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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