When You Shouldn’t Share Your Character’s Ghost

The one thing authors tend to love most about writing is backstory. It’s turned into some kind of a joke among writers — we make memes about how cruel we are to our characters and “playfully” argue about whose character has the worst backstory. Often, this backstory circulates back to one tragic moment: the Ghost.

A “ghost” is that one terrible moment that haunts the character. You may have heard a lot about this, especially with the recent release of the Emotional Wound Thesaurus, which has a ton of great Ghost examples.

Since we authors are so proud of our perfect backstories, it’s tempting to share it with the readers. And why not? Won’t they appreciate it too?

When You Shouldn't Share Your Character's Ghost

Why It’s Not Always a Good Idea to Share the Ghost

I’m an outliner. My goal is to solve as many problems as I can before the first draft. As I was planning my Third Act, my instincts told me something was wrong. I realized it was because everything was getting too easily resolved. Everything in the plot magically fixed, and some of my characters were all “Oh! I act this way because of my tragic ghost, but now that I’ve told you everything is okay!”

So, some of my darlings had to take the fall. My secondary character Araey from Legacy Unending is haunted by the day her adopted mother leaves to the grocery store promising to come right back, but instead is killed in a shooting. This gives her a Lie to believe (that clinging to her mother will make her feel loved) and gives her pain, internal conflict, and motivation.

Even though I really like Araey’s ghost, I chose to keep it a mystery. It still exists, but no one knows about it, and my story is much stronger for it. Here are some of the important factors I’ve found that weigh into whether or not you should or shouldn’t share the ghost, no matter how much you want to:

1. If it Kills Subtext

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. - Ernest Hemingway

Subtext: what isn’t said. It’s a hard concept to grasp, but once you do, you’ll take your writing to the next level. Your reader might not know why your character is the way he is, but if he still understands the thematic questions he poses and his character arc, you’ve got good subtext for your reader. This is last on the list of ghost priorities, but if you need subtext go bust some ghosts. (Haha, get it?)

2. If it Ties Everything Up With a Bow

A big problem I see in story endings is a lot of them go like this:

Character 1: Well, I’ve done some bad stuff. But that’s only because Tragic Thing™ happened to me. 

Character 2: I’m so sorry! That explains everything!

Character 1: It’s okay. We’re buddies now and our lives are perfect. 

Sometimes, it’s better not to share the ghost, or you’ll have an ending that looks a lot like that. If not sharing your ghost will make your ending better, cut it ruthlessly.

3. If You Don’t Need it For the Story to Make Sense

In most (if not all) cases, if you don’t need to share the ghost, cutting it will be the best option. It’ll make your story leaner, and improve your subtext and the story in general as I said above. To find out if you need it,  ask yourself:

  • How important is this character?
  • How important is their backstory to the plot?
  • If readers don’t know what the ghost is, will they still understand the story?
  • Will I leave any plot holes if I don’t share the ghost?

I was listening to the Create If podcast and something Kirsten said applies to all hard advice: “If [what I’m saying] is really hard for you, here’s what I’m going to suggest: be cranky about it… take a few days, let the cranky be cranky, then kinda come back and say ‘Okay, is this true, or is this something I don’t need to listen to?'” It’s hard to kill your darlings, but evaluate if you’re keeping the ghost because you like it or because it’s actually important to the story.

4. If it’s Not Awesome

when ur oc already has a horrible backstory but u come up with something that makes it more devastating -- make it worse

via

Sometimes, the effects of the ghost will be bigger and more important than the actual ghost. If you’re teasing up to a ghost that ends up disappointing readers, you can either (a) make it bigger or (b) just don’t explain it in the first place.  If it really is vital to the plot, the best option would be to make it more epic (isn’t that fun anyway?). However, look at whether or not you really need to share and play around with it.

To Share the Ghost, Or Not to Share?

This is ultimately going to be your own gut decision; make sure you choose wisely. Only you’re going to know what’s best for your story.

What do you think about backstories and ghosts? Do you tend to overshare or undershare? What’s the hardest darling you’ve ever had to kill?