Every character has one—and it's your job to figure out what it is. I'm talking about The Ghost. The person or event lurking in the past that still haunts them in profound ways, whether they realize it or not. Nazafareen of The Midnight Sea is dogged by a literal restless spirit: Her sister Ashraf, who was possessed by an Undead wight and killed when Nazafareen was only twelve. The Ghost leads straight to her Lie: That revenge is her only purpose in life, and she will never know true love and happiness.
Screenwriters also call the Ghost the "wound." It is the emotional scar the protagonist must face and overcome in order to achieve their story goals. As Nazafareen gets to know and trust her bonded daeva, Darius, the Lie comes under increasing strain, leading her finally to make a choice between him and the cause of vengeance she's sworn to serve.
So as you plot, always ask yourself: what plot twists will force my main character closer to the final confrontation with their Ghost and/or Lie? How I put their feet to the fire?
I tend to work with two outlines. The first lays out the external events of the plot, and the second maps the emotional arc of the characters. Ideally, these should be intertwined and running side by side.
Here is a chunk of Nazafareen's emotional arc from my notes (minor spoiler alert if you haven't read the book yet):
1) Obsession with killing Druj and avenging her sister. To do that, she has to be loyal to the system. 2) Forbidden attraction to Darius. She quashes it because she still believes that being a Water Dog is the most important thing. 3) Discovery that the daevas are not inherently evil. It's a lie that they are cursed. The infirmities are part of the bonding process. Now she is doubting everything. 4) Darius confirms this with his refusal to free himself. Realization that she must choose sides. 5) Point of no return. She throws her fate in with Darius. 6) No longer cares for herself. Will do anything to set him free…
Basically, Nazafareen goes from whole-heartedly embracing her Lie to realizing that what she thought she wanted and what she really needed were complete opposites.
Personally, I think every character deserves a Ghost, not only the protagonist. It helps you figure out what drives them above all else—and how their own Ghosts relate to the MC's Ghost. If you want some extra friction, this is a good place to go looking for it.
For example, Darius's is the cruel mistress he was enslaved to as a child and who took pleasure from causing him pain. This causes him to distrust others and push Nazafareen away, and to doubt his own goodness. Even as she comes to understand that he doesn't deserve his slavery, Darius continues to cling to his Lie.
Ghosts are critical for writing three-dimensional villains too. Ilyas's is the fact that he's a bastard and inherited his mother's barbarian looks. His Ghost gives him an intense need to prove himself and his loyalty to the empire. Because of this, he cannot accept that he loves a daeva, and his actions spin out control from there. But they all start with his Ghost.
K.M. Weiland has a great list of questions you can ask to nail down the nitty-gritty details of all this:
1. Why does your character believe the Lie?
2. Is there a notable event in his past that has traumatized him?
3. If not, will there be a notable event in the First Act that will traumatize him?
4. Why does the character nourish the Lie?
5. How will he benefit from the Truth?
6. How “big” is your character’s ghost? If you made it bigger, would you end up with a stronger arc?
7. Where will you reveal your character’s ghost? All at once early on? Or piece by piece throughout the story, with big reveal toward the end?
8. Does your story need the ghost to be revealed? Would it work better if you never revealed it?
Whatever you decide, the most important thing is to steadily ramp up the pressure on all your characters. There's a good reason Charles Dickens saved the worst, scariest Ghost for last in A Christmas Carol…
Next week I'll talk a little about how to start your story (as compared to where to start your story). Until then, happy reading and writing!