The Wise Old Mentor is one of the pinnacles of Fantasy tropes. They are the people who show up at our farm boy hero's front door, proclaim they are the CHOSEN ONE and they must venture on their epic quest. Along the way, they dump hefty amounts of exposition, or talk about how the dark times have fallen, or how they knew the protagonist's father. They become the parental figure, the all-knowing-I-can-fix-it-but-I-won't person in the story.
As usual, I'm going to break down the pros and cons of the Mentor Trope, why we like it and how we can stop it from being more of a cliché.
There are several benefits to writing the Mentor. For one, they can train your protagonist who may or may not have zero skills. They’re also a good way to offer exposition on the world you spent hours upon hours creating, and they can offer direction to a story when the protagonist has none. (Please do not use your mentor like this.)
Joking aside, a mentor is one of the most important characters because they are there to bolster a protagonist's arc. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Gandalf in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. He showed up in both Bilbo's and Frodo's lives, kicked them out the house and sent them off on an epic quest. When they returned, they were different, stronger, and more self-reliant. They had learned new skills along the way, and it was all thanks to Gandalf.
But because they are so uniquely tied to the protagonists, arc, when the mentor inevitably dies, it represents a shift in the arc of the protagonist. All the while, the protag has lived in the security that the mentor will fix the problem. Like how Obi-Wan cut off a thug’s arm in a New Hope to protect Luke. Luke did absolutely nothing in that fight, but his mentor saved him. Like how a child can rest trusting their parent will take care of them (though the protagonist is probably an orphan) People often look up to those with more experience.
But when the mentor dies, suddenly the protagonist has nothing else to stand upon. When Vader killed Obi-Wan on the Death Star, Luke was forced to stand on his own. Kenobi completes the arc when his voice echoes in the trench and Luke blows up the Death Star. The mentor's arc could be a flat arc (maybe I can discuss arcs in my next tip) but it can be powerful nonetheless.
However, the mentor’s knowledge could be a detriment if used poorly. It could lead to a knowledge dump and remove the reader from really connecting with the story. Don't get me wrong, I love world-building but sometimes it’s the characters who need to come first. A mentor can provide a powerful view of the world, and often has a different voice to the protagonist. It just needs to be balanced.
The second issue is the predictability of the arc, from providing a ‘call to adventure’ to removing themselves to allow the protagonist to stand on their own. So how can we make it fresh again? I think the answer is to give the mentor an agenda besides supporting the protagonist. Every character is the hero of their own story, and the mentor is no exception. They don’t need to make a call to adventure. That could be the protagonist’s call. I chose to have Eli do that in Torchbearer. He leaves the cabin because the mentor refused to act.
A mentor should never be used to cover up a protagonist’s lack of agency. Everybody needs someone to help them through life, but they need to write their own story, particularly the main character.
Bear in mind the characters don’t need to be old. I would argue Argus Summers in Skyborn by David Dalglish is an excellent mentor, and he's still quite young. As commander of the Seraphim forces, he is extremely skilful and provides technique pointers for Bree, however Bree and Kael are still the centrepieces of the story. They have significant agency, yet Argus is a solid mentor, and he removes himself from the arc by being captured and presumed dead. Another great example is Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender. She’s twelve, blind and the greatest earthbender of her time. And in episode 2x09, “Bitter Work,” there’s a story where she trains Aang, but she actually has an arc of learning to be a mentor. The teaching process goes both ways, after all. A true teacher learns from their student. The protagonist should impact the mentor as much as the mentor impacts them.
The final possibility that I will mention is to have your mentor fail. Perhaps the protagonist realises they don't need the mentor to fulfil their arc. Perhaps the mentor dies before they can fulfil their goal, but that goal has nothing to do with the protagonist at all. Whatever it is, I’m sure you can come up with it.
In any event, a mentor is a useful character to have, and is amazing with a fresh twist.
So that's it for today! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to check out my other ones around the blog! If you want to chat about writing or anything at all, tweet me at @sr_thiele.
Today's question: who is your favourite mentor character? Let me know in the comments below!