Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Top Ten List - Favorite Mentors

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
Mary Poppins
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?


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.

- Alex

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
now available on Kindle and for PC and Mac.


Anonymous said...

It's Haymitch, not Hamish. But the book whizzes by so fast, I understand.

kim said...

Do you see Jack as a mentor in Romancing the Stone? I guess not, but he seems to reinforce in Joan that she already has what it takes to be strong all by herself.


Lorena said...

I don't watch a lot of movies, so while I can understand the examples you use pretty well, coming up with my own can be challenging. And then there's the fact that I find the mentor role a challenging one to write! But I did recently see (of all things) The Sorcerer's Apprentice. I think Nicolas Cage's character fills the mentor role, but I'm not sure if it's done badly or if I just thought it was because it was (I thought) a terrible movie. What about Deep Throat in the old X-files? He was a teacher for Mulder, but also, I think, somewhat of a goad, and perhaps that's as much the mentor's role as anything--as one friend of mine put it, it's the person who is the sand in your oyster (irritating you until you produce something gorgeous to shut them up). Teacher, but also the one who won't let you rest, and so a bit of an antagonistic role at the same time? Or am I expecting too much of people?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I myself don't, Kim - he's a love interest serving double duty as an antagonist, which is classic for a romance: the lover is almost always the (or in this case, an) antagonist, too.

But if it works for you to see it that way, that's cool - these lists are only to help you with your own writing.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Lorena, I'm looking for literary mentors too - 8 of the ones I've been talking about are from books!

If Nick Cage was playing the wizard, then he may well have been a mentor, but I haven't seen it.

Deep Throat, hmm. Sounds like he could have been, but I was really hit and miss on X Files by the time he came along, so I can't really say.

But I like your definition - mentors are often irritating and antagonistic.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, thanks, Anon, I'll correct it.

I don't have the book with me, but when I Googled it it came up Hamish so I guess I'm not the only one who thought so!

Ann Voss Peterson said...

Hey, Alex!

Your posts are always so fun. Alfred in Batman. Uncle Ben in Spiderman (With great power comes great responsibility). Apparently I'm on a super hero kick today.

I always think it's interesting to see how the storyteller manages to take the mentor out of the action and force the hero to solve his problems on his own. There are several ways to do it, but it always has to be done. I'm reading the Harry Potter series with my kids right now, and I have to laugh each time Rowling finds a way to get rid of Harry's mentors. Except, you know, when I'm crying. :)

Gayle Carline said...

Wow, this is an interesting post, Alex. When I think of mentors, I'm probably less archtypal and more personal. I am naive, trusting, self-doubting and self-editing. So my mentors are the characters who go against that grain. Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, other world-weary types who question everything. Even the Jethro Gibbs character on NCIS fits this mold - ultimately only trusting his own gut. Auntie Mame was great for me, with her admonishment that "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death." And of course Bugs Bunny, because who has more self-confidence than that rabbit?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Ann!!

Ooh, good examples. Superheroes definitely tend to have a mentor hanging around.

That is funny about Harry's mentors. I think in some cases - hmm, or maybe most? - the mentors disappear because they know they have to let the pupil face the situation on their own.

(I read some article of someone complaining that Yoda could have just saved the galaxy rather than taking all that time to train Luke, but that's overlooking the element of fatedness to a hero/ine story - it is that one person who HAS to do it, however unlikely.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Alex,

Could you give us a quick rundown of the qualities found in a mentor?


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Well, I could, but then what the hell kind of mentor would I be?

The whole essence of a mentor is about forcing a student to learn by DOING.

Telling is not teaching.

In fact, now I not only want YOU to give me a rundown of the qualities of a mentor that you have discovered by comparing and contrasting the mentors on your Top Ten list, I also want a Top Ten list of "mentor gives student impossible/grueling/intolerable task until student achieves breakthrough" montage scenes.

Ann Voss Peterson said...

Yoda couldn't save the galaxy, because Anakin was the chosen one--the one who was to restore balance to the force. Yoda couldn't get Anakin to turn from the Dark Side, only one of his children could do that. Notice it's Anakin who actually killed the Emperor, not Luke.

I'm such a nerd.

I think death is often used to make the hero solve his problems on his own. In Harry Potter that pesky Ministry of Magic is often removing the mentors from their positions at Hogwarts and throwing them into prison, too. ;) And, of course, often they step aside. But I have a hard time finding that believable if the stakes are really high and the hero isn't the only one who could solve the problem.

Jeffe Kennedy said...

I would argue that some of your examples of mentors are actually Kingmakers - Morpheus, Gandalf, Merlin. Do you think there's a difference?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yes, Ann, you are a nerd. But that's what I figured, not having seen the second trilogy. Yoda couldn't do it because there was some decree of fate. Thanks for spelling it out!

I'll have to pay closer attention in the Harry Potters.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Jeffe, how are you?

I'd absolutely agree that those characters are also kingmakers, but I wouldn't say those things are mutually exclusive. There are mentors who are kingmakers, and those who are not, and there are kingmakers who are mentors, and definitely kingmakers who are not.

Jeffe Kennedy said...

Hi! I'm here a lot, so I feel like I "see" you all the time... ;-)

So, who do you think would be a kingmaker who's not a mentor? I became fascinated by the concept of a kingmaker in The American President when when Martin Sheen tells Michael Douglas (paraphrasing) "without me, you'd still be the most popular political science professor at X University." Would he be a kingmaker who's not a mentor, since they're essentially peers?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I haven't seen American President, but I bet that would be a good example. One that springs instantly to mind is Addison DeWitt, the theater critic, in ALL ABOUT EVE.

Definitely a king - and queen - maker, but not at all a mentor.

By my personal definition, a mentor is someone who is actually committed to helping a student grow to full potential, even if it's just at one crucial juncture of life. Of course, a villain can present as a mentor and turn out to be something else entirely, and that's an interesting twist.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Alex,

What kind of hero would I be if I wasn't reluctant? :)


Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Alex,

How about "a twist of time" as the mentor in GROUNDHOG DAY?

That gives me a quality that mentors are relentless in forcing the student to learn. Because of this, they can seem indifferent or cruel even though they have the student's best interests at heart.

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka.

Paul Newman in THE COLOR OF MONEY. He's relentless in teaching Tom cruise because he's also teaching himself how to enjoy the game/con again. If he gives up on Vincent, he gives up on himself.

The three ghosts in A CHRISTMAS CAROL?


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hah! Yes, we have our roles...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Ooh, there you go.

Yes, I do think there's a relentlessness and sometimes callousness about most good mentors.

I love the idea of Time as a teacher, because God knows it is.

Willy Wonka is a GREAT example, even better in the book. Very bizarre moral lessons there.

I've never seen Color of Money, can you believe that? Maybe that's for this weekend.

The three ghosts... hmm, very interesting. I think they really fall into a separate category of "guide". Like Hermes, psychopomp - definitely a powerful archetype. I will have to think more about that one. Might require a separate post.

What do others think?

Jeffe Kennedy said...

*I* think if you're going to watch Color of Money, then you should watch American President, too! It's a good one for Act III resolution, I think.

Ghosts could be more like the witches in Macbeth? Serve to give omens and portents?

Very interesting discussion!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Okay, I'll put American President in the queue.

I'm a big fan of that kingmaker kind of plot, too.

But the Christmas Carol ghosts - I still think they go farther than the sibyl kind of character that the witches in Macbeth and the ghost of Hamlet's father are.

They do serve that specific function of "guide", and while they're not literal psychopomps - which is a conductor of souls between the living world and the dead - they're damn close in function. And that is SUCH a classic archetype, I think it deserves its own category.

Of course, a sibyl (also could call this role a herald) can also be a psychopomp, and a mentor can be a psychopomp, and maybe most or all mentors are psychopomps, because they are at least metaphorically conducting their students into a different, magical world.

Hagrid serves more literally as a psychopomp, in Harry Potter, as does Dumbledore in later books when he's showing Harry how Voldemort grew up.

I am fairly obsessed with this psychopomp character myself - I have a truly odd one in the YA I just finished, my mentor character serves as psychopomp in my WIP, and my backburner book also has two psychopomps.

In fact I could argue that ALL of my novels so far have psychopomp characters.

I might as well throw in that the word "shaman" might be better to use all the way around, because that word would cover all of these roles. Although not necessarily! I guess I just want to get that in there because "shaman" is another useful option for defining and refining these slippery mentor guys.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Okay, so Stephen's very intriguing examples have brought up an intriguing question.

In Groundhog Day and A Christmas Carol, WHO exactly is engineering the lessons for the heroes?

Stephen proposes that "a twist of time" is the mentor. I'd rather say it's Time - as Shakespeare anthropomorphized it.

And who exactly is sending the three ghosts? I don't see the three of them just sitting around the afterlife over beers and deciding to teach that Scrooge a lesson.

(Interesting that Time plays a heavy role here, too...)

Are these stories really about God, or a benevolent universe that interacts with people very actively to help them transform?

(Also, isn't it interesting that Bill Murray would be attracted to both those roles? Actors have personal themes they're playing out, too.)

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Alex,

Then there's STRANGER THAN FICTION. I'd propose Karen Eiffel is the mentor to Harold Krick with Professor Hilbert in the supporting mentor role.

Bill Murray was also in MAD DOG AND GLORY, an interesting film where all the main characters sort of act as mentors.


Amanda Stevens said...

For relentless and callous, how about Patches O’Houlihan? Would he be considered a true mentor? Regardless, that character had one of my all-time favorite lines--"Son, you're about as useful as a poopy-flavored lollipop!" Comes in handy almost every day.

G.R. Yeates said...

Hi Alex,

I'm going to go for a very British example in the Doctor from Doctor Who. In the classic series and in the new series, he played the role of mentor for some of his companions.

Possibly the most pertinent example being when his companion was a teenage girl, Ace, and the writers of the series had him take her on a journey to face her inner demons and through overcoming them 'grow' into a woman.

During these stories, we see the Doctor behave in ways that could be called manipulative and cruel but it is all done in the name of making his fractured companion whole again. As he says at one point "I would have done anything not to hurt you." But we know that without those hard lessons, she would have learned nothing about herself.

As a mythic aside, her real name is revealed to be Dorothy and she was originally taken away from her home by a magical 'time storm'.


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Stephen, you are just determined to stretch the definition of "mentor" to its farthest boundaries, aren't you?

I'm not sure I'd call Emma Thomson a mentor, there, though. She's God, really. But I haven't seen the movie since it came out.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Amanda, I'm not likely to ever see Dodgeball, so can't really comment.

I do want to make the point that mentors don't HAVE to be callous and relentless. It often works out that way because we human beings often need a real kick to propel us to the next level.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Greg. Great example, there - says what I was just trying to say a whole lot better. There is that mystical quality of a mentor, I think, that they know the student much better than the student knows herself.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Alex,

I'm thinking GROUNDHOG DAY and A CHRISTMAS CAROL are compressed time as mentor. Instead of taking a lifetime to learn these lessons (and perhaps never learning these lessons), the protagonist is given the opportunity to come to enlightenment sooner.

"If I'd only known then what I know now." A common lament.


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Gayle! Sorry to be so late approving your comment - for some reason your comments keep getting filtered as spam.

That's interesting - I think you're listing characters who have been mentors FOR YOU.

I'll have to try that myself!

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Alex,

"Characters who have been mentors FOR YOU."

So the McKee character in ADAPTATION sort of works as a mentor (expert from afar?), and watching that character in the movie made me jump off the couch in determination to catch McKee the next time he came to New York, which I did.


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, the McKee character is definitely a mentor in Adaptation (brilliant casting there of the great Brian Cox).

Funny that that sold you on the workshop, but of course that movie must have been terrific advertising for him.

Victoria said...

One of the huge series among the YA genre is the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan (movie was so fail I couldn't bring myself to see it in person). In the Greek tradition, it's loaded with mentors. Percy, who is new to the concept that he's a demigod, is mentored by the Herculean mentor Chiron, his daughter-of-Athena friend Anabeth who knows the ropes of being a demigod(dess), and this hippy-mummy that's in the attic of the Camp Half Blood admin house who always gave the kids a needlessly cryptic prophecies before they could go out on missions. Then there's a whole host of Olympian gods who come in and out, Strangers From Afar who are all technically dysfunctional family. There's always a feeling that Percy has no idea what he's doing, making it up as he goes along, but lost without his mentors.

Also Christopher Paolini, another YA writer, is huge into mythic structure with his Inheritance Cycle (dragon riders, evil kingdom kind of story). The first mentor is Brom--Gandolf meets Aragorn, can make a saddle out of cured leather whilst camping on the road, can cook, can use the magic that has been a lost art for ages. Epic. Then the hero has to learn the Ancient Language and the lost arts, spending months sort of getting his Fast-Track bachelor's degree in being a mythic hero. Then there's Angela, the mushroom-collecting witch who predicts the future by tossing dragon knuckle bones. She's a totally independent woman (Paolini's good about his ladies) and gives the hero a cryptic look at his future in the first book, she tells him when his "blessing" of an orphan child is a curse, and she's the waifish background. She's the born stranger from afar who never leaves without making us grin or a promise to return.

Also in YA (just to make sure all YA bases are covered), is Avatar the Last Airbender (another one hat didn't translate well to movies, thank you M. Night Shamylan) is full of mentors. The creators have tons of the cool old guy archetypes. Since the hero has to learn a bunch of stuff before he can take down the big bad guy. His mentors run the gamut of ten year old girl to wise old guy to ghost of his past self. But the coolest by far, voiced by the late Mako was Iroh. He was the old fat uncle of the season one antagonist--self absorbed angry jerk boy. And Iroh was wise, member of a secret society, and just fine rich or dirt poor. He was awesome.

Outside of the YA Genre is Supernatural, with my favorite mentor of all time--Bobby. He's a crusty old man, has actually dropped Alca-Seltzer into whiskey, and is rather fond of the word "idjit." He's the professor archetype more than the fighter/demon hunter--also the town drunk, has a junkyard in his front (and back, and side) yard, and still mourning the loss of his wife (but in a manly, non-overt way). He's also kind of stranger from afar, except he's more like the out-of-town uncle that mommy might not want to come for Thanksgiving.

Mentors don't get enough love--honestly, a good mentor seems to be what separates a fantastic story from a good story for me.

Bad mentors... usually if a book doesn't have it's underlying structure right, I put it down and forget the title.