I’m taking this week off for some family time, and that means we’ll be spending the next couple of posts digging through the archives. Enjoy!
This week’s video talks about how giving your character a haunting backstory can instantly up the stakes and make him a more interesting personality.
When we’re exploring our characters and digging up ways to get readers to invest themselves in them, we come up the usual list, which includes important things, such as a relatable motive, a winning personality, and an engaging narrative voice. But one other thing we can add to any character to instantly make him more interesting and compelling is a ghost. This is a term used by screenwriters to describe something in the character’s past that is still haunting him.
For example, the hero of Inception is haunted by his wife’s suicide, Mistborn’s Kelsior is haunted by his wife’s death as a slave in the mining pits, Peter Parker is haunted by the murder of his Uncle Ben, and Bleak House’s Esther Summerson is haunted by her illegitimate birth. And the list goes on and on. What all of these characters have in common is the depth of their backstories. They arrive at the beginning of their stories with baggage already in tow. Not only does this give you the opportunity to tantalize readers with your characters’ mysterious pasts, it also gives the characters themselves more to overcome and more to be motivated by. Their ghosts are often at the core of their internal conflict.
In contrast to all these successful ghosts, consider the book that got me thinking about all this recently. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s beloved A Princess of Mars presents a main character who has no ghost. Even though his past as a Confederate soldier and general adventurer offers all kinds of opportunities for a ghost—as, indeed, we find manifested in the death of a wife and child in the recent adaptation—the author never took advantage of the opportunities. Those who already love the book aren’t likely to complain, but just the inkling of a ghost would have gotten even more interesting mileage out of this character.