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Your Protagonist Needs a Mentor But Not Like You Think

Updated on January 19, 2020
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Oliwia from The Writing Theory has a M.A. in literature. She's worked for several years as an editor and proofreader.

I stumbled across a comment recently that every protagonist must have a mentor.

You know, that one character, usually much older, wiser, and destined to die at the least convenient moment, who guides the protagonist along on their journey.

Which makes sense. And that's exactly why I hate it. Well maybe "hate" is a strong word, but it really drives me crazy.

Because it's unrealistic. I’ll show you why.

Show of hands, who in their life had a mentor who was the only person they ever learned anything valuable from?

I see zero hands.

See my point?

The Importance of a Mentor

I don't negate the importance of a mentor. Everyone in the world needs mentoring time and again (some of us all the time). So does the protagonist.

Mentoring is a great way not only for the protagonist to learn and grow in order to naturally move along on their journey, but it also saves us from having to watch the protagonist make a royal moron of themselves by making mistake after mistake and learning the painfully hard way.

The funny thing is just because someone is wiser doesn't mean anyone listens. In fact, it's often times that no one listens at all since they’re too busy screaming “la la la la” and jamming their fingers in their ears. The mentor can only then sigh and wait for their "I told you so" moment to arrive.

But even if the protagonist is being a prick about the advice they're getting served on a silver platter, the mentor can also force other characters and the reader to have a think about something.

Whether it's challenging the protagonist's motives or intentions to exposing a different worldview, the mentor rattles the foundations of what is already known and forces everyone to doubt themselves and others around them. This itself is a great source of conflict-- doubt is one of the most powerful "non-human" antagonists that you can ever find.

As we know, conflict is what drives the story forward.

The effects can be very far reaching. The mentor helps the protagonist with almost anything anyone could ever need help with: dealing with emotions, understanding the past, foreseeing the future, avoiding conflicts and mistakes, learning new arts or sciences, discovering one’s self and/or destiny, understanding the workings of the world, life, and other people.

In the end, the protagonist without a mentor is like a 16 year old getting into a stick shift for the first time-- no one’s going to wait around on the road while the poor thing learns how to get into first and move.

As we know, conflict is what drives the story forward.

Why Does the Mentor Need to Be One Person?

This is my ultimate question: With so many areas in which the mentor can stir things up, why must the mentor be one person?

Now before I go on ranting about this, I can see this single mentor set up working in specific instances when only the mentor would know certain things, e.g. a black magic mage or the oldest master of kung fu. In these cases, having the one mentor who knows all makes sense as long as the protagonist’s journey is solely connected to that specific area of expertise.

For the most part though, the mentor figure often dispenses out general wisdom and life advice like it’s something that only they would know.

Well this will burst your bubble-- lots of people know things. Lots of people know lots of things.

So why can't a mentor capacity be created in several different characters?

Spread it out a little.

Think about it. There are certain things that your parents or family are good at advising you on. You probably have friends that advise you about other things. Colleagues about some other things.

In reality, if you choose to look for help, you're naturally inclined to go to someone you either trust or feel would know more than you (and most preferably both). For example, you might go to your best friend to talk about problems in your relationship, but choose to go to your parents for sound advice when buying a home. Or you just might Google everything and find advice you deem trustworthy and take it from there.

Rarely do you have just one source for all your wisdom needs (for those of you ready to jump out of your lawn chairs to protest that Google is one source, I politely say “nope.” Google is simply a search engine that then gives you millions of different sources of information on the same topic for you to choose from).

And sometimes you’re being stupid and the advice comes to you itself. When that happens, it usually comes from someone who knows at least a little better than you and has the best for you in mind. They will point out what they think you're doing wrong, the trouble you're getting into, and the "I told you so" moment you're setting yourself up for.

And why even stop at people? Take a hike up in the Alps in flip flops and a tank top and nature will give you a very memorable lesson to never do something that ignorant again.

Forces of nature, paranormal activity, or other-worldly phenomenon (e.g. extra-terrestrials, lack of oxygen, superior technology) can all bring the hero to their knees or help the hero discover a new power within. Though they are not human, they can still play a mentor role in helping the protagonist learn something about themselves or the world, or simply have them change their current perception of reality and their self.

Dreams and visions are quite prevalent in many fantasy stories and can also play a mentor role in guiding the protagonist along their predestined path or to warn them against impending danger. Though visions and dreams may come from the hero themselves, they are embedded so deep in the subconscious that it's super simple to consider it an individual force that can guide or push in a certain direction. This is especially true when it usually turns out that the dreams and visions were actually incurred by spirits, ancestors, gods, magic/witchcraft, etc. that was controlled by a force outside the protagonist.

There is one snag when the mentor isn’t a human being- it rules out scenarios where the mentor falls in love with the protagonist (and vice versa). Yet don’t despair, if there is more than one mentor role being played in the story, the protagonist and human mentor (to encompass fantasy and sci-fi, by human I mean any creature that is human like that a human being could fall in love with in a story) can happily fall in love while other mentor figures in the story carry on with dropping mad wisdom time and again.

I think this might sometimes come from the idea that the mentor is, in truth, simply a personification of truth and wisdom and this is what leads to it often becoming such a unrealistic, singular role.

Multiply Your Mentors to Make Your Story More Memorable

So you can see, mentoring doesn't always have to be some old yo asking you to sit down on his knee as he dispenses age old wisdom in a trembling voice.

Having several “expert” sources of knowledge that the protagonist and other characters interact with not only leads to more realism in the story, but it also creates a more well developed story in general. Several different sources lead to several different experiences and learnings which can affect the protagonist’s development and character arc. All that just makes for a better, more intriguing story that will have the reader wondering what the character is thinking and doing, but what they would think or do in the same situation.

Isn’t that what we all want in the end?

© 2020 The Writing Theory


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