This week's assessment comes from Juliette, who is writing a fantasy about Adam*, a member of the declining and inbred noble caste called Grobal. Adam faces an age-old question of love or power. He falls in love with Katelyn,* who is from a servant caste he grew up thinking as inherently inferior to his own. To be with her, he'd fall from his upper caste. Worse, his older brother Nicholas*, who currently sits on the throne and has instructed Adam in methods of cruelty to gain political success, outs Adam's true heritage as the son of his mother's servant.
To accept the accusation is to lose all power, so Adam reacts by demanding everyone prove the purity of their blood before casting him out. The irony is that Adam knows in his heart that he has experienced true love from both Katelyn and his real father. He wants to be happy with Katelyn, but he tries to distance himself from both of them because the part of him that wants to be a noble and cling to power hates the part of him that was born of the "inferior" group.
* Names have been changed to protect the fictional.
Juliette wants to know: Does Adam feel ambivalent about his day-to-day decisions - like when Nicholas tells him to do things, does he wonder if they're the right thing to do? What aspects of his fundamental identity crisis would impinge on his thoughts before he learns the truth? Would he be likely to have suspicions about his origins, or would denial make that impossible? Would he come across just as conflicted in his behaviors, or as a good guy or bad guy? How far might he go in his backlash reaction against servants after he learns the truth? Would he be likely to verbally abuse Katelyn at this point? Would he be able to recover in a supportive environment, or would he need therapy? How can he be psychologically redeemed?
This spells great conflict, Juliette! Really deep questions, so hopefully I'll have some nuggets for you to work with.
From reading your narratives (thanks for expounding via email), I am having a hard time determining if Adam is a hero or an anti-hero. You mention many things that sound heroic, but because I don't know his ultimate motivation, they may, in fact, not be.
How great is Adam's motivation to keep power, and is it greater than his desire to be happy and in love? Everything hinges on that answer. I get that his motivation is BIG to keep power. But why? Is it a selfish reason, like that's what he grew up believing to be his heritage, his rightful place, his entitlement (which would make him an anti-hero)? Or is his reason for wanting power more altruistic so he can he make big, positive changes when in control? (which is more heroic). This is a great article on heroes and anti-heroes that might be helpful.
I think that Adam is going to be feel extremely ambivalent and confused about his brother Nicholas's orders. This part of your narrative seems to make Adam more of an anti-hero, because he's had such a dark mentor in Nicholas, which is typical of anti-heroes. (Maybe you have written his real father in as a positive, good mentor?) However, if he is a hero, he'll be very eager to take over Nicholas' reign because he believes Nicholas has been treating people too cruelly. As a hero, Adam would want to change the people's outcome.
As to his suspicions about his origin, unless you've written in some nuances that would make him think his mother was unfaithful to her husband with her servant, or that the servant was taking on more of a fatherly role than was his place, then no, children don't inherently doubt things like who their parents are. They pretty much believe what you tell them, and they'll die defending it, too. (Don't talk about my mama!) I don't think denial will play a big part...it's just not in a child's nature to be suspicious like that...unless it's been planted somehow.
You've got two aspects of Adam: the Adam before he knows the truth about her paternity and the Adam afterward. Before, he still connected with this servant, knowing that she's inferior. He loves her, and surely he must have known going into the relationship that it would be a problem when he was older/on the throne/etc. Did he simply follow the model set before him of his mother and how she got along with her servant? Was the nobility known for indiscretions or improper relationships? Did people turn a blind eye, like Regency England lords keeping mistresses on the side?
After he learns the truth, I'd hate to be around someone like him. Depending on the motivation question earlier, he'd definitely have a backlash toward servants. After all, they represent a part of him that is most decidedly inconvenient to acknowledge. Being rude, emotionally abusive, and hateful toward them will be Adam's way of slaying that inner part of him as well. This makes him sound like an anti-hero, really knocked off kilter because he can't dominate others.
But if the ultimate goal is to keep power (and thereby distance himself from the servants to do so) for some altruistic reason, such as to help servants be on more equal footing in the future, then his backlash will be all an act. In this scenario, if he pushes her away, it is to inflict a little pain in the present to prevent a greater pain later. If there is anyway to bring this aspect into the story, then you'll have absolutely no problem "redeeming" Adam in the reader's eyes, no matter how he might lash out at Katelyn or other servants.
But he also just discovered that the things he knew from birth are just wrong. His mother lied to him, built his life around an important untruth that will cost Adam dearly--the throne. This is a major identity crisis, and people act out, lash out, withdraw, and do all sorts of out-of-character and crazy things when their worlds have been turned upside down. I imagine he would verbally abuse Katelyn, push her away. He'd probably be extraordinarily angry at his mother and his brother, who has the "pure" blood and also outed him.
Since you said neither Adam or Nicholas come to have power in the book, I would hope that Adam's desire for happiness wins out in the end. As one born of a servant, he's in the servant's class and can eventually seize a life with Katelyn once he comes to terms with himself and loss of nobility. What does being noble really mean to him? Can he come to an inner character arc of redemption by understanding that the caste system is mere semantics? That his real father and Katelyn are more stoic, more dependable, more noble than the true nobility because they never gave up on him and were always faithful? That nobility is really a misnomer?
These are just some of my initial thoughts. You've got so much conflict to work with, which is awesome. My biggest suggestion is to make sure the reader knows Adam's fundamental role as either hero or anti-hero. My assessment was more difficult because I wasn't sure. If you have additional questions or clarifications, please feel free to make them below. I'll do my best to answer, and I really welcome dialogue! Sometimes the best stuff comes out in the comments for some people who write in.
Thanks for giving it a shot. I hope it helps!