Twist on Tropes: Wise Old Mentors

Photo credit: Mike Haufe on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC

Welcome to the third week of our series re-examining common fantasy and sci-fi tropes. If you missed them, check out our breakdown of Chosen Ones and Dark Lords. This week, we’re looking at the bearded buddy in every hero’s entourage…

The Wise Old Mentor

For the purpose of this discussion, here’s how we’ll define the WOM: An older character typically the same gender as the hero who has unique supernatural abilities which the protagonist must learn. They typically represent an ‘old guard’ way of thinking that the main character must break from in order to complete his or her mission. They are also mysteriously incapable or missing when the going gets toughest. 

This type of character is almost essential to speculative fiction. The reader needs the secondary world explained, and it’s much better to weave explanations into dialogue than to infodump. Also, if the protagonist needs to gain skills and knowledge to realize their destiny, it’s helpful to have a teacher. 

Gandalf at Baggins by John Howe

The downside of these types of characters is similar to what we see with sidekicks and love interests – they are completely lost in their plot role. The risk is that they can seem to exclusively serve the main character’s development without having a life of their own. Their presence can also inadvertently threaten suspension of disbelief – if the threat is so real, and the stakes are so high, why isn’t the mentor handling them his or herself? 

Let’s explore some options: 

Inanimate Object

Similar to our Dark Lord suggestion to make the villain a force of nature, if you don’t think you have the space to make the mentor a fully fleshed-out character, why not make them a non-character? There are obvious downsides to this, but it could increase the difficulty for the main character as they have to navigate their magical new world on their own. 

Unexpected Contrasts – Break the mold

For some reason, the Wise Old Mentor tends to match the protagonist’s gender, race, religion, and socioeconomic status. The only difference is that the mentor is older and more experienced. If you want to explore a complex relationship between mentor and mentee, why not play with some of these dials? What if the trainer is younger than the main character? What if they are different genders? What if the magic and the training are the only thing they seem to have in common at first glance, and society would normally try to keep them apart? Do the hero and mentor both adopt society’s attitudes, or do they resist them? 

Reluctant

Even Yoda tried to kick Luke to the curb when he first crash-landed in Dagobah. Typically, it doesn’t take long for the hero to gain the mentor’s sponsorship. The mentor’s objections are thin and predictable – basically “you don’t know anything yet!” Well, that’s why they need you… but I digress. 

What if the mentor’s reluctance stems from a past personal trauma? What if they no longer feel worthy of the cause? What if they have objections related to some Unexpected Contrasts, like those outlined above? Living in this space for too long could risk bogging down your story, but there is no reason the beginning of the hero’s discipleship should not be fully explored. 

Gandalf by Alan Lee

Handicapped

A specific reluctance worthy of its own category, what if the Wise Old Mentor has lost his or her magical groove? This addresses the common objection many readers raise to the basic magical trainer setup – why don’t the experts just deal with the problem themselves? 

Can the mentor train their powers? How were they lost? Are they a natural teacher, if they never expected to be in this role in the first place? How do they teach if they can’t demonstrate? In this way, the training itself is a source of conflict. 

Conflicting Counsel

Finally, why is there just one Mentor, or, if the role is divided into multiple characters, why should they all pull in the same direction? Look at the American two-party system. We all see similar problems in our country, but we’ll never completely agree on which ones are most important, and how to best tackle them. And that’s ok – debate refines ideas. Theoretically. Ideally. Don’t check Twitter, ok?

Why would two or more mentors always agree on the best way to raise the next generation of practitioners? It seems more likely that they would not. How does the Good Guild’s internal conflict impact the overall plot? Which side does the hero choose, if any at all?

Happy Writing

What makes your Mentor character stand out in the broader literary landscape? In the end, these are just suggestions, but I hope they encourage you, reader/writer, to round out your mentor’s inner life and role in your narrative.  

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