This article was originally written for C.J. Brightley’s blog during the Blogger Book Fair, and I’m re-posting here in case you missed it.
I’m writing a series about ghosts, but before I started, I had to figure something out: What on Earth can ghosts do?
If I was writing a series about police officers, I’d need to research and learn about the laws governing their behavior on the job. If I was writing about tigers, I’d need to learn everything I could about tigers. But there aren’t any concrete, factual accounts of ghosts. Tons of stories and legends are out there, but to what degree my stories conform to existing folklore is entirely up to me.
That means I got to make up my own rules, and I couldn’t get started on the first draft until I sorted out what some of those rules were. I was certainly free to change my mind along the way—and I did—but I needed a tentative rulebook to get started.
The series premise shaped the rulebook. RIP is about a guy who perceives ghosts with his five senses as if they were flesh-and-blood people. Physical interaction with ghosts is the cornerstone of the whole thing here, so that led to my first decision: Ghosts would appear in human shape only, and only their own human shape. No shape-changing, no turning into mist, no floating bedsheets. These ghosts are people.
To set my main character apart, I wanted him to be the only living person who could perceive these ghosts. If he can see, hear, smell, and touch ghosts, then no one else can.
That brought me to my next question—how do these ghosts interact with the living?
But before I could answer that, I needed to figure out a bit more about these post-life folks, namely why are they still here? Why didn’t they go somewhere else? Why aren’t they ready for Heaven or Hell yet?
Then I realized another key component of the series. These ghosts aren’t ready for Heaven or Hell. The truly good and truly evil people went straight up and straight down, respectively. Anyone who’s a ghost on Earth is in purgatory. These people still need to prove themselves worthy of either destination, so even the “good” ghosts are deeply flawed, and the “bad” ghosts couldn’t have been all that terrible in life.
And that brought me to two main categories of ghosts—those who are trying to improve themselves to earn entry into Heaven, and those who have given up and are just doing whatever they darn well please until Hell sucks them in. To spice things up, they don’t know for a fact that Heaven and Hell exist. They have a vague notion that there’s a better place and a worse place, but it’s up to them whether they want to take that notion seriously.
So now I had to figure out how ghosts earn their way to Heaven and Hell. Basically, what supernatural powers do they have to help or hurt the living? Direct physical contact is already ruled out. Instead of physical, then, how about…emotional?
Yes. These ghosts can adjust emotions. That could easily come to resemble mind control, so I decided they can’t create emotions. They can only work with whatever the person is actually feeling. How much they can dial something up or down depends on the unique strength of that particular ghost. The bad ghosts, naturally, have an easier time manipulating people. All ghosts are empathic, and emotions are basically the only thing they can feel.
That didn’t seem like quite enough, so the wicked ghosts can also conjure minor hallucinations, and some are better at it than others. The strongest can manipulate small objects, not with much precision, just to fling a pebble across the room, for example, or knock a glass off a counter. The bad ghosts are the antagonists, so they need to be formidable to some extent.
The good ghosts need to be more limited. They can’t move objects or make people hallucinate, but the good ones can visit people in their dreams and try to communicate with them there. It’s all trippy and ambiguous, though. Can’t be too easy.
I also had to consider what it would feel like to be one of these ghosts. If people can’t touch them, then the ghosts can’t touch people. They can’t touch anything. They need to be able to see and hear. I could allow myself that convenience, and I decided it’s better not to bother explaining why those two senses still function. It’s just a weird quirk. But they can’t touch, smell, or taste. All that sensation is denied to them. They can see and hear the world, but it feels like it’s nothing. Living people are like ghosts to them.
As I wrote, additional details emerged, such as how ghosts are always flying, even if it looks like they’re standing or sitting. Everything is immaterial to them, so how could they stand? They’re just acting in a way that makes them feel human.
That’s basically how you build a paranormal world. Start with your main idea and develop the rules around it, and each new idea will lead to more ideas. Then fine-tune these concepts as you write.
It’s fun. You get to make up all the rules! The hardest part is getting started. So, go and get to work.