In the last ‘Hero’s Journey’ blog we discussed The Ordinary World and The Call to Adventure. Now we will focus on Meeting the Mentor.
Depending on genre, the Mentor can take many forms. In the world of fantasy, the mentor is often a wizened old man who reveals the wonders of magic and always has a pithy word of advice for the protagonist. Normally they’ll be a grumpy outsider, with an alternate view on the world. In Romances, this may still be the case, but the mentor could also be the cook or the master of the stables. They would invariably be from a lower social strata, enabling a different view of the protagonist’s world. It could also be a married or widowed woman of character and station. This role is still prevalent in modern story telling mediums like television (see the Dowager in Downton Abbey) In contemporary novels, the mentor could be a therapist, a protagonist’s secretary, or an estranged parent. And there may be a series of mentors in a protagonist’s life, something that has room to develop in the larger books.
For example, in L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy meets a series of mentors: Professor Marvel, Glinda the Good Witch, Scarecrow, Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Wizard himself. They all provide her with different lessons for her to learn.
The mentor’s role has many purposes, the main being:
- Source of wisdom
- Gift giver
The role of gift-giver comes out most strongly in the subgenres that reflect mythology and fairytales. An example of this is Harry Potter – not only does he have multiple mentors throughout his journey, many of them bestow upon him gifts. The cloak of invisibility, his wand, clues to horcruxes, the list is almost endless. Typically the gifts are given after the protagonist has earned it, by passing a test, by learning, sacrifice or commitment. J.K Rowling manifests this most clearly in Goblet of Fire where Harry literally has to undergo trials to receive the next bit of plot driving information.
Other Mentors can act to motivate the protagonist and help overcome emotional barriers such as fear, love, jealousy etc. The challenges your characters face will invariably require some sort of agent of change and Mentors are a handy tool to enable this.
You can find the mentors in story for looking for their verbal ticks. Mentors may be ghosts that existed prior to the story beginning. They are brought into the story by character’s saying things like “I remember Mother always used to say…” or “Long ago I remember Uncle Gary saying writing is a pain in the arse, why not just sit on the veranda and watch the sun go down”. Mentors can hide in plain sight.
But the above all show a human bias. Mentor’s can be anything. Objects, animals and forces of nature may also act as Mentors. Many stories have non-human mentors. A Monster Calls is a nice example of this, in the shape of the anthropomorphic tree. Another form of Mentor is the internal one. Some protagonists have no need or no contact with another character who can act as Mentor. Such experienced heroes and heroines carry their own Mentor in the form of their conscience and code of honor. Think about the Knights in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, think about all the characters who virtue signal to anyone they can about how they are moved by their honour to act.
Then you have the untrustworthy mentor. Keep in mind that the Mentor need not always have the best interests of the Protagonist in mind. While the Mentor typically acts as a fount of wisdom and an outside conscience for the protagonist, they may have their own agendas.
Damaged protagonists may also carry guilt around as a form of negative internal mentor.
It is important to think about why the hero’s relationship with the mentor or mentors is important to the story. One reason is usually that readers can relate to the experience. We have all had inspirational people in our lives. I remember the teachers who instilled a love of reading and stories into me.
So ask yourself, who are the mentors in your story? Are they obvious or subtle? Has the author done a good job of turning the archetype on its head in a surprising way? Or is the mentor a stereotypical fairy godmother or white-bearded wizard. As with all stories, the choice is yours. You may want to do away with the idea of a guide for your protagonist. An interesting pattern to look for when you are reading is to see when the mentors appear. They generally arrive when needed either to move plot along, or to enable the hero to make their next milestone. They reflect the reality that we all have to learn life’s lessons from someone or something.