As authors, we all have an obligation to do what is required to advance both the story and the development of our primary characters. That being the case, I believe wholeheartedly that authors should kill their mentors when the time is right.
Wait. Let me rephrase that… authors should kill their ‘mentor’ characters. There we go. While the underlying concept behind this idea does, in fact, apply to our personal mentors, the title of this post is referring to the mentors of our main characters.
So please don’t go out and commit non-literary murder.
Now that I have that disclaimer out of the way, you might be wondering why I feel like this step is so essential for the development of our characters. To answer that, we first have to consider what function a mentor serves in a story (especially in the ‘Hero’s Journey’ story).
The mentor, first and foremost, introduces your main character (MC) to a whole new world of intrigue, magic, and excitement. As the MC begins to understand the role that they’re going to play in world events moving forward, or even just in the events of their own little world, the mentor is there to guide them, teach them, and help them to unlock their full potential.
I know what you’re thinking, though. Killing a mentor is cruel. It only serves to put your character through unnecessary heartache. Besides, they could still save the day with their mentor at their side, right? Wrong.
The plot of a ‘Hero’s Journey’ is your MC’s character arc. The whole point of your story is to see your character grow to their full potential and be who their world needs them to be. As long as the mentor character is there, this will be an impossible task. The MC won’t have room to be the hero he needs to be, because he’ll always be overshadowed by someone older, smarter, and more experienced.
Killing your mentors has added benefits to both your story and the development of your main character. It has a deep emotional impact for both the MC and the reader. It motivates the MC to go all in to fix the world that cruelly took their paternal or maternal figure from them, and it teaches them life lessons about self-sacrifice and helping those in need. It even leads the character to appreciate their own value as a human being.
For an example of this, you need not look any further than the first Iron Man film. If you’ve seen it, then you know exactly what I’m referring to.
“Don’t waste your life.”
All that being said, let’s take a moment to imagine that you just don’t have the heart to kill off one of the coolest and wisest characters in your book. There’s still a way that you can take the mentor out of the equation and give the MC room to grow into a cool and wise character themselves.
How do you do that?
Put simply, separate your characters. For every Gandalf falling to his doom, there’s a Gandalf who’s alive and well and who never sees Frodo again until Frodo’s journey is complete. For every Obi-Wan fading out of existence, there’s an Obi-Wan who’s only able to talk to and guide Luke on very special occasions. For every Dumbledore who leaves Harry to fulfill his destiny, there’s a Morpheus who parts ways with Neo so that they can both fulfill their respective destinies.
Doing this not only gives your main character the room they need to grow and accomplish great things on their own, bringing a satisfying resolution to their character arc, but it also allows the mentor to continue developing and to become even more complex and interesting in their own right.
As I mentioned earlier, this is something that even applies to us as authors. It’s highly beneficial to have someone to guide you in your mastery of the writing craft, to teach you the trade and fine-tune your storytelling techniques. But once they’ve gotten you where you need to go, it’s important for you to disconnect from them, find your own voice, make your own mistakes and discover new and amazing things for yourself. Your life is a ‘Hero’s Journey’ in its own right, and you can’t live your whole life in someone else’s shadow anymore than your main character can.
So, authors, remember to kill your mentors, literally, in the case of storytelling, and metaphorically in your case, and you’ll give both yourself and your hero room to reach your full potential.