What’s the Difference? Your Character’s Ghost vs. Wound vs. Lie vs. Weakness

One of the major keys to engineering characters who can create reader-favorite moments is understanding your characters’ weaknesses. But those weaknesses seem to be known, in writer terminology, by a dizzying array of names, including “ghost,” “wound,” and “lie.” What’s the difference? And which goes where in the story, and how do they each operate differently—or do they?

Here on my site, you may notice that I favor the terms Ghost and Lie. In my articles and books, you’ll almost always see these words capitalized as my way of indicating they are important catalytic entities within storyform as I teach it. However, you may encounter other writers who prefer to use the terms “weakness” or “wound.” Are these all referring to the same concepts?

In many general ways, all four terms do refer to the same thing, and that is the fundamental pain point at the core of the character’s psyche. Whether large or small, traumatic or mundane, this pain is perpetuating a limited way of being in and seeing the world. It constricts the character’s ability to move forward toward the plot goal in a holistic and efficacious manner.

That said, each term does have a slightly different connotation. Today, in response to several requests on the topic, I’m going to examine all four terms, as well as how I personally use them in my own understanding of story.

Remember: Writing Terminology Varies

Before we get started, let me just say that perhaps the main point here is that writing terminology varies. Although certain prevalent terms are widely accepted, there are also many, many different terms that you will see applied to the same, or almost the same, concept.

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For example, I teach story structure as having three major plot points: the First Plot Point at the 25% mark, the Midpoint or Second Plot Point at the 50% mark, and the Third Plot Point at the 75% mark. However, many writers don’t count the Midpoint as a major plot point and refer to only two plot points, in which case they might refer to the turning point at the 75% mark as the Second Plot Point.

Obviously, this and many other examples, can create confusion. However, although the terminology can vary, the underlying principles generally don’t. In the above instance, if you understand that someone is discussing the turning point into the Third Act, happening around the 75% mark, and dealing with the “Low Moment” or “Dark Night of the Soul” beat—then you can identify what they’re talking about regardless of whether they choose to call it the Second or Third Plot Point.

So basically: stay on your toes and make sure you understand the underlying principles of storytelling rather than just relying on terminology. The bonus here is that doing so ensures you grow and remain grounded in your innate understanding of story, rather than trying to copy/paste someone else’s format onto your experience.

The Four “Pain Points” in Your Character’s Past and/or Personality

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All four of the terms we’re exploring today—Ghost, wound, Lie, and weakness—refer to a pain point for your character. Each represents an inner obstacle contributing to the character’s inner conflict. This inner conflict will certainly contribute to the story’s external conflict, as the character attempts to pursue and gain the plot goal. However, the inner conflict’s most crucial purpose is its ability to power your character’s arc. Whether or not your character changes positively by the end of the story, these pain points are what drive the question of transformation.

Therefore, all four terms are similar in their reference to this painful driving catalyst. Usually, this pain point will arise from the character’s past and is therefore often considered backstory. It will also almost certainly manifest in the character’s personality in some way—as an embedded flaw that is causing some sort of suffering or at least inconvenience in the present.

However, despite their common ground, these four terms are, in fact, discrete. Each refers to a slightly different aspect of this difficulty. As mentioned at the top of the article, I personally choose to work primarily with the terms Ghost and Lie. This is because the wound and the weakness are implicit within the Ghost and the Lie, and I feel it becomes confusing to discuss all four as if they are totally separate.

Still, it is worthwhile to understand the finer points of each concept.

What Is Your Character’s Ghost?

>>Click here to read more about the Ghost

The “Ghost” is a term originated by John Truby in his groundbreaking book The Anatomy of Story. In his recent book The Anatomy of Genres, he explains:

It is the event from the past still haunting the hero in the present.

He goes on to delineate that the Ghost “represents the power of the past over the present” and “…is the mind attacking itself.”

I’ve always liked the evocation of the term Ghost, since it inherently indicates that something is “haunting” the character. Even if the character wants to leave the past in the past, this is something too engrained within his personality and psyche. Unless he is willing to undertake the transformation of a full character arc, he will not be able to overcome it.

When teaching story structure, I use the term Ghost to encapsulate the motivating factor in the character’s backstory. You can think of it as the “inciting event” before the Inciting Event (i.e., before the main story, although some stories may choose to dramatize the Ghost event in a prologue or flashback).

For Example: In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge gets to personally revisit his backstory Ghosts (with the Christmas ghost—which is pretty much perfect when you think about it). His foundational Ghost is that of his cold and punitive relationship with his father, who all but abandons him at boarding school—a catalyst that shapes Scrooge’s personality so profoundly even his love for Belle can’t change the path upon which he has set himself.

Ebenezer Scrooge’s backstory Ghost (not to be confused with the Ghost of Christmas Past) is revealed to be his love-starved childhood, abandoned to a cruel boarding school. (The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Walt Disney Pictures.)

What Is Your Character’s Wound?

>>Click here to read more about the wound.

“Wound” commonly refers to the deep pain point at the heart of the character’s need for transformation. (Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi gave us the popular reference The Emotional Wound Thesaurus for brainstorming these wounds for our characters.)

The wound is often a more generalized concept. It certainly incorporates the Ghost—the wounding event in the character’s past. But it may also refer more specifically to the pain point itself—to the suffering the character experiences in the present. As such, it can often refer just as much, if not more, to the character’s psychological pain, rather than the event that caused it.

For Example: Scrooge’s wound is his unlovedness—his father’s refusal to love him and his own subsequent refusal to love Belle. This warps him into a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner.”

Jim Carrey A Christmas Carol Ebenezer Scrooge Ghost of Christmas Past

Scrooge’s psychological wound of “unlovedness” sees him turning more and more to money, rather than people, to fill the hole in his heart. (A Christmas Carol (2009), Walt Disney Pictures. )

What Is Your Character’s Lie?

>>Click here to read more about the Lie Your Character Believes

The Lie Your Character Believes is one of the most important factors in crafting a solid character arc. This Lie, in contrast to the story’s posited thematic Truth, is what will create the character’s inner conflict. The Lie primarily represents a flaw in the character’s perspective or view of life. This limited perspective usually arises from the formative events caused by the backstory Ghost. This event and the psychological wound it creates leads the character to believe her best chance at coping and/or never repeating that pain is to adopt a particular way of being in the world.

Like all points of view, it is adopted because the person believes (rightly to at least some extent) that this perspective is the one best suited to protect and provide for her. It may shield her from painful feelings such as shame, guilt, or grief. Or it may offer guiding principles that help her gain what she wants and needs.

The important thing for writers to understand about the Lie is that up until this moment in the character’s life (i.e., the opening of the story), the Lie has probably been good for the character, at least comparatively. After all, there must be a reason the character has clung to this limited belief for so long.

However, as your story proper begins, the circumstances of the character’s life are about to be forever changed. And as the circumstances evolve, so must the character’s outlook. From this point on, the Lie becomes less and less effective in protecting the character from the effects of the past and in helping her move forward toward her desired goal. If she fails to face the fires of inner transformation and upgrade to the story’s offered Truth, she will not find healing from past wounds, but only more wounding.

Therefore, the Lie originates from the Ghost. In many ways, it represents the wound and indeed may even be the wound, as would be the case with a self-abusive belief such as “I’m worthless” or “I’m not pretty enough” or “it was my fault my grandmother died.” Most specifically, however, the Lie is the limited perspective with which the character begins the story.

For Example: The basic Lie Scrooge believes at the beginning of his adventure is that a man’s worth can only be measured by material means—by the amount of money he controls. We can extrapolate that this perspective arises from the even deeper and more personal Lie that Scrooge himself was not worthy of his father’s love. Throughout his life, he uses this cold-hearted philosophy to “protect” himself from experiencing the love of others, including his sweetheart Belle and his nephew Fred, so (we assume) he will not have to face the deep wound of his own pain and grief.

Scrooge begins his story with the Lie he has believed all his life–that a man is measured by his money, and that money is worth more than love. (Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983), Walt Disney Pictures.)

What is Your Character’s Weakness?

>>Click here to read more about the weakness

Writers are commonly encouraged to balance characters’ strengths with correlating weaknesses. This is solid advice. Just a few weeks ago, I talked about how you can use “shadow theory” to easily identify which strengths and weaknesses offer the most organic polarities for each character. Not only do weaknesses create innate opportunities for conflict and therefore give your character something to overcome, they also function to make characters more relatable to your audience.

Your character’s weakness can be just about anything. It might be a literal physical weakness, such as an injury. It might be a psychological weakness or phobia. Or it might be a personality flaw, in which the character has a tendency, whether impulsively or deliberately, to hurt others. Often, the idea of a character’s weakness will refer most specifically to the tendency toward some moral failure, in which the character isn’t fully participating in healthy social contracts.

Your character may exhibit many weaknesses over the course of your story. However, when thinking about the weakness your character exhibits, you will want to choose something organic to the overall story. Usually, this means referencing the Ghost, wound, and Lie. The Lie, in itself, can be the weakness. Particularly, if the character’s Lie-based perspective leads him to behave in ways that damage himself or others, this will point to the central weakness the character must overcome within his arc (or not—if he is exhibiting a Negative Change Arc).

In other stories, wound and weakness may also be interchangeable, but usually only if the weakness is self-damaging rather than other-damaging.

The Ghost won’t be the character’s weakness, but will likely point to its genesis.

For Example: Scrooge’s weakness is his cruel disdain for those weaker or less fortunate than himself. As with most weaknesses, this not only points to a moral failing on his part, but also to his own weak spot. This is why the Christmas spirits come after him. They tell him plainly that if he cannot overcome this weakness, it will be the cause of his own destruction.

Scrooge’s weakness is his cruel disdain for his fellow man. (The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Walt Disney Pictures.)


Understanding terminology, how others use it, and most particularly how you want to use it is important for deepening your understanding of how the many different pieces of story operate. As you can see from just this brief exploration, there is often a good deal of overlap amongst terms. However, each term also offers distinct nuance to help you expand your development of your own story and its characters.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What Ghosts, wounds, Lies, and weaknesses have you used in your story? Tell me in the comments!

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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. Martha Sue Galliano says

    Thank you for explaining these terms.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’re welcome! 🙂

      • Ralph Livingston says

        In my novel, the main character (I guess you would call him the Hero) was an orphan. Grew up without a family, and always felt the sting of being “without”. By the end of the first 25 percent he has had a brief affair and met his true love who became my 2nd important character. My next 50 percent chronicles their successes, her affair, the divorce, and the hero’s depth of despair. Then comes his physical and mental recovery meeting a unique woman and a new type of passion along with finding a new family, which brings in several third level but important characters.
        Finally, in the last 25 percent an incredible epiphany brings his wife back to him along with their struggles to reconcile.
        In many ways I have followed your precepts before I learned about them. On thing that I found necessary is to not leave characters, even 4th or 5th level, “hanging” and leaving readers wonder what happened to them. I even used an epilog to help accomplish this. All in all 74,000 words.
        I’m now outlining (thanks to you and your book) my second and third books. I’m 84 years old. It’s never too late.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          That’s great! Good for you. It’s super inspiring to see people in their eighties still pushing the envelope and exploring their creativity.

          • Ralph Livingston says

            After reading a four book series I realized that the author lacked the ability to give the characters “substance” and In four books there was no discernable theme. I knew that I could do better.
            Using a lot of my past experiences and those of other people that I knew, I started to put a story together in my mind. With a sleepless night, and with these thoughts building up in my head, I got up at five AM and started writing.
            The words, thoughts, and situations flowed faster than I could type. I had to struggle to avoid “sanitizing” several intimate situations; (Wow! Did my old uncle write something like this!). I realized that life is not “G” rated. If I couldn’t write it like it is I might as well quit.
            Thanks for your comments. I reading several of your books and learning a lot.

        • Where can people find your book, Ralph?

          • Ralph Livingston says

            Thanks for your interest. My book is almost finished with the final editing. This is my first book so I will be looking at how to publish it.

        • Ralph: “If I couldn’t write it like it is I might as well quit.”
          Amen! Only you can write your stories, and no one needs to be told “you shouldn’t” or “you can’t” or any other intent to stifle our individual creativity. (Lots of people feed off the negativity they heap upon others.) If others don’t like your work, they can go read something else – nobody is forcing them – and others will find your work just what they wanted or needed.

  2. Thanks for clearing up these confusing terms.

  3. Once again, what looks like an analytical essay about terminology that sets my mind churning and drives me to the keyboard to get these ideas down before I lose them…

  4. Really helpful explanations and examples, thank you!

  5. This information was/is very helpful. Thanks for posting. I am just finishing the first draft of my third novel. It is interesting to compare these terms and your discussion to what I have already written. I think I have “gotten” them!

  6. Great post with clear examples; thank you!

  7. What perfect timing! I started work on a commissioned musical adaption of A Christmas Carol this week.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, fun. This is such a fun story to work with–so simple and yet so much depth.

  8. I appreciate the clarification. I was never a fan of the term Ghost, and anyway it’s awkward with my current WIP since my character is a ghost. I’m using the term traumatic event instead. I’m also finding it useful to work backwards, starting with the weakness, in order to discover a plausible past traumatic event.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, the Ghost of the ghost can get confusing fast. 😉

      • Can a shadow cast a shadow? 🙂
        You have aptly distinguished between these subtly different elements. In thinking about my second novel (which came out in 2018), it appears that I included all four of these elements pretty much correctly (and I didn’t even know what I was doing!). Thanks!
        I think this post might be useful to the senior citizens my local writing group is working with. (One of them, age 98+, has begun work on her second memoir, having published her first one at age 89. Our seniors have amazing stories to tell!

  9. In my mutant superhero dystopian series, the ghosts appear in the first paragraph:

    On the day of my baptism, I killed my father. Shortly thereafter, I killed my mother. Then I burned down the orphanage where they had placed me. Not a bad trail of destruction for an an infant. But I was no ordinary infant. My name is Elektra Voltare. And I am blessed with suck.

    But in Elektra’s case, the ghosts cause her to be very careful about using her power to attract electricity, which caused so much havoc when she was just a baby. She grows up in a lead-lined room in the basement of a monastery. Her challenge becomes resisting the temptation to use her power in evil ways once she learns to control them. She actually becomes a kind of McGuffin, as rival forces pursue her to try to use her power for their own ends.

    Well, they still act as ghosts on her conscience, but with a more positive effect. The tension in the story is more about avoiding a fall, rather than a positive arc. If you have read Lord of the Rings, it’s rather like the many characters (e.g., Gandalf, Faramir, and Galadriel) who refuse the ring of power.

  10. This article definitely brings more clarity. I have finished the first draft of my sequel and I have been able to clearly state my character’s ghost, wound, lie and weakness after reading this.

  11. Josephine Becker says

    Wow I feel so stupid now 😂 This stuff is complicated! But it really made me rethink my MC, so thank you! I will try to give you my interpretation, I would love for you to comment ♥️♥️♥️
    My character Hannah (age 20) grew up the Nordic foster care system (i’m Danish) from the age of 4. Nobody ever adopted her: (WOUND?)
    Because of a weak heart condition caused by a freaky drowning accident at age 4 where her only biological family member tried to frisk her (or so she thinks. GHOST?)
    She now believes she is “too broken” to be worth loving (LIE?) AND also that any intense feeling of physical challenge is dangerous for her.
    And then she steps into a parallel fantasy universe and has to survive both elements and cultures with a coldhearted robber who is challenging her prejudices about people (and their “strong but cold hearts”, about her own physical and emotional capabilities and about her definiton of family and connection.
    The robber is obviously the Love Interest. He left his home town and chief titel behind because of his feeling of inadaquancy (sorry for the spelling) and never returned because of pride and shame, trying to reach an even bigger goal to show them he didn’t needed them (involving my MC and a lost love with a status).
    My MC helps him see that his pride is destroying his life and she wish she had unconditional love and family – and he help my MC find her true power (physically and emotionally) and trust in her own Body, her own heart – emotionally and physically.
    Oh my. I suddenly dont feel confused anymore just writing that. I would really appreciate tweeks or ideas if something jumps at you?
    This really helped me immensly! Thank you KM!
    – Josephine

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It really doesn’t have to be any more complicated than you want it be. If you pick just one of these terms and focus on getting that right, the other three will likely do their jobs by extension. And, yes, sometimes just talking (writing) through it is enough to cut through the noise and see what’s really happening in your story. Glad the post was useful!

  12. I am using these terms to help shape a character in some short stories. An 18 year old girl lost her mother when she was a child, (and she doesn’t really know her dad.) Her Ghost that she is alone and is haunted by not having any family. The Wound is when her mother was killed and she had to flee her home, so she would not also be killed. She had to move from England to Jamaica. A powerful family friend helped her escape, and this powerful friend set up her adoption by another powerful person who can protect her. So she lives with this professor-ly father figure and becomes an apprentice in his academic field, which she likes. The Lie is that she believes she needs to be around powerful/influential people who will protect her, and that she can’t protect herself. She does learn to become independent as the stories progress. Her Weakness is that she is attached to the few items she escaped England with. She knows these items belonged to her mother and father. (A silver hair comb, some antique books.) She believes strongly that she needs these possessions to feel connected to them. When her home is broken into and these items are stolen she will do anything to get them back. This gets her into some serious situations.

  13. Victoria C Leo says

    Very helpful! Protagonist Kim has a transformation that spans the book but there is another important wound that she has to heal: she ends up in temporary incarceration as a punishment for a mistake (the major lesson she needs to learn), but prison, for her, is associated with her mother, who is permanently imprisoned for participating in a mass slaughter of innocents. Instead of being able to peacefully reflect on the lie she believed, and learn a new truth, in her solitary confinement, she first utterly ‘breaks’ because of the self-imposed shame of what ‘prison’ means to her. When she heals that wound, that mental definition of what prison says about a person, then she can come to transform in the larger arc. Now I get/know what I intuitively was doing.

    Getting educated about my profession is so much fun, LOL! Thank you Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice. That connection to her current state and her triggers from her mother is awesome.

  14. This has been SO helpful in solidifying my MC/narrator in my fantasy/sci-fi/time-travel WIP. (Now I just have to do this with the other secondary characters.)
    His Ghost: (My immortal MC ages up and down constantly between birth and 20. Everyone in their world does this, but most have longer life cycles.) At age 10, he read an extremely cruel letter that said he’s inherently a nobody, a failure, etc. who has tried for countless life cycles to be famous in their world and produce something of lasting value. Everyone else in his family has done this, but he has never succeeded. “You just don’t have enough time, so don’t even try.” The note was written by himself in his previous life cycle and intended to be a piece of guiding advice for his next ‘self’ (my MC now.)
    His wound: The belief that he is inherently a nobody, a failure, etc.
    His Lie: If you don’t become famous for creating something great, you’re inherently worthless and don’t deserve love.
    His weakness: A disdain for anyone who doesn’t aim big or who is content with a “small life.” / Jealousy and resentment of popular/famous/highly skilled young people in their world. (Because those young people have had just as much time as him but have actually succeeded.)

  15. Denise Greene says

    I really love the in-depth explanation of The Lie, which I never understood before. Such perfect timing for this to be the topic of your newsletter; I’m embarking on a new work which has three MCs, working together. They dislike and distrust each other for their flaws (both real and perceived) but are forced to forge an alliance. I’m even more eager to begin now that I see how this all dovetails. Thank you so much!

  16. LilaMable says

    Great episode! (I’m a podcast listener.) I loved learning all the terms and how they interact with each other.
    Do you think you could create a “Writer’s Dictionary” with all the writing and story terms you can think of and links to posts with more info? I know that personally that’s something I would use a lot.

  17. Thank you for another helpful topic. But it brings up a question I’m grappling with. My character’s ghost is that he knew something was wrong in a particular situation but didn’t say anything, and it resulted in his father’s death. His wound/lie is that he doesn’t believe in himself, lacks confidence, and is in denial about how truly talented he is. When the story opens, he sees another situation in which something is wrong and is unsure whether to say something. The inciting event is that he does speak truth to power, which leads to the discovery of a dead body (murder mystery). I’m concerned that he’s overcoming his lie too early in the plot. Or tries to, with negative consequences. Any suggestions or examples?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      My suggestion would be to look deeper for the Lie. It makes total sense that a character might be able to, in the moment, act in exactly the opposite of the way they did earlier in a different situation. But that one action doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve addressed the deeper Lie. Indeed, depending on the story, the character might become overidentified with acting in the opposite way, in a way that also is unbalanced and problematic. A basic example of this would be Spider-Man (specifically the 2002 adaptation with Tobey Maguire). He too suffered the death of a loved one because he didn’t act when he could have. He compensates throughout the story by acting heroically, only to make enemies and once again endanger the ones he loves. He ends up in essentially the same situation once more, even though he tried to take a different road.

  18. This is such a great post. Thank you so much, K.M.!
    I have one question: You say that a “character’s weakness can be just about anything […] a literal physical weakness, such as an injury […] a psychological weakness or phobia. Or […] a personality flaw, in which the character has a tendency, whether impulsively or deliberately, to hurt others.” I’m having difficulty understanding the difference between a psychological weakness and a personality flaw (maybe it’s due to a language barrier, as I’m not a native speaker). It’s no phobia, of course, but up until now I would have categorized a personality flaw as a psychological weakness. Would you be willing to give some examples for psychological weaknesses so that I might be able to better distinguish between the two?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Kathi! Obviously, there *is* a lot of common ground between psychological weaknesses and personality flaws. However, I would distinguish psychological weaknesses as diagnosable mental challenges (such as depression, etc.) and personality flaws as ego-oriented dysfunctions (such as a brutal temper, etc.).

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