Posted by: Alastair Rosie | September 2, 2012

The Role of the Mentor


The word mentor is first found in the Odyssey and is the name of the character sent to instruct Odysseus’ son, Telemachus. The mentor is a common element of fiction and indeed is so familiar that when we read books or see movies where there is no mentor it almost strikes us as being odd. The mentor can be counsellor, threshold guardian, a former hero who has gone along the same path and arrives to instruct our hero along with many other incarnations. Due to the resurgence of epic fantasy in the wake of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies there is a danger that some people will think of a mentor as some old guy in a pointed hat or an Obi Wan Kenobi type.
The mentor doesn’t have to appear immediately after your hero has accepted the calling and can reappear at various points along the way. You can have various mentors sprinkled throughout the story but ultimately people will tend to settle on one main character as being the mentor, the one who instructs. We find this archetype so familiar because we associate the mentor with parents, uncles and aunts or older people who have instructed us throughout our lives and in its simplest form that is the task of the mentor. Juan Sanchez in Highlander arrives at the critical moment to instruct Connor MacLeod and is eventually killed by his nemesis the Kurgan.
The mentor often brings a gift or gifts that will help her complete the journey. In Titanic, Rose Dawson plays the part of the mentor. She notices Jack and Rose are attracted to each other and when Cal invites Jack to dinner she picks up on his sarcastic remark and steps in with a gift, the suit. This suit transforms Jack from Third Class to First Class, the peer of Cal and a rival worthy for Rose’s affections. She also gives him the vital information he will need to survive this first battle with Cal.
Mentors in other stories may take the form of an older partner or a spouse, a father, mother just to mention a few. In the Jodie Foster movie, Stealing Home, Billy Wyatt is instructed in flashbacks by his former babysitter, Katie who has committed suicide. His task in the film is to deal with her ashes and to accomplish the task he must turn to his mentor, who is quite dead. It was an interesting way to show the mentor relationship and use it to create the main plot. In Silence of the Lambs, Jack and Hannibal are Clarice’s mentors so you can have more than one. In the movie Underworld, Victor is Selene’s mentor but he towards the end he becomes the villain and Selene becomes the mentor for a newly transformed Michael. In the sequel, Awakening, Tanis becomes the mentor for both Selene and Michael and this brings me to my next point.
The mentor role can change throughout the story, it’s flexible, the young recruit who’s helped by the battle scarred sergeant who may then become his nemesis as in Platoon’s Barnes and in this movie there are two mentors, one good the other much darker. The mentor could also become the spouse of the hero as happens in Romancing the Stone.
So to summarise the mentor instructs and often brings gifts to your hero. They can be dark, light or a mixture of both. The mentor can change roles along the way and if they die during the story they pass the torch to another, often the hero. We use the mentor to instruct our hero and explain the rules of the extraordinary world and often to accompany them. One thing to avoid when creating mentors is stereotypes. A mentor doesn’t have to be an older man or woman and they can evolve, the relationship between them and the hero is what binds the story together. We are fascinated by relationships because they are so much a part of our real world and the mentor is one character we can identify in our personal histories. Other terms used can be a father/mother figure, instructor or trainer, even a buddy. The important thing to bear in mind is that your hero is about to set foot in the extraordinary world and needs help if they are going to win the prize. It’s a vital part of your character inventory, don’t start without one!
Written by Alastair Rosie.

Other examples of mentors:

Thomas Callahan and Gray Grantham in The Pelican Brief. Note that Thomas is Derby’s lover as well, he is then killed and ultimately the torch passes to Grantham.

Alice in the Twilight series.

Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

Leigh Teabing in The Da Vinci Code


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