Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 21: The Flat Archetype of the Mentor

And so we come to the final archetype within the life-arc cycle: the well-known and well-loved Mentor. This final Flat archetype, which precedes the final transformation of the Mage Arc, is one of the most significant within human storytelling. Indeed, next to the Hero, the Mentor is perhaps our most well-known of all mythic archetypes.

The Wise Old Man shows up time and again: Obi-Wan, Gandalf, Dumbledore. In Sacred Contracts, Caroline Myss references the origin of the word Mentor:

The Mentor is a teacher in whom you can place your implicit trust. The word comes from the character in The Odyssey to whom Odysseus, on setting out for Troy, had entrusted the care of his house and the education of his son, Telemachus…. Mentors do more than just teach; they pass on wisdom and refine their students’ character.

Sans white beard, the Mentor need not be explicitly male, of course. The Mentor is simply a character who has advanced well into the elder phase and has proven himself or herself in all the great tests of life. Unlike the previous Flat Archetype of Elder, the Mentor is a character who has now undertaken the first journey of life’s Third Act—the Crone Arc—and risen above the physical limitations of old age into a transcendent wisdom and even power.

The Mentor character will have one more possible transformative Change Arc to undergo—that of the Mage’s surrender of life itself. But for now this is a character who straddles the balance point of Life and Death—and has come to a sober peace with both. As such, the Mentor is in a prime position to not just guide the young, as the previous archetype of Elder did, but to initiate them by calling them into the Quest.

The Mentor Archetype: Coming Full Circle

Previous Arc: Crone

Subsequent Arc: Mage

Subsequent Possible Negative Archetypes: Miser (passive); Sorcerer (aggressive)

As referenced in the discussion about the first Flat archetype of the Child, the Mentor shares surprising commonalities with the young Innocent. The life cycle can be seen to represent a coming full circle—from Fool to Holy Fool. The Mentor, with all his or her hard-earned wisdom, represents if not a return to innocence, then at least a return to understanding it. What was lost in childhood has been regained, but with the compounded interest of experience.

As such, the Mentor is particularly fit to counsel the First-Act archetypes of Maiden and Hero, since by now the Mentor both knows what it was like to struggle with these life transitions and also that these youngsters must struggle through to transformation.

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell speaks to some of the paradoxes of this penultimate archetype:

Protective and dangerous, motherly and fatherly at the same time, this supernatural principle of guardianship and direction unites in itself all the ambiguities of the unconscious—thus signifying the support of our conscious personality by that other, larger system, but also the inscrutability of the guide that we are following, to the peril of all our rational ends.

The challenge of the subsequent Mage Arc is that of letting go of the world and the youngsters in his charge. But for the Mentor, that time is not yet come. This is why we see the Mentor prominently within the grand Kingdom-saving adventures of the Hero. Thanks to the just-completed Crone Arc, the Mentor has integrated the surrender of power in a healthy way that now allows a return to the heart of life’s important power struggles. The Mentor is not King any longer; rather, the Mentor holds the more independent and in some ways even more powerful position of mentoring the King, et al.

The Mentor is no longer confined to the Palace as during the King Arc. Now the Mentor is free to wander the world, ever on a mission to protect what must soon be left behind. When the Mentor spies trouble, he or she often becomes the messenger who arrives to tell King and Hero that trouble is on the way and must be dealt with.

The Mentor’s Normal World

Symbolically, the Mentor’s home is the entire Kingdom. This character wanders where he or she wills, seeming to neither have nor need any fixed residence. The Mentor is welcome wherever he or she goes, revered by all who are pure of heart and who can recognize the esteemed status of this worthy and wise elder.

Within most stories, the Mentor often offers a least a sense of “magic.” He or she often shows up out of nowhere, perhaps even a stranger to the younger characters, to help just as the threat to the Kingdom is rising.

Usually, the Mentor is distinct from the Elder in that the Elder lives “in the hut on the edge of the woods”—separate from but still a part of the village, still rooted to normal, mortal life. In contrast, the Mentor is a wanderer, coming and going as he or she pleases.

This is not always literally true within a story, especially modern stories. But because truly archetypal Mentors are so rare within our modern world, we almost always instinctively portray them as at least a little otherworldly. And so they do not tend to live within the confines of the Hero’s Village or the King’s Empire. They arrive, and they depart.

We can see this with Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. Even though he lives in Hogwarts School, along with Harry and the other students, Headmaster Dumbledore is often away on his own business. He comes and goes as he pleases.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), Warner Bros.

In other stories, such as The Green Mile and Good Will Hunting, the Mentor characters (John Coffey and Sean Maguire, respectively) live with or near the other characters for the duration of the story. But they are significant in that they arrive at the beginning of the story and then, in some way, depart at the end.

Green Mile Tom Hanks

The Green Mile (1999), Warner Bros.

The Mentor’s Relationship to the Thematic Truth

In completing the previous Crone Arc, the Mentor made the jump from wise Elder to a deeper and more transcendent understanding of Life and Death, a thematic Truth that might perhaps be phrased as: “Life is Death and Death is Life.”

Most significantly, the completion of the Crone Arc marked a coming to peace with impending death (however magically or prosaically you wish to frame that idea within your own story).

This Truth is inherent within the Mentor’s ability not just in guiding younger archetypes through their own age-appropriate transformations, but also in symbolizing something greater and deeper to the up-and-coming world. Here at the end of life, the Mentor represents deeper meaning—and the promise to the younger archetypes that if they remain on course and do not give up, they too may follow the same path all the way to the end.

This is particularly significant within the Mentor role itself. Chronologically, the Mentor is a very old character, near to the final arc and the end of the journey. But the Mentor represents a character who has not given up on life or legacy. He or she has great purpose—perhaps more so than any of the preceding archetypes. In many ways, the Mentor is defined by compassion for the younger archetypes.

Campbell writes that the Mentor:

…does not abandon life. Turning his regard from the inner sphere of thought-transcending truth (which can be described only as “emptiness,” since it surpasses speech) outward again to the phenomenal world, he perceives without the same ocean of being that he found within…. Having surpassed the delusions of his formerly self-assertive, self-defensive, self-concerned ego, he knows without and within the same repose…. And he is filled with compassion for the self-terrorized beings who live in fright of their own nightmare.

How the Mentor Creates Change in Supporting Characters

The Mentor’s role in impacting younger archetypes is perhaps the most obvious of all the Flat Archetypes. He or she mentors them.

Specifically, we know from the familiar Hero’s Journey that the Mentor is often the character who arrives at the would-be Hero’s doorstep to call him to the adventure and initiate him on his journey.

But it is worth noting, again, that even though all these archetypes can and do reference individual people, they are also significant as symbolic aspects of a single psyche (whether author, reader, protagonist—or all three). As such, the Mentor represents to the younger archetypes their own symbolic potential. Campbell notes that the Mentor is the Hero’s “personification of his destiny to guide and aid him.”

The Mentor is a character who demands change. The only reason a Mentor shows up in a story is to make something happen. Unlike other Flat archetypes (or even Change archetypes come to that), who wait until the need for change demands they act, the Mentor is always a catalyst.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

That is the Mentor. And when the Mentor shows up, the student’s life will be forever changed.

Types of Stories That Feature a Mentor Protagonist

The Mentor is of course prominent in stories that feature the Hero Arc. The Mentor can be seen to be most active in these stories, since he or she will often need to physically accompany the Hero at least part of the way.

If the Mentor is instead helping a King, the Mentor character is perhaps more likely to fill an advisory role—since the King is perfectly capable of taking action and fighting his own battles. Unlike the Hero, the King is more likely to recognize the Mentor’s value and want to protect him or her from physical danger. (The Mentor may or may not need this protection, but will probably humor the King if only to give the King the opportunity to do his own transformative growth.)

Mentor stories are often big stories, since Mentors don’t show up for any little old problem that can be handled by an earlier Flat archetype. This is perhaps why the Mentor is most prominent in Hero and King Arcs—since these two arcs mark the thresholds or “Doorways of No Return” (between the First and Second Act and the Second and Third Act, respectively).

Often, the “magical” quality of the Mentor lends itself to stories with a supernatural or fantastical bend. Even in stories with real-world settings, a Mentor character will often have psychic abilities or perhaps just a sixth sense, such as the old country woman Queenie Turrill in the historical series Larkrise to Candleford. (Queenie could be an Elder, since she is not on a mission and doesn’t leave her village, but she also has some decided Mentor/Mage qualities).

Larkrise to Candleford (2008-11), BBC One.

Examples of the Mentor:

Examples of the Mentor archetype include the following. Click on the links for structural analyses.

The Karate Kid (1984), Columbia Pictures; A Wrinkle in Time (2018), Walt Disney Pictures; The Matrix (1999), Warner Bros; Kung-Fu Panda 2 (2011), DreamWorks Animation; Good Will Hunting (1997), Miramax Films; The Wizard of Oz (1939), MGM.

And with this post, we have reached the end of our exploration of the six transformative character arcs, as well as twelve potential negative archetypes and six Flat or “resting” archetypal periods between the Change Arcs.

Stay Tuned: For the next two weeks, we’ll do a little wrap-up, starting next week with a quick discussion of practical ways you can start implementing archetypal character arcs within your own stories.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any further examples of stories that feature the Mentor? Tell me in the comments!

Go on the journey with your characters! Check out the Archetypal Character Guided Meditations.

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for all your hard work these past months. I really appreciate your having covered all of these archetypes. I look forward to hearing more as to how they can be used in stories.

  2. Another fine contribution to your Archetypal Encyclopedia. I find myself thinking that at times it can be pretty hard to differentiate between this one and the Mage. John Coffee dies, but he dies voluntarily, though in his case to escape a world that was too painful for him to live in further. I had to think about him a while to decide, yep, Katie’s nailed it again. Merlin is an interesting character, partially because there are so many Arthurian worlds out there. In many, everything he does is to help and teach Arthur. He does leave this world in some manner, again it depends on which Arthur we’re discussing, but most often it’s not due to a flaw in Merlin’s character.

    Anyway, thank you for this great series. Really excited about the next two lectures.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Really, there’s a lot of crossover between the corresponding Flat and Positive archetypes: Mentor/Mage, etc. The main distinction is how the character is being used in the story. Are they primarily a stable force around which others change? Or are they primarily changing the story world through their own transformation?

  3. Grace Dvorachek says

    I think the Mentor is my favorite archetype… thank you so much for this!

  4. The mentor seems to be the first archetype that comes to mind when the term is brought up. I think that’s because so many mentor characters in pop culture have become iconic.

    This has been a great series. I have learned way more with these posts than I have from any creative writing course I took.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally true about the iconic nature of the Mentor archetype. So glad you enjoyed the series!

  5. I quite agree with the others. This archetype series has been most helpful in my work. First, the introduction to the idea that there are more journeys than just the heroic – that, in itself, opened up so many possibilities for me, especially as future works percolate in my mind. The Shadows helped me deepen the antagonists of my current work. And, surprisingly, so have the flat-arcs. I wasn’t expecting those archetypes to be so fascinating. I’m looking forward to your negative arc series later this year as well as your book(s) on all this. Thank you for researching and distilling all of this!

    • Zachary Holbrook says

      Yes, thank you! I love this series.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That makes me happy. 🙂 The follow-up series won’t be about Negative Arcs, but rather about the symbolic antagonistic forces that oppose each of the Positive archetypes in their transformational arcs.

      • I’m looking forward to that. 🙂

      • Hmmm…
        “symbolic antagonistic forces that oppose each of the Positive archetypes”
        I can’t wait to find out what they are and how I can use them!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I mention most of them in the initial posts in the series (Maiden through Mage), but writing the further posts have really helped me solidify some ideas. Looking forward to sharing it!

          • I had wondered if it might include such as “too-good mother” or the dragon, or perhaps some of the shadows.

            And yes, same for me. As you continued through the series, I had to go back and update my notes on the prior archetypes with my knew understanding in light of their connections with other archetypes. I’m quite certain I’ll need to do that again as you explore the relationships of the symbolic antagonists to the protagonists. How people respond to opposition is often a better indicator of who and what a person is at their core.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            “How people respond to opposition is often a better indicator of who and what a person is at their core.”

            So good!

            And, yes, I’ll be talking about Authority for the Maiden and the Dragon for the Hero, among others.

  6. While all your posts were good, this one really grabbed my attention. I’ve never really considered the mentor archetype before and now I am. Thank you. Of all the mentors in films and books, I think Mr. Myagi from “The Karate Kid” films is the best example.

  7. Carl Kjellberg says

    Just one thought, if writing a story based around any one of the various character arcs you have described, does arc structure itself remain the same as described in your book ‘Creating Character arcs’?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, the basic character-arc structure discussed in the book can be overlayed over any of the archetypes.

  8. Grace Dvorachek says

    I have a character named Kade who is sort of a Mentor to one of my MCs… he’s gruff and quiet, but what he does say is always profound. However, while he’s serious about his job, another supporting character (a coworker of sorts) is always smiling and upbeat. This provides conflict between the two, with Kade believing that the other character (Zayden) isn’t serious enough about his job and, therefore, isn’t skilled enough for their line of work. By the end of the story, however, Kade has learned to accept both Zayden’s joking manner and his skills.
    I’m wondering if Kade’s above relationship with Zayden would change his Mentor relationship with the MC. Since a Mentor is the last Flat Arc, would he be considered as perfect as a character can get? Or can a Mentor still have misconceptions and flaws, yet still be a Mentor? Maybe he wouldn’t be a Mentor but some other Flat Arc…?
    Thank you again for this post, and also for the whole series. It’s so fun to figure out the archetypes for each of my own characters!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In some sense, *all* of the Flat archetypes are capable of being “mentors” to younger archetypes (since that is the essence of an Impact Character, whether demonstrated implicitly or explicitly). The true Mentor archetype is a deeply wise character who has reached or almost reached the Mage stage. If your story’s Impact Character has not advanced that far, it’s possible he’s simply a younger archetype who is still enacting the Impact Character role for those characters who are still “behind” him within the cycle. For example, he might more properly be a Parent archetype who is interacting with a Hero protagonist.

      • Grace Dvorachek says

        Makes sense… he’s probably not a Mentor in the archetype sense. It’s interesting because the MC actually mentors him about his relationship with Zayden, while Kade is also mentoring the MC about other things. Thank you for your insight!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, it’s also interesting to see how different archetypes interact and offer different things to each other.

  9. I wonder if The Doctor in the British sci fi series is a Mentor character? He changes very little between seasons or between “incarnations” and stahs the same in the core, making his her companions to become heroes.

  10. So to sum up the last few arc (Crone to Mentor to Mage), the Crone has to deal with existential fear by developing compassion for others, then the Mentor uses that compassion to impact others and lead them on their journeys, and the Mage grows beyond ego and accept death (which may just be the death of ego). The Mage is all-powerful because they’ve fully integrated all parts of their psyche, conscious and unconscious, light and shadow, into an authentic, vital force of nature whose sacrifice leaves inspiration and hope behind.

  11. I just noticed that for the Archetypical Character Arcs (i.e., Maiden, Hero.), there was a defined set of events for the different plot/pinch points, and the Flat Archetypes didn’t have this. Is that because the Flat Archetypes are not as commonly used as the main character?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Flat archetype stories are not mythic journeys in the same way as the six foundational archetypes. Although they will often feature glimpses of supporting characters taking these journeys, the Flat Arcs themselves more varied and episodic than the six Positive-Change character arcs. There are many types of stories that can be told about a Child or a Ruler or an Elder. Indeed, many people spend years, decades even, within the same Flat archetype before life confronts them with new challenges that demand they journey on into the subsequent life arc.

      As such, I haven’t offered a “mythic beat sheet” for the Flat archetypes in the same way as I did for the positive archetypes. The only consistent beat sheet for the Flat Arcs is that of the Flat-Arc character arc structure itself: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/flat-character-arc-1/

  12. The Mentor as a combination of seeming opposites and contradictions- masculine and feminine, weak and powerful, life and death, humor and gravity, kindness and sternness. I really like how you describe this archetype!

    The Mentor figure who, to me, best illustrates the Mentor’s seeming contradictions is Yoda from Star Wars. I think it was a great creative risk to have the most badass master Jedi turn out to be a goofy-looking green puppet who walks with a cane and talks like someone’s cranky, mischievous grandma. But obviously it works beautifully. As for your comments on the link between the Mentor and the Child as flat arc characters- one thinks of how Baby Yoda has also become an icon. 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally! And, yes, the Mentor is the most integrated of all the archetypes, so holds in harmony within himself the best parts of all the previous archetypes.

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