I don’t suppose there’s ever a good time to have a mental breakdown, but Artham’s time was particularly bad. He was using himself as proof that sprouting wings or fur does not make a human a monster. Then he snapped; his eloquent words melted into gibberish and he terrified everyone with his wild terror.
The Throne Warden was still the Sock Man. Janner misdiagnosed his uncle’s trouble when he said that it was like Artham was two people. Peet was always Artham, and Artham was always Peet. That was his trouble. And that was the brilliance of the character.
Artham Wingfeather fits the fantasy mold by being a noble hero and royal-blooded warrior. He breaks it by also being, for the longest time, a ragged, filthy outcast, half-sane and oddly fearful. Artham’s weakness has always been as prominent in the story as his strength. It did great things for his character.
For one thing, it made him sympathetic. This sounds obvious, but it really isn’t. Good writers fail in this often enough. It takes more than suffering in a character for readers to sympathize with him. You can torture a character in front of your audience and leave them irritated at the story for melodrama or at the character for whining.
I think one of the things that enabled Andrew Peterson to succeed is that never, in all of the first book, did he write from Peet’s point of view. Peterson grounded Artham as a sympathetic character through the eyes of children who knew nothing about him. He had to show rather than tell Peet’s sorrow, and usually through small things. And it is always the small things that do it.
In one part Peterson writes that Leeli had never spoken to the Sock Man: “No one did. The Glipwood Township ignored him like a stray dog.” You could go on for fifty pages and never convey so powerfully the loneliness and exclusion in which he lived.
In the same way, we can feel Peet’s shame without the word being raised: “He stopped fidgeting and looked at the cluster of Igibys. Tears filled his eyes, and he looked down at his talons, covered with Fang blood. He wiped them on his shirt as if to make himself more presentable. … He tried to fix his wild, white hair and stood erect as he inched closer to the family.”
Artham’s identity as the Sock Man also made him far more interesting – and that is obvious. A man who wears knitted stockings on his hands, fights with street signs, and chants nonsense is far more captivating to the imagination than a handsome prince. Taloned hands are a back story that demands to be told. At the beginning Artham was mysterious, and now he’s unpredictable.
Lastly, I think it made Artham more admirable. It’s hard enough to be good when you’re in your right mind. By the time he came to Glipwood, Artham had lost just about everything – from his kingdom to his loving family to his sanity. But he had not lost his nobility.
I take it for granted that making a novel, like making the world, takes all kinds. Too many sad people is not only dull but wearying. Yet there is something special about characters who suffer well. Maybe it makes them more human; maybe it makes them complete.
Maybe characters, like the power of the Lord, are made perfect in weakness.