Give your characters something to fear – First Test and Page

A few weeks ago I was reading a book from a series who’s promo text promised “Magic. Romance. Rivals. Perfect for fans of Throne of Glass, Falling Kingdoms, and Tamora Pierce.” And it was feeling familiar. Too familiar. Halfway into the second book I realized why – it had basically the same structure as Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series.

Which, in itself, is not inherently bad.

But this book was doing it badly. Not awfully, just enough to be subtly, and increasingly, annoying. It got so bad I put the book down.

Pierce’s main standout feature is that her characters feel real. No one more so that Keladry from the Protector books, which is her fourth series and the third in Tortal.
Book 1 in the series, First Test, follow’s Kel’s first year as a page, where she finds friends and enemies to the idea that girls can become a knight. Book 2, Page, covers the remaining three years ending with an attempt to keep her from taking her exams. Book 3, Squire, covers her four years in service to a Knight Master, ending with her ordeal of Knighthood. Book 4, Lady Knight, covers her first year as a well, a Lady Knight.
I’ve probably read all four books at least 10 times. Far more than I’ve read any of Tamora Pierce’s other work.

So what makes me keep coming back to this series?

I think it’s Kel – the main character.

Stubborn, no-nonsense, non-magical Kel is probably the easiest of Pierce’s characters to relate to. Pierce’s first main character without magic, Keladry accomplishes her goals through sheer grit, determination, and a lot of hard work. She faces bullying, hazing, and discrimination both overt and subtle.

But Pierce’s characters don’t just have external antagonists, she also gives her characters real fears. Her characters face their fears and grow from them, and then they face their fears again. Further, these character aspects are integrated throughout the books. It’s not just a one-off, there to add tension in a single scene, but a constant thread through their lives and through the series.

For instance, In the Protector books Kel starts out with a very real and crippling fear of heights. It impacts her training and she doesn’t just freeze once or twice. It follows her through the first two books. She is forced to confront it over and over again, and she doesn’t always succeed. In Page, Kel and her friends are surprised by a group of bandits and the only way to safety is a cave up on a height. Kel makes it up, but has to be carried back down on a stretcher. The final confrontation in Page forces her to confront her fear for good, but it has two books of setup to add to its tension.

In the next two books her fear is past, but not forgotten. Her fear of heights is referred to whenever she’s someplace high and even used against her in later books.

This seems like it would be obvious, but it is astounding how often this gets left out. It is what most annoyed me when reading the Black Mage books. The main character there develops a fear of dogs just as she’s about to have a bonding moment with the guy she likes. He helps her get over it in a matter of pages. Moment over, the fear never surfaces again. Other temporary “flaws” replace it, to be just as quickly overcome.
This was painful to read, but it also prevents the character from having a truly fulfilling arc. It robs your story of a lot of emotional weight it could be carrying.

What I learned:
Make your characters confront their fears or flaws and work it into the entire plot line. Make them face it and fail. Make them confront it again after failing. Give them a failure after partial success. Make it a key part of the plot line, and show your character succumbing to it or working through their fear. You’ll show your character growing, and make them feel more real when you do.

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