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!
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-Manmovie 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.