Today, Katie Williams, the author of Absent, is stopping by YABookShelf.com to discuss some of the conventions of ghost stories. If you love ghost stories as much as I do, then you need to not only read this book, but also her discussion on how she used the conventions in the novel. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did!
Thanks to YA Book Shelf for inviting the Absent blog tour to rest its feet here today! My novel Absent is about a group of teenagers consigned to an afterlife in the high school they attended while alive. At my last tour stop, I wrote about the conventions of a ghost story and how I played with those “rules” when writing my novel, a ghost-story-in-reverse. Turns out I had a lot to say on this subject, and so I decided to divide this post into two parts. I’ll recap my previous post here, but you can also read it in its entirety at Bananas for Books.
People have been telling stories about ghosts and hauntings for a long time, which means that a reader now comes to a ghost story with a set of expectations about how that story will work based on the many other ghost stories she’s read before. A writer can play with these expectations to a point, but part of the fun of reading within a convention is recognizing its hallmarks, so you don’t want to abandon every expectation. Last time, I discussed the following ghost-story conventions: a ghost is bound to the location of its death; only some people become ghosts, while others “move on” (I was unforgivably coy here); and at least one character in the story will be able to see the ghost. There are still plenty of conventions to examine, so let’s get started.
Touchy Feely Ghosts
Can a ghost touch things? Here is a convention where the writer is yanked between two tenets of good storytelling: believability and plot. Believability says that if ghosts exist in our world, then they obviously can’t touch things; otherwise, our cars would be driven away and all our furniture rearranged. But if the ghosts in my story can’t touch anything, then they can’t do anything, and that’s a problem. To tell a character-driven story, my characters have to act based on their desires and fears; this is what creates the story’s plot. So what’s a writer to do?
Many stories steer a middle course, allowing the ghost to touch things only in certain circumstances, like the poltergeist who can rearrange your furniture only when riled up or how Ghost‘s Patrick Swayze could tip over the soda can only when he focused really hard.
In Absent, I decided that the special circumstance where my ghost could touch the physical world would be on the spot of its death. My main character, Paige, can stand on the edge of the school roof, where she cracked her skull, and get wet from the rain there, but as soon as she steps away from this spot, she’s dry again; she’s no longer part of the physical world. This made emotional sense to me because the whole idea of a ghost is that it’s someone stuck at the place of her death. How do you get over your own death? That’s the ghost’s question.
Possession Is Nine-Tenths of the Law
The other trick writers use to give their ghosts impact on the physical world is by having them possess the living. In fact, possession has become such a common facet of the ghost story that I’d argue it’s now a convention itself, but perhaps I say that because I used a lot of possession in Absent. Paige learns that she can possess (she calls it “inhabit”) the living. She has motivation to do this—kids are saying that she jumped, not fell, from the roof, and she wants to quash this rumor. Absent is also about our perception of others’ identities and their perception of ours, and possession explores this idea, too. By possessing her classmates, Paige gets to play around with identity and perception, concepts she was struggling with even before her death.
As a writer, you want to be careful not to make your characters too powerful because giving them obstacles and limitations creates conflict and tension. If your character is omnipotent, then she’ll go ahead and do what she wants, and the story is over. What’s more, limitations and setbacks are true to life; one of the reasons we read stories is to learn how to deal with difficulty. So I knew that Paige couldn’t possess anyone whenever she wanted; I had to limit her power. I decided that Paige could only possess someone when that person was thinking about her. The logic here is that by thinking about her, the person is inviting her in. The emotion here is that Paige is very much concerned with how she’ll be remembered, and this rule literalizes that concern. On a very practical level, Paige needs people to remember her in order for her to meet her goal of controlling how they will remember her, but this same concern is what keeps her from growing up and moving on.
I had a lot of fun (and, sure, headaches) playing with the rules of a ghost story. My goals were to work within the convention while offering something unique and to make my characters’ ghost world resonate with real-world emotions and experiences. You can read Absent to see how I did. I’d also love to see you on my Facebook page or at the next blog stop, where I’ll be interviewed by Kat Loves Books. (Don’t we all, Kat. Don’t we all.)