Enter the Mentor

If you’re plotting according to the hero’s journey, step 4 is Meet the Mentor. 

Mentors exist in every genre. And often, the unlikely the mentor, the better. 

Mr. Miyagi mentored The Karate Kid

Shug Avery was Celie’s principal mentor in The Color Purple. She was also Mister’s mistress, and filled the traditional mentor roles of mother, confidant, lover, sister, teacher, and friend

Mickey Goldmill was Rocky Balboa’s trainer, boxing mentor. Mickey advised Rocky – a crushing puncher – how to win: “Go for the ribs. Don’t let that bastard breathe.” 

Rocky had lots of mentors: Tony Gazzo hired Rocky to break legs and collect debts for the Philadelphia Mafia. Paulie Pennino is Adrian’s older brother and Rocky’s best friend. Adrian taught Rocky how to express love. Apollo Creed was Rocky’s first villain, but became a friend and mentor in Rocky III.

Here is an important fact to know about mentors: Mentors can fill any role in any story, from hero to villain (Professor Xavier and Magneto in X-Men) to crazy old man (Merlin); to wise rat (Splinter in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). 

Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist, believed in the Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill. A World War II draftee, Doss was ridiculed, beaten, abused by fellow soldiers, and tried by the Army for refusing an order to carry a firearm, and nearly dismissed for psychiatric reasons. However, as a medic, Doss rescued and treated 75 soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa. President Harry Truman awarded Doss the Medal of Honor, making him an official hero. Everyone learned from Doss, so he was a mentor, and Hacksaw Ridge was a mentor-driven story.

Pretty Woman was also mentor-driven. Rich, handsome corporate raider Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) hired a courtesan (Julia Roberts) to sleep with him and act as his date for social events. However, Edward also convinced Vivian she was worthy of more. Edward took Vivian to see La Traviata, a tragic opera about a rich man who falls in love with a courtesan. In Act I and Act II of Pretty Woman, Vivian listened to Edward and changed her mind about her self-worth.

Vivian mentored Edward too, as is the case with real-life couples. In Act 3, Edward listened to Vivian and changed his mind about his own values. Instead of buying another company and taking it apart, Edward helped the owner, and they built ships.

Markham blogged at www.smore.com/r1wqw-hero-s-journey-stage-4, that mentors usually appear when the story seems stuck. “Mentors are the ones who provide aid, advice, or magical equipment when all appears doomed… We all have to learn life’s lessons from someone or something.”

In Professor Joseph Campbell’s 17 stages of the hero’s journey, the audience meets the hero in his ordinary world, the hero hears the call from the herald, and the hero refuses the call. Then the hero meets the mentor in stage 4. It’s the mentor who prepares the hero to cross the stage 5 threshold into the special world, and for the Step 6 road of tests and trials. 

Haymitch mentors Katniss with crucial advice that saves her life in The Hunger Games: “You just remember who the enemy is.”

It’s dangerous for heroine to rush blindly into the special world, so good witch Glinda introduced Dorothy to the land of Oz, advised her to how find the Wizard – just follow the yellow brick road – and placed a protective kiss on her forehead. Glinda and Haymitch have been to the special world, of course. That’s why Frank Baum and Suzanne Collins picked them as mentors. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, these heroes have survived these villains and these situations before. 

Mentors aren’t necessarily people. Maps, books and hieroglyphics guide Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code. In westerns and detective stories, the hero may consult an inner mentor – his own code of honor or justice. Think Shane and Batman. The mentor may be represented, Markham blogged, “by the bond between parent and child, teacher and student, doctor and patient, God and man. The function of the mentor is to prepare the hero to face the unknown, to accept the adventure.”

Scott Myers blogged about how Red mentored Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption: Red understands prison life. Red tips Andy about the Sisters’ sexual interest in Andy. Red insists that Andy must hope for survival. Red acquires a rock hammer and movie posters so Andy can dig his way out of prison. 

WRITING EXERCISE 1

Take Stephen King’s advice: place your characters in a bad situation and imagine how they get themselves out. Andy Dufresne was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, and was sent to Shawshank. Andy’s redemption comes when he turns the tables on the guards, the warden, and the Sisters. Who is your hero’s mentor? Why is the mentor part of an emotional relationship between the hero and the mentor? Now introduce that mentor in a surprising way.

Mentors aren’t always good guys. Loki is Thor’s adoptive brother, and brothers usually mentor each other. They grow up together, share adventures, battle by each other’s sides. However, Loki has huge brother issues: his secret wish is to kill Thor and rule Asgard.

As the god of mischief, Loki is a trickster, one of eight archetypes in Campbell’s The Power of Myth.  Campbell examined the myths of the world, and found stories that are told in every culture have common archetypes: heroes, mentors, allies, heralds, shapeshifters, shadows, tricksters and guardians.

The trickster is often a sidekick. He may balance drama with comic relief, which brings the story into perspective. 

The trickster also may be a shapeshifter – not what he appears to be. Think President Snow in Hunger Games, Saruman in Lord of the Rings, and the Wizard of Oz himself. 

The shapeshifter may be good or evil. He may switch sides. In When Harry Met Sally, both of romantic leads are shapeshifters: Harry and Sally changed their minds, stopped disliking each other, and entered into a loving relationship. 

The shadow may be the alter ego of the protagonist or an outright villain. Joker is a shadow because he’s the villainous opposite of the anti-hero, Batman. Bruce Wayne is a shadow because he is Batman’s alter ego. Selina Kyle – Catwoman – is a shadow and a shapeshifter. But is she good or bad?

It’s time to ask: exactly what is a mentor? The dictionary says it’s a guide, guru, counselor, confidante, teacher, instructor. I would add mother, father, sibling, relative, friend, spouse, partner or cricket. Yep, Jiminy Cricket was an insect in Pinocchio.

Like most words, mentor originates in Greek. Mentor’s name means wise adviser. The original Mentor was Athena. When the Greek Argonauts fought the Trojan War of The Iliad and the Odyssey, the daughter of Zeus assumed male form to advise Odysseus. 

Michael Tabb, a script and comic book writer, points out that the mentor is usually superior to the hero in rank, reputation, or experience. The mentor is often heroic, and exemplifies what the hero will personify at the end of the story. Therefore, the mentor, especially in a romance, also guides the hero’s inner journey. 

To create the mentor in your own story, ask who mentored you. Who inspired you? Write down the names of your mentors, their mentoring qualities, and exactly what those mentors did for you. Now think about farmhands Hunk, Hickory and Zeke who mentored Dorothy as Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion. Fictionalize your real-life mentors into story characters. 

WRITING EXERCISE 2

Ask yourself these questions, and write down the answers:

Exactly what does your hero learn from his mentor?

How is the mentor admirable and heroic?

How does the mentor lead by example?

Finally, how does the mentor relate directly to the story’s overarching theme and central question?

Vivian as a mentor to Edward brings up the Pretty Woman question: in literature, it’s difficult to find female mentors beyond wives or girlfriends. That may be because in literature and film, wisdom traditionally comes from men. Can you name heroic female mentors?

Princess Leia in Star WarsMary Poppins, Joan Holloway in Mad MenBuffy the Vampire Slayer

Mentors may have their own flaws and wounds. In the movie Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Big Daddy Pollitt was unable to accept the love of Big Mama, and Brick inherited the same quality: he could not love Maggie the Cat.

What did Big Daddy and Maggie give to Brick? Brick lied to himself about the true nature of his relationship with his football buddy, Skipper. Both confronted Brick about Skipper, whose death appears to be the source of Brick’s sorrow, depression and the root cause of his alcoholism. 

Bishop sacrifice

In Step 8 of the hero’s journey, called the ordeal, the hero usually faces either a symbolic or actual death. The mentor sometimes sacrifices himself, so the student must face the villain alone. 

In the Harry Potter stories, headmaster Albus Dumbledore gives his life, so Harry must face Lord Voldemort.

In Star Wars IV, Obi-Wan dies at the end of the second act; Luke alone faces Darth Vader in Star Wars V. The Ordeal comes at the end of the middle of the story, where the hero confronts death, or faces his greatest fear. A new life – often the emergence of a newer, stronger, better hero – comes out of that moment of death. 

If you’re going to kill a character in your book, it should come at Step 8. It shouldn’t be a minor character whom no one loves; it should be a major character whom everyone loves. That’s why Han Solo – a hero to everyone and a mentor to Rey – dies in Star Wars VII. To save Wonder Woman, Antiope dives in front of a bullet. John Wayne’s character dies in The Cowboys. It’s a major shocker. 

And that means the mentor isn’t necessary to the ending. The mentor is expendable, so the best way to tug the reader’s heartstrings is the kill the mentor who, after the hero and the heroine, is perhaps the second most important character in the story. 

Since the mentor is giving and caring, he’s the perfect character to sacrifice. His sacrifice personifies the story’s premise. The sacrifice should be the most memorable moment in any script. It should remind the audience what is at stake if the hero fails to achieve his story goal. 

Since surprise is the key to mentor sacrifice, don’t foreshadow; make the audience gasp at the unexpected loss of a well-loved character. The sacrifices of Professor X, Uncle Ben and Father Merrin are the most memorable moments in X-MenSpider-Man and The Exorcist

WRITING EXERCISE 3

Because the mentor is such a worthy role, the character should be sculpted with the same care as the hero or the villain. Who is your hero’s principal mentor? Many characters serve more than one archetype; how many of the eight archetypes describe your mentor’s role? So, at the close of Act 2 in your book, the hero and the mentor engage the villain. Should the mentor to die? If yes, what happens in the plot to force the mentor to sacrifice himself?

False mentors

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Gooper and Sister Woman were false mentors. Brick’s brother and sister-in-law were at Big Daddy’s 65th birthday party, not to celebrate his birthday, but to convince Big Mama to sign papers so they could “protect their interests.” That is, take control of Big Daddy’s $10 million and 28,000 acres.

Jimmy Dugan – the Tom Hanks character in A League of Their Own – is a comic example is a fallen mentor. He’s a drunk, a mean manager, and doesn’t want to manage a female baseball club because he hasn’t learned to respect women.

False mentors can be fabulous, juicy roles. Louis Gossett Jr. and JK Simmons won Academy Awards for An Officer and a Gentleman and Whiplash. This happens when the teacher abuses the protagonist, be it for personal dislike or personality flaw. 

True mentors don’t take credit for the hero’s success; false mentors do the opposite: they rob a hero of everything she has fought to achieve. 

In Working Girl, Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) grabs credit for the ideas of her secretary, Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith). The trick to writing the cruel-mentor role is to make her someone with skills the heroine believes she must master. 

When mentor betrayal is executed correctly, the protagonist is blindsided by the false mentor’s evil nature. The reveal – the betrayal – comes immediately after the heroine thinks she’s won. Tess has survived her road of trials; she’s about to get everything she’s worked for, and Katherine swoops in and swipes Tess’s work. The heroine realizes Katherine was actually leading her down the wrong path. 

In L.A. Confidential, Police Captain Dudley Smith mentored an honest cop. Det. Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) hoped to crack a famous case, become LAPD’s “top cop,” and be promoted when Dudley ran for police commissioner. The false mentor, played by James Cromwell, was convincing until he revealed himself as a dirty police captain.

WRITING EXERCISE 4

My high school coaches were bullies. They berated players, they kicked students, and they organized boxing tournaments so they could laugh when a bigger student beat up a smaller student in gym class.

Think of a false mentor in your life – a relative, a teacher, a boss, a co-worker, a lover. Ask these questions:

Is the false mentor abusive to his wife or her husband?

Does the false mentor have a personality flaw?

Does the false mentor take credit for someone else’s success?

Is the false mentor a racist or a sexist?

Does the false mentor rob someone of dignity?

First, write a fabulous, juicy, human role for a true mentor who loves his wife until he cheats on her, or a brother who loves his siblings until he betrays them up for something he can’t resist. Then write a scene in which the mentor betrays the hero.

Published by garybob309yahoocom

Gary Robert Pinnell is a career journalist who retired in 2017. He has written a novel, To Daddy, Who I Never Loved, about 1967, when he ran away from Duncan, Oklahoma, hitchhiked to California, and lived in a communal restaurant in Palo Alto until he found his father. He is now working on The Women of Oklahoma!, a true story of the behind-the-stage women who helped make the history with the 1943 musical.

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