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The Work of the Mentor

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Oct. 17, 2020
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Might as well get it out of the way: if you're a mentor in a story, chances are you're going on a boatride over the river Styx at some point.

When a mentor dies it's often the signal that the main character, the one being mentored, is ready to fly solo, to come into his/her own and even surpass the mentor, thus fulfilling the mentor's character arc as well.

But- first off, it doesn't have to be that way. Sometimes mentors live, and they just walk away from their mentee's life because they have fulfilled their purpose. Sometimes they have their own goals to achieve and their path takes them away from that of their mentee anyway- with maybe the hope, or the chance, that they meet again in the future as equals, or allies, or even rivals.

Second off, that is the end of the line for them. Their work is done, and they walk out of the picture one way or the other.

What about the work itself?

I'd written articles before about mentors and the huge variety that their personalities can have, but that aside, there remains one common denominator: they need to consciously and actively help the main character develop and progress in their hero's journey in some manner.

What does that entail?

There is of course, teaching. Mentors always impart knowledge and experience that they have amassed, so their student/mentee won't need to go through the same experiences in order to get the same lessons.

The mentor is the giant on whose shoulders the main character is, eventually, going to stand. And the story has to be able to demonstrate that.

No matter what their personality (from cryptic to narcissistic to cynical to pious to serene to explosive), their behavior has to exhume experience, confidence, and self-awareness when it comes to the things they are mentoring the main character on.

They might be a complete brick when it comes to romance, but they have to be immediately shown to be experts when it comes to de-escalating a volatile situation, for example. (Their shortcomings might tie in to the mentor's own character arc, if they got one, and not just comedic hijinks)

A mentor that is written properly when it comes to mentoring does not preach as a rule. They might lecture their mentee if the mentee messed up, but most of the mentoring should happen by example. The main character has to witness the mentor handling a situation in an expert way, rather than be told how to do things all the time.

Teaching aside, the mentor is also emotional support. Even if that is not evident (like with ‘tough love’ mentors), even if they are very reluctant to even acknowledge the role of mentor, the mentor must always help the main character feel stronger, better, more determined. They will not kick them when they're down, but they will also not enable them when they're begging for things that will harm them. They will reach out to pull the main character out of a rut even if the main character actively fights them for his/her bid to stay in said rut.

A mentor that makes the main character feel constantly belittled, trashed, or otherwise trampled on is not a mentor (they may be a false mentor that gets punted by the real one further down the story).

Great examples of mentors and mentoring arcs are Iroh to Zuko, from Avatar: The Last Airbender, Mr. Miyagi to Daniel from Karate Kid, Hiko to Kenshin from Rurouni Kenshin, Bishop Myriel to Jean Valjean from Les Miserables, Abbe Faria to Edmond Dantes from Count of Monte Christo, Marmee March to Jo March in Little Women, and many more.

There is also a misconception that there can only be one mentor for one main character in a story. That is not true. A main character can have several mentors, either in succession or in tandem, and each one can impart different elements and morsels of wisdom rather than have one single all-knowing mentor do everything.

Are there mentors in your story? If so, how are they handling their mentoring?

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anonymous?

usedbooks at 5:34PM, Oct. 17, 2020

I have a character in Used Books who thinks he's a mentor character, but he's just as inept as everyone else. He is an old guy with a cool face scar. But every now and then, it is obvious that he's trying to play a role (like his son, the "thief," and his daughter, the "badass"). He has no leadership skills and doesn't understand technology. I also had a flashback in Used Books where Kaida was being taught how to be an assassin, but her "mentor" assaulted her. Basically, Used Books has only subversions of mentors.

hushicho at 2:53PM, Oct. 17, 2020

I think you mean "exude" and "protegé", but in any case I agree strongly with what you've written here. It's typically lazy to just get rid of a mentor, and they can add so much to a narrative, especially when they're written well, as a person with their own lives and goals. usedbooks mentions Practical Magic, which is one of the best depictions of mentor characters I've ever seen. They know a great deal, they know how to impart knowledge to others (or how to guide them to discover it themselves), and perhaps most importantly, they know when they have to step away and let their students learn lessons that might not be the easiest or most pleasant. But they are there when things get too much for the main protagonists.

cdmalcolm1 at 2:41PM, Oct. 17, 2020

In my story, Ina Going from a know it all villain to not knowing anything leads Ina, (SolarCell) to be mentored. In the HA universe, Bombshell takes on this roll personally but also allowed other HA members to interact with her. Each member brings something to the table in helping her become a successful super hero. She at some point will mentor others when the time comes. It think when it comes to mentoring the mentee, the mentee don’t know a few things or have no knowledge of something important to them. I’ve had a few of those in my life. They are awesome. (None of them are dead,lol)

PaulEberhardt at 9:21AM, Oct. 17, 2020

This said, I like perfectly gentle, paternal/maternal mentors, too, when they fit in. Also, I enjoy reading stories with the more lofty kind for the more or less mystical aura that surrounds them, but I don't think I could quite pull that off myself.

PaulEberhardt at 8:46AM, Oct. 17, 2020

Whenever my main character does some mentoring to her apprentice I base the scenes on encounters with one or two real-life mentors I used to know, but of course turned up to 11. This type of mentor is more often than not self-appointed and cynical and sees his/her main function in constantly putting everyone around them into place, which in their opinion is invariably down on the ground, where all the small and spineless creatures belong. This may happen in a much more friendly way than I make it sound here - paradoxically these mentors somehow have a way of remaining your friend at the same time, albeit with an overwhelming personality. Similarly, they never appear to teach you anything ever and are often clearly wrong in many respects, but for some reason you end up realising that even years later you can't help thinking of them all the time and that they in fact taught you everything really worthwile to know, especially how to hold your ground against anyone, no matter how imposing.

bravo1102 at 7:06AM, Oct. 17, 2020

It's another one of those real life things done very badly in fiction. Writers may only see it in a Kung fu movie or any number of video games and never had to work with someone to get them on the right path as a teacher, mentor or just the guy with the stripes on his sleeve who is supposed to make things happen.

bravo1102 at 7:01AM, Oct. 17, 2020

A lot of writers can't do mentors because they've never been mentored let alone actually mentor anyone. If someone handles it well, probably because they've seen it. It's another "write what you know" often gotten wrong because folks don't know. Might want to look up Melanie Willoughby who is a very successful mentor of young students in business and government. And my sister.

marcorossi at 5:10AM, Oct. 17, 2020

The problem I have with mentors is that I dislike "too perfect" carachters. I think the reason mentors die so often is that, if they didn't, there would be no place for the protagonist as the mentor could usually solve everything single-handedly.

usedbooks at 3:51AM, Oct. 17, 2020

Practical Magic sort of has two mentors (the aunts). Although their students don't want to learn their craft, get in over their heads, and have to ask for help. I have also noticed a little t of times, mentors leave on Important Business rather than getting killed. It is an easy to believe plot device because any mentor worth his salt is going to have Important Business that supercedes training.

usedbooks at 3:45AM, Oct. 17, 2020

In jrpgs, mentors usually go over to the villain side, which is extra special because the apprentice has to literally defeat the mentor as their "final exam."

bravo1102 at 2:06AM, Oct. 17, 2020

A real life mentor that is all too rarely seen in the media is the sergeant with the young officer. A lieutenant will be put in charge of a platoon fresh from school and often it's his subordinates who mentor him on a daily basis and show him the way. And once the sergeant's job is done he goes back to his subordinate position. He doesn't have to die or move on. He's still there pushing for the officer. See Breakthrough (1950) for one and We were Soldiers for a post mentoring NCO and officer relationship.


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