How to write Mentor/Mentee tropes

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So here's a mindblower: There is a flaw in Mulan.

*everyone gasps, including myself*

I just saw this little cartoon at http://robothugscomic.tumblr.com/post/98806035638/new-comic-yeah-i-might-have-watched-a-movie-and (linked to in the EXTERNAL LINK! Definitely look at it to get the most out of his how-to.)

The cartoon shines a spotlight on a trope I didn't realize existed: "The message is, for guys, no matter how incompetent, unremarkable, average, motivationless, or mediocre they are, life will still find a way to place them (magically if necessary!) into a totally undeserved position of physical and mental superiority over women!"

It's actually true. Look at The Matrix (Noooo! This is my favorite movie... *cries tears of lamentation*), Avatar, Eragon, Pendragon--nearly every story where the male lead has a female mentor. He always surpasses her in a fraction of the time it took her to learn her skills, and he goes to be the main hero and save the day. Even Star Wars! (*cries harder*) Luke stopped Vader when the entire Jedi council, including Master YODA, couldn't. That doesn't include the female mentor aspect of this trope, but it still includes the mentee being unnaturally better at the skill than the person they learned it from.

So there are two issues with this trope:
1. The male becomes the hero and is simply supported by his female mentor. This is male superiority.

2. The character who has zero skill surpasses his mentor, who's been training for YEARS, in just a few months or even a few weeks or DAYS.

Mulan commits #2, only the gender roles are switched. (And because the gender roles are switched, it doesn't really commit #1 since it's not being sexist against females). With #2, Mulan is able to beat Shang in a fight after a single training montage. He's been fighting and training for YEARS, and Mulan comes along, having never hit anything in her life, and after a little training, she beats him in every part of their training.

You can attribute this to hard work and talent, but this trope happens so often that it's advisable to avoid it.

In The Matrix, Neo is "trained", or at least recruited, by Trinity, and he quickly becomes a much better fighter than her and is better able to control the Matrix.

In Avatar, Jake gets mentored by Neytiri, but he ends up controlling that legendary bird thing and saving everyone.

In Eragon, he's mentored by Arya and saves the world instead of her.

Bobby Pendragon surpasses his female mentor as well to save the known universe.

So I'm not telling you that you absolutely can't have this plotline happen in your story. But just be aware that this trope exists so you can hopefully make your story a little more realistic and less sexist. (You can be sexist against men as well, remember! It's not just sexism against women that's a problem!)

Here are a few ideas of how you can tweak this trope so it is realistic and not gender biased:

1. Have a really good reason the ignorant mentee can surpass his/her mentor in a fraction of the time it took the mentor to learn whatever skill(s) they're teaching.

2. Don't have the mentee surpass the mentor at all, but make sure there's a really good reason why the mentee is the one who saves the day instead of the more competent mentor.

3. Maybe the mentor ISN'T competent. Maybe they're emotionally compromised or mentally unstable, so even though they're the better fighter, the mentee is able to keep his/her wits at a crucial moment. Maybe the mentor is physically unable to perform the task--for example, they got their arm or leg chopped off, or they used up all their magic.

4. Or the mentor dies. But that's actually a very common plotline, and somewhat of a author copout, the easy way to justify the mentee being the savior. Try to be more creative than simply killing off the mentor when convenient.

5. Another thing you can do is to make it happen both ways. Both the mentor and mentee learn something important from each other, and both may be skills necessary to achieve their goal(s).

Hopefully this opens your eyes to a lesser-known trope! Any other books or movies you can think of that follow this trope? Got other ways to get around this trope? Share in the comments!


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