First off, not every hero gets a mentor.
By “mentor” I mean the Obi-Wan, the Gandalf—the sage who guides the hero on her quest. For every story with a great mentor, there are many more where the hero sets out to accomplish something and figures things out herself. Some stories need mentors, and some don’t.
But sometimes you want somebody to explain the world, teach the hero some things, and then bow out and let the hero do her job.
It’s the bowing out I want to talk about.
Okay, confession time. I’m writing this post entirely because I’m reading this amazing sci-fi series* that’s been derailed by an all-knowing, all-powerful mentor character who WON’T DIE. He’s taken agency away from characters I’ve gotten to love over the previous six books, and it’s really, really frustrating. Hence this post.
First, let’s talk agency. A character wants something and overcomes conflicts and obstacles trying to get it. That’s agency. This doesn’t always mean she runs in, guns blazing. You can have self-deluding characters who refuse to face things (The Remains of the Day). You can have trapped, powerless characters constrained to a tiny range of actions (The Handmaid’s Tale). You can have characters frantically doing everything except the thing that would solve their problems (Hamlet). A character with agency acts within her constraints to get what she wants, even if those constraints are overwhelming.
When a protagonist lacks agency, there’s this heavy, listless unease to a story. Nobody seems to know where it’s going because the character who should be driving it … isn’t.
A mentor used poorly drains agency from the hero. He tells the hero what to do and how to do it. We’re left thinking, “Why doesn’t the wise old dude just fix this himself?”
Traditionally, therefore, you kill the mentor off. It’s a little predictable and can involve silly notions of destiny and chosen ones, but it works. The hero has learned cool shit; she’s come to love her mentor, then BAM, she’s bereft and has to strike out alone.
But death isn’t the only way to free the hero from an overpowering mentor. Here are some alternatives:**
- The mentor is evil.
He’s powerful, he’s experienced, he knows the hero’s weaknesses, and best of all? The hero trusts him, so he’s uniquely positioned to break her heart. Mentors make great villains.
- The mentor is insufficient.
He’s more powerful than the hero, more knowledgeable, and he’s determined to do right … but he’s no match for the villain. This is a great way to build up a bad guy: if the mentor can’t beat this overwhelming evil, what hope can our newly minted hero have?
- The mentor is waylaid.
He’s been kidnapped, or he’s on a different mission. Either way, he’s missing, and the hero must fend for herself.
- The mentor and hero disagree.
He’s taught the hero everything he knows … but his way is wrong. Maybe it’s morally reprehensible. Maybe it just won’t work. Maybe the hero’s ultimate goal is different from the mentor’s. The hero must break from her mentor and find her own path.
- The mentor has a different job.
The mentor and hero are good at what they do—but they do different things. The mentor does the research while the hero does the fighting. Or the mentor does diplomacy while the hero carries the gun—or vice versa. This “mentor” may simply be an older, wiser member of the hero’s team.
- The “mentor” is actually the protagonist.
There’s no reason the story has to be about the callow youth. An older, wiser person can make a great protagonist.
I’m sure I’ve missed lots of others. Let me know in the comments what I’ve left out!
*Kage Baker’s Company novels. It’s an absolutely wonderful series, except when it’s completely infuriating.
**Of course, none of these preclude murdering the mentor later…