Fresh off a round of revisions and out for review to a set of trusted readers, my most recent novel features a ghost. Though something of a departure to me, the ghost has been fun to write. I understand now the draw of speculative writing, and I see why literary authors like George Saunders, Jesmyn Ward, and Colson Whitehead have included speculative elements in some of their best-received work.
In early drafts, my ghost took shape well before the release of Lincoln in the Bardo, Sing Unburied Sing, and The Underground Railroad. And in a certain sense, pretty much every narrative I’ve ever written has featured at least one ghost, just not the after-death, spirit-form variety.
These more common ghosts—we might call them literary ghosts—are characters who don’t play a direct role in the narrative but influence it nonetheless. They might be former lovers or dead brothers or estranged aunts. They might be teachers or neighbors or employers—anyone who’s no longer in physical contact with a character, but whose influence is still felt.
In my latest novel, even my ghost has ghosts: his father, his brother, a former teacher. He even ends up with a ghost of a ghost.
You probably have ghosts in your work, too. You may not think of them that way, but I find the framing helpful so I’m aware of how much the ghost can do to propel a narrative:
- Ghosts haunt, which is to say that they remind characters of unresolved issues from their past.
- Ghosts may also encourage and uplift, especially when a character is feeling isolated in her current situation. A ghost may also serve as a moral compass.
- Ghosts allow characters to entertain fantasies of how things might have been if the person who’s now a ghost had remained part of their lives.
- Ghosts may triangulate current relationships, sometimes in ways that are more interesting than triangulations among “here and now” characters, since the ghost is removed from the situation and can therefore be re-invented by the person who remembers her.
So go ahead and write in that ghost—a person living or dead who is not longer directly involved but who still wields a strong influence. Give your ghost space to haunt and watch the magic unfold.
Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has never seen a ghost, so she has to invent them. Among her most recent published work are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds; and the “deeply researched and richly imagined” biography Wealth Woman. After thirty-six years in Alaska, she now writes and does freelance editorial and consulting from the north coast of Oregon.