In Part 2 of my series, “Writers, Know Your Archetypes,” I want to study the role of the mentor. Here are some things to keep in mind about mentor characters in your stories:
1. The main function of a mentor is, of course, to teach and guide the protagonist. The word originates from Homer’s The Odyssey. Mentor was the name of a character who guided Odysseus’ son Telemachus during a search for his long-missing father. He was actually the goddess Athena who took on the form of Odysseus’ old friend. As Athena is the goddess of wisdom, mentors, not surprisingly, are often personified as wise old men and women.
2. Mentors also provide protagonists with gifts. In myths and legends, the usual kinds of gifts could be swords and shields, or magical items. In The Wizard of Oz, Glinda the Good Witch gives Dorothy the ruby slippers to protect her from the Wicked Witch of The West. Q in the James Bond series invents the amazing vehicles and other gadgets Bond uses to fight his antagonists.
3. Mentors nearly always disappear from the protagonist’s life at some point in the story. Dumbledore, Obi-Wan and Yoda are examples of mentors who die. Not all mentors need to die, however. Think of it like a mother bird pushing her baby out of the nest. They may simply remove themselves from the protagonist’s life so they can continue their journey on their own and no longer have to depend on the mentor. (In fact, Obi-Wan’s death seems almost self-inflicted and his way of leaving Luke to figure out the rest of it on his own.) Or, you can invent any number of plot points to remove them from the stage. Anything that separates the protagonist from the mentor will do, as long as it seems organic to the story you are telling.
Sometimes, mentors can be missing from the canvas before the story even begins. Katniss’ father, who is the one who taught her the survival skills that help her in The Hunger Games, is already dead when the story begins, but his influence is felt throughout the series.
4. Like every other character, mentors are flawed. Just because they have superior knowledge the protagonist needs doesn’t mean they know everything or are always right or have pristine motivations. Haymitch in The Hunger Games is a drunk who has already given up on the possibility that Katniss or Peeta can survive the games. Dumbledore in very manipulative and never tells Harry he must die to defeat Voldemort. It is not unusual for mentors to at some point fail and/or disappoint the protagonist.
5. Mentors can function as a romantic interest. One of the best examples I can think of is Kyle Reese in Terminator. He travels from the future to help protect Sarah Connor from the Terminator. He teaches her how to fight cyborgs so she can pass the knowledge on to her son, the future savior of humanity—who turns out to be their son.
6. Mentors can function as protagonists. William Wallace in Braveheart in an example, as is Mark Thackeray in To Sir, With Love. Any story involving a teacher or an already evolved hero/leader will feature a mentor protagonist.
7. Whether functioning as the protagonist or a supporting character, mentors can also have character arcs. To Sir, With Love is an example of a mentor-protagonist who experiences a character arc. Mark is only teaching temporarily until he can get a job as an engineer. He not only guides his rather unruly students into adulthood, the experience helps him decide the course of his own future.
It’s not critical that a mentor have a character arc—Wallace does not have one—but it can add to a story if he or she has one.
8. A protagonist can function as his or her own mentor. An example would be the movie Groundhog Day. Trapped in some kind of spell that forces him to experience the same day over and over again, there is no one to explain to protagonist Phil Connors how to break it. Phil is forced to figure it out for himself.
9. Mentors can function as antagonists. A great example is the James M. Cain novel and movie, Double Indemnity. The protagonist, insurance salesman Walter Neff, is lured into a murder and insurance scam plot by a beautiful woman. His colleague and mentor, Keyes, not only gave him the tools he needed to plan the crimes, he’s the one Neff fears the most will figure out the plot.
10. Mentors do not always have to be benevolent characters that put protagonists on the path of righteousness. They can also lure them into committing criminal/evil deeds. Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious of the Star Wars movies would be an example, as he lured Anakin Skywalker (later Darth Vader) to the dark side of The Force. Another example would be Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street.
11. Protagonists can have more than one mentor, who sometimes can be at cross-purposes. In the aforementioned movie Wall Street, the protagonist Bud Fox actually has two mentors—his father, Carl, and Gekko. He must choose which path to follow—the honest or corrupt one. (Writer/director Oliver Stone also used opposing mentors in the movie Platoon.)
12. Characters can switch from teacher to pupil and vice versa during a story. Two examples: in The Shawshank Redemption, Red is protagonist Andy’s mentor for how to survive prison life. By the end of the story, their positions change, and Andy becomes Red’s mentor for how to survive outside of prison.
In the TV series Breaking Bad, here’s an interesting dynamic: protagonist Walter White was Jesse Pinkman’s high school chemistry teacher. When Walter finds out he has cancer and decides to cook crystal meth so he can leave his family money when he’s gone, Jesse mentors Walter about cooking and distributing meth. As the series progresses, the positions flip again and Walter is Jesse’s mentor when it comes to running a drug empire.
13. You don’t have to limit mentor characters to the wise old man/woman trope. Mentors can be literally anybody who has a superior knowledge of anything that helps the protagonist. A mentor can even be a child, if the child has knowledge that is critical to the protagonist. Look beyond the same old/same old for your mentor characters–there are a wealth of possibilities that can help make yours unique.