Monday, January 12

Creating a Strong Mentor Character

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Today's question: 
Q: Do you have any tips for creating a strong mentor character?
The Mentor is one of the common character archetypes in storytelling. This is the character who guides the protagonist and offers insight, wisdom, and even tools to solve the problem of the novel and grow as the story unfolds.

While often portrayed as the "wise old man" type, the Mentor can be any age, sex, or race. Yoda mentors Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, same as Polgara helps Garion in The Belariad series, and Charlotte helps Wilbur in Charlotte's Web.

The Mentor can even be the love interest, as Like Wilson's character, Emmett, both helps and eventually falls for Reese Witherspoon's Elle in Legally Blonde.

The Mentor can even be mentoring against the protagonist's best interests, as the Emperor tries to turn Anakin to the Dark Side of the Force in the Star Wars prequels.

Writing a strong Mentor can be challenging, because you don't want the Mentor to just hand over all that information to the protagonist, but they're the ones who have that information. There's a balance between providing guidance and support and giving the hero victory on a silver platter. This is probably why a lot of Mentors die, so they won't be there when the protagonist needs them most.

Let's look at a few things that make up a strong Mentor character:

1. Mentors offer guidance, but still let the protagonist figure things out

Just like Mom always said, "You need to learn how to do this on your own." A good Mentor will provide just enough information and help to point the protagonist in the right direction and allow her to learn and grow as a person. Information and guidance is given to enable the protagonist to succeed, not to let her skip steps or avoid doing the work. Mentors don't give the protagonist the answer, they give her the tools to figure out the answer. Some things to think about:
  • What does the Mentor know (information, skills, etc) that's worth passing on?
  • What role in the protagonist's life does the Mentor play?
  • How does the Mentor interact with the protagonist?

2. Mentors care about the protagonist

Mentors are invested in their charges, and they care about what happens to them. They have reasons for spending time and guiding the protagonist to whatever it is the protagonist needs. Granted, sometimes the reasons are selfish or the Mentor is forced into it and learns to embrace that role (such as Haymitch from The Hunger Games), but they're not just doing this for fun. Whatever the motivation, the Mentor is invested in the protagonist accomplishing the goal. Some things to think about:
  • What is the Mentor's goal in helping the protagonist?
  • What does the Mentor gain and/or lose by helping the protagonist?
  • How does the Mentor become involved with the protagonist?
  • How far is the Mentor willing to go to help the protagonist?
(Here's more on why characters would help your protagonist)

3. Mentors know when to stay quiet

Sometimes, being a Mentor means knowing secrets or information that could hurt the protagonist. Training a young man to go kill his father is pretty dark, but that's what Obi Wan and Yoda had to do to poor Luke. Dumbledore also hid that nasty "you have to die to beat him" secret from Harry. Secrets are usually kept when revealing that information would hurt the protagonist deeply, or derail her from the task at hand. Some things to think about:
  • What secrets does the Mentor know that could hurt the protagonist?
  • Why is the Mentor holding back information?
  • How does the Mentor prepare the protagonist for learning the truth?
(Here's more on how secrets affect conflict and tension)

4. Mentors are there when the protagonist needs them--most of the time

Good Mentors have your back when you really need them. Even if they don't have the answer, they know what to say to send the protagonist in the right direction. Except when they die at inconvenient times, like just before a major crisis when the protagonist needs all the help she can get. But sometimes, the best thing a good Mentor can do is take themselves out of the picture so the protagonist has to take that final step alone. Some things to think about:
  • How involved in the protagonist's life is the Mentor?
  • Is the Mentor at risk for aiding the protagonist?
  • When will the protagonist no longer need the Mentor's guidance?
  • Does the Mentor choose to let the protagonist stand on her own or are they forced out of the protagonist's life?

Pitfalls of Writing Mentor Characters

A common problem for Mentors characters is making them an author proxy in the story, there mostly to hand over information to the reader. Need to dump a lot of backstory? Have a Mentor tell a tale. Need to explain why things are happening as they are? The Mentor knows all about it. Need the hero to learn something she can't possibly know? Let the Mentor do it! Here are some things to watch out for when creating your Mentor:

1. They're too cryptic

Knowing when to stay quiet doesn't mean holding back when information could help the protagonist--especially if the only reason is so the reader doesn't find out something too quickly. They also don't leave clues and sit back smugly waiting for the protagonist to follow or figure them out. Bad Mentors tease the protagonist with information and let her fail when they could have spoken up and helped. Be wary if the Mentor:
  • Withholds critical information and the protagonist gets into trouble because of it
  • Doesn't have good reasons for not telling the protagonist something
  • Is purposefully vague, especially if it's to sound "mysterious"
  • Is driving the plot by controlling what (and when) information is given to the protagonist

2. They're too helpful

On the flip side, if every time the protagonist needs an answer she can call the Mentor and get it, she's not learning anything on her own. It also comes across as too convenient to the reader that every problem can be easily solved by asking the Mentor. If the Mentor's role is to be the protagonist's Google, there's a problem. Be wary if the Mentor:
  • Always has the right answer no matter what the topic
  • Seems to know the history and workings of things outside their credible scope of knowledge and experience
  • Always solves the protagonist's problem for her
  • Knows exactly what to say at the right time, especially if this is information that would have logically come out sooner: "Oh, didn't I ever tell you...?" or "It didn't seem important at the time"

3. They don't really care

Sometimes a Mentor is quite helpful, sharing information, encouraging a protagonist and even risking their life to do so, and readers have zero idea why this person would be doing this. If the Mentor has no skin in the game (or worse, if helping the protagonist actually goes against their ultimate goal), you might want to rethink why this character s helping your hero. Be wary if the Mentor:
  • Has nothing at stake if the protagonist wins or loses
  • Would actually be better off if they didn't help the protagonist
  • Doesn't do much else in the story but provide information to the protagonist
Mentors can be wonderful and memorable characters when done well, so it's worth spending a little time to make them the strongest they can be. Make sure you give them the tools they need to help your protagonist and make your story richer.

Who are some of your favorite Mentor characters? How about Mentors who didn't do the best job?

Looking for more tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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  1. Great post, Janice. You asked about favorite mentors... I was trying to think of Mentor characters that break the mold a bit.

    One that comes to mind is Loren Silvercloak in The Fionavar Tapestry (Guy Gavriel Kay). He's introduced as a typical "wise old wizard" mentor, but his ability to act as a mentor gets chipped away by circumstances until he's just fighting the good fight along with the other characters. I thought that was a good way for Kay to handle things without resorting to the "Mentor Occupational Hazard" trope.

    1. Nice. I've only read a little of Kay, but I did like his slightly different take of traditional fantasy. I'll have to go add that one to my to read list.

  2. My favorite mentor is Captain Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, because he's so atypical for the role but he truly does mentor Will. He has his own agenda, but he seems to see Will as a sort of naive little brother. He teaches Will that not everything is black and white (`you can either believe your father was a pirate and a good man, or you cannot') which helps Will overcome his main story problem- his inability to tell Elizabeth he loves her because it's against the`rules' of proper society. He doesn't die, but he does get taken out of the picture when Will thinks Jack is about to betray him and does a preemptive betrayal instead. Will's betrayal is caused by Jack's own lack of trust (he never explained to Will what he was really after) which had a lot to do with the fact that he was betrayed before by Barbossa. So, really interesting dynamics all around. :)

    1. Very good point Chicory. Sparrow is a sort of anti-mentor, which makes him a great and interesting character.

    2. Great example of a fun way to create a mentor.

  3. Wonderful post! I had to think about who the mentor is in my WIP while reading this, and when I realised (it only took a few seconds, but still), it took me by surprise a little! And I was happy to see I'd hit most of the points but can strengthen his role a lot through other points you mention here. Thank you! :)

    1. Yay! It's always nice when that happens :)

  4. As I read your post, I thought often of Gandalf in the LOTR trilogy as well as Aslan of The Lion, the Wtich and the Wardrobe. Sometimes it seemed things could have or should have been done differently, but when you finish reading, you find out why it was necessary for some secrecy and for the characters to learn things on their own.

    1. Both good mentor characters. Classics, really.

  5. I just finished reading the YA novel The Darkest Minds and I found it quite interesting that the mentor character also turns out to be an enemy of the protagonist by the end of the story. That's good stuff and a great way to put a spin on the typical "old wise one" mentor that is always depicted.

    1. Indeed. That's another novel I need to pick up. I keep hearing good things.

  6. Just thought of another mentor- Ebenezer from the Dresden Files. He fits all the criteria on your list for a great mentor.