Monday, July 17, 2023

How to Create a Strong Mentor Character

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Mentors are a great tool for telling your protagonist what to do, without telling you protagonist what to do.

The Mentor is one of the more common character archetypes in storytelling, because protagonists need someone to talk to and guide them as they struggle through the plot. The Mentor offers insight, wisdom, and even tools to solve the protagonist’s problems in the novel and helps them grow as the story unfolds.

While often portrayed as the "wise old man" type, the Mentor can be any age, sex, or race (or even species).
  • Yoda mentors Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back
  • Polgara mentors Garion in The Belgariad series
  • Charlotte mentors Wilbur in Charlotte's Web
The Mentor can even be the love interest, such as Like Wilson's character, Emmett, who both helps and eventually falls for Reese Witherspoon's Elle in Legally Blonde.
They can also mentor against the protagonist's best interests, like the Emperor does to turn Anakin to the Dark Side of the Force in the Star Wars prequels.

Writing a strong Mentor can be challenging, because there's a balance between providing guidance and support and giving the hero victory on a silver platter. You don't want the Mentor to easily hand over information the protagonist needs, yet they're the ones who have that information to give. 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 a strong Mentor character:

1. 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 them to learn and grow as a person. Information and guidance are given to enable the protagonist to succeed, not to let them skip steps or avoid doing the work.

Mentors don't give the protagonist the answer, they give them 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?

(Here's more with Writers: Stop Being Nice to Your Characters)

2. They love, but it’s a tough love.

Mentors are invested in their charges and 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 cares about 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 with Why Should Anyone Help Your Protagonist?)

3. Two can keep a secret.

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 did 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 them 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 with Shh! It's a Secret: How to Raise Tension and Conflict in a Scene)

4. Here when you need me—most of the time

Good Mentors have your back when you really need them. They might not always have the answer, but at least 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 they 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 their own or are they forced out of the protagonist's life?

(Here's more with Kill Them All: Does Killing Off Characters Make Readers Care Less?)

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 they can't possibly know? Let the Mentor do it!

Here are some things to watch out for when creating your Mentor:

1. If they tease but never follow through, they’re not actually helping.

Bad Mentors hold back when information could help the protagonist—especially if the only reason is so the reader doesn't find out something too quickly. They drop vague clues and then smugly sit back and for the protagonist to figure them out or not.

Be wary if your 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. If their role is to be the protagonist's Google, there's a problem.

On the flip side, if every time the protagonist needs an answer they can call the Mentor and get it, they’re not learning anything on their own. It’s also too convenient to the reader that every problem can be easily solved by asking the Mentor.

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 them
  • 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. If they have no skin in the game, you might want to rethink why this character is helping your hero.

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. Or worse, they’re more of an anti-Mentor, and helping the protagonist actually goes against their ultimate goal. (This doesn’t hold true if the Mentor is purposefully trying to mislead the protagonist, such as the Anakin Skywalker example).

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

They walk a fine line, but when done well, Mentors can be wonderful and memorable characters.

Because they’re allowed to know details the author wants in the story without coming across as a told buttinski. It's worth spending a little time to make them the strongest they can be, so 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?

*Originally published January 2015. Last updated July 2023.

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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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.

  7. my fave mentor is all might from the manga my hero academia, or dumbledore in harry potter