Q&A

How Do I Establish a Mentor Before They Die?

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Dear Oren/Chris,

I’m an amateur fantasy writer and a rising college freshman working on the second draft of a high fantasy novel. Some context for the question:

1. The main character lives on a different continent than the magical school she ends up going to, so she doesn’t have much contact with it as a kid.

2. When she goes, she meets the head teacher and develops a bond with her.

3. The main villain shows up. However, because the head teacher would be too powerful to stay with the heroes through the story, currently she gets killed by the villain early.

4. The plot currently involves a series of calamitous events that shake the entire magical community.

5. The villain and the teacher have a deeper backstory that I’m planning on exploring later in an anthology-style book.

Concerns:

I’m unsure about whether this is a good plan for establishing the teacher’s character, since she barely gets any time. However, keeping her around would establish some problems for the main character’s difficulties later on, since the teacher could solve them with little effort. Should I wait longer to kill the teacher but still have her die? Is it safer to have her removed from the equation another way? (I really don’t want to just have her captured or something, because I hate plots that do that.) Does the story need a larger rework to avoid the question altogether? Should I write the teacher/villain backstory book first, or would that take too long? Or does the answer depend on greater context from the story?

Thanks for your time,

-Svend

Hey Svend, thanks for writing in!

Mentors can certainly be a challenge when crafting a story, as they need to be badass enough to teach the protagonist things, and yet not be the one to actually solve the story’s problem. Just based on what you’ve told me here, the main concern I have is that the teacher simply may not be around long enough for readers to bond with them.

While killing mentors off has a long tradition in spec fic, if the mentor is important, authors usually wait until fairly late in the story to do so. In Fellowship of the Rings, Gandalf dies on page 431 out of 531, more than three quarters of the way through. In New Hope, Obi-Wan dies well past the halfway point. In Harry Potter, Dumbledore doesn’t die until the end of book six.

Mentors generally need that time for readers to get attached to them. If the mentor dies too early, it won’t seem particularly important. It also helps if the mentor’s death feels meaningful in some way, rather than just something that happened for no reason. All three of the mentors I mentioned above get heroic sacrifices (though we don’t fully find out about Dumbledore’s until the next book), but that’s not the only way to do it. What’s important is that the death feels like part of an arc. Of course, keeping the mentor around longer means you need to make sure they aren’t just constantly solving problems for the hero in that time, but that’s usually work worth doing.

If possible, I’d look at giving your teacher character a little more screen time. This’ll be good for developing the bond between them and the protagonist, but it’ll also give more time for your readers to care about them and more time for you to set up an appropriate death.

The other thing to think about is that while killing the mentor is a viable solution, it’s also done a lot. People have seen that trope over and over again, to the point where it risks becoming cliche. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but it is a roll of the dice, so you may want to consider some other option for getting the teacher out of the way. Not only will that avoid the cliche, but it’ll also be a fresh surprise for your readers.

You mentioned not wanting to kidnap them, which is fair enough, so one option would be making it so that the teacher has a lot of knowledge but not a lot of power. This is easy in a story about sword fighting – just make the mentor old enough that they aren’t in fighting trim anymore – but it’s a little tougher with magic. Maybe they sustained a magical injury in the past (maybe in a duel with the villain!) that keeps them from actually casting many spells, even though they can still teach those spells.

You could also try what we call an antagonistic mentor. That’s a mentor whose goals don’t actually align with the protagonist. They’ll still do a little teaching for their own reasons, but when the hero wants to save the world, they find out the mentor isn’t really into that. This makes it much easier to explain why the mentor isn’t solving the protagonist’s problems.

We have two posts where we talk about those ideas in more detail:

Hope that answers your question!

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    With a magical environment, how about a curse? The mentor can still teach magic, but when they perform magic, somehing horrible happens. Perhaps they get years taken off their life or they are in severe pain or random accidents happen or something else of that kind? Like this, your mentor can still work as a mentor, but, like the sword master who has reached old age, they can no longer go out and solve the problem themselves.

  2. Kenneth Mackay

    Oren’s reply to the question assumes that, unlike swordsmen, magicians don’t normally lose their abilities with age. The powerful, white-bearded old wizard is, after all, a common fantasy trope.

    You could subvert the trope and have the mentor be a ‘burnt-out’ wizard – someone who retains all the knowledge of how to use magic, but no longer has the strength or mental agility to control powerful magical energies.

    Perhaps the mentor’s death could be a heroic sacrifice – casting one final spell that they know will destroy them, but will injure or nullify the villain for long enough for your protagonist to get away?

    • Tessa Smith McGovern

      What an interesting idea! Love the idea of someone losing the strength or mental ability but not the knowledge.

  3. Elga

    One more option is to have non-fighting mentor (healer, scientist and so on). In this case fighting skill hero get from other person (if any) but also use some knowlege from mentor in a way that is not expected.
    In my story heroine has almost no fighting skills but use knowleges she get from her mentor (mostly, anathomy and first aid) to overcome her enemies.

    Another option is to think – how often your real life teachers help you to solve your real-life problems? It’s a rare case, correct? Thus, why fantasy teacher should risk his or her life for student?

  4. Leon

    I Think this ones from a Robyn Hobb book; Iron-shot wound. Deep in the chest (or back) and impossible to remove.
    Just swap in your favorite anti-mage-ium and the mentor can still mentor like a boss, while the kid gets to do all the magic.

  5. Scott

    You mention it being “high fantasy,” and depending on your world and character you envision for the mentor, you could have the mentor “busy” on her own adventure(s) far away during large portions of time. This might be traveling to other planes of existence/dimensions, far off continents, center of the earth, another planet/moon, etc. Many times Gandalf was “off and away” from the group or certain individuals in Lord of the Rings, handling heavier matters. So this is an option for keeping the mentor busy and out of large portions of the story (perhaps maintaining some contact via messenger or some magical communication method). The task of the mentor needs to be urgent enough that she would not/could not come to the rescue of the student (assuming she hears about her issues with the villain).

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