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.
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.