How to use the Mentor Archetype

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Who hasn’t had a mentor in their life? Perhaps it was a parent, teacher or friend. Writers often have special writing mentors. This could be a creative writing tutor, or authors who’re generous with their advice to newbies. As in life, fiction is awash with mentor figures. But what is their dramatic function in a story? And how can you use the mentor archetype to strengthen your novel?

Roles of the Mentor

  • Mentor as teacher: The hero is on a journey, but often he (or she – lets call the hero she from now on) is reluctant to set out. Perhaps she doesn’t know the way or doesn’t have the skills she’ll need. Enter the Mentor. He/She (let’s call him He) might be someone with the knowledge the hero requires. The knowledge can be advice, training, or guidance. Gandalf, in Lord of the Rings, acts as a guide to Frodo when they travel through the Misty Mountains. The teaching can take many forms: life skills, physical skills, sexual skills, spiritual skills, anything that will help the hero on her journey.
  • Mentor as gift giver: As well as advice, the mentor can give practical support in the form of an object the hero will need. This could be a map, a magical artefact, a weapon, even a car. (Q, in the James Bond books/films, give Bond an Aston Martin.) The value of the gift may not be obvious at the time. (eg, Galadriel’s gift of a phial of starlight to Frodo in Lord of the Rings) but will be appreciated later in your book.
  • Mentor as motivator: The mentor may not simply give the hero advice, but may motivate her to set off on her hero’s journey, for example, by explaining what will happen if she refuses to go.
  • Mentor as conscience: A hero might not have an obvious mentor but may have something inside her which advises her at crucial moments in the novel. It might be a code of behaviour she can’t break, or the advice she remembers from a mentor who’s no longer around. It may simply be the better side of the hero’s character.

Aspects of the Mentor

It’s easy to visualise the mentor as a benign older figure, steeped in the knowledge the hero needs, and who freely gives that knowledge to the hero. But mentor figures are often more complex than this.

  • Unwilling mentors: The hero might need some information/equipment but the mentor figure is unwilling to give it. He may test the hero before providing it. This is a great opportunity to introduce conflict in your novel.
  • Dark mentor: The mentor may not be benign. He may persuade the hero to set off on the wrong path. Or he may try to dissuade the hero from setting out at all. The mentor may have his own agenda in the story, and may aid the hero at one part of the story and oppose her in another. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf goes to see his mentor Saruman, only to discover that Saruman has his own plans.
  • Fallen mentor: The Mentor could be an ex-hero. He may be someone who’s been on the same journey, and so has valuable advice and knowledge to give the hero. But if he failed in his own hero’s journey his advice might turn out to be wrong, even dangerous. Boromir in Lord of the Rings is a fallen mentor. The advice he gives Frodo is questionable and when Frodo doesn’t take it he turns into an antagonist, but later redeems himself as a hero.
  • Ignored mentor: The hero might need the mentor’s advice/knowledge but might not believe it or remember it until much later in your book.
  • Multiple mentors: The mentor archetype can have more than one facet and appear as more than one person. In Lord of the Rings, Aragon, Gandalf and Galadriel all act as mentors to Frodo at different parts of the book. In the James Bond Books, M, Q and Moneypenny all act as mentors at various times.
  • Comic mentors: This type of mentor is often seen in romantic comedy. He might be a friend of the protagonist who lightens up the story with his amusing views of life and love, which he tries to teach the hero.
  • Dead and absent mentors: A mentor doesn’t need to be alive to fulfil his dramatic function. He can be a parent/teacher/guide/trainer who is no longer around but whose advice/information the hero remembers. Or a mentor can also die along the journey, as Gandalf appears to do in Lord of the Rings, leaving Frodo to rely on himself.

How to avoid the stereotypical mentor

It’s very tempting to have a white-haired wise old woman or man as a mentor but sometimes it’s a good idea to confound expectation. The last thing Luke Skywalker expected of a Jedi Knight that he’d be a small green creature with big ears and an imperfect grasp of grammar. A mentor need not be old. He need not even be sane. One way to generate an interesting mentor character is to mix up the archetype with other fictional archetypes:

  • Mentor as trickster: A mentor could give your hero both good and bad advice.
  • Mentor as ally: An ally figure can also give the hero valuable advice from time to time.
  • Mentor as antagonist: A character who acts as mentor in the early part of a book can turn out to be the antagonist later on.
  • Mentor as threshold guardian: A mentor can try to prevent the hero from setting out on his journey.
  • Mentor as hero: A mentor may have his own hero’s journey to make. This might be a subplot in your novel.
  • Hero as mentor: Many heroes are mentor figures themselves. This adds another level of complexity to their journey.

Where to use the mentor archetype in your story

Traditionally the mentor turns up in Act 1, just as the hero is about to enter the new world of adventure. But he may pop up later. Or different aspects of the mentor archetype may put in an appearance later in your book. But the hero has to face his final challenge alone. The mentor shouldn’t be holding her hand at this point. If the mentor does appear in the final act it might be to let the hero down and force her to rely on her own resources.

The Mentor Archetype in The Trystan Trilogy – introducing Blaize.

Blaize is my hero Corwynal’s uncle. He’s older than him by about 10 years, is also half-Caledonian/half Briton and so has learned to deal with the prejudice of both peoples for those of mixed blood. In addition, he’s a druid so knows a lot about the world. But he’s not entirely on Corwynal’s side. He has his own plans which involve my hero doing something he doesn’t want to do. But he frequently gives Corwynal useful advice, although my hero doesn’t always take it. Blaize is on his own hero’s journey, something that will become evident in book 2, The Swan in Summer, and culminate in book 3, The Serpent in Spring.

Other mentor figures in my trilogy include a classic one in The Swan in Summer in the form of a wise old white-haired priest (stereotype alert!) but, like Blaize, he has his own agenda and can’t entirely be relied on. A more interesting mentor is a young girl, Kirah, who gives advice to her mother Seirian in book 3, The Serpent in Spring. Of course, being her mother, Seirian doesn’t listen to her daughter, although she turns out to be right all along. And, finally, Corwynal is a mentor figure himself, being tutor and guardian to Trystan.

I’ve had fun with the mentor figures in my books, especially Blaize, so I hope you’re having fun with yours. I’m going to finish with a short snippet from a Blaize scene. Originally he was a POV character, but I’ve taken his point of view away to shorten my over-long book. However, he’ll be back with his own POV in The Swan in Summer.

‘What’s all this nonsense I’ve been hearing about a boar and an arrow?’ Blaize demanded, after bursting into Corwynal’s quarters above the stable where, in the annoying absence of Ealhith, he’d been trying to bind the gash in his arm. ‘And that Trystan’s not going with the war-band?’

Corwynal scowled at him; Blaize had a talent for seeing just what one most wanted to hide. But he was the only man to whom Corwynal could open his heart, and he badly needed to talk. So he told him everything – Trystan’s threat to leave, their fight, Corwynal’s belief that he’d almost killed him, Lot’s arrival, the arguments with his father, his dream of the black ship –

‘That bloody dream!’ Blaize muttered irritably, snatching the strips of linen from him, taking a cursory look at the wound then beginning to bind it. ‘Gods, man, why don’t you listen to me? Dreams rarely mean what you think. This place you’ve convinced yourself is anywhere but Lothian probably doesn’t even exist. And I’m tired of asking everywhere I go if anyone knows this black ship of yours. Red ships, blue ships, green ships – those I can find, but not black. And the man, this giant, he’s not real either. None of it is real!’

It’s good advice. Does Corwynal take it? No, but he’ll remember it later when Blaize appears to be right, although (spoiler alert) he’s actually wrong.

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