Writing Men: Mentors (Pt 2)

Welcome back to Writing Men’s first two part section! Not familiar with Writing Men? A complete list of articles from the beginning until now can be found on this page. We’re talking about mentors and the mentoring relationship, starting last week with the general appeal of mentorship to men and continuing now with what mentoring might add to a story.

Mentoring can add one of three things to a story. A mentor can serve as an instigating party, as a source of character development or as a source of conflict. The truly ambitious will use it as a source for all three characteristics! The great flexibility of the mentoring relationship makes it incredibly useful from a writing perspective, meaning you probably see it turn up more often in fiction than it does in real life. So what are some ways you, an author, can use mentoring to develop the men in your story?

Inciting Incident – A way of starting the action off.

  • Mentors are in the business of testing their pupils to see what they’re capable of. Mentors can incite action in a story by setting a new goal or test your characters need to tackle. This can be a reasonable goal that excites your character or a fantastic one that intimidates him.
  • A character and his mentor can suffer a breach of trust, leading either character – or both! – to try and repair the relationship and return to a mutually beneficial mentorship.
  • If your primary character is a mentor he might be looking for some item necessary for the next stage of training and get sucked into an adventure looking for it.
  • The possibility of the student leaving his current mentor for a new one, whether of his own free will or because of the interference of family or circumstance, can result in all kinds of hijinks.
  • Finally, the death of one half of a mentorship – whether it’s the student or the mentor – is such a common inciting incident it’s become a cliché.

Some of these events could happen in other relationships, family for example, but the mentorship combines them all and allows you to employ them in just about any order as a part of a longer running story. This continuity is the perfect set up for the second thing mentors bring to your story, namely character development.

Character Development – Growth is Part of the Deal

  • Let’s start off with the easy stuff. Mentors are tasked with making their students grow. Cooking up tests that will stretch them in new ways and make them confront weaknesses is part and parcel of what mentors do. This is one of the most basic ways to bring character development out of a mentoring relationship.
  • A student might come to realize that the thing he’s been studying so long, be it medicine or music, sports or combat, may not be a good fit for him. Just as directing growth in his field of specialty is the mentor’s responsibility, so too is pointing out when his field is a poor fit for his students. The mentor helping a disciple reach peace with the limits of his abilities or realize that the student’s priorities have changed is another way mentorship helps character growth.
  • Of course, mentors don’t have a perfect grasp on their discipline either, just a much better one than their students. Sometimes the tables turn and students teach their mentor a lesson or two. This kind of character growth can also apply to areas outside the mentor’s specialty to give it a little more flavor.
  • Finally, most mentors and students eventually go their own way. The mentor has taught all he can and it’s time for the student to strike out on his own, with all the challenges and uncertainties that go along with that.
  • As an extension of the previous point, sometimes the mentor will arrange for former students to take on students of their own immediately, swiftly transforming disciple to teacher, a great kind of character growth to illustrate.

Mentorship brings a unique dynamic to character conflict. Unlike parents and children the mentor is generally someone the student chooses to entrust his own goals and desires to by asking for their instruction. While a man has no choice in his parents he does usually choose his mentor, or at least choose to trust him. While a romantic relationship or a friendship is one you enter of your own free will, both parties in it are equals. The obedience of the student and the responsibility of the mentor is not as significant a factor in either friendship or romance. These overtones shift conflict in the mentoring relationship in new directions.

Conflict – Mentor vs. Student, Student vs. Mentor, or one or both vs. All

  • Mentors and students most often conflict over how well the understudy is progressing. You can see this in a thousand and one stories about this relationship, most frequently in sports oriented stories. It’s also the one that’s most likely to occur in real life. This is usually an outgrowth of the competitive, testing nature of a male character and their desire to be capable of new things. This desire often skews the perspective of the student and avoiding it is one of the major reason to have a mentor. Not that men always pay attention to this.
  • Mentor and student can also disagree on the student’s end goals. Men are objective driven but that doesn’t mean their desires never change or just get reprioritized. A student may be trying to balance priorities when he needs to sacrifice one of them and the mentor should be the one that forces the issue.
  • On the other side of the coin, the mentor may have developed a skewed idea of what his discipline means. Usually this takes the shape of prioritizing advancing whatever field of study the mentor specializes in over moral behavior. In this case it may fall to the student to try and push his mentor back onto the right path – a challenge that will result in character growth for both mentor and student.
  • Finally, the as noted above, the understudy may just not feel the subject he joined his mentor to learn is valuable any more and his desire to change disciplines – and most likely mentors in the process – is a great source of character conflict.
  • Of course the student who strays from the path of righteousness is a common trope in storytelling as well, and can be done with just about any field of study with a little work. This is a good chance for delving deeper into the mentor character. Will he choose to compartmentalize, and say that the student has moved beyond his authority? Or will he see it as a test of himself as a mentor who needs to put his disciple back on the right path? Or perhaps we’ll discover that it’s an axiom of his that the mentor is responsible for all things about the student and he will just have to sacrifice whatever is necessary to improve his student, including his own sense of right and wrong.
  • Not all students are entirely free to choose their own mentors. In fact parents are often the major player in these decisions. If parents or other forces try to separate mentor and student then we might see a new dimension to both characters as they cooperate to show that they are, in fact, benefiting each other more than any other force could. On the other hand, parents may force an understudy to accept a mentor he does not like.
  • There’s the classic cliché of a mentor (or student) being killed and that provoking a quest for vengeance. Pretty much any relationship can spark this but loosing your mentor seems to be one of the most common, right after loosing your parents. For whatever reason it’s even more common than a character loosing their spouse!
  • Finally, as mentioned under character development, the mentoring relationship does eventually come to an end most of the time. Goals are reached or priorities change. But sometimes characters aren’t ready for that. Getting either mentor or student, or both, to accept that can be a battle in and of itself.

Whew! So there you have it. Mentoring – a relationship with deeply male overtones, brought forth from the male thought pattern and an excellent avenues for developing characters and growing stories. Put it to all the use you can!

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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!