Writing Mentor Relationships in YA Fiction

As an author of contemporary Young Adult fiction, I love writing mentor relationships. But they’re also among the most challenging relationships to write.

Prompt #7 of the DIYMFA Book Club asks participants to discuss their favorite supporting character archetype, so let’s dive right in and discuss how and why to write mentors.

Stock photo of a mentor helping a teenager

Obviously, any fictional story has to focus on the protagonist and not on anyone else in his or her world. For young adult stories, there’s the added question of what role, if any, do parents and other adults play in the story.

Strong young adult stories have young adults at the center of their world, but that doesn’t mean the protagonist can’t have any positive interactions with adults in their lives!

It’s not realistic, for one thing. Most teens come into contact with teachers, sports coaches, and the like on a regular basis, and just because young adults are separating themselves from their parents and families doesn’t mean that they have no relationship with them or that they never spend time together.

One of the reasons I love adding mentors in young adult fiction is because I strongly believe that independence doesn’t mean not needing help, and I love writing strong characters who aren’t afraid to ask for it. I also think that many teenagers who are reluctant to turn to their own parents for help have no problem turning to a teacher or a friend’s parent if they need to talk, and I like to incorporate this element into my stories to add to the realism.

Mentors are NOT Fixers…

…but sometimes they don’t know that.

SOME mentor characters (especially anxious parents!) get too involved. They want to save the protagonist from making serious mistakes and end up becoming antagonists. Click To Tweet

If an overly-helpful mentor character tries to do that, it can be a rich source of conflict for your protagonist, as long as he or she doesn’t let them get away with it!

Mentors Provide a Mirror for the Protagonist

Good mentors challenge the protagonist to see herself or her problem differently and to grow and change. Ideally, the mentor character will respect the protagonist enough to give them space to make their own decisions — even stupid ones.

This balancing act is what makes writing mentors so much fun! A well-written mentor adds something irreplacable to the story and positively influence’s the protagonist’s growth without taking over. When I feel like I was the one who grew and changed through writing a mentor/mentee scene, I know I've done it right. Click To Tweet

Making Mentors Interesting

There’s lots of ways to write mentors, but for me it’s a lot of fun to make mentorship as un-smooth as possible. When done well, the mentor/protagonist relationship can be a source of numerous conflicts and subplots.

  • The reluctant mentee. A protagonist who is uncomfortable with the idea of mentorship yet aware that the mentor is trying to help and that s/he really needs it yields all sorts of rich material, especially if the mentor tries too hard to get the protagonist’s trust and succeeds only in irritating him/her just when they need help the most.
  • Advice that falls on deaf ears. Just because the mentor is older and (presumably) wiser doesn’t mean the protagonist is going to listen. Protagonists can get themselves into all sorts of trouble by refusing to listen to good advice, sending a story in directions it would never have gone in otherwise!
  • Flawed mentors. Some mentors are busy trying to heal their own pain by guiding the protagonist through a similar situation and manage to make the problem worse instead of better despite their good intentions. (See also, the previous discussion about overly helpful mentors.)
  • Betrayal by a mentor. Depending on the type of story you’re writing, a mentor might betray a protagonist for what seems to him to be good reasons or have an ulterior motive that the protagonist wasn’t aware of. Either way, being betrayed by someone they trusted is a strong recipe for compelling drama.

Do you include mentors in the tapestry of your young adult fiction? Share what you like about writing these types of characters or your tips for developing them in the comments!

About Jack A. Ori

Jack A. Ori is a transgender and biromantic life coach and author whose mission is to empower young adults through stories to live life on their own terms. He is currently working on Reinventing Hannah, a novel about a 16-year-old girl who is determined to reinvent herself following being raped at the kind of party no one expected her to go to.  Subscribe to his newsletter for stories and news you can use to help you rewrite the next chapter of your life (or your book!)

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