A Final Character Cliché…the Mentor

Gandalf. Merlin. Yoda.

All great characters, all mentors that fit the ‘wise old man’ (er, Yoda) Mentor archetype. In fact, the wise old man is so well known for fantasy, it’s almost pointless for me to discuss the cliché when there are literally hundreds of articles out there on it. I’ll limit my comment to this: if you have a mentor in your fantasy novel, please don’t let it be a kind old man with a pointed hat. Please. Pick a streetwalker, a leper or a talking bushel of apples. Anything but the wise old magic wielder, kay?

Nuff said.

But one thing that isn’t discussed much is the role of mentor in the other genres of Children’s and YA. Which brings us to, if your story has a mentor who isn’t a wizard, can it still be cliché?

Of course it can, Grasshopper. 🙂

Most frequently, the Mentor archetype for these age groups tend to be parents, grandparents, teachers & school counsellors (and sometimes big sisters/brothers). Why? Because these are the ‘people in charge’ that kids have the most contact with and would most likely seek out with a problem. With such a small pool of possible Mentor choices, it’s easy to see why often the Mentor character ends up feeling like a cliché.

The Mentor can be an interesting character in kids/YA, because what is a no-no for one age group might be okay for another. For example, if 15-year-old Suzy flops down at the kitchen table and pours her heart out to Mom about her boyfriend ditching her at a party to hang with the guys…well, I’m cringing. Especially if Mom trucks out that fresh pan of brownies she just happens to be baking. Call the Cliché police.

However, if little 6-year-old Jimmy stomps in, screeching about how his pal Monty shoved a frog down his shorts and he’s never ever going to be his friend again in a bazillion years…well, maybe that’s okay. Especially if Mom reminds dear Jimmers about how he talked Monty into eating half his ant farm the week before. (But, she better not offer the kid a brownie and a glass of milk as she does it.)

Anyway, my point is, at some ages, it’s okay for kids to seek their parents/adults for help. But it depends on the circumstance, the strength of the need and the availability of others better suited to go to for help.

At an earlier age, adults encourage kids to come to them with problems. Mostly this is because they are too young to have the skills to reason or articulate their feelings to another. So if preschool Brenda snatches away Libby’s Barbie convertible (with Ken still inside *gasp*), likely the teacher would rather know about it so she can reinforce a lesson in taking turns. If she doesn’t, then Libby might communicate her feelings directly to Brenda through an impromptu hair cut during a game of ‘Beauty Salon.’

Then an interesting thing happens as kids enter grade school. A new concept arises…don’t be a tattle tale. This is imprinted in kid’s brains, and what it really means is, don’t bother me with the small stuff. Parents say it. Teachers say it. Principals say it. All those people who used to be available to talk to about beefs are now telling kids to solve their own problems.

But what’s small? It’s hard for kids to know, but it only takes a few adult eye rolls, a few don’t be a tattle tale‘s and a few, go find something to do‘s before that grey area gets wider and wider. Pretty soon kids either keep it all inside, or they talk among their peers, because they understand what it’s like. They get it.

Sure, it sounds harsh. But really, isn’t this what we adults do? This is why in writing for kids, the mentor character needs to be used with specific attention and care. For a chunk of growing up, going to Mom or Dad or a teacher for help is often a last resort. In writing, we need to respect that. For some, the lesson of not bothering them with the small stuff is learned too well. Kids can become afraid of rejection, of not being taken seriously or being told their problems are not big enough to worry about. You know, the whole, go find something to do, kid experience.

Desperation/Need is a key factor in seeking out an adult/older sibling mentor. If the desperation or need isn’t strong enough, then the relationship will not feel natural and the reader will be pulled out of the story.

So when is it okay to have an adult mentor?

–if the character is desperate, due to a timeline, other serious repercussion or danger

–if the character has no one their own age (or similar age to turn to)

–if it is in the character’s nature to ask for help from a person of authority or in authority (some kids are close to certain adults–just make sure you show that)

–if the need warrants it, like specific common ground. Sometimes kids have interests that other kids can’t relate to. Mark is training for shot put, which his dad used to do in college. He needs advice on the upcoming competition. He isn’t going to go to his friends who hang out at the arcade all day, right?

A word on avoiding clichéd Mentors:

–Don’t be preachy. Think like a kid, not as a parent. What does the kid need to hear?

–Try to stay away from the ‘too-busy-for-me older brother or sister.’ It’s been done, done, done.

–Try to find an unusual dynamic for your mentor, if you can. Is there a way to get out of the typical ‘parental’ mentor rut? I read a book recently where a girl went to her sister’s boyfriend with her problems–it was delightfully unexpected.

–Remember that in many situations, peer mentorship will be the most logical and realistic choice. Most kids go to other kids first when they are troubled.

–Have a zero tolerance policy for snacks during any mentoring sessions. I know food is a comfort, but it is overused and can turn a unique scene into a clichéd one.

–look closely at the need for the mentor. Challenge yourself on whether it is needed or not. Sometimes it is necessary, but sometimes a mentor is used because it makes getting revelations across the the character ‘easier’.

What are your thoughts on this type of cliché?


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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12 Responses to A Final Character Cliché…the Mentor

  1. Angela says:

    I think that as long as you show the situation (building on the premise that your MC and dad have a strong & open relationship) then you’re fine. 🙂 Cliches usually arise when there is no set up to show the relationship dynamics, which in turn makes the mentoring stand out as ‘false/convienent.’ Does that make sense?

  2. Jordyn says:

    Hm. Interesting points. I have a scene in my current YA WIP where the MC goes to her dad for help… not her peers because she has none she can talk to, and not her mom because her mom doesn’t listen as well, but her dad because he listens and doesn’t freak out about things.

    Is this cliche?
    I know that I often go to my dad for advice/help (and I”m a teenager) so I never thought of it as a no-no in writing.

  3. Donna says:

    OMFG, you just gave me a fantastic idea for a little flash piece that completely flips this whole baking mom cliche on its head. Ha1

  4. Great discussion on mentors! Thanks!

  5. Angela says:

    I love the conversation this post is evoking!


    Becca–speaking of sane, when will you Floridaians start stocking pickle flavored chips in your grocery stores? The fact that you have no such thing is just…wrong! Sick and wrong!

    Just_me, I do know where you are coming from. I’m a SAH too, and I work hard at keeping the lines of communication open, largely because I remember what it was like to not be able to talk to anyone growing up.

    Marcia: You and I sound a lot alike! I agree that mentors can be a good thing, as can independence. What matters is the reasoning for it, and is it justified? I think some books, it feels natural to have a mentor role, and others, it doesn’t.

    Zoe–it sounds like you’ve really thought it through! I have to say I like the idea of combining the mentor/villian role–lots of interesting possibilities there!

  6. Zoe says:

    Great post!!! It has made me re-think and eventually re-affirm the reasons why I eventually succumbed to including a ‘mentor figure’ in my YA work-in-progress. I had originally started out with totally avoiding a mentor, but with the type of story I was trying to tell, it just wasn’t working! So my current solution is to combine the villain/antagonist with the ‘mentor’, hopefully creating an atmosphere where unfortunately the only person the protagonist can turn to is far from the ideal.

    “Mentors can guide someone to a revelation or solution, but the actual epiphany or resolution must come from within the young protagonist.”

    I agree entirely! Harry Potter, for example, is often guilty of this, among a horde of other clichés.

  7. Marcia says:

    For some, the lesson of not bothering them with the small stuff is learned too well.

    For me, you really hit it on the head with this. To me “don’t be a tattletale” meant “you have no adult advocate.” When I chose to bull ahead and “tattle” anyway, I was asking, “Are adults still in charge? Will adults mete out fairness and justice, or is it Lord of the Flies here?” (Yeah, I was an over-serious child.)

    Which is by way of saying that knowing your character matters a lot. Is she the type to go solicit adult help? Some kids don’t have much use for it; others get along with adults better than with children, and/or want to feel older and enjoy the idea that important discussions with adults make them seem or feel more mature. The adult character matters too, of course. As does the particular situation. For example, Mommy may be a good parent, but if she’s constantly losing her glasses, cell phone, laptop, the dog, and couldn’t find her car in a parking lot to save her life, the child might think twice about asking her to hide the treasure map in a really good spot.

    It’s absolutely right that just as we need a good reason to call in an adult, we need a good reason NOT to call one in. The entire mystery genre rests on motivation and logic. It has to make sense and be believable that child or YA sleuths can and will take on dangerous circumstances instead of just telling an adult or calling the cops.

  8. Just_Me says:

    I think this may be why I don’t get YA. Even when I was in my teens there were adults (not necassarily my parents though) that I was more comfortable talking with than my peers.

    And since I am a cliched brownie-baking-ice-cream-making-quilt-sewing-garden-growing mama I think it’s perfectly realistic to have a stay-at-home mommy who spends time with her children and talks with them. I know I’m in a minority, but oh well…..

  9. courtney says:

    But it depends on the circumstance, the strength of the need and the availability of others better suited to go to for help.

    That’s FANTASTICALLY put.

  10. Becca says:

    Angela may be a brownie-baker, but she’s also a pickle-chip-eater, so she, at least, will never be a cliche mommy. Granted, on those grounds, she’s also not entirely sane…

    My thoughts are that you’ve nailed this particular cliche. Each of your points, I was thinking of stories I’ve read where I’ve groaned when the mentor in question came onto the scene. i also agree with Just Me; there are times when an adult should be told and it drives me bonkers when the character stumbles blindly along. I use this book as an example all the time, but Speak is a great example of a YA character not going to her parents in a difficult situation. I’m re-reading it (because both the books I checked out at the library sucked) and it occurred to me that I want her to talk to her father a number of times throughout the story. Although a bit distant, he’s approachable and likeable. But the situation is one where the mc feels she can’t talk to her parents. So it works.

  11. Angela says:

    *Not* going to a parent when it’s the sensible thing to do. *Not* telling the teacher (a la HP) when something is wrong and trying to solve everything by yourself is a cliche in YA that grates on my nerves.

    Excellent point–I’m really glad you brought that up as another cliche. There are times where I read a plotline that goes from bad to worse to all out insane and all I can think is, Go to the cops! Tell an adult! Tell somebody for goodness sake!

    In many ways this is why I did the parent cliche first. because it is often the ‘disinterested/occupied’ parent that causes a sense of ‘I must do everything myself’ in our protags. But with all things, even independence can become overdone to the point where we want to throttle the protag for not asking for help. It’s okay to make a mistake and learn from it, but if it goes too far, then the enjoyment from growth in a character leads to frustration on the reader’s behalf and they may disconnect from the character as a result of their choices.

    There should be a balance in writing and character growth. This is why motivation is so important. If you don’t have your kids going to someone for help, show us why. And if they do, back it up in a way that makes it the logical choice.

    As a parent, I want my kids to always feel they can come to me. As a writer, I know that many kids don’t feel that they can.

    For me the best book is one that shows adults are approchable, but approching them is done sparingly, and with good reason. I want the average reader to connect with my protag and their choices, and I want the protags’ actions to be the story. Mentors can guide someone to a revelation or solution, but the actual epiphany or resolution must come from within the young protagonist.

    And yes, there’s nothing wrong with a mom who bakes brownies. If there is, I’m in serious trouble, lol. It’s just better to not fall into the cliche of brownie-baker (or cookie baker, pie baker, etc) in writing, right?

  12. Just_Me says:

    Maybe it’s because I’m a parent, or maybe it’s because I didn’t like going to my peers as a child, but I think that you can have the cliche go both ways.

    *Not* going to a parent when it’s the sensible thing to do. *Not* telling the teacher (a la HP) when something is wrong and trying to solve everything by yourself is a cliche in YA that grates on my nerves.

    Some people are raised with very loving parents. Some people do consider their parents their best friends and will talk to them rather than peers, especially if they feel isolated in school.

    Yes, the wise-old mentor is an overdone cliche, but so is the completely-independent-I’ll-solve-it-on-my-own-genius child.

    And if there’s one thing I really don’t want my children learning from reading it’s that they can’t come to Mom when they have a problem. When I pick up books for my girls I scan the backs, I read reviews, and if I think it’s going to be a book that tells them they shouldn’t come to their parents for help when they need it than I won’t buy the book.

    P.S. There is nothing wrong with a mom who bakes brownies (says the cliche mommy…)

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