Bothered by Boggarts: Unlocking a Protagonist’s Fears

Once a week, I want to give some old-fashioned writing advice. This week, it’s on character development. It was originally inspired by a conversation I had with Gail Carson Levine (Ella Enchanted), in which she said to meet a character by going through it’s pockets. This is more a matter of picking a character’s emotional scabs.

It is no secret that of all Harry Potter books, my favorite is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In addition to most of the book featuring a BoSox-level obsession with Quidditch and the most stunning character-reversal I can ever remember reading that didn’t make me throw the book across the room, it was the first of that series to make me cry. I also associate it fondly with my own writing career, since I got my first check for a publication and used it to buy that book for my brother’s birthday.

One of the most fascinating scenes for me, however, is the chapter “The Boggart in the Wardrobe.” The students have to face a creature that transforms into their worst fears. For Ron, he’s faced with a gigantic spider. Seamus is tormented by a banshee. In the funniest moment of the whole book, Neville faces his most hated teacher and imagines him into a green dress and a vulture-topped hat. It’s also a great jumping-off point for anyone who likes to imagine the worst-case scenario for people like Draco Malfoy or Gilderoy Lockhart.

Several years ago, I wrote a scene for Swan and Shadow in which four friends discuss phobias. They range from fear of bees to heights and a few unusual ones. All joking aside, I later sat down and thought about what would be the boggart in the wardrobe of my two narrators.

Maeve was easy to pin down. You only have to look at the family history to know why she takes an unhealthy interest in her sister’s love life when the alternative to happily-ever-after is a more permanent version of the curse.

Then I asked Aislin, the swan maiden. She brought to mind news stories of school shootings and bomb threats and even natural disasters. The theme wasn’t “horrible things happening.” The theme was “horrible things happening when I can’t do anything about it.” A year later, I was watching the footage of the Boston Marathon bombing that was very personally horrifying for me as a hardcore Bostonian. Somewhere in all of the nightmares I had run through my mind, Aislin told me that was exactly her worst-case scenario.

When my editor at Cedar Fort asked me to raise the stakes in the book, I decided she needed a catalyst for her to be less passive in her own storyline and become committed to taking greater charge of her less-than-ideal life. This is why, around the middle of the book, the sisters’ father is injured in the line of duty as a member of the Boston PD. It’s a very traumatic section for Maeve, who has to spend hours in the waiting room while he’s in surgery. But when the sun sets and Aislin finds out what happened almost 9 hours before, the response is visceral and very much real. (Mom asked me if this storyline was a statement about my relationship with my father and I said, “Um, no, it’s meant to be good storytelling!”)

The other night, I had that “What’s your greatest fear?” conversation with Bryne Driscoll, the protagonist of my current Work in Progress. The book starts with the discovery that her sister Megan, who never came home from a hike, was actually murdered. On the anniversary of her disappearance, Bryne and a mutual friend bring their instruments to the grave and play the string trio that they had been working on with Megan before she disappeared. At Megan’s funeral, they played the same thing, but had a violinist from school play in Megan’s stead. But at this moment, they leave it out and they’re just two friends acknowledging the silence that their viola and cello aren’t meant to fill.

I suddenly had this epiphany in that Wednesday conversation that Bryne’s worst-case-scenario is that something will happen to her and her parents will be left with nothing but a house full of unplayed musical instruments and memories of the daughters who left them behind. In the same way that Aislin’s inability to help while under the influence of the curse spurred her to become more active in trying to break it, Bryne will always face peril with the intention of never permitting her house to be filled with silence.

So, my creative advice for this week is, when you know your characters well enough, have this conversation. I’ve even used this for a character without sentient emotion. Cassandra in “Just One Chance” (my dragon-smuggling android story in Iron Doves) undertakes an epic quest because she has an understanding of her master’s worst fear and greatest sense of guilt. I will give the caveat that if you try starting out your character development with this conversation, the answer might change by the time you finish writing the character. So get to know your brainchild first, and then make them talk about their feelings.

3 thoughts on “Bothered by Boggarts: Unlocking a Protagonist’s Fears”

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