Stories are made up of three types of characters: protagonists, antagonists, and secondary characters.
For the past few weeks we’ve been taking a look at each of these major players, examining how to choose a main character that will rock your reader’s world, how to create a powerful antagonist, and how to give your sidekick purpose.
One classic character remains: the mentor.
Mentors, like sidekicks, are a type of secondary character. They come in all shapes and sizes and can prove themselves highly worthy to the narrative for many reasons, not the least of which is helping your hero to grow.
I’ve told you in past posts of my love for Lizzie Bennet, Jadis the White Witch, and Samwise Gamgee, so I thought it would only be fitting to reveal that my favorite mentor in literature is Haymitch Abernathy from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.
Haymitch is not your typical mentor. He’s been through everything Katniss is about to endure and it destroyed him, turning him to drink for comfort. That’s not exactly what I’d be looking for in a motivator.
Nevertheless, Haymitch does his best in preparing Katniss and Peeta to survive the Games once he realizes that they both have a fighting chance.
Haymitch is snarky and clever, and he never fails to support Katniss even though she grates on his nerves. Their relationship is unique to say the least, but in the end, Haymitch coaches Katniss through the Games with cunning and dedication.
Don't discount your mentor's importance. Grab your free copy of the Mentor Case Study + Checklist below to nail your own novel's memorable motivator!
So how can you write your own world-changing mentor? Well, let’s get started, shall we?
Though every story’s mentor will look a little bit different, there are 3 main roles that your story’s mentor can play. Let’s examine them below!
Wise Men guide heroes by bringing insight into another world to the hero’s attention.They are known for popping into a hero’s life rather unexpectedly and even unwarrantably, and the news they bring will change your hero’s life forever.
Wise Men are usually advanced in years and have wisdom acquired from decades of life experience, which they use to guide heroes into the new world.
Popular examples of Wise Men include Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, the wizard Merlin from any number of Camelot fiction novels, and Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series.
Teachers guide heroes by making them learn. They provide the hero with insight into valuable skills, knowledge of important facts, opportunities for experience, and critical feedback that will help them grow. Your Teacher may be a professor, a schoolteacher, a coach, a master tradesmen, or another type of instructor.
Popular examples of Teachers include Professor McGonnagal from the Harry Potter series, Miss Honey from Matilda, and Mrs. Edmunds from Bridge to Terabithia.
Counselors guide heroes through tough life situations by giving them advice, letting them talk out their issues, and encouraging them through the murky waters. Counselors may hold professional counseling positions or may simply be a friend or a parent.
Whatever the case, Counselors don’t mentor the hero through introducing new insight or by teaching them, but rather by inspiring the hero to keep moving forward.
Popular examples of Counselors include Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia and Sirius Black from the Harry Potter series.
Just as many authors fail to give their sidekicks purpose, they also throw their mentor’s potential by the wayside in favor of shining light on other characters. But mentors can offer immense value to their stories (which we’ll talk about below), so don’t let your own go to waste by using them poorly.
Here are three mistakes that you should absolutely avoid:
- Your mentor is only there to reveal a secret. So your hero needs to learn something new and important, something that’s been withheld from them for whatever reason. Perhaps they are adopted or they have super powers or they are the chosen one. Whatever.
You need a character to disclose this secret to your hero, so you create a mentor to pop in, reveal the truth, and then poof! You never use them again.
- Your mentor seems to control minds. Your hero needs to be convinced to take a certain course of action or change their outlook on life, so you give your mentor one heck of a speech to deliver.
It’s an inspiring and convincing speech that rouses your hero, and suddenly they have absolutely no doubts or concerns about this change. Their insecurities have vanished! Your hero had been thoroughly convinced, developing into a more mature character in a matter of moments, and your mentor never has to lift a finger ever again.
- Your mentor gives vague advice that doesn’t support their position. Dear hero, you will get through this. Everything is going to be okay. Just be brave and you can conquer your dreams. That is all. Love, mentor.
Your world-changing mentor doesn’t seem to have much advice or expertise to offer your hero, despite holding an esteemed position, though somehow their simplistic advice still works at the end of the day.
Your mentor should never be a one-and-done motivator. What do I mean by this? Your mentor has a lot to offer your story. Don’t belittle their importance by having them serve a singular purpose in the beginning of the narrative, only to disappear until your hero conquers the villain and is victorious.
For your hero, the rising action, and possibly the falling action as well, is a series of highs and lows. Trouble brews, they overcome it, deal with the after effects, and then more trouble comes to town. It’s a rough cycle, and your hero will have doubts, suffer a lack of motivation, and may even become depressed or overwhelmed.
While your sidekick may be there to uplift and motivate your hero, your mentor should be the one to guide them both through the hills and valleys. Side note: If you find that your story really doesn’t need a sidekick and a mentor to get your hero to the endgame, try combining the two.
What purpose does your sidekick serve? What purpose does your mentor serve?
Choose whichever character is more vital to the narrative and assign them the additional purpose of the lesser character. This will help streamline your story, making it a more enjoyable read.
Related: Want to dive deeper into crafting a mentor that readers won't soon forget? Check out The Essential Guide to Character Creation!
Just as your sidekick needs to serve a purpose, your mentor needs to change your hero’s world. How can they accomplish that effectively, without coming off as cliche or contrived?
Here are ten purposes that you can mix and match to make your mentor truly valuable to your story:
1. They can give your hero wisdom. Heroes don’t have it all together. They make mistakes along the way, which is one reason why their stories are so thrilling to readers. If your hero wants to stop making those mistakes and become a better person, they are going to need a bit of wise advice. Who better to shape them then your story’s mentor?
2. They can save the hero when they are in trouble. In last week’s article, I mentioned that your sidekick can save your hero if they get themselves into trouble. But what would happen if both your hero and the sidekick get themselves into a tight fix? Lucky for you, you’ve got a mentor to save the day.
Side note: Just make sure that this occurs early in the manuscript or after your hero has defeated the villain. You wouldn’t want to take away your hero’s shining moment at the climax of the story by having your mentor defeat the villain. Tres disappointing!
3. They can mediate with the villain. Does your villain want to meet up with your hero for one reason or another?
It would be a foolish move for your hero go, since it very well could be a trap.
However, your mentor is someone who has seen enough of life to know how to handle the situation. Try having your mentor mediate with the villain to keep your hero safe from harm.
4. They can prove the villain’s evil. Your villain should be terrifyingly powerful, so much so that your hero can hardly comprehend it.
At some point before the climax, you need to showcase that terrifying power. Why not have your mentor face off with the villain and lose?
Your mentor could also bring the hero to a place where the villain’s destruction is prevalent as a means of motivation.
5. They can serve as a role model for the hero. Your hero needs someone to look up to, especially since they still have a lot of maturing to do. Your mentor can serve as a role model for your hero by showcasing their skills, displaying their attitudes, practicing their beliefs, and otherwise leading by example.
6. They can guide the hero physically. Your hero is on an adventure, or has their mind set to complete a certain task, but they don’t know the way. In order to get your hero from point A to point B, try utilizing your mentor’s knowledge.
After all, they are the ones with wisdom and experience in your story. They likely know the landscape and environment that your hero is trudging into and will able able to help.
7. They can teach the hero new skills. Does your hero need to learn something new to move forward in their journey? Who better to train your hero than someone who has plenty of life experience: your mentor!
Whether it be a body of knowledge or a physical task, having your mentor teach the hero something new will prove that their presence is vital in the hero’s journey.
8. They can humble the hero when they become haughty. Your hero will win some and lose some, but sometimes early success is a poison. Victory is a powerful drug and your hero might not be able to see the obstacles yet to come through the haze of their celebration.
They might even become a bit arrogant. Your mentor can humble your hero by pointing out their flaws and reminding them of how far they have yet to go.
9. They can encourage the hero when they become depressed. When your hero loses some, they may let their early defeat get them down.
If your hero becomes unmotivated or even depressed, try having your mentor encourage them to keep going by revealing one of their own life experiences, disclosing something vulnerable about the villain, or offering up a new strategy to overcome obstacles.
10. They can sacrifice themselves for the sake of the hero. If worse comes to worse, your mentor should have your hero’s back, sacrificing something of value in order to make things right and ensure your hero's survival.
This could be a literal sacrificing of life or a sacrifice of their position, reputation, time, freedom, or dreams. Whatever the case, this sacrifice will be a major motivator for your hero; they will never be the same because of it.
One last important thing to remember: your mentor doesn’t have to be perfect. Drunken and grouchy, Haymitch was far from it for sure. Your mentor can suffer from physical or mental illnesses, live in poverty, or have a scratchy personality and still effectively motivate and guide your hero.
At the end of the day, it’s not their own reputation or lifestyle that is important, but the way in which their wisdom, skills, and experiences can guide your hero toward defeating the villain and becoming a better human because of it.
Do you have any other tips for writing a world-changing mentor? How have you incorporated mentors into your own stories? Give me a shoutout in the comments below.
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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!