Learning from Marvel: Ghosts


Marvel has a bajillion superheroes, so I’m not going to tackle all of them. Even single heroes exist in multiple universes (I’m serious) so I’ll keep to the most canonical arcs.

Here are today’s examples:

Based on my discussion with friends about my previous post on ghosts in Pixar’s works, it’s worth restating that a tragic backstory event does not automatically function as a ghost. My example in Pixar’s canon was Remy’s loss of his colony. Similarly, Superman’s whole planet got blown up, but that isn’t really the reason he saves earth. He saves earth because it’s the right thing to do. The thing he’s running from is himself, the idea that people will discover his true identity.

Almost all Marvel characters have something tragic in their backstory, and I’m not enough of a fanboy to precisely lay down all the ones that qualify as ghosts and which don’t. For example, I can’t tell if Ironman’s looming death is the reason he fights, or if that’s just something he decides to do because he can. I’m not sure if Wolverine fights Magneto because he feels traumatized by Weapon X and his lack of past, or because he wants to protect other mutants, more like Superman.

It is completely possible to have a good character and a great story without using a ghost to drive them. But let’s see how it helped to develop two of Marvel’s most enduring heroes.

Captain America

Captain America’s ghost is his past as a weak, scrawny kid who got picked on and wasn’t allowed to join the military. He also witnessed the abuse of his mother, which he was unable to stop. He turns into super beefy awesome soldier and… well, what could he possibly have to learn? What is the inner trauma that he has to heal?

You’d think that he would have to accept himself as super beefy awesome guy, and the movie experimented with that, but it’s not the arc that works best for him. When Captain America is at his best, he is moral authority. Rather than having to overcome his past as a skinny kid, the knowledge of what it’s like to be abused gives him sympathy for others and wisdom.

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While, yes, like many, I find the idea of a character named Captain America acting as moral authority somewhat problematic, most instances I’ve seen handle him well. For the record, it’s not enough for me that the character is separated from the government. He’s still tied to an idea that “America” is a thing, and a good thing, and that’s the part I take issue with: American Exceptionalism.


Spider-Man’s ghost is interesting because it happens AFTER his inciting incident. The story starts when he gets bitten by the radioactive spider. And then we have a few story beats of Spider-Man just being awesome. Learning to swing from buildings, fooling around with professional wrestling, throwing the school bully in a locker. Whoo!

But… while he’s having fun, he lets a petty thief run past him, and that thief later kills his uncle Ben. Spider-Man’s ghost isn’t just his uncle’s death, it’s the fact it could have been prevented. And with this new ghost, we get the most powerful theme statement for any superhero story: “With great power there must also come — great responsibility!”

I’m into the Spider-Man character, even if I don’t find a lot of the stories involving him very satisfying. His ghost doesn’t force him to make difficult choices very often (blonde or redhead?) but it does layer the pressure on his shoulders. Which works especially well for Peter Parker as a teenager. Homework. Bullies. Money. Identity. Supervillains.

And then a beautiful saucy redhead comes out of nowhere and loves him.


Ugh. Peter Parker, Mary-Jane Watson, and Gwen Stacey do NOT work as a love triangle. Or maybe I just hate a certain kind of love triangle. This could be a whole ‘nother post.

Come back in two weeks when I rant about love triangles.


Learning from Pixar: Ghosts

Spoilers! For almost all of Pixar’s movies! 

Traditional thought is that the first step in a story is the inciting incident: a break in the every day, something that starts the journey, the call to action.

However, many good stories have an important step before that: the ghost.

The ghost inflicts the wound.

Most often, dead parents inflict the sense of not belonging.

Ghost: a specific event in a character’s backstory that has left emotional, psychological, or moral damage. It haunts the character and drives them through the main story.

Wound: A character’s deficiencies that are causing pain to themselves and the people around them. Healed or deepened at the end of the story.

My previous post on Pixar’s simplexity was my most popular so far. Today we’ll look at the way they use ghosts to drive their films.

In the top example (Finding Nemo), we see Marlin left with Nemo after a shark attack has killed his mate and their hundreds of other eggs (ghost). This leaves him feeling scared and overprotective (wound).

The second picture (The Incredibles) shows how Mr. Incredible was forced out of the superheo line of work, by getting sued (ghost). He winds up in an office feeling alienated and needing validation (wound).

Picture three (Up) has Carl’s last moments with his wife Ellie. Her death (ghost) leaves him bitter, isolated, and rough (wound).

There are others…

Woody’s rip in Toy Story 2, Wall-E’s isolation, and Mike’s first trip to the scaring floor in Monster’s University.

but I like the first three I showed because I find them the most powerful and original. The cliché is for dead parents. Finding Nemo is a reversal: dead children. The Incredibles makes a ghost out of something organic to the film’s world, and in Up the power of Ellie’s passing is noted by everyone who sees the movie.

So how does a ghost work?

In the fiction workshops for my creative writing degree, two of the most ubiquitous comments were (1) Why does this character need to go through this story? (2) Your character is too perfect. Having a ghost addresses these concerns, as well as others.

Basically, the ghost is what has wounded the character, and the story is the healing process. Chronologically, it usually happens first, but we don’t always see it in the story, because the “story” usually starts when the healing process starts. That is, when they start the journey that is going to address their deficiencies, and probably cause their character to change. Ghosts are either flashback or prologue.

Since Finding Nemo, most of Pixar’s films have included a prologue to establish the character’s ghost and wound. But not every prologue is a ghost. Remy in Ratatouille wanted to be a chef before he lost his clan. The event is tragic, but it doesn’t really do much to haunt or influence him for the rest of the story. He has a literal ghost following him around, but Gusteau functions as a mentor.

Similarly, Merida in Brave has a prologue in which we meet Mar’du, but this isn’t the thing that drives her arc. Unless somehow this was the moment that caused the split between her and her mother, but it wasn’t. You could be like, “Yeah it was, because she got her bow,” but then you’re just being difficult.

Neither Remy or Merida seem to be psychologically running away from inner trauma. They are running toward their aspirations. Which is still interesting, but it needs the audience to share sympathy for the kinds of aspirations they have. As someone who’s really not that into eating food, I had trouble getting into Ratatouille, whereas my friend who’s worked in kitchens loves it. I share the longing for fantasy freedom though, so I like Brave more than most.

I believe this is why Cars doesn’t resonate as well with a lot of people who like Pixar’s other films. Lightning McQueen’s drive (no pun intended) is based on a dream of racing, and his redemption is based on the nostalgia of scenic Route 66. Neither of those things ignite much in me.

Ghost inflicted wounds tend to be more universal, so in my opinion they often lead to better films. The first time I encountered the terms was in John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. In case I haven’t been explaining clear enough, I’ll include his introduction to the concept.

There are two kinds of ghosts in a story. The first and most common is an event from the past that still haunts the hero in the present. The ghost is an open wound that is often the source of the hero’s psychological and moral weakness. The ghost is also a device that lets you extend the hero’s organic development backward, before the start of your story. So the ghost is a major part of the story’s foundation.

You can also think of this first kind of ghost as the hero’s internal opponent. It is the great fear that is holding him back from action. Structurally, the ghost acts as a counterdesire. The hero’s desire drives him forward; his ghost holds him back. Henrik Ibsen, whose plays put great emphasis on the ghost, described this structure step as “sailing with a corpse in the cargo”.

So those are my thoughts on Pixar. You know who else creates interesting ghosts? Marvel.

Come back in two weeks. I’ll examine ghosts for some of Marvel’s superheroes.

Kinds of Kids’ Books (Part 2)

In part one, I discussed general categories and level of language. Today I’ll continue with subject matter and word counts. I also promised a great resource, which I’ll give near the bottom of this post.

Subject Matter

To help me through this, I’m going to reference three books that have helped me a lot.

You Can Write Children’s Books by Tracey E. Dils; Wishes, Lies, and Dreams by Kenneth Koch; and A Sense of Wonder by Katherine Paterson

When I first decided to try writing for kids, I found Tracey Dils’s book and read it quickly. Some of my friends thought I was silly for reading something with a title so on-the-nose, but You Can Write Children’s Books actually has a lot of good advice for people starting out. It clearly outlines not just category conventions (ex. word counts, pacing, etc.) but also details developmental stages. Hugely helpful!

These developmental stages are illustrated in the second book, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams by Kenneth Koch. It follows Koch’s experiences teaching poetry to children in Manhattan classrooms. He talks about the kinds of writing prompts that kids responded well to. He also notes differences in theme and tone by age.

Consider the following poems:

I wish my rabbit would not lick me!

I wish that I can eat in a tree like dinner.

I wish I could eat chicken all night long!

I wish that I was a giraffe because they got a long neck!

I wish I could go to the river and eat meat!

I wish I was a monkey to eat a banana! I wish I was as bad as my brother.

Chip Wareing, Primary Grade

Ignoring the brilliant cadence–the alternating can/could, the unusual phrase “in a tree like dinner”, the pounding towards spondees at the end of most lines, the unexpected periods–try to focus on the poem’s sense of fun. It has a tail of longing at the end on “brother” but most of the poem is gleefully leaping about.

I Was

I was in a cartoon on television. I was a broom standing in a corner. I swept floors with my feet. I didn’t like sweeping floors.

I was bought from a store.

I was able to talk.

I was a moveable broom.

I was very mad because all I did was sweep.

I was finally so mad I turned right back into a tree.

I threw my trees of oranges at the people I swept floors for.

Ilona Baburka, Grade 4

A few years later, and what a change. You could say this is dependent on individuals, but Koch notes a trend and the poems included support him. The kids start out bursting with energy, begin to be more aware of others around grade three, then turn responsible and bittersweet in the later years. It’s remarkable to see the shift in the poems.

The last book above, A Sense of Wonder, is a collection of essays by Katherine Paterson. I don’t have a copy (I borrowed it from the library) so I can’t quote from it as much as I’d like, but here is one part that’s guided my own work:

I cannot, will not, withhold from my young readers the harsh realities of human hunger and suffering and loss, but neither will I neglect to plant that stubborn seed of hope that has enabled our race to outlast wars and famines and the destruction of death. If you think that this is the limitation that will keep me forever a writer for the young, perhaps it is. I don’t mind. I do what I can and do it joyfully.

In another section, she lists the terrible things that have happened in her books: sexual abuse, racist slurs, starvation, death, etc. According to Paterson, a book isn’t made a kids book by lack of dark subject matter; it’s made a kids book by the inclusion of hope.

In honesty and fairness, I was originally planning to have this section talk about the envelopes that you shouldn’t push in certain categories, but the more that I thought about it, the less committed I felt to those “rules”. I wouldn’t say you should write your first board book about teenage pregnancy, but I’m also not willing to say that a good board book about teenage pregnancy is impossible.

Those dark and complicated issues are important, and for the most part I think the sooner that people start exploring them in a safe, approachable, and grounded manner the better.

I’ll let Paterson close this section for me.

There are adults who would rather teenagers not come face to face with such agonizing truths.  But I have never been sorry that I met my shadow when I was sixteen.

Word Counts

Lately I’ve been working off the numbers posted on Literary Rambles, which run as follows:

Board Books: 0 – 100 words.

Early Picture Books: 0 – 500 words.

Picture Books: 50 – 1,000 words.  1k is pushing it.

Nonfiction Picture Books: 500 – 2,000 words.

Early Readers:  200 – 3,500 words, depending on age level.

Chapter Books: 4,000 – 10,000 words.

Hi-Lo Books: 500 – 50,000 words, varies greatly depending on age level. A large number fall between 500 – 20k words.  Some 60-90k YA books get classified as Hi-Lo, but I don’t think they were specifically written for the category.

Middle Grade: 25,000 – 45,000 words, usually around 35-40k.  Longer word counts allowed for fantasy, sci-fi, historical.  Up to 60-70k is probably safe (though there are even longer exceptions).

Young Adult: 45,000 – 70,000 words.  Longer word counts allowed for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, historical. 80-90k is safe (there are some as high as 120k, but I recommend staying below 100k, if possible).

Nonfiction MG/YA: 5,000 – 70,000 words, varies greatly (with some exceeding 100k) depending on the type of book and age level (I recommend researching similar titles to what you’re writing/proposing to find appropriate range).  Memoirs seem to fall within the same range as novels for their age group.

They have links to several other sources on the topic that are worth checking out if this is a new area for you.

But here’s the resource I’ve been hyping: AR Book Finder. It’s a search tool that will let you find the word count of almost any published novel. Cool, right?

I recommend looking up a few books in the category you’re writing in, whether it’s chapter books or literary historical romance. You might be surprised how many cluster around the same area, and then how far out in left field a favorite novel might be.

At the end of the day, the real answer on word counts is that your story should be as long as it needs to be, and not any longer. If you’re writing the kind of story that is normal for your category, it should end up fitting pretty close on its own.