What’s the Difference? Your Character’s Ghost vs. Wound vs. Lie vs. Weakness

What’s the Difference? Your Character’s Ghost vs. Wound vs. Lie vs. Weakness

One of the major keys to engineering characters who can create reader-favorite moments is understanding your characters’ weaknesses. But those weaknesses seem to be known, in writer terminology, by a dizzying array of names, including “ghost,” “wound,” and “lie.” What’s the difference? and which goes where in the story, and how do they each operate differently—or do they?

Here on my site, you may notice that I favor the terms Ghost and Lie. In my articles and books, you’ll almost always see these words capitalized as my way of indicating they are important catalytic entities within storyform as I teach it. However, you may encounter other writers who prefer to use the terms “weakness” or “wound.” Are these all referring to the same concepts?

In many general ways, all four terms do refer to the same thing, and that is the fundamental pain point at the core of the character’s psyche. Whether large or small, traumatic or mundane, this pain is perpetuating a limited way of being in and seeing the world. It constricts the character’s ability to move forward toward the plot goal in a holistic and efficacious manner.

That said, each term does have a slightly different connotation. Today, in response to several requests on the topic, I’m going to examine all four terms, as well as how I personally use them in my own understanding of story.

Remember: Writing Terminology Varies

Before we get started, let me just say that perhaps the main point here is that writing terminology varies. Although certain prevalent terms are widely accepted, there are also many, many different terms that you will see applied to the same, or almost the same, concept.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

For example, I teach story structure as having three major plot points: the First Plot Point at the 25% mark, the Midpoint or Second Plot Point at the 50% mark, and the Third Plot Point at the 75% mark. However, many writers don’t count the Midpoint as a major plot point and refer to only two plot points, in which case they might refer to the turning point at the 75% mark as the Second Plot Point.

Obviously, this and many other examples, can create confusion. However, although the terminology can vary, the underlying principles generally don’t. In the above instance, if you understand that someone is discussing the turning point into the Third Act, happening around the 75% mark, and dealing with the “Low Moment” or “Dark Night of the Soul” beat—then you can identify what they’re talking about regardless of whether they choose to call it the Second or Third Plot Point.

So basically: stay on your toes and make sure you understand the underlying principles of storytelling rather than just relying on terminology. The bonus here is that doing so ensures you grow and remain grounded in your innate understanding of story, rather than trying to copy/paste someone else’s format onto your experience.

The Four “Pain Points” in Your Character’s Past and/or Personality

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All four of the terms we’re exploring today—Ghost, wound, Lie, and weakness—refer to a pain point for your character. Each represents an inner obstacle contributing to the character’s inner conflict. This inner conflict will certainly contribute to the story’s external conflict, as the character attempts to pursue and gain the plot goal. However, the inner conflict’s most crucial purpose is its ability to power your character’s arc. Whether or not your character changes positively by the end of the story, these pain points are what drive the question of transformation.

Therefore, all four terms are similar in their reference to this painful driving catalyst. Usually, this pain point will arise from the character’s past and is therefore often considered backstory. It will also almost certainly manifest in the character’s personality in some way—as an embedded flaw that is causing some sort of suffering or at least inconvenience in the present.

However, despite their common ground, these four terms are, in fact, discrete. Each refers to a slightly different aspect of this difficulty. As mentioned at the top of the article, I personally choose to work primarily with the terms Ghost and Lie. This is because the wound and the weakness are implicit within the Ghost and the Lie, and I feel it becomes confusing to discuss all four as if they are totally separate.

Still, it is worthwhile to understand the finer points of each concept.

What Is Your Character’s Ghost?

Anatomy of Story John Truby

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby (affiliate link)

>>Click here to read more about the Ghost

The “Ghost” is a term originated by John Truby in his groundbreaking book The Anatomy of Story. In his recent book The Anatomy of Genres, he explains:

It is the event from the past still haunting the hero in the present.

He goes on to delineate that the Ghost “represents the power of the past over the present” and “…is the mind attacking itself.”

I’ve always liked the evocation of the term Ghost, since it inherently indicates that something is “haunting” the character. Even if the character wants to leave the past in the past, this is something too engrained within his personality and psyche. Unless he is willing to undertake the transformation of a full character arc, he will not be able to overcome it.

When teaching story structure, I use the term Ghost to encapsulate the motivating factor in the character’s backstory. You can think of it as the “inciting event” before the Inciting Event (i.e., before the main story, although some stories may choose to dramatize the Ghost event in a prologue or flashback).

For Example: In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge gets to personally revisit his backstory Ghosts (with the Christmas ghost—which is pretty much perfect when you think about it). His foundational Ghost is that of his cold and punitive relationship with his father, who all but abandons him at boarding school—a catalyst that shapes Scrooge’s personality so profoundly even his love for Belle can’t change the path upon which he has set himself.

Ebenezer Scrooge’s backstory Ghost (not to be confused with the Ghost of Christmas Past) is revealed to be his love-starved childhood, abandoned to a cruel boarding school.

What Is Your Character’s Wound?

Emotional Wound Thesaurus

The Emotional Wound Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (affiliate link)

>>Click here to read more about the wound.

“Wound” commonly refers to the deep pain point at the heart of the character’s need for transformation. (Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi gave us the popular reference The Emotional Wound Thesaurus for brainstorming these wounds for our characters.)

The wound is often a more generalized concept. It certainly incorporates the Ghost—the wounding event in the character’s past. But it may also refer more specifically to the pain point itself—to the suffering the character experiences in the present. As such, it can often refer just as much, if not more, to the character’s psychological pain, rather than the event that caused it.

For Example: Scrooge’s wound is his unlovedness—his father’s refusal to love him and his own subsequent refusal to love Belle. This warps him into a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner.”

Jim Carrey A Christmas Carol Ebenezer Scrooge Ghost of Christmas Past

Scrooge’s psychological wound of “unlovedness” sees him turning more and more to money, rather than people, to fill the hole in his heart.

What Is Your Character’s Lie?

>>Click here to read more about the Lie Your Character Believes

The Lie Your Character Believes is one of the most important factors in crafting a solid character arc. This Lie, in contrast to the story’s posited thematic Truth, is what will create the character’s inner conflict. The Lie primarily represents a flaw in the character’s perspective or view of life. This limited perspective usually arises from the formative events caused by the backstory Ghost. This event and the psychological wound it creates leads the character to believe her best chance at coping and/or never repeating that pain is to adopt a particular way of being in the world.

Like all points of view, it is adopted because the person believes (rightly to at least some extent) that this perspective is the one best suited to protect and provide for her. It may shield her from painful feelings such as shame, guilt, or grief. Or it may offer guiding principles that help her gain what she wants and needs.

The important thing for writers to understand about the Lie is that up until this moment in the character’s life (i.e., the opening of the story), the Lie has probably been good for the character, at least comparatively. After all, there must be a reason the character has clung to this limited belief for so long.

However, as your story proper begins, the circumstances of the character’s life are about to be forever changed. and as the circumstances evolve, so must the character’s outlook. From this point on, the Lie becomes less and less effective in protecting the character from the effects of the past and in helping her move forward toward her desired goal. If she fails to face the fires of inner transformation and upgrade to the story’s offered Truth, she will not find healing from past wounds, but only more wounding.

Therefore, the Lie originates from the Ghost. In many ways, it represents the wound and indeed may even be the wound, as would be the case with a self-abusive belief such as “I’m worthless” or “I’m not pretty enough” or “it was my fault my grandmother died.” Most specifically, however, the Lie is the limited perspective with which the character begins the story.

For Example: The basic Lie Scrooge believes at the beginning of his adventure is that a man’s worth can only be measured by material means—by the amount of money he controls. We can extrapolate that this perspective arises from the even deeper and more personal Lie that Scrooge himself was not worthy of his father’s love. Throughout his life, he uses this cold-hearted philosophy to “protect” himself from experiencing the love of others, including his sweetheart Belle and his nephew Fred, so (we assume) he will not have to face the deep wound of his own pain and grief.

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Scrooge begins his story with the Lie he has believed all his life–that a man is measured by his money, and that money is worth more than love.

What is Your Character’s Weakness?

>>Click here to read more about the weakness

Writers are commonly encouraged to balance characters’ strengths with correlating weaknesses. This is solid advice. Just a few weeks ago, I talked about how you can use “shadow theory” to easily identify which strengths and weaknesses offer the most organic polarities for each character. Not only do weaknesses create innate opportunities for conflict and therefore give your character something to overcome, they also function to make characters more relatable to your audience.

Your character’s weakness can be just about anything. It might be a literal physical weakness, such as an injury. It might be a psychological weakness or phobia. Or it might be a personality flaw, in which the character has a tendency, whether impulsively or deliberately, to hurt others. Often, the idea of a character’s weakness will refer most specifically to the tendency toward some moral failure, in which the character isn’t fully participating in healthy social contracts.

Your character may exhibit many weaknesses over the course of your story. However, when thinking about the weakness your character exhibits, you will want to choose something organic to the overall story. Usually, this means referencing the Ghost, wound, and Lie. The Lie, in itself, can be the weakness. Particularly, if the character’s Lie-based perspective leads him to behave in ways that damage himself or others, this will point to the central weakness the character must overcome within his arc (or not—if he is exhibiting a Negative Change Arc).

In other stories, wound and weakness may also be interchangeable, but usually only if the weakness is self-damaging rather than other-damaging.

The Ghost won’t be the character’s weakness, but will likely point to its genesis.

For Example: Scrooge’s weakness is his cruel disdain for those weaker or less fortunate than himself. As with most weaknesses, this not only points to a moral failing on his part, but also to his own weak spot. This is why the Christmas spirits come after him. They tell him plainly that if he cannot overcome this weakness, it will be the cause of his own destruction.

Scrooge’s weakness is his cruel disdain for his fellow man.

***

Understanding terminology, how others use it, and most particularly how you want to use it is important for deepening your understanding of how the many different pieces of story operate. As you can see from just this brief exploration, there is often a good deal of overlap amongst terms. However, each term also offers distinct nuance to help you expand your development of your own story and its characters.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What Ghosts, wounds, Lies, and weaknesses have you used in your story? Tell me in the comments!

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