rules for ghosts

I do a fair bit of manuscript doctoring; it’s one of the things I do to put beans and tortillas on the table. What the hell is manuscript doctoring? It’s like this: sometimes a writer finishes a novel manuscript (or almost finishes it) but feels it’s not quite working. Or maybe the manuscript has already been rejected by an agent or a publisher because it didn’t quite work. The writer sends me the manuscript, and for a reasonable chunk of money, I read it carefully, try to figure out why it doesn’t quite work, then offer a few suggestions for ways to ‘heal’ it. It’s a weird gig, but I enjoy it and I’m pretty good at it.

Over the last few years I’ve been seeing a number of supernatural manuscripts. They’re a pretty marketable genre — supernatural private detectives, supernatural love stories, supernatural thrillers, supernatural cozy mysteries. It’s not my favorite genre, but the concept offers a writer a LOT of flexibility in terms of plot and character development. I totally understand why it’s popular for readers and for writers.

But as a manuscript doctor, the thing that makes these stories interesting is also the thing that makes a lot of writers stumble: magic (or magick — and yes, for folks who work in this genre, there’s a difference; magic is grounded in illusion, magick is based on the physical manifestation of the supernatural or the occult). The most common problem I see in these stories is that the magick is used as a lazy way to solve problems in plot and character instead of as an existing supernatural system.

Here’s the thing: a novel is a cosmological event. By that I mean the writer is creating an entire world. Since most of those worlds are based on the one we actually live in, it’s fairly easy to keep the world internally consistent. Once a writer decides to stretch the parameters of the world, things get a lot more complex.

I mention this because I had a parting of the ways with a writer who has written a very good story. Her characters (both living and not-living) are interesting and well-defined, her dialog is bright and witty, the story is structured in a logical and supportive way, her writing is accessible without being pedestrian, and while her plot isn’t entirely original it has to be admitted that very few plots are. I won’t go into detail about the story itself but I can say this: it revolves around a murder victim whose ghost/spirit is trying to help the detective who is assigned to investigate her murder. As I said, it’s not an original idea, but it’s very well written and told in a charming narrative voice. It could be a very marketable manuscript.

So why have we parted ways? Because we fundamentally disagree on one thing: rules for ghosts. I say she needs a coherent and internally consistent set of rules for ghost behavior. What are the limits of what a ghost can do? She says rules and limits would stifle her creativity. I say rules and limits will actually force her to be more creative.

It doesn’t necessarily matter what the rules are; it only matters that they’re clear to the writer. They needn’t necessarily be spelled out to the reader (and in fact that would almost certainly be bad writing). They needn’t even be clear to the ghost (I mean, it’s probably the first time the ghost is ghosting, and it may take some time for her to learn how to ghost). But the writer has to know what the ghost can and cannot do.

How does haunting work? That’s pretty basic ghost stuff. Traditionally, ghosts haunt a place. That’s where the term haunt comes from, after all — from the Old French term hanter, which meant “to frequent, visit regularly.” Writers aren’t bound by tradition, of course, but the question still needs to be answered: where can the ghost appear? Is the ghost limited to the scene where the murder took place? Can the ghost shift between locations that were important to the living person? Or can the ghost just go anywhere it wants? If the ghost can go anywhere, how does spirit travel happen? Does it take place immediately? Or is there a time element involved? Does the ghost wink out of existence in, say, the apartment where it lived and immediately appear across town in the architecture firm where it was employed? Can the ghost decide to travel to another continent? Can the ghost travel to the moon? 

Another important question: can the ghost interact with physical objects? Can it move a chess piece? Can it move a kitchen table? Can it lift a car? Does the relationship between the ghost and the physical object matter? Can it more easily move things it valued in life? And how does that relate to ghost movement? If, for example, the ghost can ‘lift’ a wedding ring, can it move that ring from one room to another? If the ghost can de-materialize and move between locations, what happens to the wedding ring? Does it move as well? Or does it drop to the floor when the ghost leaves the room? Can the ghost use a typewriter or a computer’s mouse?

Does/can the ghost have an actual physical manifestation? If the ghost sits in a bathtub, does the water level rise? Who can see the ghost? Is the ghost visible to everybody, or just a select few, or just one person? Does the ghost have any control over its visibility? Can it choose to be visible to some people and not to others? Can it be visible when it chooses and invisible otherwise? Does the ghost have a physical appearance? If so, how does it manifest itself? Is it transparent? Is it dressed? If so, in what? If the ghost was murdered while scuba diving, does it appear in fins and a mask and a bikini? Can the ghost change its appearance? If so, can it change at will, or does its appearance depend on the person being haunted or the ghost’s present location?

Can the ghost communicate with people? If so, how? A ghostly whisper only the haunted person can hear? A disembodied voice that anybody nearby can hear? Is the ghost actually speaking or somehow communicating psychically? If the communication is vocal, is the voice identifiable? If the ghost wasn’t known to the investigator, how does the investigator know it’s the victim’s voice? If the ghost is actually speaking, can the hearer smell its breath? If the communication is psychic, can those unbidden thoughts be ignored? Can anti-psychotic medication mute the ghost’s psychic voice?

Those are the sorts of the questions I asked my client. Again, it doesn’t necessarily matter what the rules are. It doesn’t matter if the rules violate the laws of Newtonian physics or quantum physics; maybe that stuff doesn’t apply to ghosts. All that matters is that rules and limits exist, that they’re consistent, and that the writer is aware of them.

Why? Because readers aren’t stupid. Nor are agents and publishers. Readers will wonder why your ghost in Chapter 3 is able to locate your detective in the evidence room at the precinct and travel there, but in Chapter 9 is unable to locate and travel to the detective when he’s been kidnapped and tied up in the back of a Volkswagen van. Readers will question why your ghost in Chapter 8 is able to psychically suggest your detective ask a question he hadn’t thought of himself, but in Chapter 17 is unable to psychically inform the detective that the guy he’s talking to has the murder weapon on him.

If a writer is only using the supernatural as a convenient way to move the story forward, that writer is not respecting the reader. As far as that goes, the writer isn’t respecting the craft of writing. As goofy as it sounds, ghosts (and the readers of supernatural stories) are better served when the ghosts have rules. It’s really that simple. And by the way, that’s also true for witches, and necromancers, and kitchen boys who inherit magic rings, and vampire librarians, and half-demon private detectives, and travel journalists who find a djinn in an antique bottle, and and and.

Again, all fiction is a cosmological event. All believable universes operate within rules. And from now on, when I get asked to evaluate a supernatural novel manuscript, I’ll send the writer a link to this post — just to save time and grief.

8 thoughts on “rules for ghosts

  1. I don’t write in the sci-fi/fantasy/magical (magickal) realism genre, but I have friends who do and that is probably the #1 rule they know to follow – the characters are governed by the rules, no matter how wacky, of that particular universe throughout the entire book. Even in writing literary fiction there has to be consistency with a character’s behavior or else you rip your readers out of the story (that person wouldn’t do that, it doesn’t make sense!). There are always writers who think the rules don’t apply to them or are stifling. My favorites on the ones who eschew grammar for creativity and then wonder why they can’t get their work past the gatekeepers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One of the things I often suggest to clients or students working in scifi or fantasy is to consider applying the first law of thermodynamics to their universe. Energy can be converted from one form to another, but it can’t be created nor destroyed. In other words, something can’t come from nothing. Magick has to have a cost. If your magick creates something — heat, wind, pressure, material — that energy has to come from somewhere. I tell them to think about that in relation to their universe and/or plot and/or characters, then find a way to introduce some measure of that cost into the story.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I can certainly see where rules need to be applied, again, not for the reader to know but for the writer to stay on the tracks of the characters. Heck, some writers map out human characters’ traits to the nth degree, even if we, the reader, never know about them. (And what a ghost can or can’t do sounds like it was somewhat covered in Beetlejuice or, uh, Ghost).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some of this stuff seems obvious to me…but one of the things I’ve had to learn over the years that ‘obvious’ is relative. The writer whose ghost-mystery story sparked this is a terrific writer, with two published (and well-received) novels in the straight mystery genre. Her resistance to the (obvious) notion that ghosts need rules surprises me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post! I wholeheartedly agree. This can also be applied to any genre, really. A story is a story, and as long as it is fiction, never has to follow the rules of the real world; however, it must be consistent with itself, or it won’t make sense. And there’s nothing a reader hates more than inconsistencies or plot holes. . .

    . . . except maybe spelling errors and typos


    • One of the things I’ve noticed in manuscript doctoring is that a writer might be aware the story isn’t working, but can’t quite figure out why — and that why is sometimes because the story world is inconsistent. It may not be immediately noticeable, but there’s sometimes a subconscious awareness that something just doesn’t fit.


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  5. Decades ago Isaac Asimov was told you couldn’t write SF mysteries because the detective would just pull out some XYZ gadget at the last minute and solve everything. Asimov pointed out just this very thing, the story simply has to play fair. There must be rules, and in this case the rules do need to be known to the reader so unknown gadgets, etc cannot be introduced late in the story. He proceeded to write some of the earliest SF mystery stories


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