Mentors are one of my favorite archetypes. They span in type and function wildly. They can be good, bad, indifferent, insane, comical, and everything in-between. Today we will look at what a mentor is, what their psychological functions can be, and offer some different types to play with.
If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time then you know how much I love an origins story. The origin of the mentor is a cool one!
Homer penned up the character, Mentor, in The Odyssey. The devious goddess Athena used Mentor’s body as a meat suit a couple of times to influence major characters to pursue different courses of action. Even when not being possessed by busty goddesses, Mentor worked as a trusted adviser to the wayward Odysseus.
I also ran the word, “mentor,” through the Online Etymological Dictionary (which is awesome if you haven’t used it before). The following is the result (I made some of the key points bold):
[“wise advisor,” 1750, from Greek Mentor, friend of Odysseus and adviser of Telemachus (but often actually Athene in disguise) in the “Odyssey,” perhaps ultimately meaning “adviser,” because the name appears to be an agent noun of mentos “intent, purpose, spirit, passion” from PIE *mon-eyo- (source also of Sanskrit man-tar- “one who thinks,” Latin mon-i-tor “one who admonishes“), causative form of root *men- “to think” ]
Sometimes it’s just amazing to see how a word breaks down into component pieces; mentor is no exception. I find it very interesting to see how different languages and cultures shaped not just our language, but how we have come to understand it.
History and origin aside, we can move forward knowing that a mentor, at a very basic level, is a being who: advises, stirs passions, causes people to think, and helps others find purpose.
The best explanation I have found for the psychological function of the mentor comes from Christopher Vogler’s, The Writers Journey. Vogler explains that many mentors were once heroes and heroines themselves. It is because of this connection they often resonate with the person they are advising.
Vogler also explains that, “The Mentor archetype is closely related to the image of the parent. The fairy godmother in stories such as ‘Cinderella’ can be interpreted as the protecting spirit of the girl’s dead mother. Merlin is a surrogate parent to the young King Arthur, whose father is dead” (p. 52).
Does this mean the mentors we create should fit these molds? Nah! But it’s good to understand how a reader may view the mentor on a subconscious level. They may accept or reject your mentor based on psychological aspects trapped in their brains. Given most of us grew up hearing and seeing these fairy tale stories (or version of them) some of this is embedded right into our brains as canon.
Let’s look at a handful of different types of mentors to use in your stories.
The Fallen Mentor: They are usually on a hero’s journey themselves. They are portrayed as drunks, failures, outcasts, and are generally unsavory. Some of them have placed themselves into a self-imposed hermit status. Many times their failures seem minor to us, but affected them deeply. They often don’t take the budding hero/heroine seriously at first. Then the apprentice re-awakes the fallen mentor’s passion through watching them struggle, fight, and overcome obstacles.
The Treacherous Adviser: These folks are usually wise and powerful, but are still looking to gain more power. They manipulate actions and people to best match their own agendas. Often times these folks cloak themselves behind a friendly face. In many fairy tales they are obviously the bad guy from the readers perspective, but the hero/heroine is oblivious. We say, “Bro! Your adviser is stroking a human skull while giving you advice…red flag!” Sometimes we were right, sometimes we were wrong. This is the power of the treacherous adviser: the reader is forced to continuously reappraise whether they are good or bad.
The Foolish Wanderer: Usually appear disheveled and generally insane. This is sometimes their natural state and sometimes a ploy they use to test the worthiness of those around them. They are sometimes discounted by the hero or heroine until they say some jaw-dropping comment or reduce a mountain to pebbles by flicking it.
The Wise Jester: They’ve got jokes! These folks are constantly goofing off, drinking, prodding, and not taking things seriously. These mentors tend to find the overly serious hero/heroine and subject them to constant tomfoolery. Usually this mentor is not taken seriously, until their humor or ability somehow enables them to do something the hero/heroine could only dream of. This is part of the mentors core function. They show the hero/heroine a trait they lack and how to become whole.
The Enigma: Just what are they? No one knows. They are the mysterious figure who wanders in and out of the story. The characters in the story (and the reader) often wonder if they are a neutral party or some supernatural observing force with an agenda. They tend to offer advice that is cloaked in mystery. As one of my favorite people from history said, ” It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key” (Winston Churchill).
The Mystic Force: These tend to exist environmentally to enforce balance in a world. If the villain (or hero) of the story is threatening to disrupt the balance it usually triggers this mentor to pop up and offer tidbits to the opposition. This mentor offers measured advice and often acts as a harbinger. They are quick to remind the hero/heroine of balance and will jump sides if the balance requires them to do so.
That’s it for today! As usual, we only scratched the surface of this archetype. I encourage you to blend archetypal dimensions however you want! Your mentor could be a treacherous, shape shifting, threshold guardian. There are no rules. Only that it makes sense in the context of your own story. I have created a category specific to archetypes in my site navigation (the widget in the sidebar) and will continue to populate it with examples for you all to play with.
Do you have some real or made up examples you’d add to the list? What kind of mentor appeals to you? And I’m talking about in fiction and in life. Whether you answer that question or not (in the comments) it’s important to consider. Being able to tap into this current of emotions and translate it into your writing will make the character far more believable. I look forward to hearing your thoughts! Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!