If you don’t have to convince The Chosen One who just wants to be normal to grow a spine and accept the Call to Adventure, you have to convince your blindly excited and dangerously eager young pupil that You Are Not Ready to learn the Dangerous Forbidden Technique. When you try to protect The Hero from the Awful Truth, you end up facing their Rage Against the Mentor. You have to maintain an ongoing conspiracy to keep The Hero Locked Out of the Loop. If they’re an orphan, you have to find them a set of Muggle Foster Parents while keeping social services in the dark. You have to endure accusations of insanity when you’re trying to teach your charge that Your Eyes Can Deceive You, give them advice on how to tell a love interest “It’s Not You, It’s My Enemies,” and keep a close eye on them 24/7.
And what is your reward for all this patience and effort?
And that right there is the heart of the matter: mentors tend to die. And stay dead. Even if they do figure later in the story, they tend to be spirit advisors from the other side with little or no chance of coming back from the grave–even if everyone else does.
So why does this happen?
The most obvious reason is that if the mentor and the hero are both working toward the same goal, the mentor cannot overshadow the hero–otherwise, why not forget the hero and send the mentor off to save the world? The hero may start off weak, which is why he needs the mentor in the first place, but at some point in the growth arc, he’s going to have to stand on his own two feet. Oftentimes, the most poignant (and convenient) way to mark that transition is to knock the mentor off.
That doesn’t explain everything, though. If the only reason for killing the mentor is to give the hero a growth arc, you can accomplish that just as well by putting him on a bus. So why does he have to die?
Lots of reasons! Character growth, increasing tension, making the story more meaningful–the list goes on and on. For an in-depth discussion on killing off characters, I’d recommend checking out this last week’s episode of Writing Excuses. My own personal take is that everyone dies eventually–even the immortal characters have to pass through some sort of transition from this world to the next–so the best thing I can do for a character isn’t to keep them alive, but to make their lives and their deaths actually mean something.
It’s also worth pointing out that in most stories, the mentor isn’t actually fighting against the big bad, but the dragon–the big bad’s lancer. Again, the main reason for this is to keep him from overshadowing the hero. But the dragon is a character in his own right, with his own agenda that may run counter to his boss–think Darth Vader from Star Wars. And in a lot of stories, the dragon actually tries to tempt the hero to come around and join him.
Perhaps that’s another reason why mentors often die–if they didn’t, then the bad guys wouldn’t ever be able to dissuade the hero through temptation. The hero would be so protected that he’d never have the opportunity to switch sides, or at least he’d never have to face any moral ambiguity because of the guardian mentor constantly guiding him.
So those are some of the reasons why mentors tend to have a short life expectancy. Can you think of any good ones?