Last week, I discussed the importance of mentors, and what makes them different from other characters. Today, I’d like to further discuss such characters, but this time look at the cloud of stereotypes and clichés that follow these vital fellows.
One of the most common clichés, the one that follows from some of the greatest sagas of our time, is that mentors have to be aged. More specifically, they have to be old white men with some sort of facial hair and a deep, voice and slow speech pattern.
While I have nothing against white males (I mean… I am one, so there’s that), this is a common stereotype that I feel stories suffer from. Here’s the deal: look at the mentors in your own life. How many of them are old men with large beards and a love of monologues? Myself, I can think of one mentor in my life (of dozens) that fits about half of that bill.
Here’s the deal: mentors don’t have to be old to be wise. You don’t need a hermit or an ancient wizard to find wisdom.
This idea can work, of course, as it’s been done in some of the best (arguably) stories in the history of writing. Look at Gandalf, at Dumbledore, at Obi-wan, at so many others who fit the “old man with a white beard” cliché. They work powerfully for their story because they started the cliché. They’re the reason the rest of us want to have that kind of mentor in our story and feel like it’s necessary for everything to work out.
Turns out, that’s not necessary at all.
The Normal Mentor – Humanness
Whatever you may think of The Hunger Games, Haymitch is one of the best mentors out there. Sure, he’s a white male, but he’s also human.
See, Haymitch has been through life. He’s experienced the things that the main character is about to go through. His unique experience as a human has equipped him to be a natural mentor to Katniss.
But it also turned him into a broken human being. A terribly, terribly human character.
To me, Haymitch expresses the true form of a mentor: mentors are humans who’ve made all the mistakes the main character tends to make. They’ve already messed up, so they know how to advise those about to make those same messes. They’re not super-human perfections who sit on a plane above the rest of us, they’re human.
Another good example of a human mentor is Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler (from a variety of Batman-related things). This is a man who’s seen a lot, and been through most of it. He knows how being human works, even when his employer does not. This insight allows him to give Bruce advice that saves him, many times.
Once again, however, mentors don’t have to follow the cliché of elderly men. Take George Macdonald’s The Wise Woman, for instance. In this short book, the mentor is a woman who has a great deal of advice and knowledge, for she’s lived a life of humanness. It gives her a power, and reveals a wonderful mentor.
We might also consider Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, where we find three mentors in the form of the Mrs. Whatsit, Which, and Who.
Looking At Reality
Consider the immense variety of your life. Look at how many mentors you have. Right now, I can pull out a dozen names without having to pause for more than a few seconds. Easily. I know I can think of more given time and a piece of paper to write down names so I don’t repeat myself by accident. I’m sure you can, too.
Mentors are all around us. Everywhere we go, every sphere of our lives, we have mentors. Those who have gone before us (sometimes they’re younger than we are, which may feel weird, but it’s true). What about characters? When you develop your characters, how many mentors do you give them?
A lot of the time, it seems like we give them one. One mentor, who can fulfill all their needs.
That, however, is not good at all. It’s not realistic, and it puts too much burden on one character. When Obi-wan is given all the responsibility to teach Luke and be his mentor in all areas of his life, it results in an all-powerful mentor who knows everything and a rather flat main character who only has dimension in areas where Obi-wan also has dimension.
Characters need more than one mentor. They need to be like Harry, who has Dumbledore for certain, but also Lupin and Hagrid and Hermione and Mrs. Weasley and so many others. Each character has many, many mentors. Sometimes, people are mentors to each other. Those relationships occasionally go both directions, and rarely does a relationship just go one way. The mentee has to have something to offer the mentor as well.
Clichés: A Short List
Before I end this, I’d like to offer a short list of clichés that reveal themselves in our writing quite often, and potentials for something different:
The old man. I’ve already beaten this one repeatedly, and I think it’s fairly obvious how to reverse this one: make the mentor not an old man. Simple enough. I mean, he can even still be a man.
Conveniently strong in all the ways the hero needs. I mentioned this last week, but a lot of mentors somehow happen to have talents that match the hero’s quest exactly. But what about all the other talents that mentors can have that aren’t exactly what the hero needs? We can find powerful contrast in stories where the hero has to come up with an original solution to a common problem because their mentor taught them something that’s hard to use to solve that problem.
Killed in the darkest moment by the villain. Not to spoil anything, but the three I used yesterday all fit this, and everyone seems to have decided that this needs to be a thing in every novel. The main problem is this: the mentor is supposedly the most masterful person your character knows, and they’re taken out. There’s nothing wrong with showing how the villain is more powerful than the main character through a defeat of the mentor, but why are mentors the easiest kills in novels? They should be the hardest for the villain, even if they’re the first.
But… what if we didn’t kill them at all? What if instead we show them defeated in some other way? Show their spirit broken in some other way.
Grumpy, belligerent drunkards. I realize I just used one of these exact clichés to talk about a fantastic mentor, but this is a cliché that worked for that situation, but not for many that people try. Haymitch was grumpy, belligerent, and drunk a lot. For his character, background, and situation, it totally makes sense and we pity him for it.
All those other drunk mentors who have no reason to be grumpy? I don’t understand them. I realize we want our mentors to be humans, but why does their one flaw always have to be a bottle of bourbon and a scowl? There are so many other possible flaws out there that make them more human than pulling at a cigar while swirling brandy.
I feel like mentors are beaten only by villains in the area of stereotypical, cliché actions. At least the hero has some variety. Mentors currently have two basic varieties, which is a real shame.
Let’s work to make that different. Will you join me?