Mentor Characters in Teen Fiction, by Diane Lee Wilson
Heroes of all ages rely on mentors but teen protagonists, especially, can often benefit from an “older and wiser” point of view. Such elders are iconic in literature and film: Professor Dumbledore for Harry Potter, Gandalf for Frodo (okay, not truly a teen but young in character) or Mr. Miyagi for Daniel in The Karate Kid.
Utilizing an aged mentor in your cast of characters presents benefits but also some dangers, the riskiest being the creation of a cliché: the saccharine octogenarian who too readily dispenses wisdom in platitudes.
How can you avoid this pitfall?
The key, I think, lies in creating a mentor who is genuinely interested in helping the teen protagonist but does so mostly by encouraging the teen’s best. Rather than solving problems themselves or providing answers directly, they help the teen arrive at success through guidance, modeling, or when necessary, challenge.
I’ve used “old wise ones” in several of my books and they’ve become some of my favorite characters. To keep them interesting I make these elderly mentors a little “prickly” in character or a little “off” mentally. Their words and actions can then be unexpected, leading the teen to speculate on the reliability of the advice (and thus begin to trust his or her own instincts even more). Such unpredictability creates story tension as well because the reader must decide right along with the protagonist if the mentor can be trusted.
In my novel I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade, for example, the teen Oyuna is warned by her father to stay away from her shamaness grandmother, who has suddenly appeared in their nomad’s camp:
“Her mind is twisted,” he said, spitting into the cooking fire. “Too many years traveling alone.”
Of course Oyuna secretly visits her eccentric grandmother anyway and receives clues to her destiny; but they’re just that—clues, wrapped in convoluted language that’s close to gibberish. She’s not sure, in fact, if what she’s received is any sort of wisdom at all.
A similar relationship exists in Firehorse where Rachel and her maternal grandmother live cramped, unsatisfying lives beneath the overbearing rule of Rachel’s father. Rachel suspects her grandmother of approaching senility and is surprised one evening when the woman delivers a defiant speech directed at Rachel’s father. Via this bold action the grandmother symbolically separates herself from Rachel’s parents, creating a natural alliance with her rebellious granddaughter, and paving the way for Rachel to also stand up to her father.
Interestingly, in both of these novels the grandmother dies three quarters of the way through—quite to the author’s surprise, I might add. Upon reflection, though, I realize that Dumbledore and Gandalf also died before their stories ended. I think the death or disappearance of a mentor signals the teen’s arrival at maturity; the necessary wisdom has been imparted, the torch has been passed.
In another of my novels, Raven Speak, a Viking teen named Asa struggles throughout the story with the issue of trusting her decidedly unusual mentor, the mercurial Wenda. Near the end of a pivotal chapter the two have this exchange:
Asa shook her head. This was absurd. “No,” she replied. “I’m not traveling with you any further. I can’t trust you.”
“Of course you can’t.” Wenda made the statement seem obvious. “You can only trust yourself.”
This is the vote of confidence that every good mentor is trying to impart to a novel’s hero. And the mentor’s role really boils down to that: instilling confidence. It can be accomplished in many ways by inventive authors but remains a message that teens, real and fictional, long to hear.