So the slightly raspy throat that I worked through my shift with yesterday (hence no Being a Better Writer post on Monday) has erupted into something a bit more substantial, and I’m sitting here nursing a headache and a throat that feels like someone poured concrete down it … which is a weird image, but honestly feels pretty sport on. Anyway, I’m hoping that that’s all I’m feeling so that this post still stays up to par. Music is on, my finger are striking keys … let’s get this done.
So, writing about mentors. This is once again a fan-requested topic (of which I only have a few left), submitted in response to my last topic call. But, thankfully, it wasn’t just a call for “what is a mentor character” but for a slightly more in-depth question: how do I use a mentor character?
So, yes, we’re going to talk about that. But first, before we dive into it, I actually do want to tackle the first question, the one that wasn’t asked, for the benefit of those who may not be familiar or as familiar with it. So, with that in mind, what is a mentor figure?
Well, this one’s actually pretty easy to explain thanks to our modern plethora of pop culture that features the mentor figure. The original idea dates back to ancient times, so ancient, in fact, that the mentor is considered a classic step in the “heroic monomyth,” a movement along a hero’s journey to becoming a hero. Though the concept of “heroic monomyth” is a relatively recent term (Google it if you’ve not heard of it), the actual “monomyth” isn’t, and stories have followed its steps for thousands of years.
In other words, mentor figures have been around in stories about as long as they’ve been around in the real world. Pull up any ancient myth or story, from Hercules to the Eic of Gilgamesh, and the odds are you’ll find a mentor character somewhere in that story, guiding the hero and assisting them in their journey.
So we’ve established that the term is old. But what is the term? What’s a mentor?
Well, it’s pretty simple: Have you seen Star Wars: A New Hope? The mentor in that film is Obi-wan Kenobi.
No, really. Obi-wan is a classic mentor figure. He’s older than the protagonist, clearly skilled, knowledgeable of many things, and has mastery over things that the protagonist will need to learn in his journey, which he then begins teaching.
And that’s really basically, in a nutshell, what a mentor figure is. They’re a character who is older, wiser, more knowledgeable, more skilled, etc, than the protagonist who aides and assists them in reaching their potential, points them along the proper path, dispenses advice, etc. They’re not the protagonist—nor can they do what the protagonist must do (be the protagonist) for some reason, usually old age (a classic), disinterest, or some other factor. So they impart their knowledge, skills, etc, to the protagonist so that they can have a greater chance at succeeding at whatever it is they set out to do. Often, they can serve double-duty as a father or mother figure of some kind, and then usually cap things off with a death that galvanizes the hero and sends them out into the world.
So, Obi-wan is a mentor figure. So is Dumbledore from Harry Potter. Think of a few other books or movies with a heroic protagonist and see if you can figure out who or what their mentor may have been? Can you spot on in one of your favorite stories?
Okay, so now that we’ve got that clarified for the curious (and if you’d like to read more, again, I suggest Google; the topic has been discussed in-depth hundreds of times and can be quite interesting to tead about), let’s move on to what this reader was asking. We know what a mentor character is, now how do we use one in our story?
Okay, I kid. That’s the easy answer. Getting serious however, the way I see it is that you shouldn’t be asking yourself up front whether or not you’re going to have a mentor figure in the story, but rather ask yourself if the story needs one.
What’s the difference? Well … it’s in how you come at it. The first approach is very much one that sticks to the heroic monomyth (there it is again). You’ve decided to write a story about a hero, and so you decide before doing much else that one of the notes they need to hit is that of the mentor-figure. At that point, pretty much all you need to do is tailor-make a mentor character for that particular story beat and weave them into the narrative as the beat approaches.
There isn’t anything wrong with this approach. Plenty of stories have executed this in some form or another. Abstracted, this is the sort of event where a protagonist ends up at a location and meets a (usually older) character that dispenses some wisdom and fulfills the trope of the mentor before sending the protagonist on their way. You have a beat in the story that says “mentor goes here” and when you reach that moment, you fill in the needed requirements with a mentor.
One note? Well, yes it is. After all, with this scenario, you’re not looking to craft a developed, three-dimensional being. You’re looking to fill a piece of narrative, a beat in your story. You’ll have your protagonist/hero need something when they get to this point, a bit of advice or a skill or something of that nature, and the mentor figure will appear to provide exactly what they need.
That’s having a mentor figure simply to have one. You’re hitting the bullet points in the monomyth and sliding a mentor in simply because you’re going to have one.
Now, what about needing a mentor figure? This is a bit different. With the prior setup, where the mentor is put into the story because you’re going to hit that beat, you have a character that is simply there to fulfill a simple need and then vanish … and here’s the thing: It’s a need you could fill another way. Your character needs a bit of information or to learn a particular skill? You can undoubtedly find another way to grant them that. The mentor insertion is simply there to be a mentor to hit the narrative beat of the monomyth, but the character could solve things on their own.
But what if you have a situation where the character cannot reach a solution without some form of outside help? What if you’ve written them into a story or situation where they would stumble, and likely fail, without some form of outside help? A situation in which their own shortcomings are too great for them to succeed, and the character not skilled, talented, or capable enough to overcome those shortcomings without guidance?
Well, now you need a mentor figure. They aren’t just going to be there so that the author can point and go “Yes, that’s the mentor. Right there. Trope fulfilled.” They’re going to be there so that they can keep the main character from stumbling, pick them up, train them, and gift them with the skills they need to succeed.
And this type of mentor? This can be a fully fleshed out, living, breathing, three-dimensional character. They’re not just there to provide a story trope, but they’re there to take part in the growth and development of your protagonist for reasons other than “Because the story demands it.” They can be an old woman who sees the struggling hero and takes them under her wing, or a skilled ruffian who sees the potential of the protagonist to be more than a punching bag, or even a sellsword-equivalent mentor that only helps the protagonist along because they’re being paid to do so.
This is the type of mentor who can become a major player in the story itself. For example, let’s go back to Dumbledore and compare him to the mentor figures of an ancient myth. In Harry Potter, Dumbledore is clearly a mentor to the protagonist: He offers cryptic advice, steps in when necessary, sees to the protagonist’s training … and is still a fully rounded character. Harry wouldn’t get very far without Dumbledore’s help, but Dumbledore both helps and plays a character in his own right.
Now, compare this to adaptations of the ancient Hercules myth, and look at the differences with Hercules mentor figure. If you’ve seen the Walt Disney animated film, you probably remember a wise-cracking satyr voiced by Danny Devito, but in more common retellings, Hercules’ mentor gets far less attention and screentime. One adaptation for television had his mentor only appear in the first episode … and for less than five minutes.
That? That’s hitting a narrative beat. Dumbledore, on the other hand, was a full character who played a pivotal role in each of the Harry Potter books.
Right, so then how do we make use of this type of mentor? The one that the character needs? How do we write them? How do we interweave them into the story?
Well, first, you’re going to need to identify what this mentor accomplishes for the protagonist. Why are they there? What weaknesses are they compensating for? Once we know this, we can begin to construct a character that will be able to fill in these gaps for our protagonist, a character that will reasonably have these needed skills and talents that will aide our protagonist.
Basically, you’re going to build another character for your story. But this time, you’re going to put criteria on them. They need to fulfill certain obligations as a mentor, so you’ll need to give them the background, history, and personality to make use of those things.
At the same time, you have to keep a close eye on this character you create so that they don’t become one of two things:So skilled that the reader (and logic) wonder why they aren’t the ones going after the core story since they would be much better than the hero, and a character that is so skilled and awesome at what they do that they break the reader’s sense of disbelief.
This is why so many mentors tend to be old mentors, ones that can no longer act with the fire and vigor of their youth. Back in the day they may have been able to take on the plot single-handed … but that was a long time ago and while they can surely train your protagonist and offer them advice, they’d also like you to pass them their walker and who are you again?
I kid, but you get the point. A classic trope of mentors is that they’re old, old enough that they’re no longer the heroes they once were, and now are better of guiding the next generation of heroes than charging into battle themselves.
Point is, when you create this mentor to fill your character’s needs, you need to do so carefully so that they don’t steal the show or beg the question of why they aren’t saving the world. You can use age, you can use backstory … really, any number of reasons—they’re infinite—but you have to have them.
For example, when writing Beyond the Borderlands, the protagonist that I had saw and recognized several weaknesses with her plans in the early part of the story: first that she needed information in order to carry out her mission, and second that she was lacking in experience to turn that information into a plan of exceptional quality.
So, early in the story, she tracks down a main member of the cast, an old, disgraced war veteran who has both the information she needs and the skills she lacks, to assist her in her journey. But here was the thing about this mentor: for every area in which he had more experience and skill than the protagonist, every area he could mentor her, he also had weaknesses.
Sure, he could outline a tactical plan better than the protagonist. But he hadn’t done it for any of the other factions in the story because most of them had left him alone and he wanted to be alone … as well as unknown. But even then, he wasn’t nearly so skilled a combatant as the protagonist, which balanced out his knowledge. He could plan a fight and train the protagonist to look for strategic advantages, but she was much better than he was when the fight erupted and got dirty.
He was also a better leader despite his gruff attitude, but he forced the protagonist to carry the torch because it was her mission and her job, not his.
Basically, while he was a mentor, he could not have simply taken over for the protagonist, as she carried skills and abilities that he lacked (also inclination). He had skills that the protagonist lacked that she needed to succeed, but there were skills that he clearly lacked that he could not or was not interested in gaining that the protagonist held that were needed for success. And, to top it all off, he had a full-fledged part in the story, with his own history, character, and personality.
Now, you can choose how big a role your mentor plays, obviously. You can go for the smaller-scale mentor or a large-scale mentor, that’s up to you. You can simply throw them there for the beat, or you can go all out and make them a fully fledged character. This is up to you. Just … make sure it fits.
And that’s all there really is to it. Mentor characters are there to guide and educate your character, whether that’s in the capacity of merely arriving to show/tell the protagonist one thing, or appearing as a fully-fledged character in their own right. Regardless of the method you choose in your work, you will need to consider what sort of questions they raise as well as come up with explanations to those questions.
In the end, though, a mentor character can be a lot of fun. They can be disagreeable or arrogant, funny or sad. They can bring a lot of flavor to a moment or a scene to liven things up, and they are, in some stories, an integral step towards the conclusion of your plot.
You don’t need one, but if you do write one, do it well.
Good luck. Now I’m going to go take a shower and steam off this cold.