A Wealth of Mentors
I have discussed mentor figures before, but here I’d like to delve deeper into why I love writing mentors. I realised, as I was working on The Collarbound, that there is a wealth of mentors in the story. Rather than the traditional old man who dies at the mid-act climax, I have three characters who mentor Isha. They all fill different roles.
Sir Daegan is a mage who represents the establishment, the power ruling over the Duskdweller kingdom. He is, very obviously, an evil mentor. Without being cruel or unhinged, he is someone who doesn’t wish Isha well. Mostly, he doesn’t care what happens to her. If she gets in his way, he’ll harm her. If she doesn’t bother him, he’ll tolerate her. He teaches her some things, but he mostly uses her, getting her involved in his less savoury schemes. He explains that the reason he relies on her for his dirty work is because she has more to lose, and so is less likely to give him away. So, he is a mentor, but he certainly isn’t a benevolent figure.
The two other mentors in Isha’s life balance each other out. Passerine is also an established mage, albeit a refugee living far from his homeland. He clearly wants Isha’s good, but he is very distant. Throughout the story, he touches base with her, watches over her, but doesn’t get overly involved. I like to think of him as the reluctant mentor – the person who doesn’t really want to go about teaching and tending to their ward.
What Passerine has that most mentor figures don’t have, is that he’s got his own plot. He’s following his own storyline. He does help out Isha, but he just as often finds himself in situations when their goals don’t quite align, because he’s busy doing his own thing.
I believe dissociating the mentor’s motives and subplot from their mentoring makes for an interesting story format: one where the mentor isn’t only a plot device, but a character with a story of their own, who happens to criss-cross our main character’s.
Similarly, Tatters is our third and final mentor to Isha, and he is the other POV character. For that reason, he is very clearly engaged in his own plot. He is also the mentor the most involved with teaching Isha directly – the person who is closest to her, or at least outwardly the friendliest. He stands out from the other two mentors because he’s messy, anti-establishment, and doesn’t only teach Isha about magic, but also about lying, about kher culture, about what it means to live as the underdog.
Why are three different mentors necessary? One argument is that they teach Isha three different things, about the rebels, the mages, and the other factions of the city. Another argument is that they each have their own plotline: alongside Isha, the reader is busy discovering what Sir Daegan is up to and what his strange tasks amount to; or finding out what Tatters is hiding about his past; or even just trying to make sense of Passerine’s motives. They all have distinct subplots (or elements of the main plot) whilst happening to double up as mentor characters.
Another reason which might explain why I felt the need to have this many mentor figures is because, as I’ve said before, Isha is a mixed-heritage character. Therefore, having mentors who belong to distinct cultures means I can explore various facets of her character, not reducing her to one identity. It gives her options as to who she might want to become, the sort of choices she might make in the future. She can shape herself in a number of different ways; presenting all the options to the readers means they can wonder what kind of person Isha will grow up to be, depending on who she models herself onto.
I suspect I also like mentor figures because they are very plot-driven characters, and I like plotting. Characters who serve a specific function in the plot – mentors, rivals, love-interests – can be very boring if they only fulfil one function. But, well-used, they can be very fun, because they allow the writer to subvert expectations. They are helpful because they have some specific plot-related capacities, such as explaining the world to the reader. What they decide to teach and what they gloss over can be very telling of their character, and can keep the reader on their toes.
One easy subversion of the mentor trope is telling the story from the mentor’s POV. The very first scene of The Collarbound is told from the POV of Tatters – the weathered mentor, who’s seen many bright-eyed kids with a spark of magic strut up to him, and has also seen them grow up, and knows most of them won’t amount to much, spark or no spark. He quickly analyses the various people present, Isha included. He’s ready for everything she might say, and at the same time, fondly indulgent of the young folk coming to learn from him.
Of course, Tatters serves the plot, if you want to see it that way: he can explain what mindlink is to Isha and the reader; he can quickly condense the background characters to a few keywords because he knows them so well; he teases the reader by referring to elements of his backstory which he isn’t revealing yet. In all those ways, he helps map the stakes and the setting. But he gives me a chance to explore that well-worn scene, of the mentor first meeting the prodigy, from the POV of the mentor.
In one word, he gives me a chance, as a writer, to have fun. To play with well-worn tropes and find ways to turn them on their head. I write mentors for the same reason, overall, that I write: because it’s fun for me to do so. And hopefully, fun for the readers as well!
13 Jan. 22
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