WGA writer, Michael Tabb has written for Universal Studios, Disney Feature Animation, comic book icon Stan Lee, and other industry players. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelTabb.
A mentor (sometimes referred to as the guardian) serves the purpose of providing physical training and/or wisdom to the protagonist in his or her efforts to achieve the outer journey of the story (the physical mission). Some brilliant script gurus lump the mentor in with other types of reflection characters, but I think it’s important to break this character off as separate and independent. So, even though a mentor is considered by many to be a form of reflection character, like toads are a subset of frogs, the role of mentor is special. The mentor character is an ally to the protagonist like other protagonist’s reflection characters, but the mentor is also superior to the protagonist in either rank, reputation, or experience with regards to pursuing the external goal. That combination of traits makes the mentor totally unique from every other character type. In his or her own right, the mentor is the hero of many films, not just a hero.
Any number of characters may reflect, coax or inspire a protagonist to act differently than they have in the past, influencing the course of action they take and how they take it. This is the one major character type that does so from the position of having already fought the battle the protagonist is about to fight. That means the mentor has the ability to train the protagonist to do what he or she sets out to do in both mind and mission. This singular character sets the example and inspires him or her by “living the path” the protagonist hero chooses to take at the end of act one. It’s this important thing that distinguishes this character from any other that may “reflect” the hero’s specific predicament. This character is the role model leading the protagonist onto that right path. He or she can be as hands-on as Jedi masters to a padawan in the Star Wars saga or as subtle and understated as the character of James Morse in Pretty Woman. A mentor influences the best way forward through example, not merely comments on it. The mentor is the character chiefly responsible for mentally and physically arming the protagonist for that rocky road to facing the other character in a superior position to the protagonist, the antagonist.
To write a mentor that lives up to their purpose, ask yourself some specific questions:
• Who do I, the writer, look up to and admire in my life (people you know personally and those you may not)?
• Why do I admire those people?
• What qualities inspire me to be better than I am?
• What gives me personal conviction?
• What inspired (mentored) me to make a film about this premise?
• What qualities in mankind led me to believe this?
• How does this mentor relate directly to the premise of the script?
• Who would the protagonist look up to at the beginning of their journey and why?
• Who would the protagonist look up to at the end of their journey and why (if that changes)?
• What life experience(s) qualifies this character to mentor your protagonist?
All of these things should be taken into account when sculpting the mentor to a protagonist. A mentor is an example of what the writer hopes the hero(ine) will personify and believe at the end of the story.
It is common for a mentor to not only train the protagonist, but the mentor may also be willing to make an enormous sacrifice (sometimes his or her life) for the premise the writer poses to the audience. That sacrifice personifies the value of the script’s premise. Now, obviously, this sacrifice for the protagonist is not always made. Not all mentors sacrifice themselves, but it is a key and memorable moment in any script if they do. It reminds the audience of what is at stake (usually death or a life without love) if your protagonist fails to achieve their goal. Even in enormously budgeted, special-effects-driven films, the most memorable moments are often the mentor’s sacrifice. For example: Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Morpheus in The Matrix, Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, or Ben Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope. All the special effects in the world can’t provide the jolt of emotional impact a properly written mentor sacrifice gives the audience. It’s powerful. The example they set for your hero is that the goal (and the truth of your premise) is one worthy of making the ultimate sacrifice. Such sacrifice serves as a cue or reminder for the protagonist to start living up to the promise of their mentor’s example.
The protagonist’s inner journey starts with a personal character flaw that paves a path toward self-destruction, unless he or she does something to change it. As a script doctor, one would diagnose that the character flaw is a preexisting condition coming into the story. In this respect, the mentor may not be the one to trigger or inspire the protagonist to change (that job belongs to the love interest), but the mentor is the example that will help him or her get there. The mentor may also serve as an external conscience for the protagonist, designed to point out and guide the hero(ine). He or she attempts to keep the hero, “On the straight and narrow.” So, think of the mentor as the proverbial life coach of the protagonist in 1) Mission, 2) Mindset or 3) Sometimes both.
So the love interest provides the why to do something, while a mentor provides how to get it done.
Mentors exist in all genres; here’s a list of examples of top mentors:
- Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid,
- Viper in Top Gun,
- Jim Malone in The Untouchables,
- Don Diego de la Vega in The Mask of Zorro,
- Auguste Gusteau in Ratatouille,
- Father Merrin in The Exorcist,
- Professor Charles Xavier in X-Men,
- Shug Avery in The Color Purple,
- Pai Mei in Kill Bill Vol. 2,
- Mickey in Rocky,
- Elvis in True Romance,
- Proximo in Gladiator,
- Whistler in Blade,
- Skeeter Phelan in The Help,
- General Bache in Taps,
- Nigel in The Devil Wears Prada,
- The Giver in The Giver,
- Katsumoto in The Last Samurai,
- Captain Pike in Star Trek (2009),
- Nobody in My Name is Nobody,
- Lester Bangs in Almost Famous,
- Uncle Ben in Spider-Man,
- Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez in Highlander,
- Splinter in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,
- Patches O’Houlinhan in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, as well as
- God in Bruce/Evan Almighty and The Ten Commandments.
Obviously, mentors can be found in any genre. In The Karate Kid (1984), Ali (the love interest) motivates Daniel Larusso (the protagonist) to arc on his inner journey. Meanwhile, Mr. Kesuke Miyagi plays the role of the quintessential mentor, providing Daniel with more than physical training for facing his bullies. He also provides the perspective. It is this mental side of the mentorship that separates Mr. Miyagi from the bullies’ martial arts sensei, John Kreese. Miyagi is the whole package, a master mentor of both mission and mind.
Because this role of mentorship can be blatantly obvious, serving a transparent purpose in your story, it is one of the more difficult characters to write well. It must be sculpted with the same care as the protagonist and antagonist, or it will read terribly cliché. The mentor as “the perfect person” is what to avoid here. I am not sure if old school mentors such as Obi-Wan or Yoda would be as compelling to a modern audience because they are, frankly, a touch one dimensional. As a huge Star Wars fan, it pains me to make the following point. Ask yourself who is a more compelling mentor to watch, either of the above mentioned Star Wars saga mentors or: a) Jim Malone in The Untouchables, who teaches Elliot Ness he must be willing to break the law to enforce it; b) Morpheus in The Matrix has so much blind faith it defies reason; c) Jonathan Kent, Kal El’s adoptive father in the film Man of Steel, who sacrifices his life because he has no faith in humanity. It’s no secret that flawed characters are simply more compelling to watch.
Just as you design the protagonist to have a flaw to overcome, it’s a good idea to provide the mentor a flaw to make him or her more three-dimensional. So, while giving mentors a character flaw is not standard issue, it helps elevate the character and the material. That personality flaw keeps the mentor from being two-dimensional. Just remember, when a writer provides the mentor with a character flaw, it does not mean he or she requires a character arc. Only the protagonist needs an arc.
When assigning a flaw to the mentor, I ask myself questions to hunt for the right one:
- Is there an identifiable reason they don’t want to mentor this protagonist?
- Has the mentor lost so much that they cannot show love (for fear of losing it)?
- Are they selfish, teaching the hero strictly for selfish motives (a personal agenda)?
- Are they all courage void of dignity and good character?
- Are they all talk and no action now, or do they still have the courage of their convictions?
- Are they too feeble in body now to do what the protagonist is trying to do?
- If so, how does that hold them back?
- It all boils down to this question: what makes your mentor deeply human?
A mentor can be frail, dissipated and ravaged from his or her own journey yet can help the protagonist accomplish more than they could for themselves. You get the idea. Assign the mentor specific personality attributes or weaknesses that go along with their personal flaw. It makes the mentor more than just a purpose but an actual person. All the while, remember, the mentor may not overcome their flaw because the story is not about the mentor’s arc, unless…
As stated in earlier articles, some characters can serve more than one of the five purposes. Sometimes mentors are the protagonists (as a form of leader), which means they do need a character arc. The mentor/protagonist often takes place in an environment where they play a leadership role in their job. It can often be in an educational or military capacity in the form of teacher or commanding officer. In short, it’s in that character’s actual job description to set the example for those around them. For example, look at every slacker’s favorite English teacher, Freddy Shoop in Summer School, pool hustler “Fast Eddie” Felson as he trains a young pool shark in The Color of Money, and Gandhi teaches the world about passive resistance in his biopic. Marty McFly serves as hero and mentor to his own father in Back to the Future.
That last example illustrates how sometimes the mentor can be the central character of the film. It’s very important to note that the central character is not always the protagonist. This is a distinction that many development executives I have worked with do not grasp. The central character is the character that drives the action of a film, while the protagonist is the character that is internally changed by the course of those actions. Other examples of mentors in the central role (and sometimes arcing in the shared role of protagonist) include:
• Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan,
• Coach Norman Dale in Hoosiers,
• Patton in Patton,
• John Keating in The Dead Poets Society,
• Principal Joe Clark in Lean on Me,
• Bill Rago in Renaissance Man,
• Louanne Johnson in Dangerous Minds,
• Alex Hitchens in Hitch,
• Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver,
• Dewey Finn in School of Rock,
• Sister Mary Clarence in Sister Act 2
• and obviously, Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins.
When examining the above characters, you will find half of them have no arc. Yet there is no question that they are the central characters of their perspective films. Those without arcs lead by example for those characters that do have an arc. So, here’s proof that central characters are not always the protagonist. These are also not “failed protagonists” either because they were not meant to change. Mentors are simply heroes… Until they’re not.
Let’s not forget that not all mentors turn out to be good or right. Just as you can have an antihero or false love interest (lust interest), you can also have a false mentor. Those can be fabulous, juicy roles for an actor to play. Louis Gossett Jr. and JK Simmons won Academy Awards for playing iconic examples of this in An Officer and a Gentleman and Whiplash. This happens when the teacher is downright abusive of the protagonist for whatever reason, be it personal dislike or a personality flaw. True mentors never take credit for the protagonists’ successes, even though without them the protagonists don’t stand a chance in hell of accomplishing their outer journey. A false mentor can do the exact opposite.
A powerful false mentor can rob a protagonist of everything he or she has fought to achieve throughout the film in a split second. When this twist of fate is executed correctly, the reveal of this character’s true nature (or the moment of double cross) blindsides the protagonist. It usually comes right on the heels of a moment where the protagonist thinks the worst of his or her outer journey is past. Therefore, this betrayal provides a jolt in the story.
As a popular example, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the character disguised as “Mad-Eye” Moody appears to be the protagonist’s most vigilant ally until it’s revealed that his help was only given in order to guide Harry into a trap designed to kill him and revive the murderer of his parents. In the classic film Working Girl, just when Tess McGill gets everything she’s worked for since the end of act one, Katherine Parker swoops in and steals everything right out from under her, providing the worst of all possible situations for the protagonist at the end of act two.
This faux mentor appears to be a model of success for the protagonist at the outset of the story; someone with the skills the protagonist believes he or she must master in order to achieve his or her goal. Along the way, at a moment that proves devastating, the hero either: 1) discovers this person was not the icon in whom they had originally put their faith in because the mentor fails to live up to the ideals and promises they extolled or 2) realizes this ideal leader is actually leading our hero down the wrong path. This is sometimes a very interesting way of discovering who the antagonist is going to be in the story. In fact, it is quite common for the false mentor to turn out to be the antagonist.
FALSE MENTOR as ANTAGONIST
In L.A. Confidential, Police Captain Dudley Smith mentors the protagonist (Detective Edmund Exley) as well as turns out to be the antagonist. Exley hopes to crack a famous case with aspirations to become “top cop” and get a promotion when Dudley runs for commissioner. The mentor-turned-antagonist happens often in cinema, including such famous characters as: Det. Alonzo Harris in Training Day, Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, Tyler Durden in Fight Club, Doctor Otto Octavius in Spider-Man 2, Bodhi in Point Break, Henri Ducard in Batman Begins, Deak in Broken Arrow, “Long John” Silver in Treasure Island, and, perhaps one of my favorite false mentors because his character was so emotionally convincing, Lawrence Fassett in Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend.
One quick thing I feel a need to stress is how difficult it was to find quality female mentor characters in mainstream, larger budget films. I found plenty of male mentors to the female protagonists, but can you think of ten female mentors to male protagonists? How about five, in the history of mainstream cinema, off the top of your head? Can you think of one without doing an online search? And most importantly, the female cannot turn out to be the love interest; I’m talking about a man looking up to a woman without romance as the endgame. Just think about it. I challenge my fellow scribes to consider creating more original, strong, female mentor characters.
Since this article was going a bit long, I have broken it into two parts. In a situation that may feel all too familiar for those with divorced parents, next month I explain the uses of dual mentors.
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