Ghost stories: The spirit of a character


11 October 2022
Alex Davis runs through how to create the ghost characters in your supernatural stories

This November sees the first running of Winter Haunts, an online day focusing on ghost stories, Gothic and supernatural fiction. Running on the 6th November, the event draws together a superb line-up of speakers, including Sarah Waters, Paul Tremblay, Dacre Stoker, Stephen Volk and many more. With interviews, workshops, panels and talks, this promises to be a must-see event for readers and writers in the genre. You can find out more here.

To celebrate the event, we’ll take a look at the ghost story in a number of special articles from event organiser – and Writing Magazine's speculative fiction expert – Alex Davis.

Last time around, we talked a little about characters in a ghost story – specifically that need for some scepticism. Of course there’s far more to it than that – characters are often isolated, either physically, emotionally and/or psychologically. Characters may be at difficult times of life, recovering from recent trauma or significant life events. And naturally, it’s important to get those main characters right for your ghost story to really work.

But what of the other characters – the ghosts themselves?

You might never have considered this question, or thought that deeply about it, but when we try to define a main character we look to those individuals with some sort of goal, and those who face conflicts and complications to try and achieve it. And, when you think back to many ghost stories – particularly in the novel form – you’ll find that the spirit often has an identifiable goal.

This can be many things of course – it can be to wrap up some sort of unfinished business on our mortal plane, or to pass on some sort of message to a friend or family member. It might be that they want a secret about their death to be revealed and known. Some ghosts in fiction are simply vengeful, haunting those people who wronged them in life and tormenting them as much as possible. But very rarely are they simply appearing and floating around at random – there’s a drive and a motivation that means we must think about them as characters.

And these are not secondary characters who deserve only cursory thought. I will ask myself, and in turn, answer a lot of questions about the character. Some of that is of course about who they were in life, and what they were like then. Some will centre on their relationship with the living protagonist, and what that connection might be. Did the two once know each other, or is there some other connection between them – family ties from generations past, perhaps? Or is the human protagonist simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, finding themselves haunted by a ghost tied to a certain place? You may also want to consider the circumstances of the death that led to the ghost becoming a ghost – was it suspicious or not? Did they leave this plane with business that still needed attending to? All of these factors can – and I would argue should – play heavily into the story.

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There’s a lot to this question, and one that perhaps doesn’t always get the thought it deserves. As a way to further elucidate the point, I’d suggest the following films as some nice reference points to explore these issues further.

• Malevolent ghosts: Ringu (Japan) or The Ring (US). Sadako/Samara is the last word in ghosts flat-out gunning for humanity as a species.

• Vengeful ghosts: The Devil’s Backbone (Spain). An early Guillermo Del Toro offering, and a fabulous tale of revenge from beyond the grave.

• Ghosts wanting to reveal a secret/seeking help: The Orphanage (Spain). Probably my favourite movie ever, this one drips with atmosphere and has a pretty surprising finale.

What makes this level of thought on ghosts so effective is that to our living protagonist(s) this motivation for the spirit may not be immediately clear, so you can build in mystery and investigation as they try to figure out what it is the ghost wants. What may initially appear to our leads as a nightmarish haunting can be grounded in a desire for help, or to help the human protagonists. Have a deep think about what goal the ghost has, as well as what it gets out of achieving that goal, and it will enrich your ghost story immensely. I’m afraid ethereal wisps and floating sheets just don’t cut it in quite the same way…

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