Friday, January 29, 2010

Have problem, will travel

As part of my MA, this past autumn I read a series of ghost stories in order to analyze how they work. One common trope in ghost stories is moving to a new house. Why? Because the main character has to encounter a ghost. And if she doesn't move someplace new, the reader might wonder why she didn't encounter this ghost before. So almost all of the ghost stories I read included a move. BOG CHILD by Siobhan Dowd doesn't (my review of BOG CHILD). Instead, while digging for peat the main character uncovers a body which begins to haunt his dreams. Spooky, huh?.

However, this moving trope creates a unique difficulty for ghost story writers. The main character's problem needs to travel, too. For example, if the main character is a lonely, outcast boy, who's to say he will be lonely and outcast in his new home too? Maybe he'll be happy for the chance to start over? Or if the main character lives with her mother, but they don't get along so she's sent to stay with her grandmother for the summer while her parents sort out their divorce. Maybe she loves her grandmother? The ghost story author needs to create a mechanism whereby the character moves, but none of her problems change.

In Julia Jarman's GHOST WRITER she dealt with this by giving her main character a problem internal to himself: he's dyslexic. In Kathryn Reiss' DREADFUL SORRY (my review) the main character has seen visions all her life; the visions just get worse when spends the summer in her dad's house, the same house in which the ghost lives. Robert Westall's THE WATCH HOUSE follows the grandmother plot outlined above. Except his main character's problem travels via continuous letters from her parents. She's watching her father fall apart from a distance and her mom suddenly barges into her new life, demanding to bring her home.

So, if you've got a haunted house, you need to find a way to make your character's problem portable.

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