In Casablanca, Rick is inspired to get off the sidelines and join the fight in part by the influence of the Mentor character: Victor Laszlo.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is provided advice throughout her trek in Oz from Glinda the Good Witch, the Mentor who provides the key for the young girl to get back to Kansas.
In The King’s Speech, Bertie finally manages to get control of his lifelong stutter through the guidance of his Mentor: Lionel Logue.
We tend to look at stories as linear process unfolding from Beginning to End. That’s natural because that’s how we experience the story-engagement process. But what if we were to invert the paradigm and begin at the ending? How does the Protagonist’s psychological journey resolve? Which character(s) provides intellectual insight, knowledge, and assistance to facilitate the Protagonist’s transformation?
That’s largely the Mentor’s role. And if the Mentor is such a key figure in the Protagonist’s metamorphosis, then there is a kind of inevitability that it is this Mentor who intersects with this Protagonist.
We can even go one step further: That everything in the Protagonist’s life leading up to FADE IN has prepared them for this specific Mentor.
A few years back, one of my students said something which resonated with me: “When the student is ready, the teacher arrives.”
Think of Daniel in The Karate Kid where he is psychologically and emotionally at the beginning of the story: upended by his recent move, on the defensive from school bullies, wanting to impress a girl. Who does he meet? Miyagi, a Mentor who not only teaches Daniel karate, he also schools the boy in some key lessons about life.
Consider Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs where she is psychologically and emotionally at the beginning of the story: haunted by nightmares of crying lambs, unresolved emotions about her father’s death, a deep-seated instinct to do law enforcement and catch some “bad guys”. Who does she meet? Hannibal Lecter, a Mentor who is perfectly aligned to steer Clarice into her own psyche as part of her personal transformation.
Consider Baxter in The Apartment where he is psychologically and emotionally at the beginning of the story: caught up in a desire for a business promotion, willingly giving up his apartment for his overlord’s sexual trysts. Who does he meet? Dr. Dreyfus, a Mentor who provides the key piece of advice — “Be a mensch” — which helps steer Baxter away from a soulless and morally bankrupt life as a corporate stooge.
In each of these cases, the Mentor plays a pivotal role in the Protagonist’s physical and psychological journey. However, none would have had the influence they did if it weren’t for the fact the Protagonist had come to a place where they are ready to receive the Mentor’s particular wisdom.
One of my favorite questions to ask during the early stages of the story-crafting process is this: Why does this story have to happen to this Protagonist at this time? It’s what I call the Narrative Imperative.
Fate has led the Protagonist to the very moment before FADE IN. It’s now the Protagonist needs to start their journey, it’s now we choose to begin the saga. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. Now! The student is ready!
And when the student is ready… the teacher arrives.
Takeaway: When you identify a character who could play a Mentor role, consider why THAT character is the IDEAL character to provide wisdom to the Protagonist during their journey. And why the circumstances of the Protagonist’s life have led them to a place where they are ready to receive the wisdom and guidance of that specific Mentor figure.