“A character’s past will be a minefield of negative experiences, but at some point, there should be an event you as the author can define as “the wound.” Small, painful events change a person bit by bit, but to focus all this hurt and pain into a single backstory moment can really help you better understand who and what damaged your character, and why, as a result, they question their self-worth. This also guides you to the false belief they must see for the lie it is, in order to become healthy and whole, strengthening them so they can achieve their goal.” Angela Ackerman
The growth of your characters is one of the most important parts of your story.
Every character – just like all of us human beings – needs to grow in some area of life. In a fiction story, many times, the character believes a lie that sprouted at some point in his or her childhood.
A really helpful question to ask yourself is: Why does the character believe this lie in the first place?
If your character is undergoing a change arc, then one of your first tasks is to figure out why he needs to change. What happened in his or her life to cause him to believe this clearly damaging lie?
The Reason Behind the Lie is Your Character’s Ghost
As human beings we’re often blind to destructive choices in our own lives. We can see it in others, but can’t always see it in ourselves.
In other words, we lie to ourselves. We always have a reason why we value survival in one area of our ives over another. Like you have to work like crazy to earn the approval of friends, so you don’t feel like the friendless person your mother always said you’d be.
So if you find the reason, you’ll find the ghost.
In the movies they use the word ghost or wound to speak of something in your character’s past that haunts her or him. In Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman’s book The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws, they talk more about wounds:
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 fiancee from being shot during a robbery(the wound), he may adopt attitudes, beliefs, and negative traits that make him undesirable to other women.
Many times the wound will be traumatic like Jason Bourne’s forgotten past as an assassin in The Bourne Identity: Jason Bourne Book #1 (Jason Bourne series), by Robert Ludlum. Or it could be something more ordinary like a break up in Persuasion, by Jane Austen. The more destructive the lie, the more the ghost will impact the character.
As we write about our characters from the beginning of the start of their story of their ordinary life, readers will discover what haunts them only bit by bit as the story continues. The reason why your character believes his or her lie, is what will hook the reader’s curiosity. Then as the book continues you’ll pull them in with little clues until finally near the end of the story the character’s wound or ghost is revealed.
There are a few stories where the character’s wounded past stays hidden in secrecy. So the author chooses not to reveal it for whatever reason.
In some stories, the place where the wound began, might be shown in the prologue. In these stories, the wound is a story unto itself that explains the main character’s motivation before the book moves onto the real story. It’s only after the wound has come out into the open and changed his or her ordinary world – that’s when the main character begins to struggle to understand and find reasons for his new mindset and actions.
Your Character’s Ghost will take any number of forms
1. An aunt’s refusal to love her niece (Jane Eyre)
2.Knowing what happens to unloved toys. (Toy Story)
3.A divorce. (What About Bob?)
The thing to remember when you’re trying to find the ghost, is that it will always be the elemental reason for your main character’s belief in the lie.
One popular example of an example of a character’s ghost is found in Charles Dickens’ classic story as seen in the movie, Disney’s A Christmas Carol. In this tale, Scrooge has man ghosts, and one main one – the Ghost of Christmas Past. This Ghost shows us the backstory and why Scrooge believes the lies he believes. In the story we come to see that he had a horrible childhood because his father never showed him love and who sent him away to a Boarding School – keeping him there even during Christmas holidays. Knowing this background helps the readers to understand why Scrooge has become the mean person he is.
Great Questions to Ask About Your Character’s Ghost are:
- Why does your protagonist believe this lie?
- Did something in his past traumatize him or her?
- Or if this didn’t happen in his past, is there a moment in the prologue or first few chapters that will traumatize her/him?
- Why does your character hang onto the lie?
- How will she or he be helped or changed by believing the Truth?
- Is your character’s wound or ghost Big? If you made it bigger would you end up with a stronger character arc?
- Where will you finally show your character’s wound or ghost? At the beginning of the story? Or will you show a little bit throughout the story with a big reveal toward the end?
The backstory and growth of your character is one of the most interesting and important parts of the story.
Really listen to what your character’s wound is because if you know what started your character’s belief in the lie he or she believes, you’ll be able to help him overcome it. And by doing that you’ll have an amazing story that will resonate with a lot of readers.
What is your character’s wound or ghost that has caused him or her to believe a lie? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.
*Some of the above links are affiliate links and help to support this blog