The Evil Mentor

With thoughts on Hisoka from HunterxHunter

Ah, the mentor. They’re such a useful character in fiction. They explain the magic system to the main character – clarifying the worldbuilding for the reader – and they show off cool powers whilst teaching the main character to grow. And then, when things get tough, they die. It’s easy to find a mentor in nearly all coming-of-age stories, especially those with a complicated magic system which requires lots of exposition.

Unfortunately, because they’re so useful, and so plot-driven, mentors tend to have very similar arcs. Which is why the evil mentor trope offers such new, interesting possibilities.

Once the mentor figure has taught their mentee everything they know, the writer has a problem. The mentor is more powerful than the hero and more knowledgeable. If there is a serious problem ahead and they can do something about it, why don’t they solve it themself? Why should they fade into the background and let the hero take central stage? In order for the main character to be able to grow, the writers have to get the mentor out of the way. This usually happens, unfortunately for the mentor figure, by dying.

But there is one kind of mentor who doesn’t need to die for the sake of coherence: the evil mentor. I find that’s an interesting take on the mentor trope.

To clarify, I do not mean a mentor who is a turncoat. This sometimes happens: rather than dying, the mentor reveals themself as a traitor (usually for the sake of the mid-act climax, and usually at a point when, conveniently, the hero can manage without them). By “evil mentor” I would like to encompass only mentors who are, unabashedly and completely, evil from the start.

This form of evil mentor offers a lot of advantages. As their goals aren’t aligned with the hero’s (they’re evil, after all) they have no reason to help. They can teach the hero the basics, then wander off. They can even fulfil a rival role, as they have an ascendance over the hero they can easily abuse. Beating the mentor and emancipating from them can be one of the hero’s goals.

An interesting example is Hisoka from the Hunter x Hunter manga/anime series. Now, don’t get me wrong – Hisoka is a problematic character in more than one way. But he also fulfils a unique role in the story.

He is a mentor figure, in that he teaches Gon (our main character and hero figure) how to use some of his powers. He is also a rival whom Gon wants to beat. And, of course, he is a stone-cold killer.

How do these elements fit together?

One problem with the evil mentor is why they stick around the hero and teach them, rather than ignore them (at best) or murder them (at worst). In Hisoka’s case, it’s out of curiosity for Gon’s potential. He has a twisted sense of excitement which comes from the idea of not killing Gon now, but killing him later, when he will be more of a challenge to fight.

This might sound like a puzzling motivation, but once it has been established strongly in the story that Hisoka likes killing powerful enemies for the thrill of it, and sometimes mass-murders secondary characters but doesn’t take much joy in it, then it becomes a very useful element of his character. Because he is consistent with this motive (getting himself into tricky situations for the sole reason that he wants to be able to fight powerful characters one-on-one), it is believable. Thanks to this character trait, not only has he got a stake in protecting Gon until he reaches his full potential, but he also has a motive to teach Gon, so he becomes good enough to be worth murdering.

This means that, while Hisoka never loses his aura of menace – he could decide at any moment that now’s a good time to kill Gon – he also fulfils a traditional mentor role. For example, he prevents his mentee from entering Heavens Arena, where he might be seriously injured, until he musters the power that will protect him from being harmed. In this key-scene, Hisoka is acting as a traditional gatekeeper figure. He is protecting Gon, albeit for selfish reasons. When they finally get to fight, in the aforementioned arena, the scene is similar to a lot of training fights between mentor/mentee. Hisoka isn’t trying to kill Gon. He isn’t even trying to win that seriously. He’s illustrating a point, giving exposition on how his powers work, recognising where Gon has progressed and pointing out where he still has space to learn.

With regards to Gon’s main quest (finding his father) and side quests (fighting injustice), Hisoka has no stakes in them. He doesn’t care for Gon’s father or making the world a better place. Like any antagonist, he might side with the main character for a small sub-quest, as and when they goals align, but he has no reason to step in and solve Gon’s problems.

When writing a mentor figure, it can be interesting to think about how powerful they are, and how kind. Too powerful, and there is no reason why they stick around teaching the hero rather than solving the crisis themself. Too weak, and there is little point in learning from them. Too kind, and they will have to either become the hero’s sidekick, or be weakened or killed, for the hero to take central stage. Too nasty, and it requires a bit of thought on the writer’s part as to why they are being helpful and teaching the hero what they know, or at least why they should teach them everything they know.

To avoid the narrow trope of the helpful mentor conveniently dying during the mid-act climax, it can be worth looking into evil mentors. Although a bit more character-building might be required, I think it can make for rich, three-dimensional characters who can fulfil more than one role within the story, reverting from mentors to rivals, from antagonists to reluctant allies. They allow the writer to shift the stakes, and offer a wider range of character interactions and dramatic action.

9 March 21

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© 2020 by Rebecca Zahabi