With Writer’s Toolbox, we’ll look at the structural and archetypal touchstones stories rely upon again and again to generate drama, for better or worse. Today, we’ll start with a personal favourite: Killing the Mentor.
The Mentor is usually the most heroic character in the beginnings of a story. They’re the ones initially expected to solve whatever crisis the narrative presents. Usually, they’re an older paternal figure, are moral guides (good or bad), and are played by Liam Neeson (see Gangs of New York, Star Wars Ep 1, Kingdom of Heaven, Batman Begins, and countless others)
The Mentor is seldom the protagonist of a story. Their primary task is shepherding a character from flawed, unheralded everyman to mythical, crisis averting hero. Think Obi-Wan and Luke. Morpheus and Neo. Marcus Aureleus and Maximus.
Since the Mentor represents a sort of old lion, passing the torch and fading into the background is an inevitable part of their existence. Almost always, this means being incapacitated in some way that forces their apprentice to man up, overcome their weaknesses, and save the world. At it’s best, THAT means dying. Old Guy trains New Guy. Bad Guy kills Old Guy. New Guy kills Bad Guy. It’s a circle of life sort of thing. Sorry, old guys.
This isn’t reserved just for Heroes’ Journeys, either. This is a universal experience, and a watershed moment in the transition from childhood to adulthood, naive to wiseman. It’s irrevocably coming out from the parent’s shadow, losing the innocence and safety of youth. Consequently, when executed properly, it is an intensely moving and monumental moment in many a good story.
There are literally thousands of examples of this device in writing, and if you think of your favourite movies, you’ll probably stumble across this moment at least a couple times. But I’m going to go recent for this one and talk about Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughan’s Kick-Ass.
Nic Cage plays Big Daddy, a looming, protective presence watching over Kick Ass and Hit Girl. He gets them out of trouble when they’re over their heads, and takes on the missions that are too tough for them. Observe how he saves Hit Girl’s life from a knife-wielding body guard, and decimates Mob Boss D’Amico’s men before they can spring a trap on Kick Ass. Kick Ass says it himself: Big Daddy is the REAL hero.
But like all great mentors, Big Daddy is just too badass to live. When Red Mist expresses fear for his life, Kick Ass’ first instinct is naturally to run and ask for help from Big Daddy. A trap gets sprung (successfully this time) leading to Big Daddy’s demise. The result is absolutely devastating: Hit Girl watches her father, the only comforting presence in her entire life, the only lingering thread of a regular childhood, pass away.
I cried. Even if you didn’t, maybe you did when it was Simba and Mufassa. Or Bambi and his Mother. Or any of a million other times. Either way, it’s almost demeaning to call this sort of moment a device. It’s an essential human experience. And capturing that is what writing’s all about.
-Star Trek (2009