“Ghost” is moviespeak for something in your character’s past that haunts him. You may also see it sometimes referred to as the “wound.” In their fabulous Negative Trait Thesaurus, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisiexplain:
Wounds are often kept secret from others because embedded within them is the lie—an untruth that the character believes about himself…. For example, if a man believes he is unworthy of love (the lie) because he was unable to stop his fiancée from being shot during a robbery (the wound), he may adopt attitudes, habits, and negative traits that make him undesirable to other women.
Often, the wound will be something shocking and traumatic (such as the massacre of the French and Indians at Ft. Charles that haunts Benjamin Martin in Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot or Jason Bourne’s forgotten past as an assassin in Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity), but it can also be something smaller and more ordinary, such as a breakup (Jane Austen’s Persuasion), a stressful parental relationship (Barry Levinson’s Rain Man), or physical inferiority (Mike Wazowski in Dan Scanlon’s Monsters University).
The bigger and more destructive the Lie, the more shocking and impactful the ghost should be. Or to flip that on its head: the bigger the ghost, the bigger the Lie, the bigger the arc.
The ghost will often be a part of your character’s backstory, and readers will discover it only bit by bit. In these cases, the ghost can often provide a tantalizing mystery. The whybehind your character’s belief in the Lie will hook readers’ curiosity, and you can string them along for most the book with only little clues, until finally the ghost is presented in a grand reveal toward the end.
In other stories, we may never discover the specifics about the ghost. The character may have an obviously significant past, but it remains cloaked in secrecy. Or his past, in itself, may not seem so interesting, even though it obviously contributed in some way to his Lie, but the author chooses not reveal it, for whatever reason.
And in still other stories, the ghost’s origin may be dramatized in the First Act, in a prologue of sorts. This is particularly prominent in origins stories, such as Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. In these instances, the ghost segment is a story unto itself that explains the protagonist’s motivations, before the book or movie moves on to the real story. In these stories, the character probably won’t start out believing in a Lie in Chapter One. Only once the ghost has appeared and changed his normal world will he find himself struggling to justify his new mindsets and actions. In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler notes:
Other stories show the hero as essentially complete until a close friend or relative is kidnapped or killed in the first act.
WHAT IS YOUR CHARACTER’S GHOST?
Your character’s ghost may take any number of forms. The ghost may be:
- The promise that he would grow up to be king, regardless his personal merits. (Thor)
- Her aunt’s refusal to love her. (Jane Eyre)
- [Unstated.] (Jurassic Park)
- His mother’s pathological deceit. (Secondhand Lions)
- Knowledge of what happens to unloved toys. (Toy Story)
- Disillusionment about an Army career. (Three Kings)
- An absentee father. (Green Street Hooligans)
- A divorce. (What About Bob?)
The ghost may be as simple as someone else’s lie to the protagonist (Jane Eyre’s aunt tells her she’s wicked and worthless, and, deep down, Jane believes her). The ghost may be something obviously horrific that the protagonist did (as in The Patriot) or that was done to him or someone he loved (as in Spider-Man), or the ghost may be something the protagonist embraces without realizing the damage it’s causing (as in Thor). The key thing to remember about identifying the ghost is that it will always be the underlying cause for the protagonist’s belief in the Lie. For more inspiration, check out Angela Ackerman’s “7 Common Wound Themes.”
QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER’S GHOST
1. Why does your character believe the Lie?
2. Is there a notable event in his past that has traumatized him?
3. If not, will there be a notable event in the First Act that will traumatize him?
4. Why does the character nourish the Lie?
5. How will he benefit from the Truth?
6. How “big” is your character’s ghost? If you made it bigger, would you end up with a stronger arc?
7. Where will you reveal your character’s ghost? All at once early on? Or piece by piece throughout the story, with big reveal toward the end?
8. Does your story need the ghost to be revealed? Would it work better if you never revealed it?
Backstory is always one of the most interesting aspects of a character. In constructing yours, pay special attention to the ghost. If you know what started your character’s belief in the Lie, you’re halfway to helping him overcome it.