The mentor figure is one of our most recognizable character archetypes. We see them occurring again and again throughout history—particularly in the Hero’s Journey story structure, such as Star Wars or the Harry Potter series. Mentors have become some of our most beloved characters in literature. But the problem is that after a while… they all start to look pretty similar.
If you want to incorporate a mentor archetype into your story, but you’re cautious about recycling an old trope, not to worry. We’ll lead you through everything you need to know about this beloved character, and how to explore this character archetype in a fresh way.
What is a mentor archetype?
A mentor archetype is a type of supporting character who serves as a teacher or guide to the hero. They have specialized knowledge and experience which the protagonist needs in order to move forward on their journey. The mentor equips the hero with tools, skills, or insight that help them overcome challenges and meet their goals.
Your main character might first encounter their mentor as a young child, or later in life right as they’re being faced with an unexpected conflict. At this point, the protagonist will be out of their depth in some way—maybe they’ve come up against an enemy who’s too powerful, or they’ve been flung into an unfamiliar world that they’re unequipped to navigate. It’s the mentor’s job to furnish the hero with the tools they need to rise to the occasion and overcome their adversaries.
Characteristics of the mentor archetype
Mentors can look quite different depending on the setting of their story, but there are a few commonalities every mentor character will have in common.
1. They can be any age, gender, or species
While not a commonality, this is an important point to clear up about mentor archetypes. The word mentor tends to bring to mind a wise old man with arcane knowledge who spends his days surrounded by dusty, leather-bound books.
This image probably comes from King Arthur’s Merlin (who we’ll look at more below), who went on to inspire legions of famous mentor characters like Gandalf, Dumbledore, and Obi Wan.
Despite the postcard-worthy cliché, mentors can be young, old, male, female, nonbinary, human, animal, princess, pirate, stuffy accountant, and anything in between. All they need to be a mentor character is the traits that we’ll look at below.
2. They have accumulated knowledge
The cornerstone of the mentor archetype is the skills and knowledge that they’ve collected over time—knowledge that the main character desperately needs.
This might be knowledge of magic, career skills, computer hacking, politics, craftsmanship, cultural values, or any other skill set that the protagonist is currently struggling with. The mentor has been around the block and knows what’s up.
3. They have wisdom and perspective
Along with these skills, the mentor archetype is usually wise beyond their years (or at least, beyond the hero’s years) and has, through their own life struggles, developed a seasoned perspective on the world. They tend to remain cool in stressful situations and consider multiple angles before making a decision.
This can be a source of frustration to the hero, who wants to get moving towards their goal.
4. They’re politically and/or socially neutral
While the mentor’s role is usually a force for good within a story, their job is to push the hero forward—not become a hero themselves. Sometimes, the mentor may have been a hero in the past who has retired from hero-ing and is passing the mantle down to another.
Other times, the mentor may be someone who tries to stay out of trouble and is initially adverse to getting involved in the protagonist’s battle.
5. They’re often isolated from others
Mentor characters aren’t generally social butterflies. They tend to keep to themselves and feel like their knowledge or background excludes them from society in some way. Others may look on them with reverence, discomfort, or fear.
This means that the mentor’s relationship with the protagonist represents a deviation from their normal way of living—an unexpected shift in both their lives that means things are starting to change.
Tips for writing a successful mentor archetype character
Ready to start writing a mentor archetype into your own novel or short story? Here are a few tips to keep in mind so that your characters and plot are as powerful as they can be.
Be cautious of stereotyping
There’s no denying that the stereotypical wise man of fantasy and science fiction novels has a special place in readers’ hearts. But it’s hard to reuse this image without simply recycling things that all your readers have already seen before.
When you’re writing a mentor archetype, your goal should be to offer your readers something new. After all, why be a second-rate Tolkien when you could be you instead?
See if there’s a way you can either give this archetype a brand new look, or use the classic trope in a fresh and surprising new way.
Give them independent goals and needs
Even when your character is fulfilling a mentor role, they should feel like a fully formed human being (or relatable human-adjacent character) with their own backstory, desires, and agency. A mentor character deserves a place on the page beyond simply being a structural beam for your protagonist’s journey.
A helpful example of an underdeveloped mentor figure is Dr. Janice Stevens from Brendan Slocumb’s novel The Violin Conspiracy. Slocumb breaks the mentor mold with a Black violin teacher fighting against systemic racism in the classical music industry.
Cool, no? The problem is that this character’s entire life revolves around supporting the protagonist emotionally, spiritually, and financially. Avoid this trap by giving your mentor archetype a strong sense of self and a life outside of your hero.
Keep them out of the fridge
“Fridging” is a pervasive and damaging storytelling trope in which a secondary character (usually, but not always, a love interest) is killed or brutally hurt solely in order to push the protagonist into action.
Many writers make the mistake of killing off their mentor archetype character once they’ve relayed their knowledge or teachings to catapult their hero to the next phase of their journey. This can often leave the reader feeling cheated, and is usually a sign that you haven’t developed your mentor enough.
It’s okay to kill off a beloved character if it makes sense within the plot, but it should accomplish more in your story than simply giving another character the push they need.
Examples of mentor characters from literature and film
To see how these characteristics look on page and screen, let’s look at some of storytelling’s most beloved and enduring mentor character archetypes.
Merlin from the legends of King Arthur
The OG wise man wizard figure, Merlin has launched generation upon generation of imitations and homages (though the line between the two can, at times, be fuzzy).
Merlin is the spiritual mentor to a young Prince Arthur, who grows up in fosterage not knowing that his father is the king of all England. Although the wizard Merlin is an integral part of Arthur’s journey, he also has his own battles, loves, and ambitions.
Bagheera from The Jungle Book
In Rudyard Kipling’s most famous work, Bagheera is a black panther who was born into captivity but eventually found his way into the wilds of the jungle. This gives him a unique insight into the ways of human beings, and he becomes an unlikely father figure to baby Mowgli after the boy’s parents are killed.
Bagheera teaches Mowgli the ways of the jungle, how to survive and flourish around the other animals, and eventually how to find his way back home.
Haymitch Abernathy from the Hunger Games series
A fan-favourite anti-hero, Haymitch Abernathy inverts expectations of what a classic mentor should look like. He reluctantly becomes a personal mentor to the two leads, Katniss and Peeta, helping them secure their championship and upending the precarious political systems in place.
Although his primary role is to push the heroes forward and give them the skills they need to survive, he’s motivated by his prior personal losses and internal conflicts, and has a rich history of his own.
Rupert Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Anthony Stewart Head’s portrayal of everyone’s favorite librarian birthed one of TV’s most beloved mentor characters. This mentor archetype guides the protagonist and her friends through the unfamiliar world of magic and demons, exhibiting superhuman patience in the face of an iconic barrage of sass.
The show ran for seven full-length seasons, which meant there was plenty of room to give Rupert Giles his own backstory, motivations, and personal relationships.
Diego de la Vega from The Mask of Zorro
Another classic mentor archetype can be found in Anthony Hopkins’ legendary role as a world-weary Zorro who’s ready to pass the mantle on to someone else. He trains Antonio Banderas’ character, Alejandro, to wear the mask of Zorro and take on his enemies.
Diego has enough personal stake in this fight to be more than a one-sided trope, which gives nuance to both his character and the broader story.
The mentor represents a turning point in your hero’s quest
Mentors are some of the most popular characters in literature, but they can be tricky to do well because they’ve been done so many times before. When you’re bringing a mentor archetype into your own story, look for ways to explore them beyond just their relationship to the hero—and remember that they don’t have to fit the typical mold you may have seen before. Give your mentor archetype the freedom to surprise you.