By Lisa M. Logan
If you don’t engage the reader within the first five pages with strong characters, conflict and obstacles, that reader will ditch your book. I find that creating a main character who is haunted makes for an enticing read. The reason is that we all ruminate about as to why other people do what they do. Readers want to find out what makes a character tick emotionally. It’s human nature and it intrigues readers.
Think about what haunts you. If you could change a decision you made in life, what would it be? As we age, we collect more regrets and mistakes that haunt us throughout life. Write those down. I keep a journal of instances that are poignant to me and how I felt at the moment.
The main character of my novel in House of Mirrors is literally haunted by the ghost of her daughter as well as other ghosts she’s ushered in through mirror gazing and conjuring. However, Eleanor is also haunted by her guilt for leaving the child in the bathtub alone for a split second to answer the phone. The guilt gnaws at her throughout the story. This same type of gnawing guilt haunts Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s The Shining. Jack is haunted by something bad he did in the past to his son. He can’t stop thinking about it throughout the story. It haunts him and we wonder and worry if he will hurt the boy again. This haunting of Jack’s conscience gives him more depth as a character. We get to know him and empathize with his guilt. We see that he’s not all bad. He’s a concerned father who did a very bad thing in the past which he regrets. This back story is crucial throughout the story and may be the seed that’s planted at the beginning only to grow into its ugliest form later in the story’s climax.
Hauntings don’t always involve ghosts. A character can be haunted by an emotion like guilt or jealousy. This emotion can be the driving force in a story and it’s revealed through the character’s back story. But you don’t want to beat the reader over the head with exposition. Reveal the character’s back story through subtle cues, slips of the tongue, or going silent at the mention of something that triggers their haunt.
Backstory creates a character’s emotional core and that’s the driving force behind the character’s actions and reactions to situations in the story. We as readers empathize with the emotions of betrayal, grief, jealousy, and so on. When a writer presses those emotional triggers in the reader, he’s guiding that reader deeper into the hypnotic dreamland of his story. Try not to broadcast the character’s emotions through telling, but rather by showing the emotion through their actions and cues. Instead of using words such as “frightened,” “scared,” “puzzled”; use actions, body language, and thoughts to indicate what lies behind these feelings and actions. For instance, show fear in a character by having his hands tremble as he loads bullets into the chamber of a gun and winces when some bullets tumble out of his hand. Don’t just say “He was overcome with fear as he loaded the gun.”
So if you want to show a character’s back story or personal “haunt” in a novel, gradually drop hints; don’t overpower the reader with “telling” details about the character’s past. In other words, don’t show all your cards on the poker table; keep them guessing and gradually reveal your hand.
Lisa M. Logan is a screenwriter, novelist, and journalist from North Carolina. Her novel "House of Mirrors" is available on Amazon's kindle store as well as her short story collection "Of the People." Lisa Logan started out writing articles for Our State magazine and profile articles for the N.C. Literary Review, interviewing various North Carolina authors of fiction. Her own creative works were published in several issues of the Raleigh News and Observer's short fiction section Sunday Reader. Lisa's passion for screenwriting led to freelancing for a national screenwriter's magazine Creative Screenwriting in which she wrote features, interviewing Hollywood screenwriters, high-level film producers, directors, and actors.Blog located at http://www.lisa-logan.com