4 Ways to Write a Thought-Provoking Mentor Character

4 Ways to Write a Thought-Provoking Mentor CharacterPart 16 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

Good stories rise and fall based on their minor characters. You can write an amazing protagonist, but if he isn’t supported by an equally amazing cast, the story will fail to fully develop the protagonist himself, fail to flesh out the thematic premise, and, bottom line, fail to be entertaining.

But it’s not enough to just run through a checklist of must-have characters (which we’ve already discussed in posts on Iron Man 2 and Doctor Strange). You’ve also got to make sure your take on the archetypal roles—such as the mentor character—is fresh, interesting, and not stereotypical.

Character archetypes exist within a story form to fulfill necessary angles of the thematic argument. With even one missing archetype, the overall story arc will be weakened. But authors who are committed to a rounded cast must be wary of letting their archetypes become stereotypes. You must balance the challenge of presenting characters who fulfill concrete roles in the story with the equally great challenge of presenting those characters as fully-rounded, interesting, dichotomous, surprising human beings.

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming performed this balancing act admirably with many of its characters (including its family-man antagonist the Vulture). Today, I want to focus particularly on what you can learn from this film about creating a mentor character who is more than just a font of good advice.

>>To read the Story Structure Database analysis of Spider-Man: Homecoming, click here.

Look Out! Here Comes the Spider-Man! (And the Iron Man!)

Welcome to Part 16 in our ongoing exploration of the good and the bad in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel’s deal with Sony to get their flagship character into the mix was big news for me. My love of superhero fiction began with Sam Raimi’s excellent Spider-Man 2 back in 2004. For me, Spider-Man has always been the superhero. So even though we’ve only had a gazillion Spidey movies in the last fifteen years, I was cautiously optimistic about what Marvel could “officially” do in rebooting the character one more time.

Although I can’t go so far as to agree with the popular acclaim that Homecoming is “the best Spider-Man movie ever” (because, you know, Spider-Man 2), I did think it one of the best onscreen representations of everybody’s favorite web-slinger—bringing just the right blend of effortless humor, teenage angst, adolescent awkwardness and short-sightedness, and personal stakes.

My highlights:

  • Peter Parker. Of course. Tom Holland was a brilliant cast, wholeheartedly embodying all Peter’s most endearing qualities. I especially appreciated that this reboot featured him as a young teenager—essentially a goodhearted, dumb kid who has no clue what he’s really getting himself into.

Spider-Man Homecoming Tom Holland

  • The opening sequence—Peter’s selfie vid of his role in Civil War. Hilarious and perfect. That’s how you do a flashback, folks.

captain-america-civil-war-spider-man-metal-arm

  • The Vulture’s rig was pretty darn impressive (even though all I could keep thinking was: Birdman!) His one-on-one interactions with Peter in the Third Act were easily some of the best scenes in the film.

Spider-Man Homecoming Michael Keaton

  • Aunt May’s younger incarnation was refreshing—and underused. Marisa Tomei’s hyper vulnerability and uncertainty lit up the screen every time she appeared.

Aunt May Civil War Tony Stark

  • “MJ.” Not sure where they’re going with Zendaya’s character, but her intense weirdness made it hard to look away.

Spider-Man Homecoming Zendaya

  • Happy carrying that you-know-what-kinda-spoilery-thing around for nine years! Perfect and adorable, especially after the events of Civil War. Actually, I was just stoked to get Happy in the movie at all, since he’s awesome and makes me, you know, happy.

Spider-Man Homecoming Happy Hogan

  • And… Tony. Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s a Spider-Man movie, and I’m choosing to talk about Tony, again? But, as ever, Robert Downey, Jr.’s magnetic portrayal of the series’ most endlessly flawed superhero continues to offer juicy opportunities for learning how to create excellent characters. We’ve talked previously about what he brings to the table as the protagonist and then again as the antagonist. So today, let’s talk about what Tony’s cameo can teach us about writing archetypal mentor characters who are anything but on-the-nose.

Spider-Man Homecoming Iron Man

3 Ways to Write an Interesting Mentor Character—and 1 Way Not to

Other than perhaps the antagonist, there is no other character archetype more abused and misused than the mentor character. Just the word “mentor” evokes white-bearded old men in long robes, nodding sagely and enunciating slowly as they share the wisdom of the ages.

At first glance, it’s easy to perceive the mentor character simply as someone there to guide your protagonist and give him good advice. While that’s true to a point, it’s also incredibly vague, one-sided, and all but certain to lead to annoyingly one-dimensional characters.

Many of the best mentor characters don’t seem like mentors at all when audiences meet them. It’s only in their relationship to the story’s theme that their mentor role becomes obvious—and this lack of obviousness is their greatest achievement.

Here’s how you can amp up your story with a great mentor character without falling into all the usual stereotypes.

1. Your Mentor Character Should Be a Touchstone for the Thematic Truth

This is the single most important thing you need to know about writing a mentor character: her fundamental existence within the story is to reveal the thematic Truth. In a Positive-Change Arc, your protagonist will be struggling to overcome the Lie He Believes. So where’s he learn the Truth? It’s gotta come from somewhere, right?

Although many different characters will represent different aspects of the thematic premise, the most prominent advocate for the Truth will be the mentor character. The mentor is the Impact Character in a Positive-Change Arc—the person impacting the protagonist with the Truth and changing his previously misaligned trajectory.

Before you start working on all the flawed and interesting parts of your mentor character, you first have to make sure she’s grounded in the Truth. Otherwise, she may be a great character, but she’s not a mentor. If she doesn’t possess the Truth, she can’t help your protagonist find it.

Does Spider-Man: Homecoming Demonstrate the Truth Via Its Mentor?

Peter got a little… sidetracked by the events of Civil War and his dream of becoming an Avenger. His priorities got mixed up, he got a little too big for his spandex, and the consequences were vast. In essence, he had to learn, like Tony before him, that his powers—and, specifically his Stark-tech Spidey suit—aren’t what make the man.

This is a Truth Tony is perfectly situated to teach, since it’s one he’s had to learn (a couple times) himself. The fact that Tony had to learn this Truth the hard way makes his (often inelegant) attempts to keep Peter from the same mistakes all the more poignant and interesting. Tony is not some untouchable wise man; he’s a guy from the trenches who’s clumsily trying to share his hard-won Truths with this kid with whom he obviously relates but knows has the potential to be “better” than he ever was.

Spider-Man Homecoming Avenger Interviews

2. Mentor Characters Should Be Unique

Please, ditch the wise men, gurus, and sages. They worked for Tolkien and Lucas, but they’ve long since had their day. When creating your mentor character, take a moment to consider what kind of person would be the least-expected source of wisdom. A child, a drug addict, a janitor, a clown?

Drop the big words and the pontificating wisdom. Create mentors who fumble and mumble, who are cranky as all get out. Your mentor character doesn’t have to want to be a mentor. He doesn’t even have to like your protagonist.

In short, look for ways to create conflict. It shouldn’t be easy for your protagonist to walk up to this person, stick a quarter in the slot, and get an instant hot cup of good advice. Interacting with a mentor—even a willing mentor—should cost something. Maybe the protagonist desperately wants to be trained, but doesn’t like the mentor’s methods. Or maybe the protagonist desperately doesn’t want to be trained and is all but running away from the crazy-obsessive lunatic who keeps trying to cram the Truth down his throat.

The possibilities are endless. You just have to think outside the box.

Does Spider-Man: Homecoming Offer a Unique Mentor Character?

The reason Tony Stark is an interesting mentor character is that he’s an unexpected mentor. Come on—who’s going to let this guy into Big Brothers Big Sisters of America? Mr. Playboy-Billionaire-Philanthropist who’s loose-cannoned his way through one self-inflicted global disaster after another is not the poster child for Mentor of the Year.

And yet, he does have advice and experience Peter needs. Is he the best person to mentor Peter? No, definitely not. Cap would be better. Happy would be better. Heck, J. Jonah Jameson would be better. But Tony is all the more interesting as a mentor character because of the unexpectedness of the role.

Spider-Man Homecoming Gray Area

3. Mentor Characters Should Be Flawed

Right along with uniqueness comes imperfection (because perfection isn’t unique and, as a result, isn’t all that interesting). At first blush, we often think of mentor characters as being people who have it all together. They have the story’s main thematic Truth, after all, so they’re obviously more with it than the protagonist.

Insofar as that main Truth is concerned, this is accurate. But just because the mentor character has one little thing figured out does not mean she has or should have everything figured out. In fact, the more messed up the character is in all other areas, the more poignant her one Truth becomes.

Give your protagonist concrete reasons not to listen to your mentor. If this person is otherwise a mess, why listen? If this person is an obnoxious jerk, why listen? This gets even better if the protagonist’s reasons for initially disregarding the mentor’s advice aren’t just emotional reasons, but logical reasons. Your thematic premise will deepen with every legitimate argument your protagonist has with himself over the validity of Lie vs. Truth.

The mentor character’s advice doesn’t have to make blatant sense, especially in the beginning. Use her to confuse your protagonist with her “do as I say, not as I do” rhetoric.

Does Spider-Man: Homecoming Offer a Flawed Mentor Character?

The chief reason Tony is a stellar mentor character is simply the fact that he is flawed, in capital letters.

Let’s just start with the fact that he thought it was a great idea to drag a fifteen-year-old kid into a firefight in Germany, just because he needed a little extra backup. And then he thinks, now that he’s turned on Peter’s overactive Avenger ambitions, he can just flip the switch back off, fob Peter off to Happy Hogan Babysitting, Inc., give him a lethal suit with nominal training wheels, and everything will be fine. Tony will show up occasionally to play dad—catharsis for his own unresolved daddy issues—and he’ll get to feel good about himself.

Yes, Tony has the experience and advice Peter needs. Yes, Tony wants to help Peter. Yes, Tony would, deep down, really love to be the kind of father figure he feels he never had.

But he’s terrible at it. He gives Peter no support and no reason to listen to his good advice. He only complicates matters—which is great news for a story in search of extra layers of conflict.

spider-man-homecoming-iron-man-not-a-hug-1b_marvel

4. Mentor Characters Should Not Be Deus Ex Machina

By this point, you should be handily avoiding the pitfall of creating a mentor character who is omniscient and omnipotent. But just in case not, it’s crucial to avoid the idea that your kind, benevolent, with-it mentor should occasionally swoop in and save his awkward but earnest young charge.

Deus ex machina (Latin for “god from the machine”) is the literary no-no of bringing in happily coincidental exterior forces to save your protagonist from his own mistakes. The mentor archetype does not exist to fix things for your protagonist. He exists to nudge your protagonist into learning how to fix things for himself. As Alexandra K. Trenfor said:

The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.

This does not mean your mentor character cannot show up to help, if appropriate. But it does mean that if the protagonist finds himself in such a fix that he needs help with, he better have to pay huge consequences in order to gain that help from his mentor (or anyone else). In short, good mentor characters do not make things easier for your protagonist. They make things harder.

Does Spider-Man: Homecoming Use a Deus Ex Machina Mentor?

Tony does show up several times to rescue Peter—first from drowning after the Vulture dumps him in a lake and then from letting the Staten Island Ferry sink. Both times work because they advance the plot and because they demonstrate both characters’ flaws.

The second instance, in particular, is an excellent scene. Taking place at the Second Pinch Point, Peter’s well-meant but blind ambition (and refusal to listen to Tony’s previous precautions) nearly leads to the deaths of dozens of people aboard the ferry. Tony finally shows up to take the situation in hand—which only emphasizes his own lack of responsibility in his self-absorbed, hands-off approach.

Even more importantly, however, his interference results in serious consequences for Peter. Tony demands Peter return the high-tech Spidey suit Tony gave him. This is tragic for Peter on a number of levels. But it gives Tony the perfect way to smack Peter in the face with the Truth he’s clumsily been trying to share along:

If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it.

This doesn’t feel like a healthy, harmonizing Truth. Peter isn’t thinking, Yay! Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful, empowering idea with me! I feel so much better now! Instead, it hurts. And it’s all the more interesting and relatable for it—thanks in no small part to a mentor character who causes almost more trouble than he solves.

Spider-Man Homecoming Suit

***

In writing your mentor character, you have the opportunity to create one of the most powerful and unique statement characters in your entire story. Follow Marvel’s example by looking beyond the obvious choices to find someone who is interestingly flawed in his own right and can layer even more conflict into your story’s thematic premise.

Stay Tuned: This November, we’ll learn a thing or two from Thor: Ragnarok.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Who is the mentor character in your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Great insight and analysis, as always.

    The post focuses on the mentor in the change arc. I can see the applicability for other arcs, but was wondering if you have specific tweaks you think need to be made when handling a flat or negative arc? The flat arc character who possesses the truth already can seemingly serve as the mentor to everyone else in the story world. So are their adjustments to be made because of that?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re right in that the Flat-Arc character is essentially the mentor to other characters. This doesn’t mean he can’t also have a Mentor character, but the character will generally act more as a mouth of encouragement in the Truth than an outright teacher.

      In Negative Arcs, the Mentor offers a voice of Truth to the character, which, of course, will ultimately be rejected in favor of the Contagonist (who is, in some respects, a “negative Mentor) and his teachings of the Lie.

      • Does every character arc need to center on a “lie that a character believes”

        Second question

        There are several classic novels like harry potter and hobbit don’t seem to be lie centric…can you help me understand?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Or a Truth. Flat-Arc characters don’t believe the Lie, but live in a Lie-ridden world which they transform in some way via their knowledge of the Truth.

          I haven’t read either of those, so can’t say for sure. My perception on Harry is that he is, in general, a Flat-Arc character with a Truth of “Love conquers all” (or something like that) over the course of the story, with smaller Lies (often to do with self-worth) that he overcomes in some of the individual episodes.

  2. Lin Barrett says:

    This blog is like a box o’chocolates. The titles are the lovely bow on the pretty box, they get clicked, and a beautifully-wrapped selection of words is revealed. Then I open one that contains a link, and follow it.

    Four hours later I have followed all the links in this particular box o’chocolates, learned an immense amount, and can go back to my writing with a fresh point of view. Glancing at the clock, I am horrified to find that it’s four hours later.

    However, there are two good things here, and only a single bad thing (that “four hours later” one). The good things are the incredible amount of wisdom you dispense, and the fact that your blogs, while very tasty, don’t accumulate on my hips.

    Thanks, Ms. Weiland. I really don’t know what I’d do without you. Publish a first novel at the age of ninety-four is my guess.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’d say four hours of reading deserves a box of chocolates. 😉 Great to hear you’re enjoying the blog!

  3. Ingrid B. says:

    Excellent Marvel post as always, Katie! I look forward to these, as with all your posts.
    At the end of the day when Marvel has produced their final chapter in the Marvel series (if that happens and we all live long enough to tell about it!), you might consider putting all your Marvel posts together in one book for release.
    The unique aspect of these insightful, helpful posts all together for posterity would be a super force all it’s own!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, I’m not sure if the “end of Marvel” is a day we’ll ever live to see. :p I was really satisfied, however, to hear that the producer sees these next Avenger movies as a definitive end for the story arc so far. It gives me hope the major characters will all be given satisfactory endings, rather than being dragged on and on forever.

  4. Jeff Wunder says:

    Thanks, this is a timely post for my WIP. I need a mentor character to aid in the final transition of my protagonist from what I call their Old Truth into their New Truth, somewhere after the midpoint of the novel. In my WIP, the mentor char is tied into other elements of the story and mentoring will be only one facet of what they do, albeit an important one (come to think of it, that might even be true of some Merlin/King Arthur variations, cliched as they are.) I’m even toying with giving the mentor char an arc and having the mentor and protag mentor each other.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s really cool when characters impact each other’s arcs–makes everything seem that much more integrated and realistic.

  5. Amy Karas says:

    Great post KM! This info has helped me strengthen my WIP’s cast. I had the “value of life” truth coming from a predictable source. My new mentor character is a much more complex source for that particular truth. And now I need to go see Homecoming. ?

  6. I always think of Obi-wan Kenobi when I think of mentors. This is something I read elsewhere. In the original script, Obi-wan was supposed to defeat Vader in the light saber battle. George Lucas felt that ending was hollow, because it didn’t teach Luke anything. Lucas wanted Luke to learn the lesson of self-sacrifice, so he had Obi-wan pull up his light saber and let Vader strike him down. I don’t know how well Luke learned that lesson, though.

  7. I can see how this will work in a superhero type story but what about realistic fiction for middle graders??? I am not sure that my protagonist will accept a mentor.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Think of Dumbledore–or Haymitch in Hunger Games. Mentors are a staple archetype in fiction for young people.

  8. Thanks again for a timely post. I am (was) stuck on a scene and thinking about it in terms of a mini-mentor/mentee relationship really fits better than what I was originally thinking. In fact, the relationship with a mini-mentor for the character to arc to a place where he can get to a better arc with his true mentor sets things up for the upcoming scene.

  9. Andrewiswriting says:

    “Who is the mentor character in your work-in-progress?”

    “The?”

    Well, there are several, at different times and for different reasons.

    1) School Principal. Generally together, grounded mostly standard mentor type, a little over-protective of his charges (he’s an Ogre, and almost everyone at the school is weaker than he is) and this is his main flaw – mother hen fretting over letting the children go.

    2) Vice Principal. Hardest man in the cast, gruff, silent type. Generally steps in when things have gone too far, and usually at great personal cost (read: injury). He’s there to teach the “Buck stops here” message.

    3) Abe’s father. His heart’s in the right place, and they have a good relationship. His main flaw is that he overlooks the least-squeaky wheel – if someone’s not making noise, he fails to pay attention, and sometimes forgets to cross his Ts and dot his Is.

    4) The scrying & sprites teacher. He’s an eccentric type and a minor character, but he’ll still impart a few lessons (one of those is not by choice, where he’s the unwitting victim of consequences established in the first book)

    My protagonist is a 13yo going to school. He’s got lots of mentors!

  10. In a nutshell: the story’s truth and mentor can’t be the one obvious thing in the tale. Instead, the mentor needs to be the right kind of wrong, that will make accepting that truth as challenging as anything else.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Exactly. Obvious = on-the-nose. And anything on-the-nose automatically lacks subtlety and effectiveness.

  11. Thank you so much for helping all of us out with these posts. They really challenge many of us to see our own stories in a new light.

    As for Homecoming, what did you think about Peter’s motivation to stay involved in the plot? Personally, I thought it fell a little flat. All throughout the story, we were told that Peter could just back off, and the villains would be handled. It didn’t feel like he was really needed, *or* inextricably bound to this specific villain or his actions.

    Ironically, the information in the big twist at the end (SPOILERS), could have really grounded Peter’s involvement in the story. If we’d known earlier that the Vulture was secretly the father of Peter’s love interest, we’d have known that Peter couldn’t escape this guy. He would always have to face him, even if he *did* initially turn his back on stopping him. He would also have a much more personal involvement in the plot.

    Did you have any thoughts on that? I’d be really interested to hear them if you did!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, I agree that involving the Vulture more intricately in Peter’s life would have been a really nice touch. However, Peter’s motivation worked for me. He’s a kid, and he wants to be in the “in group” of the Avengers, wants to live up to Tony, wants to be cool, and, yes, wants to make a difference. Could his motivations have been stronger? Yeah, probably. But even as they are, I don’t find them unrealistic.

      • I don’t disagree. From a logical standpoint, he had enough motivation to keep fighting the bad guys. From an emotional standpoint? Not so much. I didn’t sit in the theater thinking ‘He *has* to win! Whatever will happen if he doesn’t?’

        Contrast this with the Iron Man movies, where he is usually battling his own past sins. From an emotional standpoint, he *has* to win, or be destroyed as a person. Same thing with the Captain America movies – if he stops, he’s letting his friends down. Even in the first GotG, the main cast may not be *that* personally forced to defeating Ronan – but billions of lives will be lost if they don’t.

        In Homecoming? The film just kept reminding us that if Peter backed out, someone else would handle the bad guy. It makes me care less about the conflict.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yeah, good points. The same could also be said in comparing Homecoming to Sam Raimi’s movies, particularly Spider-Man 2, which is just dripping with emotional stakes.

  12. I came to this site from here: http://www.aliventures.com/good-enough/ with great anticipation. Unfortunately when I click on an article title it brings me to a page that looks to be missing a style sheet. The view was so jarring that I never even read the post.

  13. And now after posting comment, the theme/style sheet finally kicked in. I will now feel comfortable looking around.

  14. HonestScribe says:

    Iron Man’s weird mentor-ship was exactly one of the things I liked so much about this movie, although my favorite thing was actually Marvel’s unusually interesting villain (especially after the disappointment of Zemo in Civil War). I also think the Hunger Games’ Haymitch Abernathy made a great mentor character for similar reasons.

    One flaw I’ve tried to give my mentor character is fallibility. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a really capable guy, but sometimes he misjudges others, and he makes a major mistake which nearly proves fatal. Sometimes, we learn more from others’ failures than their successes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Fallible characters are awesome. Soooo much more interesting than those who have it all together. 🙂

  15. I have a couple of mentors working together in my current WIP. One is very hands off as he’s in another part of the countryside. And the second one is a member of a race who is considered evil by default. I think I need to work in some more conflict between him and MC. Though MC already has conflict with someone else in that same location. Both of my primary mentors are distant in their own ways, but lay out the bread crumbs to lead their students down the right path. I think my bread crumbs should get smaller….

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! The latter immediately catches my attention. So much stuff to explore in a character who is “assumed” to be evil and really isn’t.

  16. Like Andre, I found myself with more than one mentor

    1) The best friend from the neighborhood who similarly has never had a steady girlfriend, but is the outgoing, outspoken guy in contrast to the shy and anxious MC. He’s the one who, after getting to hang out with them, sees that the love interest is interested back.

    2) When #1 goes away to his college in the fall, there’s another best friend who goes to the same college as the MC. They have similar interests in sports and politics, but this friend has had a steady girlfriend for several years and has some advice on dating and marriage.

    3) The new girlfriend (was that a spoiler?) She’s a Christian who met the MC when he was emotionally down and offers spiritual advice that ties back to the first chapter to end the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Love interests often function as Mentors, at least partially, since archetypally, they exist to keep the protag on the straight and true: if he deviates, she draws back.

  17. Jenny North says:

    Outstanding post as always–so much to learn!

    My question is, do you think a mentor is still a mentor if he leads the hero to the Truth maybe in spite of his actions?

    For instance, I recently wrote this superhero story where the experienced mentor only took on new heroes in order to convince them to quit, since he sees it as a dangerous line of work and unsuitable for young heroes. So to the protagonist he’s ostensibly a mentor, but he’s also a crucible she has to pass through to get to her Truth.

    Is that still the mentor role? Or am I just be overthinking this? 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds more like the Contagonist to me. The Contagonist is the “dark side” counterpart of the Mentor/Guardian. He tries to convince the hero of the Lie, which presents a balancing argument to the Mentor/Guardian. In a Positive-Change arc, the character will, of course, disregard the Contagonist’s argument and embrace the Truth anyway. This is also what I sometimes call the “dark impact character.”

      • Jenny North says:

        Interesting, thanks! This sometimes gets confusing when characters have ulterior motives, but it’s definitely clearer to me when I look at what their role is in the story versus who they claim to be or how they’re perceived by the other characters, which can change.

        Now that I think of it, it seems like the audience would also be rooting for the Contagonist to reject the Lie, but usually it seems like the hero is the one to move on and embrace the Truth while the Contagonist is left mired in the Lie, maybe as a cautionary tale. But seeing a Contagonist embrace the Truth would seem like a shorter step than having the Antagonist make the same jump. Or would doing that undercut the hero’s transformation?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Contagonists are negative characters, by definition (in their relation to the Truth). You have to be careful with arc-ing them, since it can undermine their archetypal function in the story. Antagonists, on the other hand, are *not*, by nature, negative characters. They are merely characters who oppose the protagonist’s goal, which means the possibilities for contrasting or comparative arcs are thematically richer there.

          • Jenny North says:

            Yep, I totally get that! I was careful to avoid taking the focus off of the protagonist and her arc, but the other possibilities got me wondering. However, I found it was really useful to have the contagonist around since my antagonist had a very light touch through much of the story and he added some much-needed spice and conflict. It’s interesting how all this fits together–so much to learn! 🙂 Thanks again!

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Yeah, Contagonists are awesome. They bring so many fun dimensions.

  18. DirectorNoah says:

    Hi K.M,
    I’m a HUGE Marvel fan. I’ve loved watching all the movies since the first Iron Man in 2008. I think nearly all of the Marvel characters are so well fleshed out, three dimensional and utterly engaging. I like to call them “my Marvel family.”
    I used to find Tony Stark, highly irritating and annoying with his inflated ego to begin with, but then as the movie arc progressed, I got to understand him and his complex personality a lot more. Now, I really empathise and like the character, with his flawed emotions and logic, not to mention his humour.
    (Sorry, I’m digressing here, forgive my fanboy enthusiasm!) ?

    In my WIP, I have a kind of Mentor/Contagonist character, who symbolises the Truth, but uses the Lie to convince my protagonist of this Truth. She rejects him when he turns hostile against her, only to fully discover the Truth at the end, by realising he represented it all along and was trying to help her. Any good?

    Also, you mention here that the character archetypes are essential for a strong story arc. But in another post, it says that there are only three characters you need: the protagonist, antagonist and relationship character.
    Are the eight archetypes all combined into these three, if there are no more characters, do you need to create characters to fulfill the roles, or is it not vitally important to have all those archetype characters in a story?
    Another superb post, BTW, so educational and helpful, and really love the Marvel ones! ?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hostile mentor? Sounds awesome. 😀

      A character can fill more than one archetype. The relationship character, in particular, can often fulfill several different roles. Obviously, most stories feature larger casts, which allows you to spread out the archetypal love.

  19. Saja bo storm says:

    Katie, I loved the Spidey movie and it serves wonderfully as a great example of mentorship. But after reading your post, I’m thinking about changing my WIP’s protagonist’s mentor to a dismissive art student/vagrant (even if he’s trying to secretly seduce her) instead of the middle aged and sophisticated château manager I’d originally selected. While on holiday in Paris, the protagonist flees their cozy villa after her American lover shares some heartrending news about his ex. Off goes ‘Miss America’ heartbroken in one of the most romantic cities in the world. Hmm, I wonder what her mentor will teach her? As always, great post! Thank you.

  20. “Please, ditch the wise men, gurus, and sages.”

    Unless your story is set in the 1980s, and your character is learning martial arts so he can defeat the bully and get the girl, and the bully is a blond dude with a punchable smirk.

  21. Could a peer be a mentor, or are mentors usually a lot older than the protagonist?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A peer could definitely be a mentor. The only qualification is that the mentor character must understand a Truth which the protagonist does not.

  22. What if you don’t know your theme yet?

  23. Thanks for this article. I remembered it while I was writing the next part of my serial for Friday. It helped a lot.

  24. Hello!
    Thanks so much for another Marvel post. I love these because they’re usually so in-depth and the examples are easy for me to understand because I actually know it. Believe it or not, your posts are what got me into Marvel to begin with. I remember clicking on How Not To Foreshadow Your Story, or something along those lines, it was the Age of Ultron one, and not understanding it. But then I read a bit more posts, looked up the movies, and now I’ve been fangirling for the last two months. Moving on now.
    I understand the need to have an unique, and especially, flawed Mentor character, and I find it really interesting how you point out that a Mentor should complicate the story rather than help it. It’s a bit strange to wrap my head around because like you said, often Mentors just seem to swoop in at times to save the hero. It’s hard to imagine the Mentors complicating the story because if they’re not guiding the Protagonist toward the Truth, then what are they doing? If they’re already the embodiment of the Truth, then it’s easy to think everything goes well for them. It was interesting to see this take on this, allowing me to try to emulate it in my stories.

  25. I’ve put all 16 posts in one document — do you realize you’ve created an amazing 30K+ word book with these series???

Trackbacks

  1. […] characters are one way to draw readers in and get them hooked. K.M. Weiland gives us 4 ways to write a thought-provoking mentor character, James Scott Bell has the ingredients of a great series character, and Suzanne Purvis shows how to […]

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