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?