Two weeks ago, I introduced the idea of the mentor, of this person who has advice and wisdom and skill to offer the hero, things that they give the main character purely to help them.
Last week, I discussed a variety of clichés concerning these folks, and ways to make our own mentors stand out from the crowd of bearded hermits (admittedly, it doesn’t take much to stand out from that crowd).
Today, I want to talk about an important relationship in your novels, one that ties those two things together in a powerful way: the mentor and the villain.
I’m not talking about the villain’s mentor (although they should technically have mentors, too, since literally everyone has at least one mentor in life… anyway), but rather the relation between the hero’s mentor and the hero’s villain.
You see, the mentor displays everything the hero could be. The mentor – after all – has the skills and wisdom that help equip the main character to overcome said villain. Without the mentor, the hero could not win. Therefore, the mentor is key to the hero’s plan, and therefore a key obstacle to the villain.
This relationship is easily seen in so many of today’s classic fantasy sagas, which is why I will primarily use them (as I have before) to display this, and make some observations.
When you read Lord of the Rings, you immediately see the power of Gandalf, even if the hobbits see mostly fireworks and mischief. Tolkien paints him as one of the most obvious mentors in the history of mentors. Sure, he’s a white-bearded old man, but he’s also shown as incredibly human in his weaknesses and incredibly human in his strengths. Without Gandalf, Frodo would never have survived, not to mention that he might have never left the Shire in the first place. Gandalf’s wisdoms helped them through all their trials, even when they were without him.
Gandalf’s power is shown most clearly in Moria, as he holds back the Balrog. This monstrous demon of past ages is halted by an old man with a staff and a sword.
That is power.
Before your readers believe that the mentor is actually worth the villain’s time, you have to show their strength and necessity. Show us how your Frodo can’t survive (or even START the adventure) your Gandalf. Give us every reason to care about this character.
Another great Tolkien mentor is Aragorn. Sure, we tend to consider this man an Ally, but I see him as more of a mentor. He cares for the Hobbits: he leads them, feeds them, trains them, guides them. Without Strider, they’d never have made it to Rivendell.
We see his power in healing, in fighting, and in leading. Aragorn’s power is shown clearly and without doubt.
When you create and show your mentor to the world, let us see their strength, as well as their weaknesses. Show us their imperfections along with their strength, so that they become very human, and very powerful.
The thing is… if the mentor is so powerful, the villain must be that much more powerful. To create a true villain, they have to be able to win. That means the villain has to beat the mentor, right?
There’s a common trend of showing this defeat before the villain then faces the hero, to show how out of place and weak the hero is.
In Lord of the Rings, the Balrog wins. This servant of the dark powers we’ve yet to face defeats the strongest member of the Fellowship. In Star Wars, Obi-wan is defeated by Darth Vader, the servant of the dark powers we’ve yet to face.
Writers like to do this in the darkest moments, showing the hero at their weakest and the villain at their strongest. It shows us how much the hero has to grow before they can even begin to have the slightest chance of winning.
While this is powerful (and I advocate it wholeheartedly), we find a lot of clichés here that are proliferated because of these stories. For instance, the most common character death (no statistic I can provide, but if you go out there and look, you’ll find this to be true) is that of the mentor. Everyone kills the mentor. It seems that killing the mentor is the only way people know to show this defeat.
The thing is… why is death the only way mentors can be defeated? That’s not very original of us, if we just accept the fact and kill off our mentors blindly because that’s the way everyone shows how powerful their villain is.
Dare to be different.
If it’s cliché to kill the mentor (and it is), then how do we show the mentor’s defeat? I can think of several ways, which I’d like to share, if that’s all right:
Physical defeat. While killing the mentor fits in this category, there are also several other ways this can go: when the mentor has a physical talent they pass to the hero, show the mentor’s defeat in that physical talent. Whatever it is, the villain bests them at it.
Other forms of physical defeat include physical wounds, physical imprisonment, and physical weakness.
Mental defeat. An even better way to show the mentor’s defeat is to show the villain outsmarting them in some way. Mental defeat is much more powerful than physical defeat. Mental defeat leaves your mentor feeling powerless, in spite of their physical abilities and talents that they still possess in full measure. When the villain outthinks the mentor, it makes our main character look hopeless.
When the villain can mentally torture the mentor, it creates far more fear than physical pain. The truth is, people care a lot about their brains. They like having full possession of their mental capabilities. When a character loses that control, the reader loses it, too.
Emotional defeat. This is the most powerful and also the most difficult sort of defeat your characters can suffer. When the mentor is defeated emotionally, they aren’t sure if the goal is worth it anymore. It puts the themes and morals of the “good guys” at risk, on the line, at the brink. When the mentor questions what is right, the reader will, too. That’s the perfect place to have your reader. It’s the place where they are the most invested, the most vulnerable. It’s when you have the chance to show them that despite the questioning of those who we respect, the good is still good and the truth is still the truth.
Mentors are, as I’ve said before, excessively important characters. They drive your hero to greater heights, and they pull the reader along.
Done wrong, they’re cliché and flat and boring and we don’t care a bit about them when you destroy them.
Done right, and we weep right alongside the characters as they break down and question their own beliefs. Done right, mentors are powerful, powerful people.