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Monday, January 18, 2021

Giving Your Character a Ghost (or Wound)

Many main characters will have what some in the industry call, a “ghost.” 

The ghost is a past significant (often traumatic) event that shaped the protagonist’s worldview or lifestyle in a thematic way. 

For example, in Disney's Frozen, Elsa accidentally freezing Anna when they are children, is Elsa's ghost--it's what leads her to become closed off and isolated. In the movie, I, Robot, protagonist Del Spooner witnesses a robot save him over a 12-year-old girl. This is Del's ghost--it's what leads him to distrust and hate robots.

The term “ghost,” comes from the idea that the protagonist is being haunted by the event. Others in the industry may refer to this concept as being a wound. In her book Story Genius, literary agent and story consultant Lisa Cron refers to the ghost as “The Origin Scene.” These are all different words for the same concept. 

I prefer the term "ghost" because that's how I was first introduced to it, though I admit it went over my head back then. Despite the fact we often think of a ghost being a person, remember that this ghost is usually an event

The ghost is important because it relates to the protagonist's character arc, and therefore, the theme.

Most protagonists start with a flaw, weakness, or misbelief that they must overcome by the end of the story. 

The ghost is the event (or events) where that flaw, weakness, or misbelief took hold in the first place. 

Psychological Effects of Ghosts

In real life, "ghosts" affect our worldviews all the time.

We all, more or less, start out with an innocent worldview. Eventually, something significant or traumatic happens to us. Life is not how we imagined. So we try to make sense of it. We try to decide what to do in case that event ever happens again. 

Sometimes (as is often the case with protagonists), it leads us to believe a lie--a perspective that isn't true. We might put blame in the wrong place or come to the wrong conclusion. This then influences our actions. 

For example, if, as a child, I came home from school one day, only to have a parent tell me they hate me, I would wonder why. I would try to make sense of it. I might come to the conclusion that there is something wrong with me. Maybe I'm too ugly, too unlovable, too needy, or too whiny. This impacts how I view myself and therefore what I do. However, maybe the reality is that my parent became mentally ill, and their new, ongoing hatred, actually has little to do with me.

In order to become whole and successful in life, I will need to realize my perspective is wrong and overcome that. (Making that my personal "character arc.")

In Frozen, Elsa has her innocent worldview challenged when she accidentally freezes Anna. As she tries to make sense of what happened, Elsa comes to the flawed conclusion that she must be closed off and isolated to keep loved ones safe. This motivates her to withdraw from others. 

In order to become whole again, she must overcome this flaw and adopt a correct worldview and lifestyle. 

Elsa’s arc has her moving from being closed off and isolated to being open. 

The ghost may function a little differently with other protagonist types, which we'll get to later, but for now, we'll keep this basic:

First Worldview (often innocent) --> Ghost (significant event) --> Second Worldview (often flawed)

Qualities of Ghosts

Happens in the past

By definition, the ghost is (almost) always in the past, compared to the main story. Often it is from the protagonist's childhood (like Elsa), though it doesn't have to be (Del's happens when he is an adult). It's just a significant event that shifted the protagonist's worldview to what it is in the present.

The only case when it's not in the past, is if  (as K. M. Weiland points out) you are writing an origin story that features it in Act I, such as in Sam Raimi's Spider-man.


Ghosts are almost always something unexpected, because it's usually unexpectedness that shifts our worldview. Think about it: If we knew to anticipate something, it wouldn't shatter and challenge our perspective. 

Elsa didn't expect to hurt her sister. Del didn't expect a robot to let a 12-year-old drown. In Split, Casey didn't expect to be sexually abused by her uncle. The Grinch didn't expect to be so humiliated when giving his gift to Martha at the school Christmas party. 

Traumatic . . . or At Least Significant

Most ghosts are traumatic--whether that's a dying parent or your father putting your Halloween candy in the fire (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)).

However, with that said, not all ghosts are traumatic. A ghost can be something as simple as . . . 

- A parent telling a child "I love you because you are so smart," which leads the child to believe that she must continue to behave and act smart in order to be loved. Now her value as a person is tied to how she performs on school tests (problematic).

- A sibling becoming famous. In The Good Place, Tahani is haunted by her sister's celebrity status. This leads her to raise charity money with the wrong motivations--she wants to be better than her sister. 

The event is just something that shaped the character's worldview in an important way. 

One Event . . . or an Accumulation of Events

Most often ghosts are a single event. In Get Out, Chris is haunted by the night he didn't phone for help when his mother didn't come home from work--which indirectly led to her death. In Minority Report, John is haunted by the moment his son disappeared at the city pool. 

But they can also be a recurring event or an accumulation of events. In The Emperor's New Groove, we are shown a shot of Kuzco as a baby breaking a toy and crying, only to have a dozen other toys appear to replace it. This implies that ever since he was a baby, he has gotten whatever he wanted, which shaped his worldview. In Split, we get a series of flashbacks that relay Casey's backstory. On a hunting trip with her dad and uncle, it is implied she is sexually abused by her uncle. Later we see a flashback of her uncle explaining why her dad died, and that she has to come live with him, implying there has been and will be more abuse.

Works as a Motivator

I would argue that the main essence of a ghost isn't just that it explains a character, but that it works as that character's motivator

Elsa's ghost motivates her to withdraw. 

The Grinch's ghost motivates him to hate Christmas.

Willy Wonka's ghost motivates him to want candy. 

Tahani's ghost motivates her to be charitable for the wrong reasons. 

Casey's ghost motivates her to be cautious and watchful. 

Has a Negative Impact . . . Except When it Doesn't

Most ghosts impact the protagonist negatively, by motivating him to pursue the negative. Elsa is closed off. The Grinch hates Christmas. Del is prejudice against robots. 

But occasionally the ghost will actually motivate the protagonist to do something positive. In Zootopia, Judy’s ghost is illustrated through a local stage play (and its aftermath), where she announces she wants to be a bunny cop. Both her parents and Gideon, a bully fox, try to squash this out of her. Her parents tell her there has never been a bunny cop. Gideon makes fun of her and slashes her. This exemplifies bias and inequality—which only further motivates Judy to be a cop.

Similarly, Willy Wonka's ghost of his father burning his candy, saying candy is a waste of time, is what motivates Wonka to start a chocolate factory. 

In this sense, a negative experience can motivate the character to pursue something positive (though they may still have a flawed worldview (more on that in the future)). 

And it should be said that a positive experience can also lead to negative behavior. Getting an A on a test for the first time may be a positive experience that leads to the negative behavior of being obsessed with always getting A's, no matter the cost. 

And just as a negative ghost can lead to negative behavior, a positive ghost can also lead to positive behavior. 

This can all get confusing though. So just remember this: It's the motivator of the dominant worldview and quality of the character. 

Voids and Coping Mechanisms

Remember this?

First Worldview (often innocent) --> Ghost (significant event) --> Second Worldview (often flawed)

We are going to add to it.

The protagonist has one worldview. A significant event (the ghost) challenges that worldview. Life is not what the protagonist originally thought. This creates a "hole" in the character, or what some call a "void" or a "block." Something is different inside that the character needs to now fix. Often the character doesn't know how to properly fix it, but he tries by developing a coping mechanism. 

First Worldview (often innocent) --> Ghost (significant event) --> A Void Blocks the Character's Personal Progression --> Second Worldview (flawed) --> Coping Mechanism of Choice. 

In his book The Structure of Story, Ross Hartmann explains this process in a way that finally clicked with me. He uses the example of Marlin in Finding Nemo:

"In Finding Nemo, Marlin's [ghost] occurs when a barracuda attacks his family, killing all but one of his children, Nemo. This trauma creates a void within Marlin. His coping mechanism is to attempt to prevent the trauma from ever happening again by becoming overly protective and co-dependent. His [motivation] is to prevent harm. This drive is taken too far, resulting in a moral weakness of over-dependence, which negatively affects his relationships."

In Finding Nemo, Marlin is constantly trying to prevent harm and protect others. This is his coping mechanism of choice. Here is how his process might look:

Life and family are great --> Barracuda kills all but Nemo --> The trauma creates a void within Marlin --> Marlin decides the world is an extremely dangerous place and loved ones must be very protected because they could die at any moment --> So he copes with problems by being over-protective. 

The basic idea here, is that the character is trying to "fill" the "void" through unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Here are some of the other examples I've used.


Life, family, and magic powers are great --> Elsa accidentally freezes Anna --> This creates a void in Elsa --> Elsa decides she must be closed off and isolated to keep from hurting loved ones --> So she copes by constantly withdrawing. 

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000):

The school Christmas party is gonna be great --> Everyone laughs at the Grinch (including the teacher) at the party --> This creates a void in the Grinch --> The Grinch decides Christmas is the worst --> He copes by hating and destroying Christmas

I, Robot

Life and work are great --> A robot saves Del and lets a 12-year-old drown --> This creates a void in Del --> Del decides all robots are terrible --> He copes by distrusting technology. 

How the character tries to fill the void--her coping mechanism--is a defining characteristic. It's how the character reacts to difficult situations. Life gets tough? Marlin protects. Elsa withdraws. The Grinch becomes destructive. Del mistrusts. 

How the character addresses the void is also sometimes called that character's "spine." (Just some terminology for you, but if it's too much to take in, feel free to simply move along.)

Think about how your character copes. What is he constantly trying to do

This will often be linked to the character arc and the character's ghost.

Ghosts According to Character Arcs (Variations)

The following talks about how ghosts may manifest differently according to character arcs. 

Positive Change (Most Common)

Most protagonists are positive change protagonists--meaning they start out with a negative quality and do more or less a 180 flip by the end to gain a positive quality. 

Elsa moves from being closed off and isolated to being open to love. 

This means that her ghost motivated her to gain her negative quality--her flaw, weakness, or misbelief. 

The Grinch moves from hating Christmas to loving Christmas.

This means that his ghost motivated him to hate Christmas.

What past experience gave your protagonist her flaw, weakness, or misbelief? This is likely her ghost.

Positive Steadfast 

Positive steadfast protagonists will stay the same, more or less, from beginning to end, in a positive way. So in Disney's live-action Cinderella, Ella starts out kind, is tested through the middle, and manages to hold true to being kind. 

This means she doesn't start out with a flawed misbelief. She starts with a largely accurate worldview. But does she still have a ghost?

Yes. Her ghost is the event that motivates her to fully commit to being kind. Ella being brought to her mother’s deathbed and being counseled to always have courage and be kind, is Ella’s ghost. 

In this sense, the positive steadfast protagonist's ghost will include the true belief that will be tested. It explains why that character holds fast to that view and motivates the character to do just that. 

Negative Arcs

A negative steadfast protagonist will stay more or less the same, in a negative way.

A negative change protagonist will move from something positive and become something negative.

One need only to shuffle my two earlier examples to find what could be ghosts for the negative types. Imagine an Elsa that stubbornly held onto isolation at the end (negative steadfast protagonist), or an Ella that abandoned her mother’s advice completely (negative change protagonist). 

In this sense, the ghost for a negative steadfast protagonist, may be the event that led him or her to become stubborn. The ghost of a negative change protagonist, will likely embody a truth that the protagonist eventually rebels against. Keep in mind, however, that these are guidelines, and such rules can be broken. 

Where the "Ghost" Story Belongs

The ghost may be introduced in a prologue (which we see more in film than novels). This happens in . . . 

- Frozen

- Zootopia

- Cinderella

- Finding Nemo

The ghost may be relayed later in the story through one or more flashbacks. This happens in . . . 

- Split

- Minority Report

- How the Grinch Stole Christmas

The ghost may be retold in dialogue or referenced in narration. This happens in . . . 

- Get Out (however, in the context of its retelling, it does have some flashback-like shots)

- Moana (Maui retells his ghost story to Moana)

- The Hunger Games (in narration, Katniss recounts how Peeta saved her from starvation, which led her to become a survivalist at all costs)

The ghost may simply be hinted at in subtext. And occasionally in an origin story, it will be shown as part of Act I

Not All Protagonists have Ghosts . . . Except that All Protagonists have Ghosts

Do all protagonists have ghosts? No and yes. 

Not all protagonists in all stories have a ghost. Meaning, you can have a perfectly great story without including a ghost. So no sweat if you don't have one in yours. 

On the other hand, all people have significant experiences that shift their worldviews. 

In the original animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), the story doesn't include why the Grinch hates Christmas. Same goes for Willy Wonka in the 1971 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. So the stories don't address their ghosts. 

However, no one is born hating Christmas or wanting to make a chocolate factory. Some kind of experience had to at least introduce that concept to the characters. That would have been their ghosts. So one may argue that their ghosts simply aren't included in the stories. 

Both stories added a ghost in later remakes to add depth to the characters.

Ghosts within Flashbacks

Writers are often discouraged from writing flashbacks (or prologues for that matter). If you watch or read a story that has flashbacks, almost always the flashback is the ghost, or at least, the backstory that contains the ghost. 

If your story is made better by rendering the ghost as a flashback, it's okay to do that. 

Long ago, I was working on a story and kept feeling like it needed a flashback, but was confused since everyone told me flashbacks were bad. I now realize the flashback was the ghost, and it would have been totally appropriate. 

You can learn more about when to use flashbacks in my article "Breaking Writing Rules Right: 'Don't Use Flashbacks!'"

With that said, not all ghosts are stronger as flashbacks. Sometimes a retelling or keeping it in the subtext is more powerful. 

Ghosts within the Cast

Most of the time, a ghost is tied to a protagonist. But as you may have noticed, not all my examples have been about a protagonist. Other characters can have ghosts too. 

Two of the best characters to give a ghost to (other than the protagonist) are the antagonist and Influence Character (often the protagonist's ally). 

Usually what makes another character's ghost interesting, is how it compares to the protagonist's. How it is similar, and how it is different, and how you may show different outcomes to similar events.


The antagonist's ghost is usually most interesting when it's somehow similar to the protagonist's. This emphasizes a likeness, while showing two different outcomes. 

For example, Harry Potter's ghost is being dumped on a doorstep as an orphan and being raised by hateful relatives who think he is strange and dangerous. 

Voldemort's ghost is being dumped at an orphanage where adults and children think he is strange and dangerous.

In Split, both Casey and Kevin are victims of severe, repeated, childhood abuse. Casey copes by being careful, watchful, and through subtle strategy. Kevin can only cope by splitting. 

In Cinderella, Ella and her stepmother both lost loved ones. Ella copes by choosing kindness. Her stepmother copes by choosing cruelty. 

Influence Character

The Influence Character is someone the protagonist has an important relationship with--a love interest, mentor, friend, classmate, whatever. This person is usually an ally, even if they have somewhat different views from the protagonist. 

A ghost can be effective when given to an Influence Character. 

In Zootopia, Nick is Judy's Influence Character. Judy's ghost includes how she was bullied for wanting to be a cop, how she was told bunnies couldn't be cops--and this motivated her to never quit on her quest to be a bunny cop. 

In comparison, Nick's ghost is a story of how he wanted to join the junior ranger scouts and be part of a pack. But when he shows up to the meeting, the prey animals gang up on him, bully him, and muzzle him. "Did you really think we'd trust a fox?" This motivated Nick to give into fox stereotypes--the exact opposite of Judy. 

You can also have the exact same ghost lead to two different outcomes.

In Frozen, Anna is Elsa's Influence Character. Elsa's ghost leads her to shut everyone out, which is also Anna's ghost. But rather than becoming isolated, this motivates Anna to be more open (and desperate) for love.

Opposite ghosts may also be used to emphasize how characters' backgrounds are different. Kuzco's ghost emphasizes how he was spoiled, which led him to be selfish. If the writers had wanted to, they may have given Pacha a ghost that emphasized he only had the bare necessities, which led him to care about others. 

With all that said, any key character can have a ghost, really. (And really, all people have ghosts, whether or not they are explored in the story.)

Multiple Ghosts

Can a character have multiple ghosts? No and yes.

It's unlikely you will have time to cover more than one ghost of the same character in a story. And if there are multiple past events, they will usually be linked together to create the ghost. For example, Casey being abused on a hunting trip, and then later having her dad die, which means she has to live with her abuser, are two separate events that are one ghost: childhood sexual abuse. 

If you feel that your protagonist has two ghosts in a story, it's likely they will be linked together in some way ("some way" usually relating to a cause and effect)--creating a sort of umbrella ghost in her backstory. 

In a series, you may explore a different ghost in a different volume for the same character. However, it's usually more cohesive if you can link them together. 

In the Harry Potter series, over the course of seven books, we explore different ghosts of Severus Snape. First, we learn he hates Harry because Snape sympathized with Voldemort, then because he hates Harry's father, who saved his life. In the middle of the series, we learn he hated Harry's father, because his father bullied him. At the end of the series, we learn he grew up in an abusive home, formed a friendship with Lily, and, well, I won't say it all. 

But in the end, all of Snape's ghosts turn out to be connected (cause and effect), giving us a giant "why"--explaining why he is the way he is--and giving us his giant motivator. 

This creates a sense of cohesion. 

Having multiple, disconnected ghosts isn't impossible, but if done poorly it can feel . . . fake. Sorta like the writer just made up a new ghost story on the spot and stuck it in.

It's possible to have a ghost for a primary story element, and another for a secondary story element. One may tap into the primary theme, and another touches the secondary theme. 

But this is more difficult and complicated to do. And I don't want to make this too confusing! I just want you to know that it is possible.

So in closing, let's say this: The ghost is almost always the most important part of a character's backstory. The ghost explains why a person is the way he is and works as a motivator. The ghost shifts the character's worldview to what it is at the starting of the story. The character tries to fill the void the ghost created through a specific coping mechanism. Most of the time, the ghost leads to a flawed worldview and an unhealthy coping mechanism. How a character overcomes this, most often creates his character arc. 

This can all be a lot to take in the first time, and that's okay--but I hope it gets you thinking about the ghosts in your characters' backstories. 

Free Writing Summit Starts Today! - There is a FREE online writing summit with 20+ writers, creatives, editors, and publishers Jan. 18-29. I will be talking about theme on the 24th. Sign up.


  1. Wow, so much to unpack here. But it will be a very enjoyable and productive task! My MC has a ghost, but I'm concerned it's not strong enough. Will ponder.

    1. Hi Lissa--yes, I went a little long and comprehensive today, but that is often what I prefer ;) Good luck with your MC!

  2. That's a great post - Thanks!
    (And now to add more metaphorical ghosts to my paranormal suspense novel about 'real' ghosts.)


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