A classic consideration when designing the protagonist of a story is what will their arc be? Is this a coming-of-age experience? A heroic epic? A tragic downfall? Will it truly be an “arc” in shape, where the character will consistently slope towards their destination without any deviation, or will there be an inflection point where the arc abruptly changes from one eventuality to another? While all these considerations are essential in the formation of a well-rounded protagonist, it is important to note that there exist other characters who typically do not include such an arc. These roles instead remain stagnant, and represent constants. These characters typically function as guiding fixtures by which the main character flings him- or herself to the story’s resolutions.
Such permanency, of course finds, its roots in our very human desire to find something constant to depend on. Each of us needs a degree of certainty in our lives, the kind that is only possible when one has become a part of something greater than oneself. We are all drawn to find some north star or solitary mountain peak that we can chart our course and measure our progress by, something by which we can know we are facing a good direction and advancing in its way. Popularity and worldly luxuries may be fun to pursue for a while, but their fickle nature leaves much to be desired, and our hearts tells us that if we had a more secure foundation we could build upon it something of ourselves that would last forever. We look for this sort of constant foundation in our pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, scientific laws, philosophical certainties, and any other exploration of deep and constant truths.
But when we find that something upon which we can make our mark, there yet remains the concern of knowing how exactly to go about doing that. We want to be an apprentice to this craft, but to be so we need a master. For any greater calling to avoid extinction, it will require experts to propagate its teachings to the rising generation, and here we see the role of the mentor taking form. In our literature, heroes tend to represent those still in their youth and working out who they want to be in life, but mentors have already gone through this process and are grounded in their elevated ways. Perhaps in their backstory they once wandered through their own self-defining adventures, too, but all that was resolved long ago and ever since they have held to the conclusions that they now share with others. We need teachers and guides in our lives, and we look for them in religious prophets, wise professors, respected town elders, and weathered coaches. These sages have been where we are now, and they are now where we wish to be.
With this understanding the core attributes of quality literary mentors become obvious. There are a three main qualities that we ought to consider when attempting to craft a mentor that any reader would want to be taken under the wing of.
The Mentor as a Parent
Sometimes the mentor character may be a literal parent of the main character, but often they are not. The reason for this is that we each have a heritage given to us by the home we were raised in, but we also have a vocation that was chosen by us after we left that nest. And so the mentor is the father-figure or mother-figure in inducting us through that second birth, the birth into our great life work.
And what does it mean to be a father or mother figure? What do I mean when I say someone was a second father to me, or that someone welcomed me like my own mother? At the root of it means that here is someone who has been reshaping me to be like them. I identify the men who reform me in their own likeness to be my fathers and the women who nurture me to share their own qualities to be my mothers.
The Mentor as the Ideal
Of course a mentor is more than just a teacher. No doubt each of us can remember teachers that left us with no passion for the lessons they taught, while others made the material come alive. It isn’t so much the subject as the person behind the instruction, and our mentors, therefore, have to possess certain characteristics about them, specifically the very ones we wish we held ourselves.
Most often the literary mentor will not only have found the way the hero wishes to walk, they will be the person the hero wishes to be. They possess all the wisdom, the power, and the will that the heroes recognize the roots of in themselves. Indeed the mentor would probably be undertaking the hero’s great quest already if they still had the youth and vitality to do so, but since they cannot they send the hero in their stead.
The Mentor as the Catalyst
Which brings us to our last point, the mentor is the one that gives the heroes their mission. Every great cause comes with work that needs to be done in it and that work is never-ending and needs all willing hands to participate. All that remains for us is to find the role that we fit into, the one that both plays to our greatest strengths and will shore up our greatest weaknesses.
In choosing this undertaking we turn again to the wisdom of a mentor. We trust in their ability to see us for what we are and what we can become, to have our best interests at heart, to give us the advice that will be good for us. Very often it is the mentor who first tells the hero in no uncertain terms exactly what they must do. Perhaps the main character isn’t ready to receive that counsel yet, but inevitably they will return to take the mantle that rightfully belongs to them when they are ready to accept their calling.
Now all of this is well and good, but frankly it isn’t enough. We may want to fill the stature of our mentor, but we don’t necessarily want to win their hearts, not in any greater sense than that of a parental approval anyway. And all the guidance and instruction and advice will do us little good if we don’t also have a passion for the work behind it all. Passing curiosity will not suffice here, the journey of a thousand miles is bound to be fraught with pitfalls and dangers, anything less than burning desire will see us throw down cane and cowl at the first sign of trouble and flee back home.
So where is the love, the passion, and the determination? Storytellers have long recognized the need for these elements and have saved some of their finest characterizations to fill this role. Of course we are speaking here of the love interest in a story. This role can, of course, be misused for the sole purpose of selling tickets, feeding off of our voyeuristic pleasure in watching two humans romance one another, but this approach misses the point entirely. Yes, it is a fact that the root emotions we are trying to emulate are love and passion, and yes this does make romantic love an excellent allegory for that concept. But we must not lose sight of the ideal for the façade that is representing it. The tired cliché of burly men rescuing damsels in distress isn’t what literary romance should be all about. What should really be at the root of that romance is the notion of all heroes, male and female alike, finding a cause for which they are willing to lay down their lives. It is about being selfless for something that is more important than the self. It is about finding the power to fight for that which is right, to find the satisfaction in protecting that which we love. These are universal needs to all races, sexes, and creeds, and these needs can only be met in deep, abiding love.
It is the discovery of a passion such as this that will make meek men mighty, and weak women wise. The selfish will sacrifice and the proud will be prudent. Why? Because if the mentor represents all of the wonderful things that lie at the heart of the hero, the loved one represents all of the wonderful things that do not. The best love interests are those that complement the hero, the ones that make up for the hero’s weaknesses and help him or her to become that which they could not otherwise be.
And now at last we are coming to the human experience at the core of the literary love interest. It all has to do with the basic truth that we are flawed and incomplete beings on our own, and that we depend on the strengths and abilities of others to become a composite in some greater being. That union to others is something each of us needs to be whole and healthy, and we have been given the sense of love to drive us to those meaningful connections. Again, that connection might be to anything: a church, a community, an army, a family, or indeed another individual. The point is that the resulting connection is greater than the individual because it is comprised of more than just an individual. It lifts and supports us and makes us into more than we are, and we love it for those reasons.
And so we can see that the mentor and the love interest work together in tandem more than might have been expected, they are two halves of the same principle. Most often the mentor holds the superior mind, and the love interest holds the superior heart, together they can bestow these upon the hero in his or her quest to become the best version of themselves that they can be. They work together to stoke our passion where it is waning, but also to reign in our excess where it would lead us to folly. They teach us moderation and direction, they keep our engine running warm but not overheating.
Each one of us personally needs both of these characters in our lives, and each of our heroes needs them as well. On Thursday I posted a piece of the Revelate storyline from the perspective of a character called the Clockmaker. As with most mentors, his was not a dynamic and changing character, rather he remained a constant, one that spoke to the other more malleable characters with confidence and truth. His influence helped both Kael and Ayla to discover their own roles in this story and know how to act.
Another key character in that post was Ayla, who is, of course, the love interest for the story. In every form that our main character had moved through she has remained the constant motivation for each transformation he undertakes. In his first two forms he finds her captivating due to how she feels what he cannot and does what he doesn’t dare. Through her he redefines himself, only to find that he is too late, though there yet remains a hope that if there is an afterlife out there for him, it will necessarily be with her.
Ayla is the one remaining that character that requires special attention in this Revelate series. Please come back Thursday where I will share a few remaining scenes from her perspective. In that effort I will be taking particular care to fashion her as the complement to both Cee and Kael, and better establish how it is that she motivates them to be more than what they are.