The Unreliable Mentor

One of the story elements that will make me give up on a story is what I call “The Unreliable Mentor”.  Sadly, it’s a fairly common one.  It’s my habit not to bash particular works in my blog, so I won’t give examples.  But I expect most readers will recognize this sort of exchange:

“I couldn’t tell you what was really going on because you had to discover it for yourself, and because your reactions had to appear genuine to fool the bad guys, and I needed to test you to see if you were truly The Chosen One and so that you would gain the inner strength you needed to face your greatest challenge and–”

“And because you’re a total dick who wanted to screw with me!”

“Well, yes, that, too.  I was really getting off on watching you flail around like a blind manatee.”

I think I can understand how authors get themselves into a position where they have to come up with some reason why the mentor character has to withhold information, mislead, and flat out lie to the young hero. Forgiving it, however, is more difficult for me.

The problem is that mentors get used as an all-purpose tool. Need to explain the young hero’s backstory? The mentor sits him down for an important talk.  Want to give the young hero a new trick to get him out a tight spot? The mentor trains him in the nick of time.  Can’t figure out why the young hero goes out and risks his life to chase the bad guy instead of staying home in bed? The mentor tells him that he must.  After a while the mentor can become a kind of bargain basement deus ex machina used to get around any snag in the plot.

Unfortunately, once you’ve established that you have a supporting character who knows all and tells all you need to be able to turn him off, or your story is just the young hero following instructions like a robot.

The obvious (so obvious, in fact, that it’s a cliche) thing to do is to kill the mentor. And that can work, but I can understand why people don’t always do that.  Like I say, it’s a cliche.

There are other options, though. First among them is simply making the mentor wrong upon occasion. Yes, he knows more than the young hero, but he doesn’t know everything. He is fallible, and can be dead wrong about some things. (Think Gandalf and “I’ll just go talk to my old friend Saruman who is totally not evil!”)

Then again, there’s the chance that the mentor is Saruman. Maybe he’s been lying all along to the young hero because he’s secretly working for the bad guys.

Or it doesn’t have to be as cut and dried as all that.  Maybe the mentor has a different ethos or different goals than the young hero–not drastically different, but enough so that at a critical point the hero has to leave the mentor behind and go on his own path.

But let’s not have any more “I’m lying to you for your own good/because of the greater good” stuff, okay?  If you must have the mentor say that, at least have the young hero respond by realizing that the mentor is an absolute hose-beast who must no longer be trusted and possibly whacked quite hard on the noggin.

I’m really sick of “I know you’re completely untrustworthy but I am going to keep doing what you say because of my epic abandonment issues” heros. Grow up, son, and leave the old man to sit and read old issues of Prevention magazine in a stuffy rented room with dead flies on the windowsill.


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in On Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Unreliable Mentor

  1. Cirsova says:

    Does this in any way tie in to my hairbrained theory that Obi Wan Kenobi is (completely incidentally) the main villain of the Star Wars saga?!

    • Mary says:

      Kenobi fell victim to a ret-con.

      Though if I were doing a ret-con like that, I would have made him honestly ignorant. This would also have upped the tension in the plot by making him more powerful.

      • Cirsova says:

        True. Empire Strikes Back made him a liar, Jedi has him double down on the lie, justifying it by saying “well, you could say that I wasn’t REALLY lying”.

        But think how radically that changes the duel scene in New Hope between Obi Wan and Vader:

        Luke is watching the man who has become like a surrogate father fighting the man he does not know is his father.

        Vader does not know his son is watching.

        Obi Wan Kenobi knows the significance of the tableau when he says “if you strike me down i’ll become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”; it will forever shape how Luke sees Vader, thinking him to be a man who killed two fathers. At the time, Vader doesn’t know Luke from Adam, but Kenobi knows that his death will set Luke down a self-destructive path of vengeance against his own blood.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      That’s one example, yes.

      • pohjalainen says:

        One of the things in Star Wars I really do hate. As well as the “she’s his sister!” one, after it was decided (probably) that because the audience loved shipping Leia and Han they should be a couple instead of Leia and Luke, which seemed to be the direction originally intended, but since Luke was supposed to be the hero presumably just leaving him as the loser didn’t look good, so… hey, secret siblings.

        Okay, I hate all the ret-cons in that saga. And it has several.

      • pcbushi says:

        Yeah, that’s probably why I find the Obi-Wan stuff forgivable and can get past it pretty easily — Lucas was making that shit up as he went along. Nothing nefarious about it, really.

      • Cirsova says:

        I’d say his wishy-washy non-apology in Jedi, which was a chance to fix it, makes it nefarious. He could’ve said “I’m sorry I lied to you, it was wrong”; instead he says “well, I wasn’t REALLY lying, exactly; also, btw, here’s a secret that will jeopardize you and your friends that Yoda kept from you for a very important reason. Good luck!”

  2. jenanita01 says:

    Personally, I don’t like excuses, not in my life or my fiction. Give the plain unvarnished truth any time…

  3. paws4puzzles says:

    Reblogged this on Paws4Thought and commented:
    Yes, Yes – a gazillion times yes!

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