Great stories are filled with great characters. One of the most common characters in any story is the Mentor, a must-include character if you’re writing a Hero’s Journey story. In fact, the fourth step of the Hero’s Journey is Meeting the Mentor. Who is your hero’s Mentor, and how do they challenge them?
As you may know, the Hero’s Journey is an archetypal story theorized by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. And in practically every heroic story, there is a character that helps the hero rise from nobody to a somebody.
And getting that character right can be the difference between writing a story that readers love and one they put down and forget.
Missed the start of our Hero’s Journey series? Start here with Step 1: the Ordinary World and Steps 2 and 3: the Call to Adventure and the Refusal of the Call.
Why Do Stories Need Mentors?
In my last post on the Hero’s Journey, we learned how heroic stories begin. They start with conflict — either from within or without — that upsets the peace they enjoy (Step 2: Call to Action).
And this conflict is almost always so overwhelming that the hero doesn’t want to rise to the challenge. It’s just too much. The next step, the Refusal of the Call, connects the reader to the protagonist. “I’m just like him or her,” the reader might think.
For the hero to rise above his common state, he’s going to need help.
That’s where the Mentor shows up: Step #4, Meeting the Mentor.
What Does a Mentor Do?
Mentors exist to pass on knowledge and teach skill. They usually exhibit an intriguing balance between physical skill and existential knowledge, like Morpheus in The Matrix (who fights Neo while teaching him the nature of the Matrix) or Dumbledore (who teaches Harry about the power of love while standing up to Voldemort’s most powerful magic).
Mentors are at their best when they push the hero out of his comfort zone. Mentors don’t coddle. They are often tough to the point of seeming villainous.
Take Coach Herb Brooks from one of my favorite movies, Miracle, about the Men’s Olympic Hockey Team that beat the Soviets in 1980. While doubling as the protagonist, Coach Brooks is a mentor to a team of young, self-serving jocks. To truly prepare these young men for the challenges ahead, Brooks pushes them beyond exhaustion, far past their perceived limits, in order to discover true greatness.
Or take an example from science-fantasy, Star Wars. Yoda is nothing like what Luke expected in The Empire Strikes Back. Luke expected a great warrior, a Jedi Master like Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Instead, he gets a tiny green Muppet. And that tiny green Muppet constantly contradicts and challenges Luke all throughout the training.
This reaches its climax when Luke fails to lift his X-Wing ship out of the swamp, complaining that it’s too heavy. With a sigh and a grunt, Yoda calmly lifts the enormous craft up onto the land without so much as a sweat. Judge him by his size, indeed.
More than anything, a Mentor must push the hero out of his comfort zone. Otherwise, the character might be functioning more as a companion or a foil.
The Fate of the Mentor
The Mentor’s role is a fateful one.
Think about it: The Mentor is the character with abounding knowledge and skill. Why, then, is he or she not the hero?
Most Hero’s Journey stories are about young protagonists who come of age as they progress on their journey. Luke Skywalker. Harry Potter. Katniss Everdeen. Even stories like The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings, which feature middle-aged protagonists, have Mentor characters who are much older and wiser than their heroes.
In order for the heroic journey to work — in other words, for the hero to be the one who faces down the ultimate evil — the Mentor cannot be there to help. He must be sidelined somehow.
And that usually means death.
However, that death is rarely permanent, at least in a spiritual sense. Practically every dead Mentor finds a way to come back and assist the hero, at least in spirit: Gandalf, Dumbledore, Mufasa, Obi-Wan Kenobi. All of these Mentors “die,” but their spirits live on, encouraging the hero from the stars or the Force or something like it.
Other Mentors are sidelined, unable to contribute in a very meaningful way. This means they usually get to live, but their role is less impactful. Haymitch Abernathy from The Hunger Games comes to mind, as he cannot enter the arena and directly contend on Katniss’s behalf.
Finally, there are those Mentors who bite the dust forever, and are never heard from again. These deaths usually happen when the stakes are highest and the death is meant to symbolize the cruelty of the antagonist. While Haymitch gets to live, Cinna does not, meeting an invisible (and probably gruesome) end.
Ultimately, it’s up to you. But make sure your hero is put to the ultimate test without the safety net of his or her Mentor. Otherwise the stakes won’t be nearly high and exciting enough.
What Kinds of Mentors Are There?
There is no shortage of approaches you can take to the Mentor character. The trick is to avoid falling into the cliché trap, repeating what others have done before you.
What follows is a list of existing Mentor types and suggestions for how to innovate. Because the only way to truly thrill your reader is to use a familiar trope in a new and innovative way.
Some Mentors appear to lead the hero through dangerous, unfamiliar territory. Gandalf serves this purpose (at least for a while) in The Fellowship of the Ring, and Dumbledore in Harry Potter at times.
How to Innovate: Consider limiting your Mentor’s knowledge of the terrain or history. Maybe he or she knows more about things that aren’t immediately relevant, but will come into play later. Make the Mentor’s wisdom seem foolish . . . at first.
Karate Kid. The Matrix. Remember the Titans.
So many stories feature a Mentor as a Trainer. Usually the Mentor is a former hero who failed, or suffered an injury that prevented him or her from success. This can easily veer into cliché, though, so try to avoid depending on this hidden information for an emotional punch.
How to Innovate: Disguise the purpose of the lesson. Most people love learning by doing, and your reader will turn pages like a madman if he can’t immediately figure out why the Mentor is doing what he or she is doing.
A frequent role in comedies and coming-of-age stories, the parental Mentor is a more loving role than traditional Mentor characters. They often function also as authority figures and foils, with whom the hero conflicts as he searches for his identity in the new world.
A recent example of this is the relationship between Tony Stark and Peter Parker in Spiderman: Homecoming. While Stark isn’t Parker’s actual father, he functions as one, providing Peter with lessons in wisdom that guide him to true heroism.
How to Innovate: Some stories innovate this version of the archetype by creating non-blood familial bonds, like foster or adopted parents, uncles and aunts, cousins, and more. “Family” is a buzz word in many stories nowadays (The Fast and the Furious), and many storytellings are finding ways to explore the infinite, non-traditional forms of “family.” Your story can, too.
Just as a hero needs physical training and guidance, he also needs spiritual leadership. All heroic journeys are dual in nature, in that an emotional or spiritual journey parallels the physical one. Many Mentors function as guides on that spiritual path.
It’s rare that a Mentor is solely a spiritual one (usually he/she provides additional training in other areas). But some, such as Grandmother Willow in Disney’s Pocahontas, serve in this role. Such a Mentor is usually physically frail or delicate while being spiritually mature, achieving a symbolic balance.
How to Innovate: Since this archetype has its roots in religion, it can be refreshing to shed some of the religious imagery, such as robes, shaved heads, and other symbols of various faiths associated with spiritualism. Consider crafting your spiritual Mentor out of an unlikely figure, someone of whom little spirituality is expected.
Finally, Mentors often function as casual sources of knowledge and inspiration. They are like companion characters (known as Loyal Retainers), but don’t come along for the journey. These characters often appear briefly and serve their purpose episodically.
Such a character is Hagrid, Caretaker and Keeper of Keys at Hogwarts. Hagrid is actually in the books and movies quite infrequently. His purpose is almost entirely plot-related with few exceptions. He exists to provide Harry and the other students with information that gets them famously into trouble.
How to Innovate: Try giving this character a stake in the story — in other words, give him or her something to lose. Sometimes the biggest problem with Mentor characters is that they don’t stand to lose anything, and only serve as plot-filler. Find meaningful ways to connect them to the conflict and you’ll have a character that readers deeply care about!
We All Need a Mentor
Few heroes can rise to the challenge without some form of guidance. That’s why your story needs a Mentor.
Thankfully, this is true of life. Practically no one rises to prominence without a significant investment from a mentor who cares enough to invest time and energy in that person’s success.
Try innovating your next story’s Mentor. How will you fulfill this common reader expectation in new and exciting ways?
Who are your favorite Mentors from stories you love? Let us know in the comments.
Build on your Hero’s Journey story by choosing a Mentor archetype from above and crafting a new character around it.
What kind of Mentor will he or she be? How will he or she put a unique spin on this common archetype?