|October Churchyard by Lily Silver, 2006|
What Makes a Compelling, Believable Ghost?
With Halloween just around the corner, I wanted to talk about what makes a good ghost story. As an author, creating ghosts is much harder than reading about them.
When writing Dark Hero, a Gothic Romance, I had think long and hard about how and why the ghosts would appear in the story in the first place, as well to try to create that chill factor we love in ghost stories.
I asked myself this, why stick around in a place for centuries when you could be off enjoying the after-life? I’d go to Paris, to the Louvre. I’d be off in a heartbeat if I was a ghost and able to travel anywhere I wanted to go with no physical boundaries. And yet, the main element of ghost stories is the ghost being tied to the person or to a specific place.
Ah, now I had a clue. I can’t just throw random ghosts into a story to jack up the creepy factor and scintillate readers; we need to have reason for the haunting that fits into the plot of the book.
So, I came up with a list of elements to help me construct a compelling, believable ghost:
1). Ghosts have feelings, and feelings compel us to act, rationally or irrationally.
I love the Supernatural TV Series. As Dean and Sam hunt ghosts, there are often some pretty angry haunters to contend with. An example is the female ghost in the show’s pilot who kept appearing to men along the deserted road. The men she appeared to were unfaithful to their mates, so after they picked her up she would kill them. She did this because she had been betrayed by her husband and being in an angry, irrational state, she killed herself. Thus, she became fixated on killing other men in the area near her home who are adulterers. Her feelings of pain and betrayal at death forced her to seek revenge--now that’s an emotionally driven ghost.
2). Ghosts want to contact the living. That is the bread and butter of the Ghost genre. If they’re off doing their own thing, like going to Paris to haunt the Louvre (my choice) then where’s the story? What’s the point? It might be at the Louvre . . . but again, why would I be there instead of at home trying to contact my children and grandchildren?
3). Ghosts have to be motivated toward a goal. There has to be a reason why they are stuck where they are. That’s why they are so angry, sad or psychotic. They have intense feelings which cause them to act and they are motivated to complete a goal so they can find peace.
To illustrate this, consider two of the ghosts in the Harry Potter movies. I love the headless ghost who keeps floating around Hogwartz cheerfully chatting with everyone, but it seems he serves no real purpose in the movie other than background flavoring. Moaning Mertle on the other hand, (the girl who haunts the bathroom) has intense feelings and a purpose to be in the story. She has knowledge that ultimately helps Harry and the gang. Once they talk to Mertle, she helps them solve their problem by giving clues that lead to the next step in their quest.
I have several ghosts in Dark Hero. Some are strangers to the heroine and others are family members. Regardless of their relationship to Elizabeth O’Flaherty, they all have a reason to be stuck with a haunting gig and a reason to want to contact to her. Elizabeth is a seer and is able to see and speak with the dead. Examining why the ghosts should be present in first place helped me to write a compelling ghost story and avoid using ghosts as wallpaper merely to spice up the story.
After sharing what I think makes a credible ghost, let’s open this up for discussion. Feel free to share your comments about what makes a worthy haunting in a story and what you like (or don’t like) in ghostly characters.
Leave a comment. It’s your turn--share a favorite ghostly character, what appealed to you or what didn’t?
Free on Me! A Halloween Treat. I am currently working on the Sequel to Dark Hero; Bright Scoundrel. If you would like a free digital copy of Dark Hero, A Gothic Romance use coupon code YN23J at smashwords.com
Coupon is good now through Dec 1st. Limited to readers of this blog. Get your free copy and be ready to read the sequel, Bright Scoundrel, come December!