The Mentor Figure is Disappearing

Posted January 5, 2018 by Amber in Reading / 10 Comments

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One of the most under-appreciated character tropes in fiction these days is the mentor figure.  I mean, sure, we’ve got Dumbledore who was well loved, but outside that?  Mostly these days our heroes and heroines take to the streets themselves and learn as they go.  Merlin’s legacy is fading.

I think this largely stems from a shifting in our culture to complete independence.  It’s no longer fashionable to receive guidance and advice from those more experienced than us – in fact, it’s humiliating.  We are thrown into the world with the complete expectation of innate knowledge and the ability to thoroughly research our way into whatever success we want.

Is this just a New England anomaly?  Is crippling independence something experienced across America?  Internationally?

Despite our do-it-yourself behavior, the mentor figure in fiction serves a critical purpose.  They are the ones that shift our characters from ordinary to extraordinary.  They arm heroes with the information they need to move forward.  Often, they’re the ones that nudge the character in the right direction to get the adventure started.

It’s also worthy to note that some of the biggest franchises have notable mentor figures, such as….

Dumbledore / Harry

While Dumbledore may not always be upfront with Harry, every one of his adventures has been sparked by something Dumbledore did, even if indirectly.  Dumbledore makes sure Harry gets to Hogwarts where he learns all his skills, and he is constantly guiding him and protecting him.

Dumbledore also fits the character cliches of the Old Wise Man often used for the mentor figure.  Without him, Harry and his friends probably would have enjoyed a good six uneventful years at Hogwarts then Voldemort would have taken over and that would have been the end.

Haymitch / Katniss

While I wouldn’t classify this one as a particularly healthy relationship, Haymitch drives Katniss to be a survivor.  Even when he refuses to help, his direct refusal sparks her own drive.  Throughout the first book, Katniss constantly askes “What would Haymitch do?” and in this way they communicate within the arena, her correct guesses bringing supplies.

Haymitch is the Outcast mentor trope, living on the outskirts of society in solitude.  He has to be coerced into offering his guidance, but it is invaluable.

Iron Man / Spiderman

Getting out of books and into films, the new Marvel cinematic universe has mentors galore.  Nick Fury to the Avengers in general, Odin and Heimdall to Thor, and Yondu to Starlord.  The one I want to focus on is Tony Stark to Peter Parker.

Stark is the billionaire playboy enabler to Peter in this current evolution of Spiderman – he appears only occasionally to offer his sage advice and then disappears, tempting our hero to take matters into his own hands (which he isn’t supposed to do).  No matter how big a mess Spiderman makes, Iron Man is overseeing him and will help him out of it if necessary.  And, sometimes, he just has to let him off the leash to believe in himself and take matters into his own hands.

Obi-Wan / Luke

The classic mentor/mentee duo in this series… I know I could go with Luke and Rey, or Obi-Wan and Anakin (*gasp*) but it’s always best to go with the classics.  ALSO I HAVEN’T SEEN THE LAST JEDI STILL THIS IS A SPOILER-FREE ZONE GUYS.

Obi-Wan fits so well in the teacher role that he is mentor to multiple Jedi, both of whom are the chosen one in his own way.  He is patient and learns from his mistakes.  While he also needs to be sought out before becoming a mentor, he is not abrasive like Haymitch.  Of the four mentioned, Obi-Wan is the one I would want for a mentor because of his intense knowledge, but also the trust he puts in his mentees.  He even guides Luke to his next teacher (Yoda) when he can no longer continue.

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For myself, I love the mentor figure.  You always get a sense that they have this deep backstory and you want to get in and know that better.  They also add a level of humanity to our heroes, showing they are not omniscient and need to be taught.

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Do you agree that the mentor figure is fading in fiction?

Who is your mentor in life?

Which fictional mentors are your favorite and why?
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10 responses to “The Mentor Figure is Disappearing

  1. Danielle

    I agree that the mentor/father/mother figure is slowly dying because everyone wants to go solo. No one wants to be apart of a team or group anymore. I think the last good mentor/mentee pairing was Haymitch and Katniss!! Divergent didn’t have one, the mentor turned into a savaged sociopath 😬😬. We need to bring back mentors in YA because half of these young characters don’t know what they’re doing lol.

    • Amber

      I agree! I really like those sagely old characters, and while independence is good… I don’t think we should be instilling a sense of shame over having help! Two books I’m reading now sort of have mentors (Tess of the Road and Reign of the Fallen) but they’re only there for quick advice before the MCs run off.

      • Danielle

        Yeah that’s true, even a lot of the manuscripts I’m reading for my internship, the mentors seem to hide in the background or not help at all, which is frustrating. How is the MC supposed to be great without help?

  2. I do agree! But I wonder if it’s because I don’t really recognize who the mentor is, or if I’m just not looking for one. I know I had a hard time coming up with a book that had a mentor when when I was looking at my 2017 reads. I think YA has largely moved to characters who are independent and don’t ask for him. And when they do ask for help, it’s usually asking the love interest, or their parents (which may or may not be mentors based on their relationship), but I feel like that’s it. I think just in society in general, it’s looked down upon to ask for help, and it makes it seem like you can’t do anything on your own, which is dumb. Because how can you improve or make fewer mistakes without guidance?

    • Amber

      I agree entirely that it’s a shift in societal view! Asking for help = bad. And we’re really setting ourself up to fail by not asking questions. I work in management and one of my biggest struggles is making sure everyone understands that they are not being judged or thought little of for asking questions, even if that means I am out of my seat all day rotating between everyone to answer them. That’s what I’m there for!

      Asking the love interest, internet, or best friend is HUGE in YA. People at equal experience levels. And so often the MC ignores them anyway. 😛

    • Amber

      It is too bad, I really like them. I’m looking harder in the books I read to try and identify people who could fill that role, but even when they’re present, they’re much more distant.

  3. Excellent post!
    I think you’re right–the mentor character is a bit out of vogue right now, and I think that you might be onto something as to why as well. But I don’t think they’ll be permanently gone. There seems to have just been a trend lately for super strong MCs that don’t need a lot of help, or won’t take it when it’s offered. But, like most trends, I think it’s what will fade, and then we’ll be back to having more of a role for mentor characters.
    I certainly hope so, at least. I like mentor characters. They usually quirky and add a nice dynamic to a story.
    As for who mentors are in my life? Goodness, I feel like there are so many. My 9th grade English teacher, my 12 grade science teacher, my parents, some church and scouting leaders that I’ve had. I’ve been lucky to know lots of amazing people.

    • Amber

      I really hope it is just a trend – I would love to see aspiring writers (myself included 🙂 ) go back and try to re-introduce this character type. You’re right about the quirkiness – they are fun! We need to separate the illusion that independence means strength.

      It sounds like you’ve had a bunch of really great figures in your life! When I think about it, so many teachers come to mind as well… but I also think of a few older friends who I turn to and aspire to be more like, directors, even my sister-in-law. We’re all influenced and guided by the people around us, and there are always people to lift us up when we falter. :). I’m really glad you have been surrounded by such a great support system!