Monday, December 17, 2012

Wise advice is so last century—or is it?

In honor of the season, I thought we might talk about wise men in fantasy--the non-religious kind, otherwise known as mentors.  One of the first bits of advice given to new writers of YA, and even middle grade fiction, is that their kid protagonists not only have to solve the central story problem themselves, they need to do it pretty much on their own.  Wise adult advisers, who teach them what to do, get the same exasperated eye-roll from young reader that their parents do in real life.

And yet, the Mentor, who is pretty much the epitome of the wise adult advisor is a classic fantasy archetype—and if you’re going with the hero’s journey model, a necessary story element.  So how do modern fantasy writers, who write for modern teens, reconcile these two truths?

Personally, I’m not a huge advocate for the hero’s journey—and one of the reasons I’m not is that I don’t think the wise mentor is necessary in today’s fiction.  On the other hand, I have to say that model can still work fantastically well.  Up (which is one of the best stories I’ve seen in a very long time) is a classic hero’s journey—and the wise mentor in Up is Russell, the kid boy-scout.  I also have to admit that several of my own books have wise mentor figures.  I think the trick to making the wise mentor work, is to keep the mentor’s role entirely subordinate.  If the mentor offers wise advice and the protagonist simply accepts it and acts on it, that’s when the story fails.  If the mentor offers wise advice and the protagonist rejects or disregards it, and then goes on to discover his own truths for himself, then it’s OK if one of those truths is that the mentor wasn’t such an idiot after all.

So how do other fantasy writers feel about wise mentors?  An idea whose time has gone?  Or something that reflects a perennial human truth?  How do you use them?


  1. I love the wise mentor and have included them. I think it's a way of shifting perspective--almost like the way a film might shift suddenly to an aerial shot, after being down-and-dirty on the ground all along. Useful for the main character and for the reader both to get that sudden wider, more open view. But useful is all I'm saying -- definitely no rules that there MUST be one.

  2. I'm fond of the flawed mentor--somebody older but not necessarily wiser, who can offer historical perspective and a little wisdom, but who also could stand to learn a lesson or two from our hero. Love the comment about UP, Hilari--I never thought of Russell as a mentor, but you're right, that's exactly what he is, even though he's young.

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  4. For me the wise mentor role works as an initiation into a new world. It gives the author an option for getting the character's understanding of the world from point A to B more quickly. It is when the wise mentor tries to shape the future for the protagonist or guide the protagonist in a direction that I think the problem arises. In today's novels it is up to the protagonist to make her own choices and find her own direction. I also think the wise mentor could serve as kind of a friendly-grandmother role. Not one who tells you what to do, but is there in case you need to cry or just need a safe place.

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