creating stunning character arcs your character's ghost

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 4: Your Character’s Ghost

What is your character’s ghost, and how does it affect his character arc? Once you’ve figured out the Lie Your Character Believes, as well as Thing He Wants and the Thing He Needs, the next question you need to ask yourself is: Why does the character believe the Lie in the first place? To find the answer, start looking for something ghostly in your character’s past!

Creating Character ArcsIf there’s one solid rule in fiction, it’s that every effect must have a cause. If your character is in need of undergoing a change arc, then one of your first tasks is figuring out why he needs to change. What happened to him to cause him to embrace this obviously damaging Lie?

Humans are survivors. We’ll do anything we can to move toward life, comfort, and peace. But we’re also a generally self-destructive lot. We can focus so tightly on one aspect of survival that we sacrifice other elements. In our quest to be top dog in our chosen careers, we can sacrifice our emotional health through poor relationship choices and our physical health through poor lifestyle choices. Worse than that, we’re usually deliberately blind to our destructive behaviors. We rationalize our actions and convince ourselves—rightly or wrongly—that the end justifies the means.

In other words we lie to ourselves. But there’s always a reason for that Lie. There’s always a reason why we value survival in one aspect of our lives over survival in another. Sometimes these reasons are obvious (you have to earn enough money to eat, even it means busting your back day in and day out); sometimes the reasons are so obscure even you don’t recognize them (you have to work like a dog to earn a six-figure income or you’ll feel like the loser your father always said you were). Find the reason, and you’ll find the ghost.

Your Character’s Ghost

“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 Puglisi explain:

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 why behind 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 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.”

Examples of Your Character’s Ghost

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Scrooge has a superfluity of literal ghosts flying around his story, and one of them—the Ghost of Christmas Past—gives us a front-row seat to the figurative ghost in Scrooge’s backstory. Turns out he had a wretched childhood, thanks to a father who never showed him affection and locked him away at a boarding school, even during the Christmas holidays.

Cars directed by John Lasseter: We’re never told what Lightning McQueen’s ghost is. The race commentators say, “The rookie sensation came into the season unknown”—and that is largely how he comes into the movie. We never discover why he’s so intent on being free from depending on others.

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.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about how to begin your character’s arc by introducing him in a Characteristic Moment in the first chapter.

Read Previous Posts in This Series: Part 1: Can You Structure Character?

Part 2: The Lie Your Character Believes

Part 3:  The Thing Your Character Wants vs. The Thing Your Character Needs

Tell me your opinion: What is your character’s ghost?

Your Character's Ghost

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.


  1. Some of the details to the story I’m researching is difficult to explain, but essentially the protagonist, Mac, is in a strange mental state where he’s reliving his life like it’s the first time, but subconsciously knows that something bad will happen later that will traumatize him (a nightmarish incident serving in Vietnam) and is trying his best to escape from memory, and even does to a point, but must eventually embrace it fully to move on and have peace within himself.

  2. Siv Ekman says:

    My two protagonists are brothers, separated as small kids (one was two, the other about a month). Neither of them knows the other exists at the start of the story, but at least the older one has big issues with protecting loved ones and keeping them close and safe. He’s left in his original family. The younger one was taken away, raised by others. He harbours a feeling of not belonging, a need to prove that he fits in.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The purpose of the ghost is as much to indicate that the “normal world” isn’t as perfect as the protagonist would like to think it is. As such, he doesn’t even have to know what exactly his ghost is, just as long as he knows something’s not quite right – as your example proves.

  3. Is your protagonist the only character that should have a ghost? It seems that a story can sometimes be made richer by giving your antagonist(s) a ghost as well.

    It’s most obvious in some horror movies. The writer will give you the hero’s ghost and well as the villain’s. Freddy Kruger, Jason and Michael Meyers jump to mind. Oh, and Dracula.

    The purpose of the villain’s ghost seems to be to give him a weakness that proves to be his undoing. If the Protag and Antag share a ghost, sometimes you have the added benefit of the contrast in their paths to overcome it. (There was some of that in the TV series “Heroes”) There’s probably more, but that’s what jumps to mind right now.

    So I wonder… is giving your antagonist a ghost basic stuff? Is it necessary? Or is that sort of next-level story telling?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Other characters can definitely have ghosts. At its most basic level, the ghost is just a dramatized and compelling motivation for the character’s actions. A sympathy-inducing ghost can often be a good (if sometimes cliched) way to humanize an antagonist. Any character in your story could potentially benefit from a ghost, particularly if he’s also undergoing some kind of change arc.

  4. I learned it with the term backstory wound, but ghost is a good one too.

    For my current hero and heroine, their wounds are part of the story and on the page. Hers is more obvious than his, though, right from the beginning. He doesn’t reveal any part of his until midway through the story.

  5. K.M.

    On the ‘keeping the ghost a secret’ point… Could the protag/antag be doing so as a ‘self-preservation/defensive’ reflex? Having had smaller confidences’ betrayed and/or ignored, mocked; so driven further into isolation. Playing cards a lot closer to the chest: (Jack Sparrow, loose example; Inception, maybe… )

    But then the payoff would have to be really big, correct? I mean if they go to that extent, are so protective of… there has to be that sense of scale, that it really deserves the care given it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, it can definitely be a self-preservation thing. Inception is a good example, to an extent, since Dom doesn’t want most people to know he’s been accused of his wife’s murder. But, for him, it also goes deeper, since he simply doesn’t want to talk about it, because it brings the grief closer to the surface.

  6. ‘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?’

    Neither…. I hope there is not a problem with that. It comes out somewhere near the middle of the book, when the MC is still not fully conscious of the lie and the problems that it’s creating and such, and the reveal does not have any immediate tension associated with it. There is only second hand tension for the reader to pick up on, since the person the MC is talking to _is_ aware of the lie and the problems associated with it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Not a problem at all, although you’ll get more bang for your buck if you can foreshadow the Ghost – through the tension if nothing else – earlier in the book. In some senses, the Lie itself is foreshadowing for the Ghost. But payoffs (reveals) are always stronger when we’ve first included a plant (foreshadowing).

  7. Love how you explain this aspect of characterization. It is definitely a deepening factor that will make that character of yours so compelling the reader can’t help but read to the end.

  8. This particular topic is one that I struggle with as a reader (or viewer in the case of movies).

    It seems alarmingly common for authors to turn an otherwise interesting character into a walking cliche as soon as the ghost is revealed. (Mommy/Daddy issues, romantically snubbed, “perfect” friend/sibling, etc) Every time that happens I find myself frustrated, upset and sometimes angry because I’ve been yanked out of a story I might have been enjoying. I guess that would mean that the suspension of disbelief has been broken and as a result the trust relationship with the author is damaged as well.

    So it might be worth reinforcing the idea that not all ghosts need to come out of the closet.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. The more dramatic ghosts have often been done over and over, to the point of repetition. The importance of the ghost is not so much any inherent drama it brings as it is simply a causal link between the character’s actions and his original motivations.

  9. I’m rereading this series of posts (which has seriously changed my writing life–thank you!) and noticed that the link to the Characteristic Moment post (in the Stay Tuned paragraph) is actually a link back to this Ghost post. Just to let you know. =)

    Again, thanks for writing such an amazing blog! I have a bachelor’s in creative writing, and this blog has been infinitely more informative than that whole degree program. You’re the best. =D

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Whoopsie-daisy! Thanks so much for letting me know. I’ll get that fixed. And I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the series!

  10. I am finding that it is much more difficult to ‘retro-fit’ this kind of thing to an existing written story than it is to build it in from the very beginnings of your outline.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, that’s true of just about anything in a story. Elements are so much more organic (and just plain easy) when we’ve planned them from the start, rather than trying to shoehorn them into the story later on.

      • That’s what I’ve been doing. I started out with my story (a very rough draft) and then tried to go in and do my character arcs. So far I’ve been lucky (I had subconsciously already given my two main characters ghosts, or instances where ghosts and/or lies were already somewhat apparent or easy to tweak into their lives, but I’m learning that it definitely is easier to start out developing your characters and their arcs before writing the story.

        Thanks for another great post!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          That, in nutshell, is why I love outlining so much. I’m lazy. I like making my life easier. And preparation makes life *so* much easier in the long run.

  11. Sarah Caroline says:

    I have a question! I can’t come up with a very interesting ghost. I’m thinking that my MC’s lie comes from the fact that her parents weren’t very nice people – but they weren’t necessarily abusive. If I my ghost isn’t worth stringing the reader along, couldn’t I talk about it at the story’s beginning and leave it at that? I don’t want to make the reader think it’s some BIG thing and then have it be something small, right?

    I was also thinking that, since her “ghost” is a bit boring, I could make her ghost the inciting incident. My inciting incident is when she accidentally kills someone, and I’m thinking that might be a better ghost but is it even ok to make your inciting incident your ghost??

    Sorry if my questions are confusing! I’m a little all-over-the-place!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In answer to the first question: Yes, definitely. If the Ghost isn’t worth making a mystery of, then definitely don’t do so. It’s fine to tell readers about it upfront (or not to explain it at all if it’s unnecessary).

      You *can* make the Ghost the Inciting Event. We see this a lot in movies that start out with a “prologue” opening in which the story then shifts time dramatically after the 1/8th mark. I don’t generally recommend this for all the reasons that I don’t generally recommend prologues, but also because it prevents you from opening with your character’s Lie already in place. Still, you *can* do it.

      • Sarah Caroline says:

        Thanks so much for your quick reply! I may explain her ghost upfront then, since I ‘m trying to keep away from a prologue.

  12. First off, thanks so much for the posts. I really enjoy how you think about character arcs, and it’s helped me think about wants and needs in new ways. However, I’m a little confused.

    You say the character’s need (truth) is “the personalized antidote to his Lie.”

    And that the the thing he wants is “the perceived cure for the symptoms of the Lie.”

    This seems to be the case in Toy Story and Three kings, but not in other stories. It makes sense that the need is always directly related to the lie, but the want doesn’t always seem to be. For instance, in Thor…

    Want – Be king.
    Need – Learn humility and compassion.
    Lie – Might makes right.

    Maybe I just need to rewatch Thor, but it doesn’t seem that his wanting to be king is derived from him being the strongest, but because it was promised to him (his ghost).

    Also, what would you call the symptom of his Lie?


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      True. It’s not always cut and dried. I think the best stories keep their Lie and Truth very tightly related. But it simply doesn’t work out that way every time. However, Thor at least offers a Lie that is inherently involved with the desire. He wants to be king but his Lie has forced him to have entirely the wrong conception of what that even means. At the beginning of the movie, he basically wants to be king just so he impose his will on others. He overcomes that throughout the story and thanks to embracing the Truth ends up not only getting what he wants, but being that much more capable of actually wielding it wisely.

      The symptoms of his Lie: making war on the Frost Giants, telling everybody on Earth that he’s the “mighty Thor,” trying to get what he wants by physically throwing his weight around, etc.

  13. Must a Ghost be a trauma, or can it be a positively-felt event that still has negative effects?

    I just discovered another arc: the MC stays the same and the rest of the world gets worse.

    My MC has his life all planned out: he just earned his master’s degree, he’s got a job lined up, and he’s scheduled a wedding in a foreign country with a mail-order bride for June, right after graduation and before the job starts. So he believes in planning his life.

    Then he gets a ticket to the wrong city and country, he texts his bride to say he’ll be late, and his bride jilts him for another man (apparently she was making plans too; but what did he do wrong besides the ticket mixup?). Being jilted could be one Ghost. Whatever reason he didn’t appeal to the bride is a Ghost.

    Then he visits a curio shop and finds a box of papers formerly owned by a late psychiatrist. He starts reading a shorthand transcript of a therapy session and discovers stories of what he thinks is abuse. (Reminds him of some abuse in his own past?)

    He wants to help the apparent victims so he plays private investigator. He flirts with the idea of going to the police. (He believes the police are always the best people to help?) He sees a traffic violation and goes into the police station to report it, so he builds familiarity.

    Maybe he dates one of the female cops.

    He meets the son of the late psychiatrist, who is also a psychiatrist and works at the mental hospital.

    He contacts the former patients and talks with them. They are appreciative of his wisdom and he discovers a talent as counselor. The more he learns, the more unhinged he becomes by the horrific stories, and the more he is driven mad by the uncertainty of not knowing whether they are true or just the imaginings of mental patients (he believes the truth is knowable, and that he is entitled to it?) — and by his frustrated desires to help the apparent victims. (What about him makes him susceptible to being unhinged by these things?)

    He visits a local church intending to talk to the minister, but can’t find the courage to bring up the subject.

    Maybe he asks one of his new friends to marry him (to replace his mail-order bride and continue with his plans intact) and she says no.

    He goes to a bar, tells the barmaid what’s up; she says “sounds fake.” He stumbles on his way out, and is arrested for public drunkenness by a cop who happened to be in the bar and to overhear him. The cop takes him to the station and he tells all. The cop puts him in the mental hospital (either assuming he’s crazy or to get rid of him because high-up people are involved in the abuse).

    In the mental hospital he reflects in isolation (“maybe I belong here?”), talks to the other “nuts” (“that happened to me too,” “the police don’t help with that,” “they’re a bunch of crooks,” “your schooling has steered you wrong”) and has dreams (INSERT DREAM HERE). He has a moment of enlightenment, his turning point—the end of belief in his Lie. (He realizes that the police are not the solution to this problem? That he does not know best, as he thinks he does?) Next morning he sees the shrink (whom he already met as the son of the late shrink) and uses his knowledge of psychology to talk his way into being released.

    He visits one of his new friends (MAYBE we learn at this point that in childhood he suffered the same type of abuse as he is investigating). One of his new friends says “it’s all lies” and convinces him; relieved, he lets his guard down and jokes about how he told the police everything and now they have nothing to investigate, they will be chasing ghosts; he is summarily rejected from his new community. He gives up on trying to figure this thing out and decides to write a book so maybe someone, somewhere, will figure it out. THE END. We assume he will go back to his job on schedule. (So, the concept of sudden endings will have to be foreshadowed–the jilting bride is certainly one example–and any tying up of loose ends must happen before this.)

    Considering that the story begins and ends with sudden rejections, his Lie might be: “You can plan your life and other people will go along with your plans and not disrupt them.” His Lie might be “My psychological skills make me Superman.” His Lie might be: “I know better than the ‘victims’ what constitutes abuse and what to do about it, and who should do it” – perhaps because of his schooling. So his Lie might be: “Book-learning is directly applicable to the real world” or “My degree makes me better than you.” His Lie might be: “I with my degree, and authority figures, know better than you do what’s good for you.”

    He discovers a talent as counselor (a real way to help people), and gets over his tendency to call the police (an unreal way to help people). Maybe he’s in love with police generally because of some past event? (Must a Ghost be a trauma, or can it be a positively-felt event that still has negative effects? Reminds me of addiction) Maybe he’s in love with police generally because they tend to share his Lie that they (and he) know best? The Lie might be that force is better than persuasion

    Can there exist a type of Ghost that causes him to over-plan?

    I wonder what Lie or Ghost caused the bride to jilt him? Did a Lie or Ghost cause him to buy the wrong ticket? Did a Lie or Ghost cause him to visit the police, get drunk, stumble?
    1. What misconception does your protagonist have about himself or the world? His academic learning can be applied directly to the real world; he knows best; police always know best; the truth about what other people are doing is knowable and he is entitled to know it
    2. What is he lacking mentally, emotionally, or spiritually, as a result? NO ANSWER YET
    3. How is the interior Lie reflected in the character’s exterior world? Professors reinforce it; police contacts reinforce it; his father tells him to plan his life;
    4. Is the Lie making his life miserable when the story opens? If so, how? Not really miserable; He had to resort to a mail-order bride because he couldn’t attract an American woman; then his mail-order bride rejected him too
    5. If not, will the Inciting Event (ticket mixup) and/or the First Plot Point (finding box of notes) begin to make him uncomfortable as a result of his Lie? He is uncomfortable, but fascinated, reading the stories of apparent abuse; he realizes there are people who are not controlled by police
    6. Does your character’s Lie require any qualifiers to narrow its focus? Force is better than persuasion, as long as it’s exercised by an authority figure (police or someone with a degree).
    7. What are the symptoms of your character’s Lie? Maybe success at school; can’t attract an American woman; foreign bride jilts him; he is unhinged by stories of apparent abuse; he calls police too often; nobody is close to him
    1. Why does your character believe the Lie? It kept him going thru school and landed him a job; it props up his belief that his degree wasn’t a waste of time and money; it helps him feel superior, wanted and useful. (But if the Lie landed him a job, what happens to the job when the Lie ends?)
    2. Is there a notable event in his past that has traumatized him? Maybe a botched circumcision
    3. If not, will there be a notable event in the First Act that will traumatize him? Being jilted, but he takes it in stride, at least on the surface
    4. Why does the character nourish the Lie? It makes him feel effective
    5. How will he benefit from the Truth? People will stop rejecting him; he learns his lesson before getting fired, so the Truth saves his job
    6. How “big” is your character’s ghost? If you made it bigger, would you end up with a stronger arc? Big enough to keep women from wanting him; if it’s a botched circumcision, it’s pretty big
    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? Botched circumcision, hinted at, then big reveal near the end. Other ghosts, piece by piece
    8. Does your story need the ghost to be revealed? Would it work better if you never revealed it? A botched circumcision would have to be revealed, or maybe could just be hinted at. Other reason(s) women don’t want him could remain unrevealed

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Ghost doesn’t necessarily have to be something that drives the plot. It just has to be something that informs the character’s Lie.

      • It seems to me that a positively-felt event (something the MC enjoyed) could still inform the Lie.

        Can you think of any stories where the Ghost was positively felt — but was still harmful?

        The killing of the sow in “Lord of the Flies” was arguably a negative event that was experienced positively by the killer(s). Of course that wasn’t really a Ghost.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Only if that something positive is viewed now in at least a melancholy light. The whole point of the Ghost/Wound is that it has damaged the character’s mindset.

          • I am thinking also of addiction. Pleasure, pleasure, pleasure … the AUTHOR (and reader) can see it negatively, but the MC may be deluded and see it positively.

            Isn’t delusion part of the package, when you need to do one thing to fix the problem, but want to do another to alleviate the symptoms while leaving the underlying problem (and the Lie) undisturbed?

  14. Reporter’s five questions:

    “WHO first told or gave the Lie to your character? WHO reinforces it?”

    “WHAT is the Lie? WHAT happened? WHAT is the Truth? WHAT is your character avoiding? WHAT benefit does your character get from the Lie?”

    “WHEN did your character first start believing the Lie?”

    “WHERE did your character first start believing the Lie?”

    “HOW does the Lie ease your character’s pain? HOW is the Lie reinforced? HOW does the Lie cause problems in your character’s life?”

    (“WHY” is not among the Reporter’s Five Questions because it is subjective, conclusory, subject to argument, not factual)

  15. Hannah Killian says:

    What if the villain of the story has a ghost?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      All the better! Antagonists with strong backstories/motives sometimes ends up being the best characters in the book.

  16. My main character’s ghost was actually created by the ghost in his parents’ backstory. Because of their ghosts (his mother’s rape and his father’s inability to help her), they never loved him and barely tolerated his presence in the house. So he grew up feeling unworthy of love. When he searched for it and thought he found it, he ran into further betrayal, confirming his belief in his unworthiness (the Lie). So, he continually pushes people away well into adulthood.

    Thank you so much for this series! It’s been sooooo helpful in breaking down the mysteries of character arc!

  17. My character Samantha had an abusive father and killed him to protect her mom and he was probably abusive all those years and started killing and torturing bad people because of her past, and it gives her closure, so, yeah. She enjoys inflicting pain on bad people.

  18. Hi! Thank you for writing this series because I think I’ve found that missing chunk in my novel. However, I’ve been struggling to find the lie that fits with my MC’s past.

    My MC, Danielle, has had a rough past. She listened to her parent’s murders in the dead of the night when she was just five. Now, nine years down the line, someone is trying to kidnap her. They fail at the first attempt, as they are interrupted to the sound of her adoptive parent coming home.

    The lies I’ve been coming up with are revolving around the idea of first impressions are always correct or people can never change. This does help with the plot and works nicely at the end when the truth (people aren’t always what they seem to be) is then revealed to her. Although this doesn’t really have any links to her past so the character’s ghost is not exactly there.

    The second lie I’ve come up with is that she feels people won’t listen to her, therefore not calling out for help. However, she confides in her best friend, who she feels comfortable with, after the attempted kidnapping. He pushes her to tell the police. Someone else comes into her life (an older, strange man) and she’s plunged into fear that it may be him. Just when she’s about confide in her best friend, his sister is in hospital due to an accident. They drift apart because they are occupied in totally different things and she goes back to not calling out for help until another friend weeds his way back into her life to ‘help’ her.

    I feel like the lies work rather well for the storyline but the ghost doesn’t seem to be linked to either of the lies. I can’t think of lies that link to the ghost but also work out in terms of plot. Can you help me out?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The “good” thing about traumatic Ghosts is that they can spawn any number of fear-based Lies. People who listen to their parents being murdered in the dead of night are usually messed up in any number of ways. I think you could work it so either of the Lies you’ve suggested are born of her childhood trauma.

      It could also be that her Lies are products of events that actually happened *after* her parents’ murders. For example, perhaps her “first impressions are always correct” Lie is based on her experiences in foster care or something like that.

      What I would recommend doing is looking at both of these potential Lies and asking yourself *why* your protagonist believes them. That may help you find a more pertinent Ghost in her backstory. (And, BTW, just because an event is the *worst* thing that’s ever happened to the character doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right Ghost for her journey in this particular story.)

    • We could ask: What Lie would we expect to result from parental murder?

      We could ask: What Lie would she need in order to have the later events come out the way they do?

      We could ask: What change does Danielle go thru? How does she start and how does she end? This will tell us the Lie she believed at the start and the Truth she knows at the end.

      “not calling out for help. However, she confides in her best friend” – Maybe it’s something as simple as a fear of raising her voice? She has to remain quiet because if she had made any noise during the murder then she would have been murdered too?

      • Maybe she was in her parents’ room (or wherever they were if they weren’t in their room) and for some reason she “called out for help” and her voice guided the murderer to find them.

        • Thank you both for your help. I’ve had a chance to mull over Danielle’s backstory in relation to the lies I came up with. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if I were to have different lies, they would have different ghosts.

          Lie 1: “Nobody will listen to you”

          Her mother hears the murderer break in and tells her to hide and not make a sound until they’re gone. When she does start crying out for help (after the murderer is gone), nobody comes to her. Therefore, she believes nobody will listen to her.

          Symptoms: not calling out for help.

          Lie 2: “First impressions are always correct”

          In the foster care home, she was with another child who had been moved constantly from care home to care home yet never adopted. This child had constant anger outbursts from the first day she had met her. This would make her feel first impressions are always correct. This is then reinforced when she makes a good impression of herself when she meets someone who then adopts her. This person also has a good first impression, further reinforcing the lie.

          Symptoms: judging people too quickly

          Lie 3: “People never change”

          This is mainly caused by her belief in the second lie and also because of the fact that her adoptive father was always loving towards her and treated her like his own flesh and blood. It is also proved the other way around in foster care as the child she saw (with angry outbursts) never changed.

          Symptoms: she is never able to see past the first impression

          Do you think the ghosts are okay? Have I gone completely off track?

          • I think you’ve worked everything out logically, so you’ve solved the problem you set out to solve. 🙂 I can only hope it resonates emotionally. I think this will depend on the execution: the specific sccenes and images both during the events and afterward, her self-talk about it, and how (and whether) you reveal all this at the end. I would guess: don’t reveal, just use it to “inform” (=give form to) your story. Best wishes!

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            This all sounds very on-track to me. It’s possible that a big, complex Ghost can spawn varied (but related) Lies. However, generally, different Lies get different Ghosts. What you’ve done here, basically, is create one big Ghost (the parents’ murders) that is then the cause creating the effect of later Ghosts (the foster system). It’s all related, so it all works nicely.

          • Thanks so much! I was worried that the Ghosts seemed too ‘forced’.

            I’d best get writing! 🙂

            I hope you both have a great day and thanks again for helping me out!

  19. My intellectual, nerdish character was abandoned by his parents at birth. His foster family left him to an older relative who helped him refine his abilities. When that relative died, he was thrust back into the system, but is now intelligent enough to cheat and survive on his own.

    This has given him a superiority complex, and his observation that those without intellect made foolish decisions, and the focus on it by his only authority figure, leads him to the conclusion that intellect is the most important thing in life. Without a loving family to teach him, he does not know what it means to truly trust someone.

  20. DAVID WOLF says:

    My MC’s Ghost is truly horrific: he more or less accidentally set fire to their Christmas tree while his beautiful little sister (think Jon Benet Ramsey) was upstairs with Mom & Dad trying on her latest princess outfit. He was 8, got horribly burned on half his face, and of course became an orphan, unloved, unwanted. Joined the army right out of high school, wounded in Afghanistan. While in recovery at a VA hospital in the US, a male nurse worms his story out of him and uses it to blackmail him into becoming his killer-partner in a black widower insurance fraud scheme in which the partner marries and insures women and arranges for them to die when he’s on a business trip. My MC believes the Lie that he’s unworthy of love (though he craves love.) My question: my current draft reveals his awful act in an extended flashback within the first 1/4 of the book. Would it be better to hold back the reveal until much later in the story? I could tease it out, but the facial scar is an important element in his character, and I’m worried that readers would pretty much guess from the hints, which would make that reveal anti-climactic.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s hard to say for sure, but as a general rule I would advise against lengthy flashback segments anywhere in the book, but particularly in the beginning. One of the greatest advantages of the Ghost is is ability to sustain mystery throughout the story, keeping readers hooked and drawing them to the point in the character’s arc where the revelation of the Ghost is necessary for his personal growth.

    • wait, a story about when he was 8 years old can be used to blackmail him ?????

      • DAVID WOLF says:

        I agree it would never hold up in a law court, but Charlie’s burden of guilt (for which he carries the visible scars) makes him vulnerable to a blackmailer. It’s only his own perception of his act that makes the threat effective.

        He also has had a lifetime of being scorned by women, so even though he craves love, he’s never had it. His frustration leads him to dislike women. His “partner” manipulates him to amplify that dislike into hatred or at least a desire for revenge for all those rejections.

  21. Hannah Killian says:

    *still doesn’t have a ghost for the main characters yet has one for side characters*

  22. Hannah Killian says:

    I have a ghost for three characters so far.

    The heroine’s brother: The Lie the heroine’s brother believes is that if he failed one family member, he’ll fail them all. The reason is because his Ghost is the fact he wasn’t fast enough to save the heroine (aka his sister) from falling into the river, which is how she ended up separated from their family. Ever since that happened, he’s felt like he failed her, and he’s scared that he’ll eventually fail the rest of his loved ones.

    The hero’s father: Not sure what the Lie is yet, but his Ghost might be how his brother died.

    The hero’s cousin: The hero’s cousin is the captain of the guard, and since the story is partially based off Robin Hood, he’s supposed to be the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy mixed up. His father was captain of the guard before him, which was before the rebellion happened. Now what happens is he (the cousin’s father) is accused of treason, and when no evidence emerges that he’s innocent, he’s sentenced to be executed. This is what is going to prompt his brother (the hero’s father) to join the rebels. But after the execution, evidence he was innocent all along is going to show, and that is what incites the rebellion.

    But the rebellion could also be incited by the arrest, which would then prompt the hero’s father to join the rebels, due to them claiming that they can help the hero’s father help his brother escape. But of course, the rebels are backstabbers, because after the cousin’s father refuses an order from them (an order that he believes to be wrong), he’s killed.

    So, his father’s death is the cousin’s Ghost, and the Lie he believes is that. . .standing up for what’s right will only lead to death? He is just a kid when it happens after all. Perhaps he’s even a little jealous of his cousin, because he (the cousin/hero) still has his father. But then again, the cousin is really torn up about killing his uncle in the Climax, because after his father died, he became an orphan, so his uncle and aunt (the hero’s parents) raised him. Then his aunt died and his uncle was pretty much the only parental figure he had left in his life.

    Maybe the heroine’s Ghost could be the separation from her family? She was six when it happened. Or maybe she doesn’t have a Ghost yet.

    The Lie the hero believes might be that his father is disappointed in him? No, wait, that was his fear. Wait, a Lie and a Fear can be the same, right? Anyways, he also doesn’t want his father to know he’s the Robin Hood vigilante, because then his father will worry, like when the hero was a child and he was sickly. I know they’re not on the best of terms when they first interact in the story.

    Mmpf. . .writing is hard.

  23. You have an awesome series, here!

    I was very curious about creating believable characters in a story that I plan to tell through an RPG, but I have never written a story with any sort of arc or to any degree of notable complexity. I know for sure that this series is bringing me closer and closer to creating something that I can be proud of. Thank you for this series! I can’t wait to read the rest.


  1. […] Jody Hedlund has 6 key things to consider when developing characters; K.M. Weiland asks: why do your characters believe their Lies?; and Angela Ackerman gives a list of common themes to help us understand character […]

  2. […] Helping Writers Become Authors. K.M. Weiland has a ton of great stuff on her blog. In her post on Character’s Ghosts, she discussed why characters needed to believe lies. And I’m sitting here going, “ah, […]

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