Here, have a rant.
A lot of this rant is based on my feeling that ghosts can be a really neat idea, in the same way that destiny and great magic can be, but they’re rarely treated as such.
1) Decide from the beginning what role ghosts will play in your story. I’ve read stories that started out like dark fantasies or horror novels. The dead were threatening. Perhaps they were about to take over the world, and since they far outnumbered humans, this was a problem. Perhaps the sight of a certain ghost could cause someone to die. Perhaps the ghosts were vampiric spirits and fed on people. Their part in the plot was clearly defined, thought: Mission Scare the Living Fuck out of the Protagonists.
Then, halfway through, when the hero or heroine got to know a particular ghost well, the ghost suddenly took on the role of a bumbling carnival clown.
Yes, sometimes authors change their minds. But a change that drastic invalidates both parts of the story. The audience can no longer believe that the ghosts are scary and frightening, even if the others remain that way. And the funny ghost always feels false. Perhaps you even grow to hate him. (The last story I read in that vein made me wish the spirit had continued with her original murderous mission and just killed the protagonist).
Ghosts shouldn’t be used lightly. If you’re writing the literate version of a Scooby cartoon, there’s not—necessarily—much shame in that, but it needs to be established early on and clung to. Likewise, stick with dark fantasy if you’re writing dark fantasy. If the change, for whatever reason, has to happen, set up portents and use foreshadowing so that it doesn’t catch your audience by complete surprise. (For my money, the change from funny to horrifying works much better than the other way around).
2) How has the transformation into spirits changed them? I’m always interested in stories of ghosts who aren’t simply dead humans, or who don’t tell humorous stories of what the afterlife is like. Death needn’t remain a mystery, but on the other hand, it’s one of the few things even in a fantasy story that can receive jeweled adjectives and not sound ridiculous. Stepping through a gate into a glowing afterworld is one possibility. So is the dead enduring an existence that is utterly unlike the one they lived on earth.
And why not that last? They’re no longer embodied, for one thing. Authors often represent angels, demons, energy beings, and so on as fundamentally different because they lack a corporeal body and everything that goes with it—lust, the need to eat, the desire for rest, emotions, the need to struggle through physical obstacles, and many other things. Ghosts can pass through walls most of the time, don’t suffer from physical ailments, and could resist pretty faces more easily (the common tendency to represent ghosts as in love with mortals notwithstanding). What is their “life” like?
For another, the ghosts don’t need to be cast out of the afterworld and doomed to wander the earth. Perhaps they can transition freely between the living world and the afterworld. Perhaps they spend most of their time in a paradise and only appear when summoned by a necromancer. That could be a reason for them to get pissed off and try to attack the necromancer. Perhaps they would ordinarily have no consciousness at all but have returned for some extraordinary reason. (See point 3). I think all of those would be more interesting than the usual “damned soul” legend, which aside from being overused often isn’t supported by the fantasy world’s religious system. Not that many fantasy worlds, except the explicitly Christian-based ones, have a legend of hell. Heaven, yes. But why are the ghosts “damned?” There’s no basis for it.
3) Why become a ghost? Most ghosts in fantasy seem unhappy. They want to rest, or return to the afterworld, or stop doing whatever it was they became a ghost in the first place to do. So why did they become ghosts?
The usual motives are for revenge, to guard a treasure, because their bodies were disturbed, or to watch over something (often their burial place, their descendants, or a particular locale that mattered to them in life, like a family home). Yet the depictions of ghosts can clash with their stated motives. I would expect a vengeful ghost to be, well, vengeful. How come the heroes can make friends with him and persuade him to stop attacking them? What if they have what he wants, like the key that he can use to unlock the door to heaven? I know that if I were a ghost, and hated wandering the world, and had searched a hundred years for that key, I wouldn’t stop trying to get it just because the heroine wept at me.
For the treasure thing, it should be a worthwhile treasure. Perhaps it’s because a lot of fantasy authors are incredibly skilled at murdering their own suspense, but I often find the buildup to a treasure to be better than the treasure itself. So the ghost is guarding a golden medallion. And? Why is this particular medallion so valuable that the living are trying to get it? Surely there are plenty of other golden treasures in the world that are not being guarded by a ghost who will turn you into a slime mold. (That would be a pretty cool ghost power. See point 4). If it has unique magical powers, now you might be talking, but you’d still have to set it up a good reason why this treasure has been guarded by the ghost for so long, and someone determined hasn’t succeeded in taking it before now. When the heroes go at the ghost, I know they’re going to succeed, but I want to know why. You have to convince me that no one was ever as brave and clever as them, instead of just telling me so.
If their bodies were disturbed, just make sure it accords with the fantasy world’s religion. No prohibition against disturbing graves= no reason to have this kind of ghost.
For the watching ghosts, what happens if their watch ends? Someone destroys the house, someone doesn’t just disturb their body but gets rid of the entire burial place—perhaps an earthquake shifts the ground so that all the bodies are crushed—or the family line comes to an end. Does the ghost actively try to prevent this? Does it just watch for direct threats? This might mean that it wouldn’t see the earthquake, as a natural event, coming. What is the watchman without his watch?
4) Make the ghosts’ powers interesting. One reason I groan when ghosts show up is that they draw on a common set of stereotypes as far as what they actually do. They knock on tables, they drip slime around, they gibber and shriek, they make objects fly across the room, they try to kill the living—and almost never succeed at that last, I should add. Most can also pass through walls and not be touched by physical objects, though why they can then pick up physical objects goes unanswered.
Where are the ghosts who can turn people into slime molds? Where are the ghosts who work for thief rings, particularly if they can pick up physical objects and carry them through walls? Where are the ghosts who have complex relationships with the living, instead of just hanging around as guardian spirits or tormentors? Where are the ghosts who make everything around them dead, so that sooner or later a ghost in the country spells doom for everyone else?
Move beyond the usual depictions. They can be good starting points, but if your story merely retreads them, there’s nothing to make anyone read along. They already know how the story of, oh, the poltergeist who throws a rock through the air ends—either with the defeat of the poltergeist or the death of someone living from a rock through the skull, or both. They will probably not know how your story of the ghost with the power to turn people into slime molds ends. Similarly, a ghost might fall in love with a mortal woman and just compose soppy poetry to her, instead of trying to kill anyone who touches her, and it would be more complex than the usual “ghost stands wrongly in the way of living romance” kind of thing. Perhaps the ghost is as much of a wet dishrag as he was in life, and lets the woman go to the man who loves her. Perhaps he confronts her with his love, and she turns him down, or accepts and becomes a ghost herself. Perhaps he can wait around until she dies and joins him that way. A whole host of possibilities opens up when the ghosts aren’t restricted to playing Mr. McGibberyThing.
5) Consider different fates for the spirits of different species, or genders, or ages, or whatever. Is an elven ghost the same as a human one? Perhaps the humans hang around longer because they never got to explore most of the world while they were alive, since the majority of humans are stuck as peasants in a small village. Conversely, perhaps the elves wander when they’re dead, because they loved and lived in the world so long that they don’t want to yield it.
A lot of authors seem to like assigning genders to ghosts, since spirits who were women in a previous life tend to reincarnate as women in the next, and spirits who were men as men. (Personally, I think authors do this mainly to keep reincarnated romances convenient, and it could do with a good shaking up). Do they become different kinds of ghosts, then? Do the women spirits live in one place, and the men’s in another? Do they interact at all, speak to other spirits differently, get angry about injustices that happened while they were alive if there are gender inequalities in your fantasy world? What kind of society do they have?
The spirits of children are often portrayed as different from the spirits of adults—either more gentle and innocent, or more sinister and devastating. Why does it matter at what age they died? Study and find out. Do spirits who died as children attain more power in the ghost world because they had less time to adjust to a living body, and therefore less chance to become attached to it? Do adult spirits perhaps have powers that the children don’t? Are infants who died before developing speech even true ghosts, or just floating blobs? Certainly children’s spirits would seem to be at more of a disadvantage than adults’ spirits if the ghost world is based on the living one, but it doesn’t have to be.
6) Think about how circumstances in your fantasy world will affect the production of ghosts. Authors like to write big world-sweeping fantasy epics, in which massive numbers of named and nameless characters die. What happens to the ghost “population” because of that? Do they suddenly have to cope with an overwhelming influx of spirits, or do all the people who died not become ghosts? Why? Why not?
Also, is there a difference in the way that people died? Do villages who died of plague enter the afterlife together, and do ghost parents and ghost children know each other? How would a vengeful ghost go about making the Dark Lord sorry, if the Dark Lord was the one who killed him? Would a sentry ghost who took an arrow through the eye while defending his lord return in order to safeguard his lord still? (There are stories like this, but they usually end with the ghost helping once and then fading away, because of the common perception that ghosts are eager to “rest.” It doesn’t need to be that way).
What about your world’s infant mortality rate? This is one way in which pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds are often very unrealistic: all the children live to adulthood, unless they’re killed by bandits or the Dark Lord’s soldiers because the story needs pathos. Apply an infant mortality rate similar to what it really was in the medieval period, or introduce, say, a disease that mostly children get, and perhaps there are more child ghosts than any other kind. How does that affect the “hierarchy” or the “society” of the dead?
If it takes a special ritual to become a ghost, what happens if several mages decide they’re going to create a bunch of ghosts together? Are the ghosts used to interacting? What do they think? Do they cooperate, or do they fight?
There are all sorts of interesting ties that could be forged to the world of the living, or ways in which the world of the living might matter only indirectly to the world of the dead, instead of the—more common—other way around.
Next rant’s on slavery.