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Guest Post: Mentors with a Twist

I’m hosting guest authors through most of April and May, as I am swamped with Awesome Con DC and welcoming Baby Boy Brightley into the world. This guest post was written by AC Smyth, the author of Crowchanger and Stormweaver

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Mentors with a Twist

Think of a mentor in fantasy and where do your thoughts go? I’d take a bet that for a lot of people the first person they think of is someone like Gandalf, or Obi-Wan Kenobi. Maybe Albus Dumbledore. The mentor is a grey-haired man in a long robe, right?

Well, maybe that used to be the case, but I think things are shifting.

As writers, we’ve been told to give our main characters a flaw. It’s the flaw that makes them interesting and means readers can relate to them. Whether they are hobbits out in the big world for the first time, or an youth with the fate of the rebel alliance on his shoulders, we have to make them stubborn or rash or naïve or impulsive, or any one of a hundred other traits that will land them in big trouble.
So how about the mentors?

Recently I’ve noticed a tendency to give the mentors a flaw too. Rather than walking serenely beside our hero, offering a steadying hand and sage wisdom, the mentors also stumble.

The first one that sprang to mind was Haymitch in the Hunger Games trilogy. Charged with training Katniss and Peeta to fight for their lives, and to support them through their struggles, Haymitch is facing his own demons. Feted as a Hunger Games winner, he is haunted by what he has seen. When Katniss and Peeta need him most, he is often to be found at the bottom of a bottle. Haymitch intrigues me. He is Katniss and Peeta’s possible future if they don’t manage to come to terms with what they are having to do to survive. I would have loved more of Haymitch in the story, but it focussed (and rightly so) on the teenage leads.

Then I was watching the BBC The Musketeers. It has come in for a lot of criticism for playing fast and loose with Dumas’ story, but I looked at it (and enjoyed it) as a fantasy story with no magic. Darken it up a bit and I could see Joe Abercrombie’s characters having a blast in 17th century France. We all know the story. Youthful D’Artagnan comes up from the country with a dream of becoming a musketeer and is mentored by the older musketeers. The BBC series has made Aramis a philanderer, given Porthos a tendency to be belligerent when drunk, and cast Athos as a moody guy with a dark past. Imperfect role models for D’Artagnan, perhaps, but all interesting characters in their own right.

In what is promising to be my favourite series of all time, The Stormlight Archive, we don’t have too many obvious mentor relationships. The one that is definitely there, though, is the one between Jasnah Kholin and Shallan Davar. Again, we see a big flaw in this character. She is proud of her intellect, to the point of regarding most other people as stupid. When Shallan doesn’t come up to her personal standards, regardless that she is better educated than most, Jasnah sends her away with what amounts to a reading list. While doubtless a brilliant mind, Jasnah alienates people as much with her superiority as with her avowed hereticism.

Another favourite series of mine is Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards sequence. Here the mentor is a priest of the Crooked Warden, who is god of thieves. He takes in the boys and girls that the Thieftaker (sort of a Fagin character) cannot control, and trains them to a dual purpose: they will serve the temple (one of them becoming priest in turn) and also be master thieves, whose love of cons and heists provides the backdrop for the story. So we see a mentor training his charges, not for good like Gandalf and the others, but to be the best thieves he can make them.

When I read The King’s Sword, what struck me was that here we had the mentor as the point of view character. This is like seeing Harry Potter’s story through Dumbledore’s eyes, or Luke Skywalker’s through Obi-Wan’s. Rather than going along with the usual fantasy trope of the coming-of-age of a young protagonist, we see Kemen Sendoa with all his scars and baggage, taking on a wet-behind-the-ears prince to keep him safe and prepare him for kingship. And here again, we have the flaws. He is bitter about how he was treated, cast out from the army after an injury from which he would recover. He is illiterate, and seems to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder about it. And he’s physically different from most of the people he encounters: tall and dark-skinned.

So I’m wondering now how I can play with the mentor archetype. Which flaws would make for a compelling mentor character? Could one be overly critical instead of supportive, and risk alienating his charge? Could we have one who still clings to his glory days and isn’t entirely sure he wants to train his successor? Maybe instead of Haymitch’s alcoholism, he could be struggling with some other addiction, or an infirmity he’s trying to conceal? How do you think we can play with this character to escape the view of the mentor as purely an old man in a robe?

Guest Author Bio:

resonanceAC Smyth took a very long time to decide what she wanted to be when she grew up. After a number of boringly mundane occupations, she now seems to have found her happy place writing fantasy fiction. From discovering Narnia aged six years old, through the wonders of Middle Earth, she now enjoys spending time in Roshar, Camorr, Westeros, and other places that don’t exist but really should.