Screenwriting Tricks for Authors

Creating Character: Your Protagonist’s GHOST, WOUND, or CORE TRAUMA

I got an excellent question this week about how and where to reveal a Protagonist’s Ghost or Wound.

This is perfect timing for our discussion of the third quarter of your book or script—Act II: Part 2—because it’s in this Downward Spiral that the internal Ghost or Wound (which up until now may have been more subtle internal conflict) very often becomes an active opposing force.

The Ghost, Wound, or Core Trauma is an event, condition, or belief that is haunting your protagonist and holding them back from living their best life.

man and woman holding hands
Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

First, it’s important to realize that there are different kinds of Ghosts/Wounds, that can mostly be sorted into some general types:

The In Real Time Wound

Sometimes you will see the traumatic event happen in the present as part of the action of the book or film, often as the first scene. You’ve seen this play out in dozens of movies!

–       In an action/thriller, the cop’s partner is killed in front of them. (One of the most famous examples in film history being the rooftop chase that begins Vertigo.)

–       In a romance or drama, the protagonist catches their fiancé/e in bed with someone else (often on the same day they lose their job).

It makes for an active opening hook – but has a tendency to feel cliched or shallow if there isn’t anything more to it than that.

In this type of opening you can also see the ghost as the sudden illness of a partner or love interest (Me Before You,The Big Sick, Supernova)or of the protagonist themself –The Fault in Our Stars.

The Ghost/Wound can be an assault or other crime that leaves a devastating imprint on the protagonist. One of the most harrowing examples I’ve ever seen is the opening of Midsommer. By the end of that extended scene, starring the great Florence Pugh, you will be as traumatized as the character. Another fantastic recent example, not a crime but treated as one, is the extended birth sequence in the beginning of Pieces of a Woman.

It can also be the invasion of an alien species, as in a lot of horror and sci-fi stories like the Alien series and A Quiet Place; zombies in The Walking Dead and All of Us are Dead; the sharks in Jaws and The Meg; dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park series; a ghost or demonic infestation (Hereditary, The Exorcist), etc.