No Halloween series is complete without the discussion of ghosts. But not all ghosts are banished to the Paranormal realm in fiction. Sometimes the most influential characters in a novel, other than the MCs themselves, are those of the departed. What would Luke Skywalker have amounted to without the spirit of Obi Wan Kenobi telling him when to use the Force? Would Aragorn have arisen to become the great leader against the forces of evil in Lord of the Rings if the cataclysmic failings of his ancestor, Isildur, hadn’t given him the strength of will to become a reluctant hero?
A Post-Mortem Character (PMC) is often someone who was close to the character, a relative, friend, or teacher. Or they could also be an idol (Elvis, Princess Di) or a person of political or cultural influence (Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa) or someone they admired…or despised. Any departed soul who is in a position to influence a character’s life, decisions, actions or plans could be a PMC. They can take an active role in the plot, taking on personality traits through flashbacks, memories, dreams or interaction with living characters. Or they can take a passive role through the living character’s thoughts. The influence of PMCs can take many forms.
The Mentor. The PMC can act as an active voice that lingers, guiding the character with their remembered wisdom. The character maintains a dialogue with the Mentor, whether real or imagined. The character might hear The Mentor’s voice in their head, see them in dreams or visions, or ask what would you, [insert name of dearly departed PMC], do in this situation? The aforementioned Obi Wan Kenobi was a Mentor PMC. Another example is in THE OUTBACK STARS. When Sergeant Terry Myell is close to death he is visited by his mother who calls him by his special name—Jungali—and gives him hints about the choices he must make.
The Inspiration. The character is compelled to complete a journey the PMC began, but could not complete themselves due to death. A son who takes up his father’s sword and vows to finish his quest is a common theme, sword being a symbolic word for cause. Although similar to a Mentor, there is no active dialogue between the character and the PMC, but the PMC’s influence is evident by the character’s motivation.
The Conscience. The PMC’s memory prompts the character to do things or make choices that would make the PMC proud, etc. This is probably the most universal passive PMC influence. My father always told me to… My mother wanted me to be… What would my grandmother think if she knew I…
The Reshaper. The grief of the PMCs passing results in life-altering changes in the character. The character might move away, change their lifestyle, because of--or to avoid facing--the memory of the departed one. The death of Duke Leto Atreides in DUNE sends his young son Paul into exile, where he raises an unlikely army of Fremen in the quest to avenge his father’s murder.
The Lingerer. This sort of PMC may incite the opposite effect of a Reshaper when the character holds on to their memories too tightly, whether or not he/she should, and this also causes life-altering events or conflict. In Ann Aguirre’s GRIMSPACE, navigator March is affected by the memory of his late Grimspace navigator/partner, while his new navigator, Sirantha Jax, still stings from the loss of her own pilot/partner/lover, Kai, a situation that causes a rift between them and threatens their freshly minted do-it-or-die alliance.
The Reverser. Not all PMCs are someone admired. Another aspect of a PMC affecting a character is when they vow not to behave like the departed, not to make the same mistakes, or carry the same negative traits. In contrast to a Reshaper who sends the MC off in a different direction or spurs them to begin their initial quest, a Reverser sends the character into gear-slamming reverse. In this case, the PMC lives on as an example of what not to do. Aragorn, meet Isildur.
The Haunter. This PMC can have the effect of the Mentor, Inspiration, or Conscience but they do so more directly—through fear. They mentally or physically haunt the character with lingering nightmares, apparitions or poltergeist activities. They may be adversaries, villains, abusers, or victims, but not always. The tone is threatening, but not all Haunters are evil. In the motion picture Dragonfly, the deceased wife of the MC haunts her husband through her former child patients and household objects, goading him to take a journey to South America to discover something very precious that he believed lost—their infant daughter.
In a twist on the PMC, the characters themselves may already be deceased, but that fact is concealed until the shocker ending when their lingering influence on others is revealed. In fact, this isn’t all that rare. Do any of these movie titles sound familiar? Sixth Sense. The Others. Psycho.
Now, here’s the real test. Can you think of a major novel or motion picture that didn’t have a character somehow affected by a PMC influence?
Good luck with that. ;)