We’ve all got people in our lives that we look up to: parents, professors, adults who’ve invested in our lives since we were younger. These people – these mentors – invest so deeply in us that it’s hard to separate their advice and our daily actions. We look up to them and rely on them and trust that the advice they give is good.
Who are these people? They’re mentors. They’re all over our lives, and everyone seems to have at least one. Therefore, it would make sense to expect to see them in stories, right?
Of course, we’re all familiar with the idea of a mentor. If we’ve read a book or seen a movie, we’ve seen a mentor character. Classic examples include Obi-wan Kenobi from Star Wars, Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, and Dumbledore from Harry Potter. There are others, but these three give us good material to work off of.
In short, the mentor is a vital part to your story. Without them, you lose a bit of realism that your story desperately needs. I’d like to spend the next three Fridays talking about these powerful characters, and how to do them right and how to do them wrong.
The Vital Aspect
While all mentors should be different from each other (although in practice it seems they’re all very similar), there’s one aspect that they should all have: something to offer the protagonist. Look at the three I mentioned above: Obi-wan teaches Luke the beginnings of the force, Gandalf protects and guides and defends Frodo, while teaching him valuable lessons of mercy and trust, and Dumbledore basically shows Harry how to be the Boy Who Lived.
Mentors don’t have to be old men with white beards. The three I just gave you are the reasons why that prototype is a cliché now. They did it first, so we have to come up with our own ideas or suffer the mocking comparison. Mentors do, however, need a purpose. If they have nothing to offer their protagonist, they’re actually an Ally, for whom you can see my posts last September.
What is this that the mentor has to offer? Well, that depends on your story. Generally speaking, it’s some sort of advice, skill, or example. For Luke, he needed to know about the force (a skill). For Frodo, it was protection and knowledge (advice). And for Harry, it was all three.
What about your character? What does your protagonist need? For my characters in Agram Awakens, there are a variety of things they needed. For Bea, it was comfort, healing, and advice (provided by an elderly priest and his wife). For Deyu, it was a friend (provided by someone I can’t name because spoilers). Taynan needed skills and protection (provided by a villain, actually…), Gaream needed sage words of advice and calming (provided by his father), and Deng-el needed motivating words of encouragement (provided by his wife).
Notice how different these characters are. Many of them aren’t old men (Gaream’s father and the priest aside). In fact, many of them aren’t that much older than the protagonist (for instance, Deng-el’s wife is younger than he is). I’ve read a book (and can’t for the life of me remember the title) where the mentor was a young girl and the main character was a middle-aged man.
So what’s makes the mentor different from the ally? After all, an ally should have something to offer the protagonist as well, shouldn’t they? Well, yes. The difference is this: the protagonist cannot survive without the gift of the mentor. They can survive without the ally. It would be much more difficult and they’d have to work much harder, but they could do it in a pinch. The ally has their own story, after all, and their own goals. They just happen to be able to help the protagonist as well.
When a mentor enters the story, they become inextricable. Without them, your protagonist fails.
Creating a Worthwhile Wisdom
So. Our mentors need to be wise in some way. They have to be able to pass on this wisdom to the protagonist.
How do we decide what this wisdom is? We look to our protagonist, and we look to our mentor. What does the protagonist need? What is the mentor good at? Where those two things collide, that is where you find your wisdom.
However, you should never look just at the protagonist’s needs. When you do that, you end up with a flat mentor. Why? Because they become nothing more than a plot point. All characters should exist of their own right. The best way to ensure this is to develop your mentor separately from your protagonist. Never develop them with the protagonist in mind. Don’t make them a master at the sword just because your main character needs to be good at it. Make them a master at the sword because they spent thirty years in the army and have since been training new recruits. Make it an integral part of who they are before you make it what they pass on.
This is something I wanted to address briefly before I finish this post. There’s this common trend in books for the protagonist to meet the mentor and/or the ally and/or the love interest during the book. Personally, I find this weak and distracting.
Because it takes time to form a mentor-mentee relationship. It takes months and months and years to form that kind of relationship. Not ten days riding horses together.
When a protagonist meets the mentor for the first time in the second chapter, then suddenly grows to trust and accept them as a mentor in t-minus 0.00002 seconds… it immediately stops feeling real to me. It’s not really a mentorship, it’s a thrown-headfirst-into-trust relationship, and those are rarely healthy in reality.
Anyway. That’s just a personal side-note that I thought might be helpful before I wrapped this thing up.
Mentors are powerful characters. They can sway the story one way or another. Without them, the protagonist fails. They fail miserably. But with them… with the help of the mentor, the protagonist and the story can fly.