The Mentor Who Knew Too Much

I often read unpublished manuscripts, either because I am paid to critique or edit them, or because I am trading beta-reading with author friends.  Recently, I’ve read several manuscripts with a common flaw:  a secondary character who knows almost everything, and is driving the plot by manipulating the other characters or by withholding and revealing the information at the right time.  Often, this secondary character is meant to serve as a mentor for the protagonist, but his or her own great power and influence makes the story revolve around the mentor rather than being driven by the protagonist.

Dumbledore in his hall of knowledge. (Warner Brothers Studio, England)

Dumbledore in his hall of knowledge. (Warner Brothers Studio, England)

Some classic mentors include Gandalf, in the Lord of the Rings, Obi-wan Kenobi in “Star Wars”, and, of course, Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. They represent three different approaches to the mentor role.  Gandalf is a powerful figure set apart from the protagonist, but never all-powerful, while Obi-wan is a person more advanced than the protagonist, but on the same journey.

Of these, I find Dumbledore to be extremely problematic, in exactly the way of the omniscient mentors in the unpublished books I noted above.   He knows almost everything that’s going on, often without being told.  He provides invaluable assistance at the right time, and when he fails to do so, there is rarely a good reason for it. After reading a few of the books, it kinda felt to me like Harry and the other kids are out doing Dumbledore’s dirty work, when he could have cut the whole thing short early on and prevented a lot of trouble and heartache.

Gandalf is an interesting sort of mentor. He’s very wise, he has some mysterious powers, and he is often in the right place at the right time. However, Tolkien also sets him up very carefully.  He is fallible–he doesn’t know everything, and sometimes takes a while to work through the answers, just as you or I might do. He must try “various incantations” until he remembers the right solution.  He also does lots of research to confirm hunches or to put together the clues.  He goes to consult with others, like Galadriel and Saruman, and only later discovers this might have been a mistake.  He does his best to defend the hobbits and the fellowship when he’s with them, but he often isn’t–and he never manages to slide a sword into a hat and have it delivered just at the right moment by his pet phoenix.  If he’s not there, they have to bloody well do the job themselves–and they know it’s going to be much harder without him.

This is, of course, why mentors have to die, or it becomes increasingly hard to justify to the reader/viewer why the mentor isn’t just undertaking the quest himself.  Readers like to watch over the shoulder of two primary types of protagonists:  those who have lots of powers/strengths/coolness factors (like James Bond, ie, protagonists the reader wishes he were), or those who are *already* like the reader, they have weaknesses, vulnerabilities, day jobs, families or other things that make the quest difficult, and which they seek to overcome or to be worthy of.

The right mentor/protagonist pairing balances both of these elements.  So Luke Skywalker is a young man with ambitions and responsibilities (like the viewer), and he is paired with someone much more knowledgeable and powerful, someone he–and the viewer–might aspire to become.  In this case, he has that potential, and when Obi-wan dies, Luke moves on to an even greater mentor, and ultimately becomes a master himself.  In some ways, this is a very down-to-earth model of mentorship.  You might imagine a young inventor or author learning from an established professional, and going on to supersede his mentor as he reveals his own talents as a result of the mentorship.

The hobbits admire, fear and trust Gandalf.  His presence gives them courage, his absence and his challenges prod them to greater achievements within themselves, but there’s no point at which they might conceivably take on his role as Luke does when he becomes a Jedi master in Obi-wan’s footsteps.  By the end of the book, the hobbits have grown because of their adventures, and with Gandalf’s guidance.   Frodo’s personal journey is such that he accompanies his mentor into the West at the end.

Interestingly, the hobbits are often presented as having a childlike relationship with  powerful people like Gandalf. In Harry Potter, the protagonist literally *does* have that relationship with Dumbledore, and I wonder if this accounts for some of the differences, and for some of the ways they become problematic.

One challenge in writing Young Adult novels, and one difference between these and Middle Grade novels, is the role of adults.  Adults are not meant to solve the problems faced by the teen protagonists of a YA novel.  MG novels, in part because they are bought primarily by librarians and grandparents, feature stronger, larger roles for adults, and the adults who purchase them like to view themselves as Dumbledore:  kind, wise, all-knowing, the source of strength and positive intervention.

But as the readers and the characters age, that mentor relationship is no longer as appropriate to the fictional set-up.  The protagonists need to be free to make harder choices, to live with the consequences of those choices, and to have adventures in which they make discoveries, not merely confirm that what the mentor suspects is, in fact, true.  Harry increasingly turns toward people like Sirius Black, and others–people more in the Obi-wan vein: they know more than he, and they are more powerful than he, but they are also fallible. They require assistance as much as they give it.  The protagonists can grow into an adult relationship with them, in the way that Luke grows into his potential as a Jedi master.

Where does that leave Dumbledore?  This suspicious reader felt increasingly frustrated that Dumbledore seemed to be manipulating events and individuals and calling all the shots.  I think I would have found the story more satisfying if he had died much sooner, leaving the kids to discover and take risks on their own at an earlier point.

If you are reading a mentor relationship, how do you find it working?  Do you believe in the vital link between the protagonist and his teacher–that the teacher provides the tools for the protagonist to solve his own problems?  Or is the teacher standing in for the author, delivering whatever is needed to the story without regard to the protagonist’s efforts and motivations?

If you are writing a manuscript with a mentor character, think about which model of mentorship you’re following.  If you have a hugely powerful and knowledgeable character, why isn’t that person leading the fight, instead of merely prodding the protagonist along?  Is the mentor someone the protagonist might eventually become, or is he outside the plane of the protagonist’s life, someone to be looked up to, perhaps, but as an inspiration, not as a model.

And if you are a mentor, consider when it is time to stand aside, and allow the student to soar (or to slip) on his or her own potential.


About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in character development, essays, fantasy, fiction, movies, writing, writing advice and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Mentor Who Knew Too Much

  1. ddmoonsong says:

    Very good observations and insight. Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s