By Sarah Bennett

The right way to write ghosts.

In 2008, Wired ran an article about Leland Chee, the guy hired by George Lucas to be the Star Wars “continuity cop” and make sure that, between the series’ films, comics, novelizations, and cartoons, the facts were straight. As any fan knows, the Kessel Run must always be the same distance: invented universes, be they near or far, only truly work if they stick to a firm set of laws and logic. Sadly, older myths don’t have a gatekeeper like Lucas, which makes for many frustrated nerds, subpar entertainment, and, well, vampires that sparkle, werewolves that are actually panthers, and zombies that run a four minute mile. And that’s not usually good. So here is where I put on my Leland Chee hat to make some basic rules for fantasy writers going forward, starting with the most maligned and overexposed of fictional creatures, the ghost.


An illustration of Hamlet seeing the ghost of his father from 1843. Boo! Shakespeare!

Since ghosts have taken so many forms in the history of literature— silent-yet-solid in Shakespeare, dead-boys-as-white-blobs in cartoons (as well as dead-as-green-barfing-blobs in Ghostbusters), the field is much more open. Still, lines have to be drawn, especially when it comes to the lines between the supernatural and the world of the living.

After all, before you even decide the rules for your ghost, you have to figure out some sort of take on the whole afterlife/heaven and hell thing. Most TV shows try to avoid this question entirely since, ya know, life is precious, and god, and the bible, and acknowledging that your show is about the supernatural and some other things that Jerry Falwell says cause hurricanes is always problematic. If you’re writing a ghost and have no advertisers, however, having to confront the afterlife issue, even if you don’t resolve it completely, is as inevitable as death itself. Never mind that most TV shows just refer to the ambiguous idea of “passing on” (and please don’t, because leaving things at “passing on” really means “copping out”).

This is shot from David Cross in the upcoming season of Arrested Development, in which we can only assume that Tobias has gone from pretending to be a British nanny to a dead Tobias (with comfortable feet). 

You also have to create a reason that your ghost is a ghost, and not just dead and gone. Unfinished business is the go-to excuse, and while that’s the most logical, it’s a fun challenge to try to think outside the closure-box. For example, if you really want to go for broke/annoy people who own Kirk Cameron movies, you could make earth hell, so spirits get trapped here (although the classic fire-and-brimstone-and-buttspike version of the underworld, as seen on Adult Swim’s Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell is too funny to give up entirely).

Decide how corporeal your ghost is, and why. If your ghost can walk through walls, then it better have a good explanation for being able to pick up an object with those same, vapory hands. Most shows and movies make the ability for a ghost to solidify and effect the living a learned skill, right down to the “ghost learns to touch” training montage via a spirit mentor, so try to find some reasoning that’s less cliché. Besides, nobody will do it as well as Beetlejuice, sheeted Alec Baldwin et al.

In his picture from SyFy's Being Human, it may look like two women mid-super-sneeze, but it's actually Sally keeping her boyfriend's dead mother from possessing her.

Being Human had a nice approach to possession (fun for the ghost, brain-damaging for the living puppet), so explore that and other ways for your ghost to interact with the real world. If the ghost can’t interact directly, the character will become far too passive, like an invisible narrator. Aside from the high school drama department favorite Our Town, the narrator-ghost never works, so you need to find a way for the ghost to be a part of the story, not just a passive observer. And of course, as I always say, be consistent. Or I will haunt you.