Trope Me This: The Wise, Old Mentor

Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Zeddicus Zul’Zorander.

Old, white wizards who know more about the world than everyone else combined, BUT they’re not very good at communication, are they? They are pretty secretive, it seems like they’re using everyone else for their own benefit, and somewhere in there, they disappear for a long time or die altogether, forcing the Hero to continue the journey alone and unaided toward what will probably be the death of the Hero, except that the Hero IS the Hero and therefore, really can’t die.

So, what are we to do about this?

The wise old mentor often comes with lots of extra bags to carry around, which seems to make them nearly invincible in all conflicts. I definitely want to get old like that instead of weak and frail and afraid of breaking a hip.

Having a mentor in a novel is kind of expected, especially in fantasy, but is there a way to make it more interesting? To make the mentor a little less Gandalf and maybe a little more Haymitch? Or maybe even a woman? I had to hit the internet to find some examples because I honestly couldn’t think of any on my own.

So that’s one way to get a mentor in that’s different from the wise old man trope. If you have humans in your fantasy story, perhaps a black woman could be your mentor. Or a black man. We’ve got plenty of white and asian mentors, but I can only think of Morpheus as a black mentor, so it’s been a while.

The mentor doesn’t have to be as old as dirt, either. It’s okay to rely on wisdom over age – perhaps someone with some street smarts or knowledge of the world/area – think Fremen from Dune. Any of them could have been a mentor to Paul as he figured out how to live there.

Another way to twist it is to look at Game of Thrones and how Tyrion becomes a mentor to Danerys after she is Queen. He’s certainly not all that much older, but he understands politics and therefore is a great choice to be a political mentor for her. Maybe morally, he’s not necessarily an excellent choice with his particular past, but no one can argue his fitness in the political arena.

In my work, I DO have a couple wise old men as mentors for my MC, but I’ve got a little trick up my sleeve to subvert that just a little bit. I’m not telling you what it is, though (in case it REALLY doesn’t work and I have to take it out! ha!). Remember, that this is a tool to use to build your story – it isn’t necessarily good or bad – but we should always strive to try to use it in a unique way.

In conclusion, I want to leave you with my favorite point I came across when researching this trope. The mentor is a GREAT way to impart knowledge of the world without needing a giant infodump. What may need a paragraph or even a page of explanation in an infodump, a mentor can do in a dialogue, or sometimes, even in a sentence or two. Never underestimate your character’s ability to worldbuild in concise and interesting ways.

What are your thoughts on this trope? Do you use it?



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2 thoughts on “Trope Me This: The Wise, Old Mentor

  1. My favorite female mentor is Polgara from David Eddings Belgariad series. She’s protracted as a bit surly and blunt, almost like Mary Poppins, but had a big heart for those around her. She was as comfortable feeding the hungry as she is eating with royalty. She could hold her own in a fight, but rarely had the presence of mind to engage if it wasn’t worth it. She always knew others strengths and allowed them to use their gifts.

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