Delving into the mentor archetype, with a side-plot of fallen, dark and evil mentors, this archetype is popular in recent fiction, and for good reason.
The Mentor Archetype
The mentor archetype is a large category of tropes and character types unto itself. There are some writers who always provide a defined “mentor” character to the protagonist, particularly following Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey story archetypal and character structure, where the mentor is one of the eight main character types.
The word “mentor” can be traced back to Homer’s The Odyssey, where there was a teacher character named Mentor who was actually the Goddess Athena in disguise. Athena was the Goddess of wisdom.
The mentor character must display enough expertise and wisdom to be able to support the protagonist or hero through their external or internal journey, or both. This means the mentor is often linked with other character archetypes such as the sage, the teacher, the wise man or woman, or if you’re looking for a stereotype, perhaps the elderly martial arts guru.
Mentors don’t have to be external – some characters have such a strong honour code they can act as their own inner mentor. Other characters such as Harry Potter, are mentored at various times by a multitude of people. Protagonists themselves can [shape]shift from mentor to hero and back again.
The mentor will operate as a reflection character, a person who helps the hero to obtain their goals by stepping up and facing their weaknesses and fears (via Michael Hague):
“In real life, the reflection character is one, who, no matter how difficult or painful, offers honesty, loyalty and real friendship.” He helps the hero reach his goal by making him accountable”. – Michael Hague
“Mentors provide heroes with motivation, inspiration, guidance, training, and gifts for the journey. Every hero is guided by something, and a story without some acknowledgement of this energy is incomplete. Whether expressed as an actual character or as an internalized code of behavior, the Mentor archetype is a powerful tool at the writer’s command” ~ Christopher Vogler, ‘The Writer’s Journey‘
Typical examples of the mentor:
Obi-Wan Konebi and Yoda (puppet elderly martial arts teacher?) in Star Wars; Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit; Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Professor X to the X-Men; Dumbledore in Harry Potter; The Fairy Godmother in Cinderella; Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. There is some debate over Rubeus Hagrid in Harry Potter but I consider him a mentor in that he was the first real friend Harry had, and introduced Harry to much of the wizarding world.
Donkey is Shrek‘s mentor and Dorry is Nemo‘s dad Marlin’s mentor, despite never knowing it. In fact, Disney does mentors so naturally, that there’s a sub-trope coined, of the “Disney Mentor.”
Notice some of these examples ended up dying through the storyline. Mentors can be expendable, even sacrificial, if done well.
Okay, so we know what a mentor is meant to do for the protagonist of the story, but now we come to my favourite types of the mentor – some forms of the anti-mentor.
The Fallen Mentor
“I once was you, but it cost so much…”~ Fallen Mentor motto.
As the anti-hero is a reluctant hero, and the anti-villain is a villain who loses his way to become a possible hero, the fallen mentor is an anti-mentor (there are two kinds, see below). This is a reluctant mentor, a hero who has lost their way.
The fallen mentor is a person who has lost step and faith in their own hero’s journey. (Sometimes literally their faith – there are several fallen priests as mentors in literature).
Mentoring the new protagonist will allow the fallen mentor to re-enter their own hero’s journey (if reluctantly at first) and have a redemptive arc.
Haymitch from The Hunger Games springs to mind immediately. Previously a winner of the Hunger Games, Haymitch then fell – via alchoholism because of his PTSD. Even though he was reluctant to mentor Katniss and in some drunken cases, incapable of being trustworthy as a mentor, Haymitch managed to carry out the two functions of the mentor role – he taught and guided Katniss through the games, and also organised the sponsors’ gifts into the game arena which would allow Katniss to survive. Gift giving, as Vogler suggests in the quote above, is a task of the mentor.
Obi-Wan (Ben) Konebi from Star Trek is another fallen mentor, taking himself into the dessert after feeling he failed with his former student Anakin Skywalker. Tom Hank’s character in A League of Their Own was a drunken mentor who had to get his act together.
The Dark Mentor
“But I did it for you!”~ Dark Mentor motto.
The Dark Mentor is another anti-mentor type. This isn’t a fallen mentor but an anti-mentor possibly an anti-villain. They may appear as the hero’s mentor but be misleading the hero (and the audience), while working towards their own darker goals.
The dark mentor’s values oppose the hero’s required values. Instead of motivating the hero, they may well tempt the hero down a darker path. The Dark Mentor can also have a redemptive arc, won over by the strength of the protagonist’s heart and values, or they may simply stay a villain. Dark mentors are often oblivious to their darkness, claiming and believing they did it for the hero’s good.
Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, is a great example. Fagin to Oliver Twist, is another. Another – the Svengali characters who offer young students support and training to exploit the hero for their own gain.
Dark mentors may not be totally evil, unlike the true Evil Mentor who is training the villain or antagonist in the dark or evil arts to oppose the protagonist. Star Wars has a whole lot of truly evil mentorship going on.
Signs of the Mentor
- the mentor sat in the protagonist/hero’s position previously- they were the hero, and learned the exact skills necessary to survive in the new world
- the mentor has two roles – to teach and guide the hero, and to give gifts (items, knowledge or a clue).
- mentors can have other roles – they can be the romantic interest, or even the hero (if a teacher of a student eg. Batman)
- Tropes / Stereotypes and Events of the Mentor –
- social misfit (lives away from normal society, often alone, possibly a hermit)
- but well-known and recognised (mysterious and heroic reputation)
- disheveled appearance (they don’t care about many of society’s values)
- often unreliable, scatter-brained, or mystical
- always flawed (Haymitch was a drunk, Dumbledore was manipulative)
- despite their apathy and general age (many are old) the mentor will initially show much more power and skill than the hero being trained by them. But eventually –
- the mentor will convince the hero to accept their own powers and skills
- the mentor will often be the secret keeper of special weapons, objects or other gifts which will be passed onto the new hero to allow them to take the reigns
- once the job is done, the mentor may disappear from the hero’s life (often by dying)
- even when dead, a mentor may well come back to
haunt annoy judgeinspire the hero in times of need
Other Names & Associates (to the mentor)
- sub-types: dark mentor, fallen mentor, evil mentor, comedic mentor, eccentric mentor, continuing mentor, cool or badass teacher, fair weather mentor, inner mentor (perhaps via a honour code), shamans (healer)
- mentor as brand archetype – identified by Jonah Sachs in Winning the Story Wars: the seven brand archetypes based on mentors are – pioneer, magician, rebel, jester, captain, defender and muse. Sachs also offers four more archetypes through a PDF download – these are: the architect, alchemist, oracle and healer.
- associated: pupil, protege, student; teacher, trainer, professor; sage, guru, expert, wise old man, wise old woman (crone), wingman, reflection character / the ghost / the conscience
- subtropes and stereotypes: The Obi-Wan, elderly martial arts guru, magical nanny, fairy godmother, old convict, old master, old cop, “Disney” mentor, fallen priest.
- shadows – evil mentor (as villain), the teacher who becomes corrupted, the mentor as abuser.
Last thought – in the television drama, ‘The Black List‘ is Jame Spader’s role of Raymond Reddington a dark, evil or good mentor to Elizabeth Keene and/or the FBI? I am yet to work that out, which is the whole premise of the drama.
Part of 2016’s Character Archetype Series (A-Z) @ Hunter is Writing.