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. [Read more…]