What If Your
Is A Ghost?
Ghosts are an integral part of story-telling. Throughout centuries, there have been millions, if not billions of ghost stories told. Whether they’re movies or books, the love of a good tale about these beings have always had people curious. The odder the story, the more curious the audience would be.
But, what questions should be asked to create a well-rounded character? After all, ghosts are characters, aren’t they? They have factors that drive them, that made them live in the space between heaven and hell, and traits that make them who they are. Even with a plot line which focuses on the living, the ghost should always be treated as a character — not as ‘just another dead spirit’. A ghost shouldn’t be treated as a ‘plot point’ or as the end to a means. For a more three-dimensional tale, treat a ghost as you would treat any of your characters — as if they’re human. We’ll explore how to evolve them as a person, rather than just the dead, in this article by asking six key questions.
1. What is their unfinished business?
In order for a ghost to become a spectral form of their living selves, they have to have died before they were ready to die. Their unfinished business is the part of their life they were never able to complete. It’s their motivation for haunting people, places, and things. It’s their motivation for murder. It’s their motivation for revenge, or perhaps helping those who need it.
Their unfinished business can not only help your audience relate to your ghost, but it can also make your audience hate them. Either way, you’ll likely want your readers to care about this dead person. Most ghosts were people at one point or another. Even if this dead character is evil, making your audience care about this them will make your story go from flat to three-dimensional.
2. How did they die?
You may think that this should be the first question asked, but their unfinished business could directly lead to how they died. Meaning? Their mode of death could spell out why they’re left on Earth instead of heading to the after life. For instance, if the character is driving to the hospital to give birth to twins and was driven off the road, they could be left as a ghost, haunting the bridge, trying to bring infants back with them because they were never able to give birth to their own children due to the car accident.
3. What was their emotional state when they died?
Knowing your ghost’s emotional state before they died will give you more of an idea of their behavior after death. Was your character angry? This may lead them to want to kill for the sake of killing. Were they sad or depressed? This could inform you on how they died as it could have been suicide. Also, if they were sad or depressed, are they the type of ghost who is trying to help your protagonist solve a mystery — whether it’s about their haunting or about a different ghost. If they’re sad or depressed, are they leading your character toward the climax or trouble, or out of the climax or to safety?
Mainly, their emotional state could describe what type of ghost they are in simplest terms: good or evil?
4. How do they get the attention of the living characters?
If your ghostly character is going to be used at all, there must be a way that their existence became known. Are they known because they haunt a house — a house which always seems to attract families? Are they known because they haunt a bridge — a bridge where they’re known to drive people off the road? Essentially, this is the question of, “What, where, or who do they haunt and why?”
Not only this, but they don’t have to scare any person unless they want to. If they’re a ghost, they don’t have to be a frightening one. There
have been some friendly ghosts out there, and if there’s a friendly ghost, why would they want to scare? They wouldn’t. Instead, they would want the aid of a living character to help them reach their goal of finishing their unfinished business.
If they’ve been dead for over a hundred years, that would lead the town where the haunting is to have known about it for decades. If the haunting is more recent, who discovers the ghost? Why is the ghost discovered? How are they discovered? Is there more than one? If so, how do these six questions apply to them?
5. What is their attitude toward their death?
It may be easy to display the ghost’s attitude as someone who is angry about their death, which would be the reason for their haunt. However, there are many different ways to have unfinished business. Such as, did they miss their sister’s graduation party after being shot by an angry ex-boyfriend? This makes it so the ghost not only had unfinished business, but also didn’t turn into an angry ghost.
They could be a depressed spirit who only wanted to tell their sister they loved them and to apologize for missing such an important life event. They had the unfinished business because they never made it to their destination, not because they were angry. Sometimes, the most mundane events can be a huge, important part of a story. Ask yourself: how would their death affect what type of ghost they are and their attitude after death?
This is close to their ‘emotional state’, but an attitude toward a death is much different than their emotional state of when they died. For instance, they could have been afraid during the event that took their life while the way they feel about their death could be angry. Or, they could have been angry when they died and ended up afraid, as a ghost, that they will never be able to leave the in-between space and enter heaven or hell.
6. Do they know they’re dead?
You might say, “Of course they know they’re dead!” It may be because your protagonists are the living. It may be because your story isn’t based around the ghost and you just have a character who is one. If this is the case, why not make this side character not know they’re dead? Usually when a ghost doesn’t know it is one, the denial is built upon them as a protagonist.
If your ghost is the main character in a thriller, drama, or horror story, trying to figure out how they may be put to rest, have them know they’re dead. Many stories with the ghost as the main character have them making the discovery of their death somewhere near the climax. What if they always knew they were dead and are still the main character?
A ghost doesn’t just have to be a ghost. They should feel like a living human because they were alive at one point. They have the same drives as the living: love, hate, revenge, passion, etcetera. Remembering that they were once living instead of dead allows for a non-stiff way of thinking about what this human was (and is) like.
February 6, 2020