Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Archetypes: The Mentor

I read somewhere that the reason people often get sick after stressful or tiring situations isn't so much the stress itself, but rather the body's reaction to the sudden absence of stress in the aftermath, when all the stress-related chemicals suddenly go away, and that leaves the body vulnerable. If that's the case, then I guess I'm doing things right this week, as I don't have time to collapse. Yesterday was errands day, today I had to go to the library (books due), plus I have a couple of deadlines and I'm a guest at a book club meeting tonight. Tomorrow, ballet class starts again and I have yet another deadline. This weekend I may reach total collapse after a gradual stress ramping down, so maybe I'll be safe from the post-WorldCon crud. The B&N next to the grocery store was having a big DVD sale, so that the specific ones I really wanted were all less than $10, which means I have viewing material for my weekend retreat, and now I have books, so I'm set.

As for the every-other-week writing post, I'm still working my way through the archetypes in the hero's journey. Last time, when talking about the hero, I mentioned that it can be difficult to deal with that archetype because there isn't really a character type associated with it. With the mentor, there are actual traits and duties, so the archetype has a slightly stronger character. The danger is that it's way too easy to slide into stereotype. When someone mentions the mentor, what comes to mind is the wise older man with a white beard -- Merlin, Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Dumbledore. Joseph Campbell even refers to the type as the "Wise Old Man" or the "Wise Old Woman." The standard job of the mentor is to train the hero or give him some advice, get him started on his journey and then die or otherwise disappear from the scene, since the hero does need to lose the training wheels and find out if he's really learned his lessons without his tutor by his side.

But there really is more to it than that. Dramatically, the mentor archetype serves a number of functions. The mentor is a teacher to the hero, helping him gain the skills he needs to prevail on his journey. He may be a gift giver, passing on the items the hero needs, such as swords, magical armor, the secret password, etc. The mentor may serve as the hero's conscience, providing moral training along with the more worldly training (Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio). The mentor can be a source of motivation for the hero, prodding him on when he's ready to quit. And, in some stories, the mentor can even provide sexual initiation (think Susan Sarandon's character in Bull Durham).

Psychologically, the mentor represents the hero's higher self, the idea of the god within -- the very best part of the person. In other words, the mentor is what the hero can grow up to be if he follows the right path and prevails in his journey. Since the mentor often dies or goes away, the hero might be on the path to taking his place and taking on the mentor role for a new hero at the end of the story. In the Star Wars saga, Luke Skywalker could very well grow up to be like Obi-Wan Kenobi if he trains to be a Jedi Knight and learns to overcome his rash and impulsive tendencies. We saw in the first of the prequels that Obi-Wan himself was once a Jedi in training who could be rash and impulsive and who had to step up and continue his own mentor's work after his mentor was killed.

Thinking in these terms is a good way to avoid the usual stereotypes. Your mentor may have been the hero of his own story at some point and may have gone on his own heroic journey. What was that like and how did it shape him? How will it affect the way he deals with his hero in this story? You don't necessarily want to dump all that into your book, since this is, after all, your hero's story, but knowing that will help you create a real character, even if he is an older man with a white beard.

Or there are twists on the usual role of the mentor. The mentor can be a dark or fake mentor who leads the hero down the wrong path -- but still teaches valuable lessons, as the hero has to learn to discern whom to listen to. The mentor himself may still be on a journey, so he's not quite as prepared for his role and still has some learning to do (like Obi-Wan in the Star Wars prequels, who isn't quite ready to take on the training of someone like Anakin). Comic mentors show up a lot in romantic comedies. These are the best buddies (often siblings) of the hero and heroine who give advice on their love lives that may or may not be good advice, and their interference may almost keep the couple apart but may also help bring the couple together.

Some non-white-bearded-older-man mentors I can think of include:
Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz
The little Amish boy in Witness who teaches Harrison Ford's character about life among the Amish
Kyle Reese in The Terminator, who teaches Sarah Connor about life in the future, how to be a soldier, and sets her on the right path
Jack in Titanic, who teaches Rose how to live. There's also the element of sexual initiation, and the pan across her photographs at the end shows that, in a sense, she did become like him.
The fairy godmother in fairy tales
The Sigourney Weaver character in Working Girl might be considered a dark mentor, as she's working against and undermining the heroine, but the heroine is able to achieve what she does by learning from her and using her tools (her wardrobe and her Rolodex).
Inara in the television series Firefly essentially has the "crone" role in the cast, even though she's young and beautiful, as she offers advice and wisdom to the crew (in the movie Serenity, though, Shepherd Book is in a much more traditional mentor role, complete with white beard).
John Casey (the Adam Baldwin character) in the TV series Chuck seems to be a mentor figure for Chuck, reluctantly teaching him about being a secret agent.
Carrie Fisher's character is a comic mentor for Sally in When Harry Met Sally, as at first she shows what not to do in her ongoing pursuit of married men, but then when she gets into a good relationship she's more able to offer good advice and provide a role model for Sally.

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