I recently read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the oh-so-it YA series - and for good reason. Talk about a high concept premise! Actually we’ll talk about that some other time.
But just one of the many, many things this book does well is develop a unique and memorable mentor character, and I thought I’d do a post about that often crucial character archetype - so-called for the original mentor, Mentor, in the Odyssey. Of course that Mentor had a little more than human wisdom, as it was really the goddess Athena taking Mentor’s form who guided Odysseus and his son Telemachus at critical junctions in the story. This is good dramatic history to know, as we often see the same god/desslike wisdom and nearly supernatural - or overtly supernatural - power in more modern versions of the mentor.
Okay, so I’m also doing this post as one more example of the usefulness of making a personal Top Ten list to solve a particular story or character problem or hone the particular story you want to tell.
In fact, why not just stop right here and try it – just take a minute to brainstorm ten great - or at least memorable - mentor characters. That is, great according to YOU. Oh, all right, you can do five now, and get down to some juicier ones later. You can even throw in some not so classic ones, for contrast.
My off-the-top-of-my-head list:
Hannibal Lecter (but you all knew that!)
Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid
Glinda the Good
Morpheus the Bad
Obi Wan Kenobi
Their granddaddy – Merlin
The Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth
Johnny in Dirty Dancing
My new favorite, Haymitch in Hunger Games
And that’s already more than ten, but I’ll also throw in Baba Yaga, that most feared witch of Russian folktales, a pre-Lecter villainess who often served up great wisdom to her protégés… if she didn’t eat them first.
And yes, yes, I know, Mr. Miyagi in the ORIGINAL Karate Kid.
It’s an interesting thing to look at mentors in terms of what they bring to the story structurally, as well as just as individual characters. Of course everyone on my list is quirky, outrageous or frankly off the charts (except Johnny, but it’s that dance thing…). And yes, a couple of my choices reflect that I am partial to the hot mentor type. But I also love some of them for how they enhance the stories structurally. (Hopefully what I’m talking about will become more clear as I go on…)
In The Hunger Games, Haymitch is a past (distant past) winner of the games who is supposed to guide the two sacrifices from his province to victory in the Games (think Survivor meets The Lottery meets Lord of the Flies). We meet Haymitch as he falls off a stage, stumbling drunk. In fact, he vomits all over himself on national TV. He has a reputation as a complete buffoon. Not a great omen for his protégés, right? But doesn’t that up the suspense incredibly? How are Our Heroes Katniss and Peeta supposed to survive the Games with only this loser to rely on?
But – SPOILERS –
Katniss and Peeta do their damndest to get the most information they can out of Haymitch, and the relationship begins to develop, first as Haymitch realizes he might have a couple of survivors on his hands, and then with Katniss learning at key points that she can actually rely on Haymitch’s sponsorship and guidance – they develop an almost psychic bond, and Katniss comes to understand through her own growing success in the games exactly what would have turned Haymitch into an alcoholic: she can see herself going down exactly the same road if she survives/wins. In the end, Haymitch is the first one she runs to embrace, showing how deep the relationship has become.
(Unfortunately I can't see this coming as such a surprise in the movie version with the rumored - or is that desired? - casting of Alan Rickman. The minute we see Alan Rickman we know there's more to a character than meet the eye. I will never in my life argue the casting of Alan Rickman in anything, but it really would be a big tipoff, there.)
The Harry Potter series is a wonderful example of how can give your story a fairy tale mysticism and resonance by creating three mentors (also sometimes called supernatural allies) in the pattern of the three witches or three fairy godmothers - one of the world’s most powerful and enduring archetypes. In the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid are fantastically unique characters on their own, but as a trinity, they are mythic. Of course, the classic A Wrinkle In Time (novel) does the same with Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which - direct descendants of the three Fates, Moerae, Norns – all themselves derivative of the Triple Goddess.
And speaking of fairy godmothers… helpful as she is in a pinch, Glinda is less a mentor to Dorothy than an anima figure, a personification of the pure strength and goodness of Dorothy’s feminine Self. For all Billie Burke’s campiness, it’s still one of the most powerfully transcendent images of the feminine ever put on film. And please - give me a mentor who bestows ruby slippers!
Yoda, of course, and Ben Kenobi, also bring depth to the mentor roles by their utter contrast in characters and similarity in strength and spiritual power. And of course the feisty Zen charm of Yoda, the utter surprise of this tiny indomitable creature when he harrumphed his way onto the world stage, earned him a place on the Top Ten Mentors Of All Time list.
Both of these are direct descendents of Merlin, as are Dumbledore and Gandalf. I especially love T.H. White’s depiction of that classic wizard/mentor in The Once and Future King.
Hannibal Lecter, as I’ve discussed here before, is a delicious (sorry) take on the mentor character – a cannibalistic sociopath who turns out to be a damn fine teacher.
Besides being a delight for the pure badass sexual charge of Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, The Matrix is a great film to look at for a structure you often find in a mentor story: the mentor drives the action for a good long time, and when the protégé, in this case Neo, finally takes over the story to save his own mentor, we feel that action as a huge and exhilarating character growth.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, the Faun is a unique take on a mentor not just for that amazing creature created by the filmmakers, but also because we really don’t know if the young heroine should be trusting this bizarre and erratic being who is her guide into the underworld. This unease creates a lot of suspense and dread in this very emotional film.
While not as fantastical as the others on my list, Johnny from Dirty Dancing is a memorable mentor because he really is a great teacher, from a dancer’s perspective, and personally I particularly like the mentor/lover combination, the forbidden quality of that dynamic. That kind of story generally has a bittersweet end, and Dirty Dancing delivers the poignancy. Back to Merlin, again – I love his own backstory (or front story, as he lives life backward…) with Nimue, a protégé/lover/destroyer to him.
Mary Poppins is also a Mysterious Stranger character – the mentor who pops in to fix a situation (in this case a family), and pops out again. Everybody’s ideal of a teacher, who literally opens magical doors. As much as I love the druggie movie, the PL Travers books are must-reads for the sheer prickliness of Mary P. – Julie Andrews she is not, but the adventures are all the more fantastical and bizarre.
Now, remember – not all stories have mentors, it’s not a requirement of a great story. I should also note that often instead of a mentor you will see another classic character: The Expert From Afar. Both Hooper and Quint in Jaws fall into this category, in my opinion (as well as being Sheriff Brody’s chief Allies). They’re great characters, but they don’t take on the deeply personal and often spiritual dimension of teacher that a true mentor character tends to have.
The Expert From Afar, done badly, can take a turn into “Morris The Explainer” – a character (to compound the cliché, this is often a professor) who appears in one scene to take an exposition dump (okay, REALLY sorry, but if you think of it that way it might discourage you from ever doing it…) and promptly disappears into oblivion.
I really should do a list of bad examples for contrast, but maybe you all can just take care of that for me in the comments (she says hopefully…)
And there’s another character that shows up sometimes that I guess I’ll call the Oracle, or Sibyl – like the Oracle in the Matrix, or the little Indian woman who tells Jamal to “Win it for India” before the last round of the game in Slumdog Millionaire, or the three witches with their fateful prophecies in Macbeth. This is not to my mind the same as a mentor, who takes on the protégé as a much longer commitment (although I think the Oracle comes back to do something more like that in the Matrix sequels, but I wouldn’t swear to it…). But it’s a variation that can have a lot of dramatic power, done well.
So how about it? Share your list, and why you love your favorites. Or tell us about one of your own mentor characters, and how they came to be.
And Happy Equinox, everyone! Use the Force...
How To Write A Novel From Start To Finish: previous posts
How to write a novel from start to finish (part one)
What is genre?
What's your premise?
The Price (more on premise)
What is High Concept?
The Dream Journal
Three-Act Structure Review and Assignments
The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure
The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid
Elements of Act One
Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming Index Cards
What KIND Of Story Is It?
Elements of Act Two, Part 1
Plants and Payoffs
Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)
What's the PLAN?
Plan, Central Question, Central Action (Part 3)
Elements of Act II, Part 2
The Lover Makes A Stand (romantic comedy structure
Elements of Act Three (part 1)
What Makes A Great Climax? (Elements of Act III, part 2)
Elements of Act III, part 2: Elevate Your Ending
What KIND of story is it? (and other notes about Inception)
More Rewriting: The Subplot Pass
Rewriting: Pay Attention To Sequences!
“Rewriting: Stuck? Make a List”
The Offer S/he Can't Refuse
Screenwriting Tricks For Authors
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