There are many variations on what ghosts are and what they are like in fiction. I’m writing a story that features them rather predominantly, so I’ve been thinking lately on what that means. What are my ghosts like and why? If they are going to be characters, however large or small, they should be given some serious consideration.
To begin: How do ghosts exist in the first place?
Not everyone becomes a ghost. Some die and move on to whatever comes next (if anything), while some linger. What is it that lingers? Essentially, in my story, it’s the soul. The intangible life force that makes a living thing live and gives it awareness and uniqueness. What makes a soul linger? A lot of things. So far, it seems a violent death can bind a soul into lingering in this world rather than moving on or crossing over. They are tied to the place of their death, or something associated with it at the very least, and can only wander so far from it. A ghost doesn’t eat, doesn’t take in energy the way a human body can and does. It has only so much of itself to give, and much of that is already being used to exist at all. What it can do beyond that is limited.
Unless, of course, it finds a way to gain more energy after all. But there is only one source for a ghost–the energy of other souls.
A soul that is in transition can be absorbed, or eaten, or claimed, or otherwise taken in by another. That energy (or as one ghost calls it, soul fire) gives it strength–strength to move further, to manifest before mundane eyes, to even manifest physically for a time. What’s a soul in transition? A person who is dying, or a ghost who is crossing over. Basically the soul is vulnerable when it’s not firmly attached to something.
So, a ghost is a soul, and a soul is a kind of energy. They can use this energy for various purposes, such as making houses make strange noises, knocking things off a table, opening doors when no one’s there to open them and so forth. But while a ghost haunts the place it died, it isn’t necessarily nothing more than a moaning spirit. Why shouldn’t ghosts be able to talk, converse, have thoughts and opinions and everything else? If the soul is, as we most often believe, what makes you you, then shouldn’t that hold true even after your body is gone?
But something more than just the physical presence must change. Death is traumatic, and all of the senses a person had as a human being are gone. New senses must exist now. How does a ghost experience the world?
Apart from the lack of the five senses in the way we know them, a physical body brings with it certain limitations that now no longer exist. A ghost need not have a concept of time the way we do, or even the bonds of it. Some ghost stories focus on a ghost that is trying to express a message of warning. What if time is a new sense for a ghost, the way touch or smell or hearing are for humans? If they can see a little ways further than us into the past or future? Or at least, some of them can, the same way some people have better eyesight than others.
Likewise, there are ghost stories where the ghosts know the secrets of the people they are haunting. What if ghosts can also ‘see’ into your mind? Thoughts, feelings, secrets, dreams?
Personally I’m enjoying expanding on what senses a ghost has, not only for trying something new with ghosts, but it gives me some tools to use in the story, while still limiting how much they can be used, by whom, and how well. After all, sometimes your eyes and ears play tricks on you–who’s to say what a ghost believes it has seen in the future or heard in your mind is any more or less reliable than our own senses?