les Mis are good examples. If you wanted to give your character a ghost, it would be similar to the positive change arc ghost. It would be an event that gave him the negative belief system he has in the beginning.
In theory, anyway—all of these “rules” can and have been broken, and you will run into variations from time to time.
But to keep it simple, remember this. The ghost is the reason your character starts with whatever worldview she has at the story’s beginning.
When and How to Reveal Your Character’s Ghost
Since the ghost is usually in backstory, it can be difficult to know how or when to reveal it to the audience. Writing instructors constantly advise others to write stories in the present, but this event happened in the past.
There are a few options:
Reveal the ghost in dialogue
One character opens up to another character and tells her ghost story. Or, alternatively, someone else tells her ghost story to another character.
Recount the ghost in narration
The viewpoint character can briefly summarize his ghost in the prose.
Relive the ghost in a flashback
Many instructors discourage flashbacks, and for good reason. But if anything deserves to be in a flashback, it’s the ghost story. In fact, if you pay attention, most all flashbacks you encounter will be ghost stories. If your character’s ghost is worthy of dramatization, consider carefully writing a flashback.
Render the ghost in a prologue
This approach is more popular in film than in books. I would recommend only using this on rare occasions. In any case, sometimes a story will start with the ghost, then jump to the “present” in chapter one.
While not every story will include a ghost, haunting your character with one can add depth and authenticity. It will also explain their behaviors, reinforce their motives, and contribute to theme.
About September C. Fawkes:
Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and storytelling. She has worked in the fiction-writing industry for over ten years and has edited for both award-winning and best-selling authors, as well as beginning writers. She runs a writing tip blog at SeptemberCFawkes.com (subscribe to get a free copy of her booklet Core Principles of Crafting Protagonists or learn more about the four basic character arcs here). When not editing and instructing, she’s penning her own stories. Some may say she needs to get a social life. It’d be easier if her fictional one wasn’t so interesting.