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 Arcs

Creating Character Arcs (affiliate link)

If 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 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.”

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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  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.

    • Just guessing – he was already supposed to be king, but the Lie made it more of an obsession rather than a healthy desire?

  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 ?????

      • 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.

  24. Great post! When you start interviewing your characters would you consider the ghost for all of them or just the MC?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Never hurts to look past the surface on supporting characters, and finding their “pain” is a great way to mine them for extra dimensions. However, you don’t *have* to look for a Ghost for any character who won’t be displaying a prominent arc.

  25. Katja Rammer says

    Hi Katie,

    I am still struggling with this one for my new WIP.
    Can the Ghost be something the Lead does not consciously know – like coming from another background as she is made to believe? (she has been stolen from her real family and originates from a group of people that is heavily exploited by her kind and thought of as “lesser humans”.

    She will discover that during the course of the story, but it does not really connect directly to her Lie/Truth – Want/Need setup.

    She is taught, by society as well as her parents, several lies (Supremacy, Competitiveness, Worth by Winning). These and her whole upbringing will lead her to adapt her personal lie: Life is a game and only the winner is worthy. As a result she pursues the Want of “Winning all the games and knowing all the secrets – regardless of consequences for others”
    She will eventually learn the Truth: All life is valuable and all humans are indeed equal. That will prompt her to address her need: a purpose worth winning/fighting for at the end of the first book.

    Does that make sense?
    I do believe her abduction as a toddler even though she does not remember it would be her ghost, even if it does not prompt the Lie. But making up a “lack of love and approval” incident in her early years is …. cheesy and somehow over-contrived. That does, of course, happen.. but more like a general and repeated behaviour her father shows towards her.

    – Katja

    • Katja,

      “She is taught, by society as well as her parents, several lies”

      How exactly did this teaching happen? Maybe the Ghost (trauma) is the way the lies were taught.

      The Ghost is said to be the reason why the character believes the lie(s) in the first place. Why does the character believe “(Supremacy, Competitiveness, Worth by Winning)…Life is a game and only the winner is worthy.” ?

      Both “why” in the sense of “what caused it,” and “why” in the sense of “what’s the payoff, why continue to believe”

      – Rod

      • Hi Rod,

        thanks so much for taking the time to read and reply to my comment here – it’s very much appreciated! I found your 5 reporter’s questions in an earlier reply and liked those, too.

        I have come to realise only the 1st half of my Lead’s LIE is actually stated to her in the same exact words. The 2nd half is based on experiences.

        I’d reason like this:

        WHO first told the MC?: Her father. Ever since she has been small he has taken great time and effort to advance her abilities. When she was very young her played “learning games” with her. If you have kids, you know the sort of “games” you can find to school any number of abilities in children at an early age – starting at fine motor skills up to pre-school prep and early attachment to music or sport… It would have been multiple occasions like: “Come on darling daughter let’s play a game … and then he would have her show/test her abilities”

        –> motive/goal of father: because he, like the rest of the upper crust they belong to, thinks of her origin as lesser humans and he was not supposed to take her in. In fact he stole her from a high security facility. His goal is to not get caught and loose his position within the society as a trustee of their “leader/king/head”. This results in his reasoning he’ll have to “bring her up to speed” so that nobody would notice he took her from the low-class. He hope to advance her abilities by doing just that, thinking otherwise she will attract attention by not meeting the standards.

        This paragraph answers questions WHEN and WHERE:
        When: beginning from an early age, over and over again.
        Where: at first at home. later, the society reinforces the Lie. How? Well, since they don’t really age an can live for a very long time (10-fold time span – think 1 year normal age equals 10 to 15 their enhanced ageing process) the society had to come up with something to DO for the population. And they came up with contests and competitions of various kinds to keep the people busy and happy. So she sees others (adults) engaging in the same pattern: compete in a “game” – the winner is praised accordingly. This is how the LIE is reinforced, too.

        WHAT is the LIE: Life is only a game. But only if you don’t have to worry about life-support and/or injuries. Only if you live the privileged life that is sustained by exploit of others. Furthermore: A game and winning said game can’t be the sole meaning of life. A life needs purpose and it has a natural expiration date. (that’s the TRUTH)

        What is she avoiding in believing the lie? Deal with the obvious discrepancies in what she sees and what she is told. She (still) feels dissent over the “lesser-human” teachings. She can’t spot a difference in the few people of the low class she sees/meets. She is still empathic enough to notice their plight and the unfairness of it. But she focuses on the games to distract her from these nagging feelings that are in dissonance with her peer group’s views.
        -> Of course, as soon as I’ll have her “displaced” in the world of the lower-class by end of act 1, she’ll learn quickly enough.

        Believing the lie – and especially the 2nd part: only the winner is worthy – gives her life purpose. And it explains her fathers behaviour – how he reacts toward her when she “wins” and “does well” – his “love” (attention and affection really) is always linked to her progress and success. This part is reinforced by her society insofar as that the winners get attention and praise at first (big tam-tam for the winner of the annual contests) AND that only those successful in the games are advanced in status up to a point where they are introduced in the innermost “circle of confidants” – that is lead by the big boss. This is the ultimate goal for the LEAD – to prove her worth by becoming a member of this elusive circle.

        All these behaviour patterns by her father and society stand in stark contrast to her mothers behaviour. She, who lost a child and “got” the MC as replacement, is nearly suffocation her with attention and love and care. Since the mother is not highly competitive, she never made it into the “circle of confidents” and therefore, like the majority, does not know about the true mechanics and reasons for the longevity and has therefore reason to believe “her substitute child” will die after a normal life-span. The clinginess and suffocating love leads to overprotection the MC wants to remove herself from. It makes her feel incapable and weak. So she rebels against it and shows somewhat of contempt towards her mother. This, too, stems from the GHOST – her abduction and the subsequent secrecy connected to it.

        OK … this turned out VERY long, I am sorry. But it was a great exercise to go ahead and break it down into these 5-questions.

        Katie suggested earlier, that the resulting dissonance between father’s and mother’s behaviour in her childhood is her ghost. This would make the abduction by her parents after death of their own child the Ghost of her parents!

        So in the end, Katie and you both had good input for me. Thanks!

      • Katja,

        If the Lie is “only the winner is worthy” then what kind of action would that character take as a result of believing it? To treat other people badly because they didn’t win a Game? To treat self badly because he didn’t win a Game? Conversely, to treat “bad” people favorably because they did win?

        And “worthy” of what? In daily life, do you classify people as “worthy” or “unworthy” on the basis of whatever — so that the only problem is getting the right basis? Or is there something wrong with classifying people as “worthy” or “unworthy” AT ALL? In which case, there’s a deeper Lie here, buried within the one you’ve named: that one person has the right to judge another, or that “worthiness” is among the things that we have the right to judge.

        We’re mostly looking for self-destructive actions here, although actions that are destructive to other people do count as they are ultimately self-destructive since we live in a community.

        I still see that you have two kinds of “winners” here: of the Games, and of the economic game which determines who are the “uppers” and who are the “lowers.”

        • Katja,

          I’m interested in the origin-of-evil story here. Your world has “uppers” and “lowers” and also has a Big Boss and also has life-extension (for some) and also has Games. (Did I miss anything? What other features does it have?) So which came first? What caused what? Can you sketch out a brief sequence of events? Did this country start out like ours, and then what happened? Or did it start out like a communal utopia? Or did it start out like the ancient world, where uppers and lowers have always existed? Does the society as a whole have a Ghost?

          And is it a country on our Earth? in the future? on Earth in a different timeline? on a different planet? or in the past, perhaps?

          • Katja,

            I just re-read. So her Want is “Winning all the games and knowing all the secrets – regardless of consequences for others”

            Interesting about the “secrets” — what’s that about?

            What are the “consequences for others” of winning the games? Obviously if she wins, others must lose, but do you have something more in mind? If she lets someone else win, then she loses, and that’s really no better. Can she refuse to play?

            “the Truth: All life is valuable and all humans are indeed equal.” We have the old debate about equality-of-opportunity vs. equality-of-results; can you say more about equality and how it relates to your story? “Life is valuable.” How does this relate to your story? Are no-value lives disposed of in some gas-chamber type system? What is at stake in the Games besides praise? How are participants chosen–does everyone play once in a lifetime, or every year? Or do only a few play, like gladiators? Value is determined both by economic standing and by Game outcomes; how do these two [measures] relate to each other? If a “lower” wins does he become an “upper”? It seems not, as the “lowers” are not just poor but (perceived as) unteachable, so it’s more of a permanent caste system than a capitalist system.

            “her need: a purpose [in life].” OK, did she have a purpose before her Ghost happened? What kind of Lie would turn you away from pursuing your purpose, or thinking you have a purpose, or wanting a purpose? How does someone develop negative feelings toward purpose? Usually this happens when they try to play the “game” of pursuing a purpose (usually somebody else’s purpose, I’m thinking of school or a job) and disaster ensues. “Don’t play that game,” goes the Lie. “It will hurt you, or you will hurt somebody else. Drop out and wait for the capitalist system to be destroyed. Here, have some drugs.” I’m again stumbling over the two types of games. In the economic game, you pick a purpose and pursue it and (hopefully) make money. How does purpose relate to the Games?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The abduction can be the Ghost, but in order for it to catalyze the Lie, there has to be a connection that the protagonist is unwittingly carrying with her. For example, even if she doesn’t remember the abduction, perhaps she always felt that she didn’t quite fit in. Or perhaps the Ghost is her brainwashed childhood with her adopted parents as a result of her abduction.

      • Hi Katie,

        thanks a lot for your input. I replied to Rod’s comment above (in length … sorry about that, but was a good exercise 😉 ) and included your comment in the reasoning.
        Am quite happy with my progress by now. Guess I am good to go plot out the rest…

        – Katja

  26. Katja,

    Lot of themes here, and not 100% harmonious.

    He risked his position by stealing her from a high security facility. Why on earth did he do that?

    He’ll have to “bring her up to speed” so that nobody would notice he took her from the low-class. This reminds me of “The King and I”

    So, the Lie is institutionalized, the entire upper crust (but not lower? What about the inner circle?) believes it, including her father, who taught it to her? Is there no personalized, individualized Lie? Dissonance. (Widely believed Lie reminds me of “The Island”)

    The society had to come up with something to DO for the population – contests, competitions. Reminds me of ancient Roman bread and circuses

    The winner is praised accordingly. What else is at stake in these games? It’s not the Hunger Games

    WHAT is the LIE: Life is only a game. But only if you don’t have to worry about life-support and/or injuries. Only if you live the privileged

    Another Lie?: Our (upper-crust) life is NOT sustained by exploit of others.

    Another Lie? (Or the same one?): A game and winning said game ARE the sole meaning of life. But what about reproduction?

    Another Lie?: A life needs NO purpose

    Another Lie?: Life has. NO natural expiration date.

    What is she avoiding in believing the lie? Well, what would happen if she stopped believing it? What if EVERYBODY stopped?

    Does the “lower” society have its own Lie(s)?

    Another Lie?: People of the low class have NO plight

    Only the winner is worthy – of WHAT? Is survival at stake in these games? Only praise? Job adnavcement? Something else?

    “love” (attention and affection really) is always linked to her progress and success. This sounds like a slightly differenct Lie. It reminds me of an interview with the Willy Wonka actor: Gene Wilder: speaking about an audience’s clapping: “It sounds like love”

    The innermost “circle of confidants” – is that REALLY a desirable position to be in? Another Lie?

    How does the big boss get to be the big boss? More games? What is his Lie?

    Nearly suffocating her with attention and love and care. There is another Lie in here somewhere

    WHY is the mother not highly competitive? And what is her Lie?

    It makes her feel incapable and weak. Is there another Lie here, about strength? What exactly is this overprotective smothering?

    Dissonance is great!

    • But for the privileged class, maybe life IS a game. And meaningless?

      Marie Antoinette believed that everyone was like her, and had cake to eat. The peasants are rioting because they don’t have bread? Well, why don’t they just eat cake?

  27. When she was very young her played “learning games” with her. Is this the teaching of the Lie? But everybody does this; is it always teaching a Lie? What’s different here? Something more must go along with this, to teach the Lie(s). How does he treat her when she “wins” and “loses”? (Or when she doesn’t want to play, or wants to stop, or wants to change the rules or play some other game?) Bill Gates’ grandma made everything into a competition. Swimming in the pond? Who can swim to this log the fastest?

    • Hi Rod!

      Wooza! You bring up a lot of good questions and suggestions! Thanks for that and all the effort. Very much appreciated.

      I see I may not yet be quite there with the lie… will digest what you wrote and digg deeper – especially regarding the interaction and relationship of the family (Lead, mother, father) and their connection to society.

      The father’s motive to take her from the facility: twofold. 1) his beloved wife is in pain. She has recently lost their child and is hurtling toward depression and suicide… bearing a child within the society is a great honor … they allow few children to be born due to population regulations. So being choosen, bear and deliver a child but loose after it’s born is the ultimate failure for the mother. He seeks to protect her. For that he is willing to cross the line and steal a similar looking child of the same age.
      2) curiosity. Can the low-class be taught?

      Will have to look deeper into your other ideas & question…many good points to think through.

      Thanks again! 🙂

      • FKatja,
        Why is this lower-class (poor) child kept in a high-security facility? Around here, they live in foster homes or on the streets.

        The story function of the Lie is to push the character toward the Want and away from the Need, right? For each candidate Lie, let’s ask: if I believe this, what does that belief cause me to do and to move toward (the Want), and to avoid doing and to move away from (the Need)?

        What does the Lie “only the winner is worthy” steer you toward and away from? Toward always trying to win, of course; what about your treatment of others perceived to be winners and losers? Are the “lowers” all perceived to be losers, and the “uppers” all perceived to be winners? But then we have the Games, so two contradictory methods of identifying winners and losers. Or do people shift classes as a result of Game performance (upward and downward mobility)?

        What if you set the Lie aside for a moment, and look at the trauma (loss of child; abduction of other child; something else?) and identify the Needs that started to be neglected, and the artificial Wants that started to be pursued instead, as a result of the trauma?

        Does the society as a whole (personified maybe by the Big Boss) have a Ghost that precipitated its Lie(s)? Discovery of life extension: interesting, not something I’d normally consider a trauma. Does the society as a whole have neglected Needs and misguided Wants connected to the Lie(s)? A need to die, a need to grieve? A desire to play Games to distract themselves from facing the fact that they’re trying to cheat nature? (Reminds me of Frankenstein) Is life extension connected to something else, some bigger project of cheating or denying nature or God? What about the society’s Need to take care of its poor? Did the upper/lower caste system begin at the same time as the Games, as a result of life extension? Why is life extension available only to the “uppers”? Is there some artificial reason–the result of a Lie (“not enough to go around”)? Or was life extension discovered in a society that was already upper/lower? Could it be that they already had Games? Did the Games. Have a different purpose before life extension was discovered? Was it discovered by a cult that had religious beliefs at odds with the (formerly healthy) society?

        Changing subject: Why does the mother believe the child was lost–what does she blame it on? Did she exercise a lot, and now believe that exercise causes death? Does she blame it on the father, or weakness, or competition? Did the father talk her into entering a swimming competition to stay in shape? Or was she overprotective of the unborn child, if there is such a thing?

        How does she feel about the idea of a stolen replacement child?

        Does the mother even know that the switch happened? What if your child died and your husband substituted a different child, all without telling you? At some level you’d know; maybe she’s in denial, she’s repressed the memory, so her Lie is that this is her kid and “everythig is normal” and she doesn’t have to grieve? What Need would be neglected and what artificial Want would be pursued as a result of that?

  28. Katja, you’re welcome. So the loss of the baby (miscarriage) is a secret?
    I suppose the “upper crust” believes a number of Lies about the lower class?
    And I suppose vice versa: the lower class believes a number of Lies about the “uppers”?
    Does this child-stealing happen in the beginning of the story, or later, or in flashback? Before we learn of the child-stealing, we should learn of this curiosity that the father has, about whether the “lowers” can be taught. How does he demonstrate this curiosity? Does he try experiments, does he argue with his peers, is he told by some older wiser guy? Oh — if he isn’t sure they can be taught, then he’s taking an ENORMOUS risk, because if his theory is wrong and they can’t be taught, then he’ll be caught for sure. I suppose his theory is unusual. Why does he believe they can be taught, if his peers don’t? Do they know that he has this theory — has he argued about it with them? Or is it a secret belief?

    • Oh I see, not miscarriage, but death of a young child. Still, they keep it secret? The child is too young for school, and just lived with mom and dad? Why does nobody else “miss” the child — nobody else ever routinely saw the child? Neighbors far away? No doctor? Do they have a housekeeper — a sympathetic “lower” who will keep the secret? Maybe the father has (secretly) taught the housekeeper and so is convinced it can be done?

  29. Hannah Killian says

    Okay, so what kind of Ghost would be befitting someone who wants to be alone? (other than the Batman version)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Just about anything could prompt that. Take your pick of bad experiences with other people. 😀

      • Hannah Killian says

        Hmm. . .well, I guess I’ll have to count out the one experience I’ve had, because my character doesn’t mind if she’s ignored. After all, she does want to be left alone.

        Maybe she tried too hard to impress someone or some people and it ended in disaster, which could have led to gossip about her and how she can’t do this or that right? Then she grew to crave being alone, because what’s the point of trying to impress people if they’re just going to always be finding fault?

        So. . .maybe her Ghost is insecurity?

  30. Hannah,

    What else is going on with this character who wants to be alone?


    • Hannah Killian says

      Well, if almost being murdered and then getting stuck with a grumpy detective bodyguard because of said attempt on her life is anything to go by. . . .

      • OK, this happens during the story? Not during childhood? Is it connected with anything in childhood? (Not that the Ghost must necessarily occur in childhood).

        What happened to make this character particularly sensitive to grumpiness?

        (Most central question) What about this character caused or triggered the murder attempt?

        What is the Lie? (Don’t need protection? Nobody will try to kill me again?)

        What is the Want? (To be alone and away from grumpy detectives)

        What is the Need? (To be protected)

        • What about this grumpy detective is particularly annoying?

          OK, why is the detective grumpy? Is there another Lie/Need/Want/Ghost here? (Hint: yes)

        • People often falsely impute cause. So if there was a murder attempt after she did x or while she was doing y, she can develop the Lie that x or y causes murder attempts. Take your pick: washing dishes, jogging, doing crossword puzzles, having honest conversations … But more to the point, something that she Needs to do, in line with the theme(s) of the story and the overall message you want to “say” to the reader.

  31. Does this theme of gossip show up in the story? Does the grumpy detective tell stories about her behind her back? Or listen to them?

    Does she try to impress the detective or the murderer or anyone else?

    What did she do to try to impress someone? Why was it a disaster? Did she only THINK it was a disaster because she holds herself to unrealistically high standards? Or the opposite? How is this past attempt related to any event in the story?

    • And what else is going on with this character — what was her life like before the murder attempt?

      If there had been no murder attempt, what would her story be about?

      • Hannah Killian says

        Ok, so to start, I started on this almost a week ago, so I’m not sure why someone wants to kill her yet. It could be a jealous someone, or someone who she humiliated or they thought she humiliated them? I haven’t decided whether the first attempt will happen before the story or during the beginning.

        The Lie may be “It’s no use being around people if they’re just going to continuously criticize you.” The Want, of course, is to be away from society where her every move isn’t criticized, and the Need has something to do with people.

        Perhaps she tried impressing a potential suitor?

        I guess gossip does show up – but the detective isn’t part of it. Also, the socialite does end up impressing him at one point without even trying.

        As for the detective, he’s only grumpy when he can’t solve a case, and at story’s beginning, there’s only one he hasn’t solved.

        He does have a Lie/Want/Need/Ghost; I just have the Ghost so far.

        His Ghost happened five years before the main story, and it’s the murder of his wife, who was pregnant with their first child. That one case he can’t solve is this one, since he hasn’t found the culprit yet.

        Oooooooh, I just got an idea! So, soon after the wife dies, the culprit is running away, and he/she runs into the society queen. And maybe she tried to help them, seeing as how they had blood on himself/herself, so and so happened, the chain reaction turned into the disaster, which is why people started criticizing her and it sort of turned into almost all the time. And then five years later, after the detective finally tells her about it, she puts two and two together and realizes that she remembers what the culprit looks like!

        • What are the larger themes — what is this story REALLY about? The answer to that will, ideally, guide you in making these decisions (finding these other answers).

          So far: alone vs. company (related to “socialite” — ironic, a socialite who wants to be alone), grumpiness, jealousy, humiliation, criticism (an example of something needed but not wanted), socialites vs. the rest of us (class war, see Prince and Pauper; see also Beauty and Beast, since he’s not a socialite), the desire to impress, gossip vs ???, trying vs. achieving, ability vs. inability (to solve cases) (causing grumpiness vs. happiness)

          What if it’s really the detective’s story? See:

          What if it’s a romance? The woman and the detective complete each other — each has what the other lacks or needs?

          Why was the first wife murdered? (maybe another theme here) What happened to the child (who now has a Ghost too)? What if it’s really the child’s story? Or what if it’s even the first wife’s story, all told in flashback and illuminated by the present events?

          If the woman sees the culprit, was that a coincidence? Why is it that the same woman who sees the detective’s culprit is assigned that very same detective? (Coincidence is frowned on, so if you can establish a chain of cause-and-effect, some common reason why these two events happened involving the same people, you’ll be ahead. I say “common reason” because I can’t imagine that the seeing of the culprit causes the assignment of that detective. Are they all members of some club that causes them to land on top of each other all the time? Is it a really small town? Do any of your themes help provide a common cause?).

          If she puts two and two together, it should be long after the reader has had ample opportunity to put the same two and two together. I mean, this is a murder mystery and that’s the solution, right? And there should be false clues to false solutions also, so it’s not too easy for the reader.

          Blood? How does she react to blood? Does she volunteer at a hospital?

          • This socialite who wants to be alone — is she paired with a detective who is alone but wants to be with someone?

            Why is he alone? How did the murder cause people to turn away from him, or him to turn away from people?

            Did the socialite’s attempted murder cause people to become sympathetic and try to bother her all the time with their gestures of sympathy (despite her desire to be alone which may be rooted in some earlier disaster)?

            The detective is, of course, in pain — as she probably is too, but not so much, as he’s suffered a murder while she’s only suffered an attempted murder. Why would his pain express itself as an inability to be

          • Why would his pain express itself as an inability to be around people?

            Is he not only grumpy but clingy (thus triggering her worst reactions)? Does she trigger his worst reactions by being aloof?

            Socialite means rich. Where did her wealth come from? (“Steal it, marry it, inherit it”). Does she manage her money well or badly? Did this change with her trauma?

            Conversely, can we assume the detective is stereotypically poor? How does he manage his money? What do you want to “say” about money? Can’t buy happiness? Sometimes it can buy insulation — from other people, from problems — or illusory insulation, e.g. with drinking (another facet of that stereotype). Does he drink? Gamble? Does she drink, etc.? Whiskey vs. wine?

            What was the motive for the murder of the detective’s wife?

            Why was the detective assigned the investigation of his own wife’s murder? That’s one heartless police captain! Or was it not officially assigned to him? What’s going on with the detective who’s supposed to be doing that? I assume he’s falling down on the job, leading to conflict between the two detectives.

            What if you flip the genders? Male socialite, female detective?

            I recommend looking at that list of themes, and any other themes that resonate, while figuring out why the murders occurred.

          • The Lie may be “It’s no use being around people if they’re just going to continuously criticize you.”

            This has buried within it the simpler Lie: “People are just going to continuously criticize you.”

            (The Need might have something to do with criticism. It might be a need for criticism.)

            The corresponding Truths would be: “People aren’t just going to criticize” and “Even if people criticize you, it’s not necessarily a bad thing” i.e. “Criticism may be needed and healthy” or “Critics may be good people.” This suggests a character, probably a new one, who personifies this criticism: first this character is seen as an enemy, and finally as a friend. Or does the detective play this role? Does he criticize her? Does she criticize him?

            To personify the first of the two Truths above: a character who she THINKS is criticizing, but who really isn’t. And she finally realizes that the constant criticism which she thought she was enduring, was really all in her head.

  32. “His Ghost happened five years before the main story, and it’s the murder of his wife, who was pregnant with their first child.”

    Oh, I thought the child survived. Maybe there’s another child, so the detective is a single dad; maybe he gave it up for adoption, or it was taken by Children’s Services.

    Of course, one Want is to have his wife back, but that can never be. And he Wants to solve that case and catch the culprit — nothing wrong with that. What other Want can come from the murder of a wife and baby?

    Maybe his Need is to move on from that murder, and marry someone else. Or maybe his Need is to get over grieving and pay proper attention to the surviving child.

    The best Lie is the one that pushes him toward the Want and away from the Need, right? A Lie might be: “Don’t get close to a woman, she’ll leave you or get murdered.” Or: “Don’t invest in the next generation, they’ll all just vanish on a moment’s notice.” Or: “You’ll never love anyone the way you loved her.” Or: “No other woman will ever love you the way she did.” Or: “No matter what I try to do in the way of security, it won’t work; criminals are everywhere and they will always eventually win.” (She died because he failed to protect her; what caused this failure? How exactly does he blame himself–what does he tell himself about why the murder happened and why he was unable to protect her? Did he pick some aspect of his personality and call it a flaw? E.g. he was away at a party that night, so a Lie is that partying is irresponsible and always causes death; or he was working late, so a Lie is that work is evil, or police captains are evil)

    Did she die in childbirth? I know it was a murder, but it still could have happened in the hospital. Or maybe she died in childbirth but he THINKS it was a murder. Being in the business of detecting murderers, he just can’t believe that an honest mistake would kill a woman in a hospital. So during the daily grind, he developed a Lie that says all deaths are murders. So then the story is really about forgiveness — quite a twist on a murder mystery! The culprit was covered in blood because, of course, he worked in the hospital. The socialite assumed at the time that the blood had an honest explanation, but the detective later convinced her otherwise (he made her believe his Lie).

    What did this detective do before he became a detective? Does he have some other background? What happened to that career and why did he become a detective instead? Or did he want to become a detective even from high school? Was his father a detective or cop or something similar? Is his family progressing, or regressing — was his father more successful, or less?

    Same questions for the socialite: does she, or did she ever, pursue a career? Is her family on the way up or on the way down?

    • So yes, his Want is to catch and punish the culprit, and it’s a misguided Want (the kind that works for a story!) because the culprit is really innocent. And his Need is to accept the truth that his wife’s death was NOT a murder, and to forgive everyone involved. Including himself.

      Wow … a murder mystery where the solution is that there was no murder! Of course there would be clues and anti-clues and false clues, as usual.

      • Hannah Killian says

        These are all good questions and good ideas. . .I need a notebook.

        • Hannah Killian says

          Matter of fact, it is a romance, and the detective is more like a Sherlock Holmes type. And they (the socialite and detective) do have a ‘criticism battle’ at some point.

          The wife is around five or six months along when she dies, along with the child. I’m thinking about the whole hospital thing and the socialite is a fifth-generation, I guess?

          • Add to your notebook a list of all the forces and obstacles that keep the lovers apart–including personal flaws, conflicts of will and simple misunderstandings.

            Sherlock doesn’t seem the romantic type, but what do I know? Does he have enough flaws? So far we have grumpiness and possibly clinginess.

            I do think you’re passing up an opportunity for a good character by not having a surviving kid. Lots of trauma, plus plenty of complications for the lovers. Maybe you have the feeling that you want to avoid complications as a bad thing; but for a novelist, it’s all backwards: complications are good.

          • And many of your readers will be in the position of trying to woo partners with kids — there are so many broken families and single moms nowadays. A story with an extra kid will resonate better than a story about a pair of pristine potential partners.

            What if the lovers have a spat, and when the socialite finally remembers seeing the culprit, she decides to withhold that information from him?

            What caused the spat?

            What if the police captain takes the detective off the case at the crucial moment (because he has “too much stress”) and gives it to an incompetent or uncaring detective (your detective’s career-long rival), who has wrong ideas about how to proceed or who the culprit is? (Thus adding to his stress, of course!)

            What if the other detective suspects the SOCIALITE?????? And she doesn’t know her buddy is off the case, because he’s withholding information from her too, so she doesn’t know that the other detective is closing in on her!!!

  33. Hannah Killian says

    Hmm. . .thinking about adding a kid. . .

    • Part of the impulse against adding a kid, I think, is the idea of the “perfect tragedy” of an otherwise childless pregnant mom getting killed. But in a way, that’s too “pat.” More grief for the man if he has no surviving kid; but more to write about if he does.

      • AND a kid would be one more annoyance for the socialite who wants to be alone.

        There’s a POV problem in what I wrote above (about the other detective suspecting the socialite): how do we know what the other detective is up to? Do we see his POV? Do we see an omniscient POV? Or do we see the information through the eyes of our detective who for some reason doesn’t understand what it means, though the reader will? Maybe our detective is drunk and about to pass out, and doesn’t remember it later. Hey, maybe we see through the kid’s POV, and the kid is present in a meeting between the two detectives (had to drag the kid along because some problem with daycare) and our detective goes to the bathroom or something and the other detective comments/gloats/brags to the kid, knowing or expecting that there will be no comprehension?

  34. If the socialite gets along OK with kids, then that’s one less source of conflict. But then the socialite can make friends with the kid and then participate in the kid’s internal conflict (in other words, we can see the kid’s internal conflict thru the socialite’s eyes/ears). Might be even better!

    • When I say “participate in someone else’s internal conflict” — suppose you want to lose weight, but you also want to eat a slice of pie. That’s a conflict between present benefit and future benefit, or a conflict between the desire for good flavors and the desire for pride. Imagine an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other (representing the Need and the Want, or two incompatible Wants). Now, along comes me, and you say “I want this pie but I also want to lose weight.” I can take sides with either the angel or the devil. I can say “oh, go ahead, have some pie” or I can say “stay strong, eyes on the prize, lose the weight.” So I’m participating in your internal conflict.

      The kid’s Ghost, I suppose, is the mom being killed. What kind of (legitimate) Need would the kid neglect as a result of that? What kind of (artificial and destructive or self-destructive) Want would the kid pursue as a result of that?

      • Does the kid blame self for the mom’s death? Or blame the dad? Or something else?

        The police captain and the rival detective — were they on the job five years ago? What do they blame it on? Does the captain think that our detective’s performance has suffered as a result?

        What was the “origin of evil” in this little world?

        Motive for attempt on the socialite: her money? Somebody wants to inherit, or collect insurance, OR somebody’s running a con/scam to illegally scoop up her wealth? It has to be a motive to try TWICE. Or is that just what she thinks? Was it just a random street robbery, and nobody’s targeting her for a second attempt? Was it not even a murder attempt at all — do we have here a paranoid police captain who goes around assigning bodyguards for no solid reason? (but don’t use the same gimmick twice). What other traits does she have — what was her life like before the murder attempt?

        Is the motive related to money, but not in such a simple way? Maybe she owns a company that is doing some project that hurts the environment, or maybe a rival company wants the competition out of the way. Or maybe she’s. A philanthropist, donates money to the arts or whatever, and some rival philanthropist wants to be #1. Maybe she helps the homeless and it’s driving down property values and some ruthless real estate developer wants it stopped? (In my town, whenever someone tries to set up a homeless camp, all the neighbors get together and sue to stop it.) She donates to Catholic Charities and thereby runs afoul of an Islamic terorrist group?

        Or motive: sexual jealousy? Who’s her mate/beau, that someone wants? Does that mate/beau get in the way of her budding romance with the detective? Or is there no mate/beau? Is she really hot — beauty queen? Runner-up in beauty comtest wants to be #1? (Wicked Stepmother syndrome)

        Or motive: revenge for past humiliation? That had to be a heck of a humiliation, to cause someone to try to kill her and then to try AGAIN despite that she has a bodyguard.

        Oh, there IS a second attempt, right? Otherwise the bodyguard spends all of his time watching over her while nothing happens — defending her from nothing — so no action. Plot Summary: “Guy watches nothing happen.”

  35. I finally figured something out. It’s not just any old lie, it’s specifically a lie that causes the character to turn away from a legitimate Need and pursue instead a destructive Want.

    So the Lie is: “You don’t need x, and instead you need y.” And our game is to figure out what x and y are for the particular character, and what kind of traumatic event caused the character to believe a Lie of this form.

    (According to Cybernetic Transposition theory, if I’ve understood it correctly, a “blocker,” or self-defeating habit pattern, is a Lie of the form: “x is dangerous or harmful to you, therefore you must avoid x so that you can keep safe.”)

  36. Hannah Killian says

    Not sure if this is exactly ironic, but for someone who wants to be alone, the socialite is pretty lively.

    It’s almost like her desire to be left alone is really a mask to hide that deep down inside, she really does want to be around people, but is afraid she’ll get hurt by more criticism.

    • Sounds like conflicting desires.

      When we have conflicting desires, I’m not sure that one is really on top of another. That may be more complication than you need (how would you convey layered desires through dialogue and action?).

      What I’m hearing is: She wants to be social (because that’s her nature), and she also wants to be alone (because of fear of criticism). Natural enough.

  37. Hannah Killian says

    Likewise, does the detective want to love again? Does he want to get married again? Yet he chooses not to, so that another woman won’t die? So, deep down, he wants to be alone, but chooses to be around others so that they won’t get hurt?

    A socialite who wants to be around others, but chooses to be alone so she won’t get hurt. A detective who wants to be alone, but chooses to be around others in order to prevent them from getting hurt. And so that they won’t have to (hopefully) go through the same hurt he’s still going through.

    Does any of that make sense?

    • I like the symmetry of your second paragraph, I think that push-pull dynamic works very well.

      Her Lie: People will hurt you by criticizing you, so to stay safe, you must be alone.

      He’s got two Lies: #1 Anyone you marry will get killed, so to stay safe, you must remain unmarried. And: #2 Anyone you aren’t guarding will get killed, so to keep everyone safe, you must guard them. Both of these together would make him into a sort of a yo-yo, trying to get close enough to guard her but not close enough to put her in “danger” of repeating his wife’s tragedy.

      If his lie #1 predominates, then you have both parties wanting to be around others, but choosing to stay distant.

      Is there some Lie that would make him cling to her in an annoying way? (#2 could be that) Or is he just trying to stay close to her in a reasonable way for the purpose of guarding her, and she reacts badly because she’s afraid he will criticize her? Hmm … he OUGHT to criticize her on first meeting! And she ought to threaten to die, or something. Start them off on the wrong foot. Try writing the scene where they meet, and see how it turns out.

      Their desires to be alone both come from fear–of criticism and superstition–and those fears will be cured by the events of the story, right? as they learn their Truths: her, that not everyone will criticize, or alternately, that criticism isn’t so bad; him, that women don’t die just from being married to him, and also that he’s not so desperately needed that everyone will die if he isn’t guarding them. If that resonates, then the next question will be what story events will teach them their Truths.

      Your characters are both self-sacrificing, and you’ve framed it as wants vs. choices. What if we frame it as (neglected) Needs vs. (destructive) Wants?

      You could go another way: His tragedy turns him against the human race, so he wants to get close to another woman so she’ll get killed. That may be too complicated.

      • She threatens to die (I’ve known women who did this), or she mentions that her relatives died of cancer or something and she thinks she’s got bad genes.

        When framing it as neglected Needs vs. destructive Wants — please bear in mind that as they get better they will abandon the Wants and tend to the Needs, and what kind of relationship will that lead to at the end of the story?

        Once you get your head filled with all this theory and start writing, you may find that it deviates from your plan. Editor Harrison Demchick says “I have never seen an outline that survived the writing process.”

        So it may be time for you to write a couple of scenes and see how it goes.

        • Hannah Killian says

          Ok, so I did start writing a scene between them, but it’s more of a bittersweetness that leads to fluff scene. Basically, she finds his deceased wife’s piano and starts playing it. He catches her playing and she starts getting all flustered and accidentally knocks over a stack of books. (She also notices that by shaving, he looks younger than she thought)
          As he’s helping her pick up the books, she’s like, “I’m so sorry,” and he’s like, “Don’t be. It’s been far too long since it was last played.”

          To top it off, his mother-in-law and five-year old son come in at the last second and when the kid also notices that his father has shaved and gotten rid of the small beard he had, the kid says he looks strange without it. The socialite says she thinks he (the detective) looks handsome without it. Cue the eyebrow raising from both the detective and his mother-in-law, along with the detective’s amused smile and the kid’s giggles.

          Ok, I think I’m getting offtrack. I meant to put down that I think I’ve figured out the lessons they both learn:

          Her: Some criticism is healthy.

          Him: Failing once does not mean it will happen again. Or maybe, failing does not make you a failure? You are not a failure? Something like that.

          • OK, so far so good. I like the symbolism of “It’s been far too long since it was last played.” (Is it out of tune?)

            Whose POV is it? How does the detective feel about someone new playing that piano? Does his feeling change during the scene? How does she feel upon discovering whose piano it was — or is she not told?

            How do they meet? It’s a professional meeting, right, because he has a job to do.

            What is the setup for their first meeting? Each one is told about the other, right? How do they feel about each other before they meet — what are their expectations, are they surprised, do their feelings or attitudes toward each other change during the first meeting?

          • If you get stuck, you can re-write that same scene, the last bit of it, from the POV of the five-year-old kid and again from the mother-in-law’s POV.

            And heck, from the piano’s POV. 🙂

          • Hannah, how are you doing with this?

  38. These posts about character arcs are brilliant and I’ve learned so much, thank you. I’m currently outlining my novel using Scrivener and I’m left wondering how you outline other characters. All of your posts regarding character arcs e.g. The Lie, The Ghost, seem to relate to the Protagonist although I know the Antagonist has been discussed in previous comments. How do you outline other characters? I have many characters going through my head relating to my plot, for example, the Proganist’s family and friends, mentors. Another example are minor charachters (eg an obnoxious flower seller). Do you try and find wants/needs, lies and ghosts for all of them? Sorry if I sound confused, but I suppose I am a little confused right now!

  39. Brian Cummings says

    Is constant/repeated failure to accomplish a specific goal (like a protagonist in a dystopian setting might face) a workable Ghost, or is it usually best to go with a singular event?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Singular events are tidier. If possible, perhaps try to crystallize the long-term failures into one specific event, perhaps in which the character finally realized or admitted his failure.

  40. These posts are so thought-provoking! I’m going to have to get some of your books.

    I’m really confused about my MC’s ghost. I thought it was finding, when he was seven, his father dead of a heroin overdose. The result was people in his small town either treated the boy as a victim or as trash. Is that the actual ghost if his Lie is whatever people believe about him is true? (I think his Truth is that he is actually a good person.) In the end, he goes against everything he has been taught and gives up a lucrative career to stop a genocide. I’m not sure if that all fits together. It does in my head, but when I start dissecting it, I’m not sure. The theme is basically defying authority when authority is wrong.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Take a look at what might be inspiring the Lie. Where did the Lie originate? What’s causing it? That will be the Ghost.

  41. Hi, I have a question. Can the Ghost be the Call to Adventure itself? Or is the Call to Adventure more like the presentation of what the main character needs? With “Call to Adventure” I mean the first stage in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey”. There, the Hero (that would be the main character) gets his/her goal from that call to adventure itself. But it’s not always a traumatizing event that sets a lie, when I read Joseph Campbell I didn’t have the impression that there is a lie. It’s more the character is living an ordinary life, and something (sometimes an “herald”) comes to the hero with the presentation of the adventure. The hero would refuse at first but eventually will attend the call.

    Should I interpret that “Call to Adventure” as the presentation of what the hero “needs”? Could it be the moment the hero realizes the ordinary life is the lie? But if that’s the case, then the switch from what the character wants to what the character needs is done in the beginning of the story, or am I interpreting all this wrong?

    I ask this because I was recently reading Joseph Campbell and I’m trying to connect this information about the Lie and the Ghost that is new to me, with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      No, the Ghost should preexist the Call to Adventure. The Call to Adventure coincides with the Inciting Event, which should be placed halfway through the First Act at around the 12% mark. The Call to Adventure/Inciting Event marks the first the time protagonist properly encounters (and tries to avoid in some way) the main conflict that will come fully into play at the First Plot Point beginning the Second Act.

  42. So, I think I figured out the ghost for my characters Dani and Kes. For Kes, it’s “the past memory of being weak and helpless.” Which ties into her lie that she has to be stronger, faster and smarter to protect those she loves. For Dani, it’s “the knowledge of people’s deceit.” This ties into the fact that Dani has the ability to read souls. Also, the ghost ties with Dani’s lie which is that people can break you with their lies.

    I hope I got that right.

  43. Can I make ghost story as mini arc to tell “Corruption Arc”?

    • (continuation) in my case, the main arc for my MC is Positive Change Arc. And I want this ghost (story of Corruption Arc) tells how my MC believes in lie. Will this method work for my story?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Some stories will dramatize the Ghost in the First Act. It’s tricky and not always advisable, but can definitely be done well.

  44. Dear Katie,
    You might remember from another one of my comments that my character’s lie is that she believes poor people are evil. I realize after reading this article that this is only a symptom of a much larger lie. Her real lie is that she believes that she’ll be worthless if she doesn’t fit in with her friend group, which is mostly made up of people who were either brought up to believe that poor people are evil or who just happen to think they’re better than everyone because they’re rich. I realized this after thinking about what my character’s ghost was.


    • Now I just have to figure out what my character’s actual ghost is. I was thinking bullying, but that would be a bit cliche. Maybe I’ll make it so that she had an anxiety disorder as a kid that made it hard for her to make friends.

  45. Great post, I’ve been learning a lot from your posts but I’m having a trouble with finding my character’s ghost. His lie is that he believes that he doesnt need help from no one (pride and ego). His need is that he needs help, and that he should let go of his pride. What could be the ghost of someone who is prideful? Maybe a bad experience?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Or it could be that he’s really good at something (exemplified by a single past experience, optimally). If he’s never needed help before that would certainly feed into a Lie that he’ll never need it.

      • So the ghost could be that he never received helped from no one and this created the lie that he`ll never need help? Is this what you mean?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, exactly. However, it’s usually best if you can distill the Ghost into a single catalyzing event from the backstory.

          • Oh I see, can you give examples? So that I can understand better.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Maybe as a child or a young adult just starting on a career he was put in a specific crisis situation where he wanted help but given none–and succeeded brilliantly anyway. It created a Lie that not only will people not help him, but that he doesn’t need them anyway.

  46. Oh I see now, Thank you very much for your help.

  47. Hi Kate, I’m absolutely loving this series about character arcs. My character’s ghost is her Catholic upbringing and simplistic world view. Needless to say, she’s in for a very big disillusionment arc. Thanks for a great post!! Cheers, Naomi.

  48. Hello Kate, do you think that there are any significant downsides to not having a ghost for the main character of a story? I was wondering this because as stated in your article, Cars and Jurassic Park do not reveal exactly why their main characters are the way they are, yet their character arcs seem to work just fine anyway. Is there something special about those arcs that frees them from needing to have a ghost in their story?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Whether or not a Ghost needs to be made explicit will depend on the specific factors of the story and its thematic Lie. However, I do believe it’s important for authors to know their characters’ Ghosts, so they then decide whether it needs to be explicitly referenced or can instead remain subtext.

  49. What is the best time (in the structure of the three acts) to insert an event similar to the wound or ghost, so that the character sees it from a new perspective and faces his fears?
    Is there more than one moment (e.g. close to Midpoint to start seeing the Truth and close to Climax to face his fear once and for all and prove that it has changed)?

    Thanks for your wonderful manuals, they were really enlightening!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If the character retains a lot of fear around the Ghost, then that fear is almost certainly linked in some way to the Lie. So as the character progresses through the arc to a rejection of the Lie and acceptance of the Truth, s/he will also be facing the Ghost and perhaps “editing” his or her understanding of the past in regards to this event.

  50. Airinga Čirvinskaite says

    My antagonist does not have a heart (she’s a sculpture brought to life, never had one to begin with), and her plot goal is to grow a heart for herself. I would classify this as a physical defect, however, it’s a defect that cannot be seen by anyone. She looks human enough on the outside.

    I know it’s my story, my character, and my responsibility to decide, but I can’t tell if the defect itself (the lack of the heart) is her ghost/wound, or if there should be some sort of painful experience or event brought upon by that defect. For example, someone realizing she doesn’t have a heart and asking if she remembers what it’s like to be human.

    I guess my question is whether this defect itself can be called her ghost, even if no one were to find out that a heart does not beat in her chest?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would look deeper into the reason she wants a heart–since she obviously is able to live and function without it. Probably her Ghost/Lie has to do with her belief that she’s incomplete without this heart for some reason.

      • Airinga Čirvinskaite says

        Thank you for your reply! Yes, her lie is definitely something like “I’m inferior to those who have a heart” and I think I even managed to narrow down her ghost yesterday.

        In the past, there have been several occasions where someone close to her realized she didn’t have heart and soon after left her. It happened with the man who sculpted her, then, centuries later, a close friend and even her adoptive daughter. Of course, that was how she interpreted things, that everyone leaves her after they find out her secret. While actually each character had their own personal reasons, some even out of their control. The sculptor left in pursuit of his past, her friend died in the accident and her daughter blames the antagonist for that (it was partly the antagonist’s fault).

        Thank you again, your blog is a gift, I can’t believe how productive in my writing I have become thanks to you!

        • Rod Schmidt says

          Interesting. Usually the Lie is what gets in the way of the character achieving the goal, right? So that when the Lie is overcome, just before the climax, the character then has the strength to make the final push? And here the Lie provides that motivation for the character to achieve the goal, so that when the Lie is overcome, suddenly the goal is moot and does not need to be achieved? (Reminds me of Dramatica’s Failure/Good: the character fails to achieve the goal, and the outcome is good; see: The Patchwork Girl of Oz; Rainman)

          I see here also Want vs. Need; the Lie causes the character to pursue the Want (the heart) rather than the Need (and what does this statue character Need while pursuing the unnecessary heart?)

          • Rod Schmidt says

            Does she perhaps Want the physical object “heart” while she Needs the emotional “heart”? Is she neglecting or avoiding her emotional development while pursuing a mere symbol of it? So, symbols vs. realities? Kind of like pursuing the outward trappings and appearances of success (fancy car) while neglecting the business (serving customers) and maybe borrowing to unsustainable levels, so that the car will inevitably be repossessed?

            This also reminds me of Pinocchio: wooden boy goes on a physical journey and corresponding emotional journey to become a real live boy

            And of course the Tin Man: he was emotional all along but never realized it until an authority figure told him so and gave him a heart-symbol

            So, characters reject her, she thinks for lack of a heart-symbol, but really for random reasons? Or are they not random? When she has her grand realization, that the rejections were NOT about the heart-symbol, it seems weak if there is not something that they WERE about. Is “it’s not all about you (so get over yourself)” enough of a message or theme?

            Is she emotionally cold? Is this part of why they reject her? Does she develop warmth? Or does this story have nothing to do with any change in her emotional level?

          • Rod Schmidt says

            How different would this story be if she had a heart but she was missing a pancreas? (Just substitute “pancreas” for “heart” and think about how this changes your story; it may help clarify things)

            Normally the Ghost causes the Lie which impedes the character from achieving the Story Goal. If her Story Goal is to get a heart, then what internal flaw stops her? Or if her internal flaw is the lack of a heart, or is a belief about the lack of a heart, then what goal does this stop her from achieving?

            (This could be a horror story: her method of getting a heart is to kill someone and take theirs; maybe this tragedy is averted at the last minute when she realizes she doesn’t need it after all)

          • Airinga Čirvinskaite says

            Yes, I must agree it is exactly as you have described it – once she overcomes her lie, the goal becomes moot. To answer questions proposed in your second comment – yes, she confuses symbolic heart with a real physical one.

            As for the thing she needs… well, I don’t want to set anything in stone yet, I want to see how it unfolds organically. There are various other characters in play with their own arcs, and I think I will determine my antagonist’s ending based on her interactions with other characters.

            However, I do have some ideas written down. For example, my initial plan was for her to discard the lie only to adopt a worse one – ‘I don’t deserve to have a heart’. I haven’t rejected this idea, I’ll have to see whether it blends in well or not. Another possibility is that she realizes the truth (the thing she needs) and it’s an epiphany that there’s some sort of emptiness inside of everyone, and that’s what makes them human. People leave because they search for ways to fill their own voids, not because they discover there’s emptiness inside her (the antagonist).

            I like the latter route because she does discover the truth, but it does her little good. She becomes a better person, perhaps even thinks of herself as human, however, she also realizes having spent hundreds of years pursuing the wrong thing, hurting those close to her. The truth equips her with the right mindset to search for the right thing to fill a cavity in her chest with (in all honesty, it’s probably a relationship with her daughter). Unfortunately, she cannot stomach the risk of going through the same process only to realize she was searching for the wrong thing again. At least, when she was pursuing a heart, she had hope. The truth robs her of that, and she’s too tired to try something else. The tricky part is, I don’t yet know how she comes to this realization.

            As for her personality: people mostly regard her as a calculating and manipulative. Yes, she’s a liar, but not in a calculating way, her lies are a defensive mechanism, a way to prevent others from discovering she doesn’t have a heart. I wouldn’t say she’s cold, tactless maybe, but not cold. She’s always a good hostess and welcomes everyone in her home (the antique’s shop). Patient and curious, she genuinely wants to understand human heart and condition. It makes her a good listener and oddly enough people are drawn to her because of that, though she doesn’t necessarily see it. She even uses her powers to help others fix their personal problems. Upon request, she can make an object called memento (made of three objects brought to her – one dear, one stolen, one broken). Memento fixes some sort of problem or enhances an ability of its intended owner. The downside of mementos is that they usually cost something for their owners, and they blame it on the person who created it.

            You might ask, well, if she has such powers, why doesn’t she just craft a heart for herself? The truth is, she did. Her daughter is actually someone who she saved some 15 years ago and replaced her heart with memento (artificial heart). In other words, the girl is a vessel that grows a heart for the antagonist. The idea was to allow the girl to lead a long life and grow old, and only then take her heart. However, they had a major fight when the antagonist refused to save a life of a person who all those years was nothing but a dear friend, a family member for both of them. All because the antagonist, for some inexplicable reason, wouldn’t go inside the jungle where the said person was dying. After the incident, her daughter stayed inside the jungle as a punishment for the antagonist’s actions. Her daughter deemed the antagonist ‘unworthy of a heart’.

            By the way, I appreciate your questions 🙂 it warms my heart (no pun intended) to see how someone takes interest in the things I try to turn into a book!

          • Airinga Čirvinskaite says

            “Normally the Ghost causes the Lie which impedes the character from achieving the Story Goal. If her Story Goal is to get a heart, then what internal flaw stops her? Or if her internal flaw is the lack of a heart, or is a belief about the lack of a heart, then what goal does this stop her from achieving?”


            I would say her internal flaw is a belief about the lack of a heart. As for the goal, she consciously wants the heart she has been growing for years. Perhaps, for the antagonist, her daughter and the heart has assimilated and is the same thing. So while she thinks she wants to have her heart back, it’s her daughter she wants by her side again. How does the internal flaw impede her goal of getting her daughter back? Well, she clearly communicates her intent on ripping the heart out of the girl’s chest, and with no room for negotiations or hope for the initial deal to let the girl grow old.

            Though, I’m not sure if that makes sense and is not contrived.

  51. In cases where the character acquires their lie and ghost as part of the story, how do you draw the line between using it as the first plot point of a positive change arc versus writing it as a separate negative change arc prior to undergoing a positive one?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s almost always inadvisable to include two character arcs in the same story. In instances where you want to dramatize the Ghost, it’s best to frame it as the Inciting Event halfway through the First Act. Otherwise, it can mess too much with the realistic progression of the story’s structure and pacing.

  52. In cases where your protagonist obtains their ghost and lie as part of the story, how exactly do you draw the line between making this the first act of their positive change arc, versus making that its own separate negative change arc prior to the positive one?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s almost always inadvisable to include more than one character arc for the same character in one book. This is because the structure of the arc is linked to the plot structure. If you must include the Ghost in the First Act instead of the backstory, it’s best to confine it to the earliest part of the story, leading up to the Inciting Event halfway through the First Act, so that it doesn’t mess with the rest of the timing and pacing too much.

  53. Can a character have 2-4 Ghosts and several Lies?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’ll want one central Lie/Truth in order to create a unified thematic premise, with one solid motivating Ghost. But there can be multiple “supporting” Lies that tie into the larger thematic whole.

  54. This discussion has been very helpful! (Along with several other of your threads I’ve been following these last few days!) My main character is a police detective. Often in books featuring a detective as the main character, he needn’t change. (Especially if it’s a series.) But in my WIP, I WANT my guy to have issues. His wound, you might say, is his divorce after what he’d thought was a perfect match. His work has soured him in many ways and pulled him away from his wife and his two kids. Now (the lie) he believes is that as a cop, he is incapable of a healthy relationship–that his career has ruined him for that. Yet his need for a loving relationship is what’s driving him–and even what causes him to distort his approach to the abduction he’s investigating. (He has become involved with the mother of the abducted boy.) As secrets come out during the investigation, he violates the rules of justice in order to protect the woman he loves from the toxic truth he uncovers. He goes for an extra-judicial solution (hence the book’s title, Justice Deferred.) So in a way, he heals his wound by changing the rules he operates by. This wouldn’t necessarily work as a series, but it should work as a one-off, I think!

  55. So excited to find this rich treasure trove of story-structure gems – powerful in helping me fine-tune my second-draft novel. The “ghosts” issue is absolutely on point. In my novel, the MC is a failed artist who yearns to maintain a simple, safe “surface” life. The “ghost” is the traumatic death of his beloved, musically gifted mother when he was 8; nobody would talk about what happened, until years later when, on the verge of his own creative breakthrough as an artist, a family friend cautions him that his mother actually killed herself because she believed herself to be gifted, and wasn’t – and warns him against the same delusion. What really happened to his mother, and why, is integral to the main storyline and is revealed with multiple deceptive twists and turns … but only when Paul is courageous enough to go beyond the “surface” and into the mystery of his own past, in order to learn what he now needs to save his wife and unborn child from an unexpected and sudden threat.

  56. How is this?
    • Ellie’s arc – Starts as a relatively weak people pleaser, learns about independence and courage from Jake, learns to fight for her rights at the end. Cannot accept herself for who she is and needs to learn how to let go, she is also very lonely and poor. The lie she believes is that she is unworthy and unworthy people should submit to those who are. This makes her a servant to those who threaten her and extremely guilty and fearful. What she wants is to gain acceptance through gaining approval from gaslighting antagonists and standing by while her true friend, Jake, is mistreated by them. The thing she needs is to learn to accept herself and fight for her real friends. Her ghost is her dysfunctional family and being repeatedly told by her ‘masters’ that she is wrong and should not be this way, and her guilt from the start of the story.


  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, […]

  3. […] According to K. M. Weiland, a Ghost is something in the past that haunts a character. For instance, if your protagonist is an university student who came second in the state shotput finals, his Ghost is the fact that he failed to win the finals. […]

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