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?
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.