Andrea Lawrence has a master's in creative writing. She studied fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting.
Writing About Ghosts
This article isn't going to teach you how to write a ghost story, per se. It's going to teach you how to write ghost characters that may appear in your novel, short story, etc.
Ghost characters can be a lot of fun for writers. You get to bend the rules a little. Just make sure that you follow through with the rules you set up for your ghost or ghosts. You want your ghost characters to be based on some logic, even if spirits and ghouls might just be figments of our imaginations.
My first tip: keep your mind open and be creative. There are all kinds of ghost-related stories out there, and it's your job as the writer to come up with something different. To do that, you'll need to do some research and come up with angles that people haven't considered.
It can be tough to come up with something new regarding ghosts because people have been telling tales about them since the dawn of civilization. Ghost stories have popped up in nearly every culture around the world.
If you have a particular location where your story is taking place, or it refers to a particular culture, I would encourage you to research how ghosts are portrayed in that area or culture. Local tales and urban legends are great fodder for writers.
Other names for ghosts include:
- apparition, banshee, demon, doppelgänger, duppy, ghoul, haunt, lemures, manes, phantasm, phantom, poltergeist, shade, specter/spectre, spirit, spook, visitant, wight, and wraith
Uses Ghosts to Raise the Stakes
Ghosts are often used to motivate the protagonist, which is the case in Hamlet and A Christmas Carol. Hamlet is fueled with anger for his uncle after meeting with the ghost of his father. Ebenezer Scrooge has a change of heart after meeting the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come.
Ghosts can help protagonists to realize things they may not have noticed themselves. They can warn them about a negative future, direct them to the right clue to solve a murder, or help them reconnect with a lost family member.
Ghosts serve as representatives of another realm. They could be visiting from paradise, or they just haven't left Earth yet. Perhaps some ghosts want to stay on Earth and see where humanity goes. Remember: it's your job to change the expectations and rules to create something new. Try to rethink things as you write to avoid coming off cliché.
If you're wanting to include a ghost in your story, it should serve a purpose. It could be something simple like trying to scare your reader, bring attention to a clue, or make the atmosphere edgier. The ghost could be instrumental in pushing the plot forward. Ghosts often pull the strings to get things started. They tend to want something, and they won't stop until they get what they want.
Often ghosts appear in stories because they have unfinished business. They may seek a character's help to get something solved. It could be as benign as trying to get a particular sandwich they never had in real life, or they have deep-seated feelings against someone who wronged them (murder, affair, theft). The "unfinished business" aspect can help build intrigue. Your reader will be left wondering what happened to the ghost, why are they so angry, what are they wanting to see accomplished, and who wronged them?
It's also a good idea to play with the consequences of staying on Earth. Ghosts in a lot of stories are supposed to move on to the afterlife, so why are they sticking around? Will something bad happen if they don't leave? These are excellent questions to solve in a story.
Sometimes ghosts in stories appear with wounds that relate to how they died. This could also encourage your reader to ask questions, like why is the ghost missing teeth, how did the ghost get holes in their hands, and what is that strange black mark on their forehead?
As an author, sometimes you need to invent the questions for yourself and then backtrack yourself to figure out the answer.
Things to Keep in Mind
In stories, ghosts often appear of their own free will. Sometimes they're summoned by magic. Ghosts can be linked to a person, place, thing, or concept. Often what the ghost is linked to is considered haunted.
Ghosts are often seen as misty, airy, or as light materials. This could be associated with people taking their last breath. Trying something different for your ghost's appearance could make your story more intriguing.
When inserting a ghost story into your novel, you want to integrate it in a compelling way. Here are some tricks to integrate a ghost story:
- As a story around a campfire.
- From the notes of a bloodstained diary.
- Through a series of love letters.
- From the walls of an old house.
- From a television that suddenly turns on.
- As a dream that takes place after drinking a special tea.
- From an ancient rune found in a sewer.
- As a story told at a pub by a mysterious wanderer.
Your entire story could be centered around a ghost, or you could have a sequence in your novel that's dedicated to a ghost story. It's important to find a compelling way to bring in a ghost story if it's just going to be a sequence. Some of the best parts of novels are expertly crafted stories within stories, a sequence that adds more to your main plot.
Evolution of the Word "Ghost" in English
The Old English word for ghost (gāst) is related to the Latin spiritus, which means "breath" or "blast". Gāst was used to refer to angels and demons. The idea that a ghost is the soul of a deceased person started to emerge in the 14th century (Middle English). The word was used somewhat flexibly to refer to human aspects that are unseen, things you can't sense with your five senses.
FYI: In ancient times, illnesses were often blamed on ghosts. People would make offerings of food and other gifts to ghosts to encourage peace and to help the departed move along to the afterlife. The Book of the Dead is an anthology that compiles different beliefs on the afterlife and over different periods of ancient Egyptian history.
Special Traits of Ghosts
Ghosts typically have supernatural qualities. They could appear very human-like and people might mistake them for a living person.
I wouldn't make a ghost all-powerful. They're not a god or deity (or are they?) I've listed some traits below, a ghost might have a couple of these:
- Walking through walls: Since they're dead and don't have a body, they can walk through things or go through them. It takes some manner of control to sit in a chair.
- Greeting loved ones in dreams: Ghosts may visit loved ones who are more open to spirituality. They may miss them, so they'll try to see them, or they have unfinished business. Family ghosts might appear to help with descendants and relatives.
- Time travel: Since ghosts aren't bound by time and space, they could go to other time periods to observe them.
- Telekinesis: The ability to move objects without any physical means.
- Teleportation: They don't have to walk from point A to point B. They can hop from one place to another if they please.
- Possession: The power to take over a physical object, whether inanimate or animate. Taking over a person is often frowned upon in stories.
- Summoning other ghosts: When needed, they can call up other ghosts who may have a particular interest in whatever is happening. They could bring together a ghost army if they please.
- Mind reading: They can hear people's thoughts, read them, and interpret them. Sometimes they have a psychic link with someone because of a strong bond that was created, like love or murder.
- Disappearing and reappearing at will: They don't have to stick around with the protagonist. They can appear on a whim and leave on a whim.
- Changing the temperature: Does it suddenly seem colder? A ghost might lower the temperature when they appear. An angry ghost might make the room hotter.
- Power over elements: The ghost could be a pyromaniac and likes to set fires. The ghost could be emotional and causes leaks and floods with her tears. Perhaps they love the earth, and they make flowers grow. They could also have a love for air and cause air conditioners and fans to suddenly turn on.
- Electromagnetic interference: Technology doesn't work right, the lights flicker, batteries suddenly die. TV shows glitch, phones play weird songs, and emails get scrambled.
- Invisibility: You can't see them, but you can tell something is in the room with you.
- Perception control: The ghost could make people think they have a different form than they actually have. The ghost in actuality looks like a moose, but it's pretending to be your grandmother.
- Soul absorption: A ghost destroys or consumes other ghosts and absorbs their powers, making them stronger.
- Superhuman strength: The ghost far exceeds normal physical strength. They can overpower those in the physical realm.
Evolution of Modern Ghost Stories
In English Renaissance theater, ghosts appeared in the clothes of the living and armor. Since armor was mostly out of date by the Renaissance, it gave the ghosts an antiquated look. This made them otherworldly and wise.
The "sheeted ghost" was popularized on the stage in the 19th century. Theater stagehands moved around ghosts using pulley systems and elevators. It didn't take long for people to find this funny and cliché.
The Victorian Era saw a big rise in ghost stories. The stories were influenced by the Gothic genre. Authors loved to blend together folklore superstitions and psychology for the perfect enticing story, a trick that still works today.
The rise of professional parapsychologists and ghost hunters led to authors trying to find real and true ghost stories. Harry Price published his account of ostensibly true stories, The Most Haunted House in England.
Benevolent ghost stories for children were popularized in the 1930s. The obvious most famous one would be Casper the Friendly Ghost.
During the 1970s and 1980s, ghosts got mean and disturbing. Cinema took on ghost stories that featured lots of gore, violence, and scare tactics. For Hollywood, this was probably the peak of scary movies: A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining, The Exorcist, and The Fog.
In the 1990s, there was a return to Gothic ghost stories and a push for more psychological horror rather than physical. In the 2000s, with the rise of the Internet, there was more cultural awareness of how places around the world tell spooky stories or stories with ghosts. Asian cinema became a gladiator in the horror genre for titles like Ringu and The Eye.
With the advent of streaming, people started watching highly produced television series—including shows with scary and charming ghosts alike. Castle Rock is a magical weaving of Stephen King lore, Hotel Del Luna is a K-drama about a hotel that serves ghosts, and The Haunting is an anthology loosely based on the works of Shirley Jackson.
If you're looking to read ghost stories to help you develop your novel, there are some free resources you can use from the comfort of your home.
- YouTube: People post videos of themselves reading classic stories that are in the public domain.
- LibriVox: Free audiobooks available to anyone. The audiobooks are also based on the public domain.
- Library: Get your library card! If you're not in a place that has a nearby library or one with a good selection, consider forming a book club or book exchange.
Famous Stories in Literature Featuring Ghosts
A journey to the underworld. Odysseus meets several ghosts.
c. 8th century BCE
Features a haunted dwelling.
c. 254-184 BCE
One Thousand and One Nights
Features jinn, ghouls, and corpses.
First narratives around 750CE
Brethren of Purity
Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity
Multiple ghost stories.
c. 10th or 11th century CE
The Tale of Genji
Contains ghost stories and characters are possessed.
c. 11th century CE
Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III
Ghosts appear with warnings and important information.
1592, 1599, 1623 CE
The Castle of Otranto
Considered the first Gothic novel. It takes place in a haunted castle.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Dutch settlement haunted by ghosts that pervade their imaginations.
The Queen of Spades
The ghost of a countess appears, she names cards.
Collections: In Glass Darkly and The Purcell Papers
Helped popularize ghost fiction in short stories.
1872 and 1880 CE
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Andrea Lawrence