Improve Your Character Instantly: Just Add a Ghost

I’m taking this week off for some family time, and that means we’ll be spending the next couple of posts digging through the archives. Enjoy!

This week’s video talks about how giving your character a haunting backstory can instantly up the stakes and make him a more interesting personality.

Video Transcript:

When we’re exploring our characters and digging up ways to get readers to invest themselves in them, we come up the usual list, which includes important things, such as a relatable motive, a winning personality, and an engaging narrative voice. But one other thing we can add to any character to instantly make him more interesting and compelling is a ghost. This is a term used by screenwriters to describe something in the character’s past that is still haunting him.

For example, the hero of Inception is haunted by his wife’s suicide, Mistborn’s Kelsior is haunted by his wife’s death as a slave in the mining pits, Peter Parker is haunted by the murder of his Uncle Ben, and Bleak House’s Esther Summerson is haunted by her illegitimate birth. And the list goes on and on. What all of these characters have in common is the depth of their backstories. They arrive at the beginning of their stories with baggage already in tow. Not only does this give you the opportunity to tantalize readers with your characters’ mysterious pasts, it also gives the characters themselves more to overcome and more to be motivated by. Their ghosts are often at the core of their internal conflict.

In contrast to all these successful ghosts, consider the book that got me thinking about all this recently. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s beloved A Princess of Mars presents a main character who has no ghost. Even though his past as a Confederate soldier and general adventurer offers all kinds of opportunities for a ghost—as, indeed, we find manifested in the death of a wife and child in the recent adaptation—the author never took advantage of the opportunities. Those who already love the book aren’t likely to complain, but just the inkling of a ghost would have gotten even more interesting mileage out of this character.

Tell me your opinion: Does your protagonist have a ghost in his past?

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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. Thinking back on the last few books I’ve completed the answer is a resounding yes. All my characters had ghosts, one literally 🙂

    I definitely think ghosts make for more interesting characters. People with pasts seem more real, imo.

  2. I know it’s at the end of the film, but the greatest and most spine-tingling ‘ghost’ scene in a film has to be Michael Corleone looking back on his past in The Godfather Part II – his happy past haunting his current coldness.
    In my own Over the Shoulder, Tony’s father left the family when he was eight, a trauma later urging him to bring together his many half-siblings once he finds out about them.

  3. totally!! My character’s ghost is her older sister’s life and death. Both haunt her as she strives to win the affection of her family but is generally overshadowed by the memories of her sister. Its just a work in progress so I need to still work on this backstory.

  4. @mshatch: I adore ghosts – as both a reader and a writer. Nothing keeps me turning pages faster than the inkling of something mysterious in a character’s past. And my own backstories are always mammoth haunted houses.

    @jd: Sequels get to benefit from even deeper ghosts, since they get to build on the previous books, as well as the unseen backstory from the first one.

    @Candace: Sounds great! That’s exactly the sort of thing that brings increased depth and contrast to a character.

  5. Wonderful tip! In my w.i.p. I was subconsciously doing this already…to a degree. My character definitely has baggage, but I don’t think I had been using that to it’s full potential. Now I’m definitely going to work on her ghost.

    thanks for the inspiration 🙂

  6. The deeper the ghost, the deeper the character in my experience. So load ’em down with that baggage!

  7. Yes, so far all of my characters have had ghosts. Amanda has been haunted by the death of her fiancé, Tamryn is haunted by her horrible taste in men, and Darby is haunted by the fact she doesn’t understand her super powers and why she of all people should have them (plus there’s a bit of a ghost with the fact her dad murdered her mom, and her brother walked away shortly thereafter.)

    It’s actually fun to come up with characters with troubled pasts since it always manages to impact their present and futures. 🙂

  8. I’d say a character’s father murdering her mother is more than a bit of a ghost. Sounds intriguing! Love Tamryn’s. 😉

    • Actually that’s what I did for my book series that is currently in progress. Such a good idea!

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Ghosts in the backstory are always a ton of fun to write! They’re one of my favorite parts of any story.

  9. I think — and have recently made use of – inherited psychological ghosts to compensate for the fact that my protagonist is eleven years old. She is haunted by the fear that the madness that plagues her ancestral line will one day find her.

  10. Fear of going bonkers – always a good ghost! Often, fear is at the root of a character’s ghost, one way or another. Otherwise, he would have put it to rest long ago.

    • Wow! Fear seems very useful and true as baggage from the past! on that same line, how about painful remorse or guilt over a bad past action or decision?

      • Come to think of it, how about anger over a past perceive wrong that has never been redressed?

        • K.M. Weiland says

          Yep, both totally work. The whole point of a ghost is that it’s *anything* from the past that has either greatly influenced the character in a mostly negative way and/or something he just can’t let go of.

  11. Oh yes. I love baggage in characters. What depth is there to someone who’s slipped through unscathed?

  12. In my WIP, the story is told from 2 complementary POV. I focused on the characters’ relationship and alternated whose side I tell. The story starts before MC1’s ghost is born, but I don’t reveal it as I’m showing the repercussion through MC2’s eyes, not the event itself.

  13. @Debra: Perfectly perfect and happily happy people may be wonderful to *be*, but they’re absotively boring to read about.

    @Patchi: I like that. I’ve always found unseen ghosts to be the most powerful. When we only catch a glimpse of the depth of the character’s pain, it’s all the more powerful for its unknown quality.

  14. I think I need to create a ghost for my main character. So far I only have her nemesis and all kinds of bad things(people getting killed, etc.) happening in her life. I see what you mean, a ghost would give a glimpse of the character’s pain and reveals more of who they are. So I’ll dig deeper… 🙂 Very helpful post…thanks!

  15. As if we weren’t already doing enough mean stuff to our characters, right? :p

  16. This is exactly what I needed to hear! And you know what? I came up with a great ghost in minutes. It better explains the motives of both my protagonist and some supporting characters and should make them all more sympathetic. Thanks!

  17. I love ghosts and ghost stories and finally managed to find a place for a ghost story in my second MG novel. The ghost is a person from the past, around the 1740s, who was beheaded by Cromwell’s men for supporting Bonny Prince Charlie. I turned him into a Headless Horseman character and he has a page of bloodcurdling activity as the story is recounted by the butler in an old castle. Lots of fun and mayhem

  18. When I read this, I thought you were talking about an actual ghost and since I write horror stories, a story popped up in my mind. Thanks!!

  19. I think this just became the deciding factor as to whether I keep the beginning or tuck it away as backstory. The pure drama of having mysterious baggage no one wants to confront escalates an ordinary life experience. Brilliant post.

  20. @Connie: Ghost hunting is always one of my favorite parts of the character development process. Never know what kind of juicy tidbit you’re going to discover!

    @Fiona: A literal ghost! Sounds like fun. I’ve always like that historical period.

    @Traci: Well, like I always say, inspiration is everywhere. 😉

    @sjp: Actually, the power of the ghost is yet another reason I’m not fond of prologues. Sometimes the unstated can be so much more interesting than spelling everything out.

  21. Rather than a “ghost,” I think of it as a secret, and, yes, every major character should have one. Like a magma chamber in their psyche, it should bubble and fume and occasionally erupt in ashen despair or fiery wrath.

  22. The screenwriting term “ghost” can be a little misleading. I like secret better as well. And the volcano metaphor hits the nail on the head.

  23. Thanks for the post! I just found out that in the main couple of my WIP they both have ghosts and I was unaware of it :O



  24. Heavy backstories almost always bring ready-made ghosts. Makes it all so much more interesting!

  25. I admit I was not sure what you meant by ghost. I had a literal ghost previously, but I cut it out as padding. However oh yes, my sailor girl and thief girl have baggage alright. And I wont reveal all the details by slowly stringing it along.:3

  26. A ghost is a screenwriting term for something in the character’s past that’s haunting him. Your characters’ baggage is likely exactly that.

  27. As an aspiring novelist, I so very, very much appreciate you! I read books on writing, character writing, grammar and I find the ever-learning process both thrilling and challenging.

    I have written an inspirational book that has 23,000 words. Is that enough words to be considered for publication?

  28. Word count requirements vary from genre to genre (and, to a lesser extent, from publishing house to publishing house). I don’t know if you’re talking fiction or non-fiction, but 23k is pretty low to be considered a complete book in either. 70k is the average low end for most genres.

  29. This one has always been instinctive for me. Good grief, our characters have a long history before they stepped into our story, why not use it? My current character is haunted by a bad decision he made in high school. He took the fall to cover up the crime of a friend, and he paid for it with time in jail and a lost opportunity at a great university. After that, he never stuck his neck out for anyone. We have to use those ghosts to establish our character’s weakness, or the negative half of his moral premise.

  30. Steve Garriott says

    This might be a bit off-topic (this is after all a blog about writing), but a good portion of your impact on us involves your videos. How do you get such great sound quality? That’s the one thing about a lot of video blogs (and some of my own ventures into videoing) that bothers me the most. Professional sound quality can make or break a video in some cases, whether it’s a podcast, a Kickstarter fund-raising video, or a v-blog.

    Keep up the great work, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      It’s funny you would bring this up. I’m actually frustrated with my sound quality and looking into purchasing a new mic. Currently, I’m using the mic built into my web cam. But this video is an old one. At the time it was filmed, I think I was using an inexpensive Logitech desktop mic.

  31. This is crazy good advice. I never really thought of it this way, but I love how you say, “They arrive at the beginning of their stories with baggage already in tow.” That makes so much sense! Luckily sometimes you end up writing it that way without knowing it.

  32. Kay Anderson says

    I totally agree! Ghosts are a good technique to use for characters.

    My character Jessica is an example of this. She’s haunted by incidents of her childhood past and how her Uncle Nelson abused her when she was a little girl, which affects how she acts as a grown woman in the present. Sometimes she has nightmares or panic attacks, and she is often hyper vigilant or thinks people are stalking her when walks down the street in public. She used to be rather girly and vibrant, but she changed into a irritable tomboy by middle school, and tries to protect herself by being tough like “one of the guys.” She also doesn’t feel safe anywhere except in her apartment with her kid brother, and feels like no one outside of them two can be trusted, not even her 3 closest friends. I guess because they all happen guys; but nonetheless, she talks to Ricky the most. He’s funny and makes her laugh, but she still often keeps her distance, struggling with her past and negative thoughts that control her and prevent her ability to move on and really embrace life.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Last night, I started reading Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Negative Trait Thesaurus, which they open with a discussion on how ghosts are often tied into both the character’s greatest flaw and the lie they believe (which, in turn, powers their character arc toward transformation). Good stuff.

  33. I love a good back story. For my novel it’s a yes and no case. The inciting event is a repeat of something that happened to both of my protagonists on their birthdays that they won’t be aware of until the theoretical end of act two. Otherwise, they have lived relatively normal lives with few big struggles.

  34. Yes! My MC does have a ghost, but your post has inspired me to take better advantage of that ghost and make it play into the depth of his character. JUST what I needed to hear right now!! Thanks, Katie 🙂

  35. Great post, Katie!

    I love ghosts and baggage for my characters! Is adds dimension to them. Strangely I didn’t utilize it for my villain in my current book. I guess it’s because he’s regularly involved in the story I didn’t want to make him too obvious. Your post reminded me of how important it is to show it throughout the story and not just at the end as I’ve done.

    Looks like I have some editing to do. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland says

      I’m right there with you. I adore ghosts. They’re always one of my favorite things to discover about my characters.

  36. The main character in my current WIP doesn’t necessarily have a ghost, but she does have a secret. However, I have another story in the works in which the protagonist has a massive ghost.
    Thanks so much for this tip, I completely agree and am encouraged to add some more depth to my future characters with the backstory.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Secrets and ghosts can often be the same thing. Many characters end up wanting to keep their ghosts private.

  37. Great as always.

    Reading this, I started thinking “ghost” was just a flashy word for “give him a past,” but there’s something particular here. Someone’s past should already be driving him directly, but a haunting element would have powerful influence but might not be something he could do much about (unless the plot changes that). Like your title says, it really could be a level to “add”– after working out what his past means he *has* to do, don’t forget his regrets from along the way.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      The distinction you make here is important: backstory is one thing, but a ghost is another. Ghosts bring weight and meaning to backstories that might otherwise be just a plain vanilla history.

  38. After reading this, I realized I was doing this subliminally in a lot of my writing. I never considered the difference between “backstory” and “trauma/ghosts” because I’ve always viewed them as the same thing (maybe I just torment my characters too much!). I’m glad I stumbled onto this because it’s something I’ll be more aware of in future writing. Thank you 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Technically, the “ghost” is part of the backstory – usually, the most important part. So what you’ve been thinking of generally as backstory has probably incorporated the idea of the ghost all along.

  39. “Tell me your opinion: Does your protagonist have a ghost in his past?”



    Very, very yes.

    What’s worse is that he doesn’t realize he has the WRONG ghost. XD

  40. My protagonist does have a good past since she and Vance were hanging out together but the ghost doesn’t represent the Lie, since her past isn’t haunting her, but with Samantha, she had an abusive father.

  41. Chris Hunter says

    One of my characters is haunted by his fiancée’s murder.


  1. […] When we’re exploring our characters and digging up ways to get readers to invest themselves in them, we come up the usual list, which includes important things, such as a relatable motive, a winning personality, and an engaging narrative voice. But one other thing we can add to any character to instantly make him more interesting and compelling is a ghost.  Continue Reading>> […]

  2. […] — K. M. Weiland, quote from Improve Your Character Instantly: Just Add a Ghost […]

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