Monday, October 19, 2009

Story Structure Part IV: Meeting with the Mentor

obi wan This is the fourth in a series of posts talking about the story structure known as “The Hero’s Journey.” I’m borrowing heavily from “The Writer’s Journey: A Mythical Structure for Writers 3rd Edition” by Christopher Vogler. This is my interpretation of it, and I’ve tried to highlight some pitfalls I see writers falling into. Click here to review other installments of Story Structure.

Meeting with the Mentor

Along with Hero and Villain (the “Shade” Archtype), the Mentor is probably one of the best-understood character types. Mentors are everywhere. In fiction, they are the characters who instruct the Hero in the ways of the Special World he has or is about to enter. We see mentors all the time. Parents, teachers, older siblings, troop leaders, bosses, drill instructors, family friends, gang leaders, and anyone who provides a hero with critical information. Sometimes mentors are agnostic—either the Hero learns or he doesn’t. Mentors can be the Hero’s greatest asset and inspiration, or a Mentor can teach through pain and humiliation. It really depends on the particular lesson and the character of the Mentor. Some Mentors even become the Villain…and the Hero must defeat his own Mentor to prevail.

Mentors can appear throughout the novel, not just in the First Act. As  a Hero grows along his Journey, his needs for information changes. Some Mentors start him along his journey, and some appear near the end, providing him with the final information needed to defeat the villain, perhaps through earning the respect of the Mentor. They may test the Hero, preventing him from progressing if he’s not ready. Generally, it’s good to establish a rapport with a Mentor early on, so as our Hero enters the Special World of Act II, he has at least some tools in hand and won’t be crushed immediately.

old coach So let’s return to our Hero, our benchwarming quarterback. Who are his Mentors? First, there are the coaches on the sideline. One old coach tells him to warm up. Our Hero has a decent relation with this “old, wise” man who is an assistant coach. We don’t know much about him, except maybe that he used to be a head coach somewhere important, maybe years or decades ago. Now, he’s a rambling old man no one pays attention to, but our Hero likes to hear his stories. This man likes to talk about the “glory days” when helmets were optional and quarterbacks ran the ball. Mentors need an air of authority, otherwise the Hero won’t listen.

He pats our quarterback on the shoulder, and asks him if he’s ready. He tells him to relax, to play his best, and watch for the corners pinching in. Then the Head Coach comes over and yells and screams, and the old man slinks into the background. The Head Coach is not really a Mentor, his concerns are much higher than day-to-day training. Our quarterback may also have words from his Father in his head, disparaging remarks about how he never will succeed. Negative Mentors can be a huge source of frustration for a Hero, but there are valuable lessons in hearing negative advice too.

Meeting with Mentor Goals

  • Provide the Hero with critical information at critical junctures.
  • Explain the Special World the Hero is entering.
  • Provide a framework for the transformation the Hero must undergo.
  • Train the Hero in skills he will need to succeed.
  • Be an asset to the Hero, someone he can turn to.

Non Goals

  • Don’t give the Hero everything he needs. A good mentor doesn’t just hand the Hero fish, he teaches him how to fish.
  • Don’t be an Ally to the Hero. He can be, but sometimes he’s providing the Hero with false information and has his own best interests at heart.
  • Don’t throw advice out there like candy. In many cases, a Mentor’s gifts must be earned.
  • He doesn’t solve the Hero’s problems. He simply points the Hero in the right direction, but the Hero must ultimately prevail on his own merits.
  • Your Hero doesn’t have to listen to the Mentor. But, he ignores the Mentor at your own peril.

Who are the Mentors in your writing? Who is your writing Mentor?


  1. I would have to disagree with: "Prevent the Hero from making mistakes that would cause the Hero suffering." Sometimes that's the only way a lesson can be learned.

  2. Perfect timing for your post. I just introduced the mentor into my WIP a few days ago!

    Ummm... And I think I'm going to disagree that the mentor prevents the hero from making mistakes that would cause him to suffer...

    A mentor may give insight into why a hero shouldn't go about things a certain way, but often the hero misses the point, or lets his emotions get the better of him, or decides not to listen in the first place. Then the mentor steps aside so the hero can learn through the consequences of his own suffering.

    Or should I disagree with "don't be an ally to the hero"? Because if the 'mentor' is feeding false information, doesn't that in fact negate the character's role as a mentor? OR on the flip side, if the mentor's feeding false information... wouldn't he try to at least appear as the hero's ally so that the hero will fall for whatever the lies are?

  3. Wow, you guys are good!
    Sara wins by a nose...she beat Laura by 5 seconds! Send me an email if you want a prize!

    Mentor != Mom. A Mentor is not there to protect the Hero, he is there to train him, and sometimes training can get ugly.

    As far as "don't be an Ally," you need to separate the Ally and Mentor roles. Sometimes a Mentor is teaching you how to do something the Mentor himself can't...for evil purposes. Mentors can become villains. Some of the Mentors in Harry Potter eventually turn against him.

  4. Sometimes the mentor just needs to show the pupil why he's in charge... and nothing says wachout sonny, than a good beatdown. I've often wondered how much cooler Luke would've been if Ben Kenobi would've just smacked him around at least once, and told him how it was.

    And yes, mentors can be villains..The best, in my opinion.


Thank you for your contribution to this discussion.