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Why You're Writing Your Mentor Character All Wrong

Why your mentor character sucks, is cliche', and how you're novel is missing out on the thematic truth your readers are craving.

Wise old men who are full of Power & knowledge-NEXT!!

Firstly, it’s time this stereotype ends. Period. It’s not a thing anymore and more importantly-IT’S BORING. So, now that that’s out of the way, we can get to the good stuff. 

Why Have A Mentor?

Secondly, even though I feel like this is self-explanatory, sometimes people need a refresher course in this archetype. I’m going to go about this archetype in the exact same way I did in my last blog post, “What Is A Contagonist And Why Your Novel Needs One”. In that post, we explained that the Contagonist was created to oppose the Mentor by the creators of Dramatica. (I highly recommend you go read that post because the two characters are deeply intertwined.) They are each other’s equal opposites, each creating stark contrast FOR the Protagonist. Additionally, the Mentor is more than just a source of inspiration and knowledge for the hero. The Mentor is the Protagonist’s direct source for one of your novel’s prime directives: The Thematic Truth.

What is A Story's Thematic Truth?

Many different writers and authors have described this many different ways and called it many different things-but it all boils down to this: The Thematic Truth is the core message your protagonists (and audience) reach at the end of the story. The Lie your character believes (if well written) helps steer the plot to the ultimate discovery of The Truth by your Protagonist. The lesson learned. Theme. A Positive Character Arc. Whatever you wanna call it, it’s all pretty much the same thing. 

Allanon mentor 2

Okay, great! So why am I writing this Mentor character so wrong and what do they have to do with The Thematic Truth?

Let’s begin with a quick story, my friends. Once upon a time, Jenny had to race into the woods to find a specific herb to save her sick grandmother. Jenny was always the one in her family to take care everyone else’s needs before her own-and she’s certain she can do it again therefore saving the day. But then, Jenny gets lost in the woods. She’s alone, afraid, and knows the clock is ticking. The wise Owl, who’s been watching Jenny struggle, decides to step in and offer some guidance. But Jenny is frustrated with The Owl because he won’t tell her exactly where the herb is. He makes her find it herself, along with his constant blabbering about how she can’t always fix everything, every time. Does Jenny find the herb in time to save her grandmother? Does Jenny realize the Lie she’s been believing up until this point? Do YOU see the Lie in this story?

Jenny, our resistant hero, thinks she CAN fix everything, every time. This is her "lie" that she believes. The Thematic Truth for Jenny would be something along the lines of:

“Though I know people rely on me often for many things, and I also have a desire to help those I love, I can’t continue to damage my own heart and risk my own life for others. That possibly, if I say “No”, which I find difficult to do, I can begin to respect myself more and set healthy boundaries. Because if I am constantly filling everyone else’s cups, how can I possibly fill my own?”

It's not about The Plot-it's about The Lie, The Journey, and The Truth.

Therefore, the Mentor character is the facilitator of that truth in many ways. They’re not there to merely teach our hero the skills they need to get through the plot. There’s so much more potential there. The Mentor pushes and challenges and demands the Protagonist to wake up to their lie. To see it in it’s totality and then see The Truth they’ve been blinded to the entire story. That is a completed positive character arc. It’s when they SEE The Truth as it is, for what it is, and how that changes them profoundly from within. Furthermore, perpetuating a positive change from within.  I recommend reading K.M. Weiland’s series on Theme here.

What if my Protagonist doesn't change for the positive?

For example, if you have a negative character arc, a flat arc, or perhaps writing a series and your Mentor can’t help assist in the the inner journey of your Protagonist in the ways described above-then you’re screwed. Just kidding…but you do have to set up your Mentor character for whatever arc you’re planning on giving your Protagonist. Whichever it is-your Mentor much match that arc. Writing a series is a very long-term game plan, so for this I recommend having your Mentor help your Protagonist with several miniature arcs before the final one at the end. In addition, have them fight for your Protagonist to see the light because they shouldn’t “get it” 100% of the time in a series. That’s boring. That alone will drive tons of great conflict and bitching sessions. Same goes for a negative arc. Your mentor should be doing their best to get your character to find The Truth, but they ultimately fail to do so in that case. In a flat arc, perhaps it’s the Mentor who changes, or contrarily, helps the world at-large change. 

Basically, this character has been written wrong for a looooooooooong time

People have been writing old wise Mentor characters who teaches their Protagonists grand new skills to help them in the big battle! WOW!!! Perhaps they die and sacrifice themselves for the greater good, too! It’s amazing, creative genius stuff right there. Stupid! What a waist of a great archetype. Regardless of the type of arc your main character goes through, create them a Mentor who will be a massive driving force towards that final change. Period. Don’t waist this potential. Set it up right. And for Gods sake, can someone write a sexy Mentor for ONCE?!
Guess I’ll just have to be the one…
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