My recent reading binge has been neo-Victorian fiction and Gaslamp Fantasy. With hundreds of such titles around it’s hard material to avoid. Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove, The Illusionists by Rosie Thomas, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. I’m sure you can add to the list.
What gives these novels their appeal is not only Victorian quaintness but, often, their focus on and elevation of elements sure to please the reading public: birds, books, secret gardens, clocks, maps, dresses, balloon travel and so on. Charm and intrigue are helpful to include without a doubt, but what explains the popularity of this fiction is not the same thing as what makes it work narratively.
Often in reading this stuff, I run across a story element the utility of which is overlooked; indeed, which is by many estimates primary to story structure. That element is the character we call the mentor.
The mentor archetype is one we tend to associate with epics, perhaps because of its origins in Homer’s The Odyssey. Mentes was the person whom Odysseus put in charge of his household when he left for Troy. The goddess Athena assumes his form to guide young Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, in seeking news of his long-absent father. The mentor archetype is a principle figure in the Hero’s Journey, and is lucidly discussed in my pal Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, his distillation for storytellers of Joseph Campbell’s work.
A mentor in the simplest definition of the word is a wise and trusted advisor. Gandolf. Yoda. The Fairy Godmother. Alfred (think Batman). There are dark mentors, too. Haymitch (The Hunger Games). Durzo Blint (The Way of Shadows). Mentors can be comic, fallen, forgotten, absent, multiple or dead. Whatever the case, the mentor’s role is to inspire, energize, instruct and guide the protagonist. Mentors give gifts and reflect the protagonist’s highest aspirations. Mentors are the voice of the Devine.
Mentorship is also a primary principle in business. There are many books on the topic, which illuminate for us ways in which mentors can help employees become more productive, creative and effective. Mentors in business are present and connected, patient with those not yet ready to learn or change, ready to push a protégé when the time is right, instruct by example, and ask the critical question “What have you learned?”
Thus, we tend to think of mentors mostly in terms of their teaching relationships to protagonists. However, there are others to whom mentors are important, and for whom they do more than teach. Indeed, there is a whole group, equally important to authors, who are positively affected by mentors.
In the dynamics of storytelling, mentors serve hidden purposes. First, mentors are the solution to a storytelling dilemma: How can you get readers to feel for, if not cheer for, a protagonist who is flawed? Especially when a protagonist doesn’t immediately show us innate goodness, by saving the cat let’s say, or who for a time at least must remain dark, tormented, outcast or victimized, it’s asking a lot of readers to bond with characters who show us very little reason to care.
Here is where the mentor comes in. The mentor makes it okay for the protagonist to be naïve, restless, rebellious, broken, hemmed in, self-defeating, cynical, foolish, or in any other way a person who’s hard to like. When a mentor believes in such a character it’s a signal to us that it’s okay for us to have hope. The mentor’s faith and vision tells us to wait and anticipate. We care because the mentor believes.
Mentors explain things and set goals, naturally, but their knowledge and far-sightedness also lets us know that the author is equally far-sighted and in control of the story. We can relax. Someone’s in charge. Someone knows what’s going on and what’s going to happen. The mentor’s mere presence assures us that things ultimately are going to come out okay, albeit not easily.
Mentors can be constructed of cardboard, of course, so it’s important to be sure they are also human. Mentors don’t have to be older. They don’t have to be perfect. They can have their own blind spots, agendas, foibles, or shortcomings. They don’t have to die. There are many clever ways to introduce mentors into stories and I wish authors were more creative in doing so.
Here are some prompts toward creating, or developing, mentor figures in your story:
- Is there a character whose attitude toward your protagonist can be goading, amused, challenging or only ambiguously supportive; for example, lending assistance only reluctantly or with conditions? Why does this character secretly care?
- What does your mentor want and need from your protagonist that your protagonist is unable to give or is incapable of giving?
- What about your mentor causes your protagonist to resist him or her? How does your mentor make learning difficult? In what way is your mentor a poor or incomplete teacher?
- How is your mentor able to push your protagonist in a way that no one else can?
- How will your protagonist greatly disappoint your mentor? Work backwards, make that the way in which your mentor most strongly hopes your protagonist will grow or change.
- At the end of the story we probably can say what your protagonist has learned from your mentor, but what has your mentor learned from your protagonist?
There’s more to mentors than meets the eye. Who is the mentor figure in your story and how are you making he or she different than expected?
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