December 9, 2010

the hero's journey - meeting with the mentor

Stage Four of the Hero’s Journey sort of meshes with Stage Three and Five. Sometimes the structure of a story, even if it follows the Hero’s Journey model, doesn’t have distinct stages. They flow (which they should!), and feed off one another. The Refusal of the Call weaves in with Meeting with the Mentor, which weaves into Crossing the First Threshold. For sake of explaining each stage, they have to be categorized and separated.

Meeting with the Mentor usually happens around the time of the Call to Adventure, or the Refusal of the Call. As I said Tuesday, sometimes the Refusal of the Call is not a bad thing. Sometimes, the hero needs to prepare for the journey ahead. In most of mythology, the preparation is done with the aid of the wise, protective figure of the Mentor, who will guide, train, teach, or test the hero to see if he is really ready for the unknown adventure that awaits. It is this stage of the Hero’s Journey in which the hero gains the supplies, knowledge, and confidence to commit to the adventure and leave all fear and doubt behind.

To continue with the apparent Star Wars theme I’ve imposed on myself, when Luke meets with Obi Wan and receives his father’s lightsaber in A New Hope, he undergoes this stage of the Hero’s Journey. Not only does Obi Wan give Luke the lightsaber, he begins teaching him the ways of the force and procures allies that will help Luke for the rest of the adventure. He dutifully fulfills his role as Mentor. And as I stated above, the Call to Adventure and the Refusal of the Call all happen around Meeting the Mentor.

Sometimes, there is no actual character performing the function of the Mentor archetype, but heroes can still make contact with some source of wisdom before committing to the adventure. They may find a collection of maps of the new territory, read records, and otherwise gather information about the task laid out before them.

Obviously, the Mentor archetype is extremely common, and nearly everyone is familiar with this Wise Old Man (or Woman) and his behaviors, attitudes and functions. Because of this, it’s easy to create a character that falls into the stereotypical clichés – the fairy godmother and the white-bearded wizard. To keep from falling into this trap, create surprising Mentors. You could write a character that is neither wise nor old, and yet they help the hero somehow anyway. You could do without the Mentor altogether, in which case the absence of this character creates interesting conditions for the hero. Just be aware that folklore, mythology, and fantastic literature is rife with fairy godmothers and wise, old wizards.

The Mentor-hero relationship is begging for conflict. If the hero constantly goes against his Mentor, or is ungrateful for what the Mentor has done for him, their relationship can take a deadly turn. The Mentor could be overprotective or misguided. Sometimes, the Mentor is not what they seem to be. As a writer, you can use the reader’s knowledge and familiarity with the Mentor to turn their expectations against them. A Mentor that seems kindly could actually be working for the Shadow, and he could end up crossing the hero or lead him into inescapable danger.

The concept of the Mentor, and the fourth stage of the Hero’s Journey, has many uses for the writer. The Mentor is a force that can propel the story forward and supply the hero with tools and encouragement. It is the energy of the Mentor archetype that gets a hero past their own fear and sends them into an adventure.

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