Writing Men: Mentors (Pt. 1)

Welcome back to Writing Men, where we talk about the art of writing male characters and what about them makes them particularly masculine. You can find the complete archive of Writing Men pieces here. If you’re not familiar with this segment I’d recommend starting from the beginning, everything kind of builds on itself here.

We’ve reached the point of talking about what kinds of behaviors the male mindset creates and today it’s time to talk about mentorship – from the side of the mentor and that of his understudy or student.

Now I know that, like with everything we’ve talked about in this section, the mentoring relationship is not exclusive to men. But, far moreso than just about anything else we’ve talked about so far, it’s a distinctively masculine endeavor. I’ve meat far fewer women in my life who could point to a female mentor figure than I could men and those that could almost exclusively pointed at their mother (or this one lady I know who has an enormous gift for it). Some women have male mentor figures but I can’t think of any men who have female mentors – I’m sure they exist but I don’t know any personally.

This topic is really very big so I’m going to divide it into two parts, the first today and the next coming next Friday. Today, let’s take a look at exactly what part of a man’s mental process makes mentorship attractive on both sides of the relationship.

Mentorships are curious things. On the one hand, students are placing a large portion of their future in the hands of their mentor, taking an awful risk that he will be fair, even handed and value the same things that the student does. On the other hand mentors give up a huge chunk of their time and freedom to their understudies, making themselves available to teach the other and revealing secrets about their successes and failures that might not be valued the way the mentor thinks they should. All in all, a very risky relationship. Why bother with it?

For the understudy seeking a mentor there are a lot of things about the relationship that are appealing. First, mentors are almost always people who have achieved the objective – or at least the understudy sees them as someone who’s reached it.

Furthermore, the mentor provides axioms readymade. While each person is different and most of the lessons the understudy learns will require some adjustment to apply fully to the student, having a mentor provides the understudy with a very solid set of basic principles to draw on when trying to reach his objective. To go with the axioms, the mentor also provides tests.

Mentors are like built in competition – not that the understudy expects to be his mentor’s equal any time soon. In fact, some understudies spend their whole life trying to equal their mentor, using him as a standard to strive for that they will never live up to. However mentors are not passive in this, frequently presenting their understudies with difficult challenges that will test their understudy to the point of failure. In fact, in the eyes of many mentors tests are better when they are failed than when the student succeeds, as it shows more about their weaknesses and how they might be improved upon.

These failures help the student examine the axioms they are learning and integrate them into the way they look at the world. The mentor frequently pushes the process along with hard questions and forceful demonstrations (in the best cases) or verbal and physical reprimands (in less ideal mentorships).

(An aside: While I’m far from an expert on women, a part of me has always suspected that this rather hostile approach to testing and “encouragement” is a big part of why women in mentoring relationships are so rare. At the same time, being male, I can’t really see a way around this component of it, either… A big part of testing is to push things to the breaking point and that’s not always comfortable. On the other hand, men frequently won’t entirely trust the things they’ve learned until they’ve gone all the way up to that breaking point.)

Finally, a mentorship is a small relationship, just two people in ideal cases. This lets it start as a very compartmentalized relationship, making it easy to manage. At least at first, if it lasts long enough the mentor expands in the students mind until his territory becomes advice on all topics. But the fact that it starts so easy to deal with is what makes it so likely to grow.

The mentor gets a lot out of this relationship as well. The first and most obvious is the emotional fulfillment of the relationship and the act of teaching. Mentoring is a very fulfilling relationship for most people, much like parenting or teaching, and it has a lot of joy and happiness to offer just from seeing someone who is growing and benefiting from being around you and hearing what you have to say. Not everyone will like doing it and not everyone is suited to doing it well but it can be a very positive experience in and of itself.

But on top of that it appeals to men in particular as a way to fulfill those goals that they themselves will not be able to accomplish. This can be both good and bad, offering student and mentor a goal to bond over or resulting in the mentor completely ignoring his student’s wishes and pushing them in directions they don’t wish to go. Regardless of whether it is good or bad it is a very masculine thing and something that frequently draws men to the position of mentor.

Finally it offers the mentor perpetuity. Rather than just having their skills or knowledge endure for a short time a mentor passes things along and builds a legacy that joins mentor and student together into a greater whole. Good mentors tend to beget good mentors, who are then equipped to pass these skills down again and again ad infinitum, allowing the mentor’s influence to continue as long as possible. This not only draws men to the role of mentor but prompts them to do everything they can to be good mentors.

Both sides of the mentor and student relationship have a lot to offer to the male thought process, in fact mentoring as a relationship seems to have been built by men for men. So it’s no surprise that using it is a powerful tool for developing male characters. How do you go about using it when you write? Well tune in next week and we’ll talk about it some!

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