Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Archetypes: Unveiling the Mentor

Idly contemplate your life, and you'll find an entire cast of players who are neither star roles nor simple cameo bits. Woven through your days on planet Earth are a variety of individuals who are not only vital to your development as a person but who also play roles that are recursive in nature.

I contend, of course, that each of us lives the hero's journey -- not once but many times -- and that each time we choose wisely or duck past a Threshold Guardian or pwn an exam or interview we complete a level. There are people with whom we come into contact, share a portion of the ride, or even battle against. Ultimately, however, Life is all about the hero with a thousand journeys.

Writing, on the other hand, is not. Joseph Campbell, through his research, identifies the hero with a thousand faces who meets all kinds of entities along his journey. These are not hard and fast rules but rather a way to organize that reveals the patterns of storytelling. Understanding them allows us to break the rules, tweak them, apply a feminist lens or a Freudian one, or whatever pleases us.

Carl G. Jung, who believed that the dream world sprung from the collective unconscious of the human race, called constantly repeating characters or energies archetypes. And this is what I want to focus on: the archetypes that people our WIPs.

Archetype: an original model of a person, ideal example, or a prototype after which others are copied, patterned, or emulated; a symbol universally recognized by all. Within your WIP, you undoubtedly have an archetype or two. I'd like to introduce you to one of mine.

But first, one should note that there are as many archetypes as there are flavors of ice cream. And, yes, some are nutty. Christopher Vogler, who amended Campbell's work to more closely align with the writer's journey, identifies the most common and useful archetypes as the following:

  • Hero
  • Mentor
  • Threshold Guardian
  • Herald
  • Shapeshifter
  • Shadow
  • Ally
  • Trickster
The Mentor: If you've read my personal blog recently, you know this concept of mentor has been coloring my thoughts of late. Here, however, I'd like to focus on the mentor within the pages of a book.
Every time I teach The Odyssey, I notice that Odysseus' son, Telemachus, is aided by a character named Mentor (who is, in fact, Athena -- the goddess of wisdom!), and I wonder: which came first, the name or the word? Well, wonder no more. Vogler tells us that the word did indeed come from the story. Campbell's name for this "figure who aids or trains the hero" is Wise Old Man or Wise Old Woman (39).
According to Vogler, the Mentor represents the god within -- the part that is connected with all things -- who is there to protect the hero or tell her right from wrong. Often times, mentors are former heroes who have survived the journey and are now passing down invaluable information to the fledgling one.
The Function of a Mentor:
Mentors serve important functions as well: they teach, give gifts (usually ones that have been earned by the hero), invent needed items, serve as the hero's conscience, motivate, plant ideas or props for later use, and, sometimes, initiate the hero into the mysteries of love and sex.
Examples that populate our cultural stories or mythologies include the fairy godmother or Merlin or Obi Wan Kenobi or Jiminy Cricket or James Bond's "Q."
Types of Mentors:
  • Dark Mentor: can be used to mislead the audience (and the hero); often a decoy to lure the hero into danger. Rather than motivating, this mentor can actually become an obstacle.

  • Fallen Mentor: still on the hero journey himself; usually experiencing a crisis of faith and has fallen far from grace. This character often parallels the hero in his own journey.

  • Continuing Mentor: the butler or the boss in a series or trilogy; they can give assignments or set stories into motion.

  • Multiple Mentors: when one just isn't enough! usually this tends to be a series of training steps that the hero needs to undergo; each mentor will focus on a different aspect.

  • Comic Mentor: tends to be in romantic comedies; often provides advice that seems wrong at the outset but turns out to be just fine in the end.

  • Mentor as Shaman: healer who can help the hero in her vision quest to another world.

  • Inner Mentor: seen most often as a code of ethics or a long dead entity whose advice still lingers.
Volger says it well: "Mentors provide heroes with motivation, inspiration, guidance, training, and gifts for the journey. Every hero is guided by something, and a story without some acknowledgement of this energy is incomplete. Whether expressed as an actual character or as an internalized code of behavior, the Mentor archetype is a powerful tool at the writer's command" (47).
Mentor Applied:
In my Conscripted series, I have a character who serves as a mentor to Eliahna. He is a healer who trains her, adds to her knowledge, and sets her on a vision quest. In fact, he provides many skills and tricks she'll need later on just to survive her journey. But he also serves as a dark mentor, one who betrays her, holds her captive, and destroys her ability to trust. He dies a horrible death at the hands of another victim, but he will haunt her every decision from this point forward. Thus, in the ways that matter, he is very much alive.
Eliahna's new abilities, tainted by this experience, will be used for good -- but she will always question her ability to recognize evil. And because she cannot trust, she latches on to weak individuals who need her healing and her help. In the ordeal or "all is lost" stage, she realizes that she has followed the path of her mentor, sans the capture and rape, because she cannot set her newly healed free. Unwittingly, she has ensured their dependence upon her -- and this knowledge nearly destroys her. How is she any different from the man who betrayed her?
I wrestled with this idea of dark mentor for quite awhile, actually, wondering if it was too much or over the top or even doable. It made sense in my head, it worked on paper, but I was skittish about audience response. (I know, I know: one shouldn't write with such concerns popping about one's head. The subconscious is a delightful thing, untamed and unrepentant.)
Who are your mentor characters? Do they serve multiple functions? Do you have multiple mentors? Minor or major? Do they influence the hero's character development, motivations, or decisions? Pick one from a past work or a current WIP, and please leave a description of character, role, function in the comment section.


  1. Cool post.

    Your story sounds very interesting. I like all the info on mentors, especially the stuff on dark mentors. That take adds a bit of the unexpected.

    Did I ever tell you that I had the chance to talk with Vogler at a lunch table at a conference. He was a great speaker and very personalble when I had a chance to talk with him. It's odd how some people can make one feel that they would be successful if an alliance with them was made. I guess that's where his book comes in, because "mentoring" in America costs bucks, at least if it is with Vogler.

    Anyway, the clearest example of a mentor relationship in my fantasy novel is between a traveler and an outcast girl that he teaches to read. Often times mentor relationships are not long term. That's been my experience at any rate,and that is how it was supposed to play out in the story. He told her good bye, because he had to continue on with his travels. The thing is that she stowed away on the caravan because she wanted to travel with him,even though it is not something he would allow. She figured that he would have to let her stay on the journey once they were far enough away.

  2. Love this post!

    My MC has a blighted mentor - not exactly fallen, but has been so warped by life experiences that his advice might not be the best anymore. Plays a slightly more than peripheral role in the story and has shaped my MC's worldview tremendously, which offers her both aid and hinders her advancement.

  3. Really interesting question! Hmmm.. I would say that my writing does have a mentor. My sleuth, Joel Williams, is a college professor in the Department of Criminal Justice. So he functions as a mentor for his students. If I had to specify, I'd call him a continuing mentor...

  4. Such a well thought out bit of information. Thanks. It has made me think about my work. In my novel currently on sub, I purposly put a strong father figure to my protagonist. I think that is often lacking in today's literature (esp for children/youth). What kind of mentor would he be? I can't see a perfect fit into one of the listed categories but he is a funny, insightful go-to person for his daughter.

  5. @dave: i loved that bit in your novel; i like how strong and determined she is. did they ever meet up again, tho? did they come full circle? did either of them use lessons learned from that brief sojourn together that they then applied later on?

    you put it so tactfully! i get the feeling (from his website, etc) that vogler is interested in making a living. i'm perfectly okay with that, and maybe he's right: with his 'mentorship' one can be shepherded into success. but i do enjoy his book, just as anything of the analytical world tugs at my heart :)

  6. @Andrea Cremer: thanks! I'm curious about your MC. Does she realize her mentor is damaged goods? does this make her hesitate to trust him or does she trust him blindly to the detriment of her goals? or is it a slower, unveiling process throughout the novel? overall, intriguing! sounds like a well-developed character, all the more loveable for his warts and bumps...w/ the readers invested because we'd like to see him "saved" or "redeemed"

  7. @Margot Kinberg: Interesting -- your MC is serving as the mentor figure? Do they take his advice?

    As for Joel, does he have anyone (dead or alive) that he relies upon, even partially, for advice or dressing tips or idea bouncing? I'm wondering about the students: do they collectively serve as a place/entity where he works out complicated issues? Or is everything mulled over in his own mind, from start to finish?

  8. @Tess: kudos to you. i, too, lament the positive father figure roles models in all things commerical -- but you've taken it one step further and written one into being! that's awesome :)

    i think volger would say that none of the archetypes are rigid types but rather serve functions: so the mentor function could be served by several different characters, and even the same character can serve different archetypal functions. (not to be confusing, or anything!)

    Your MC's father is motivational, encouraging, and wise, all characteristics he's undoubtedly passed on to his daughter -- and all characteristics that allow him to be the best kind of mentor :)

    Best of luck with submissions!


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