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Do You Need a "Gandalf" for Your Historical Novel?

Updated: Sep 28, 2022

Back to using the classic book, The Lord of the Rings, to teach lessons in writing, and this time we are tackling the subject of having a mentor character in your book. As stated before, sometimes history dictates the details as a historical fiction author... but not always. Having a “mentor” character is your opportunity to stretch your fiction writing wings. Without a doubt, Gandalf plays an incredible role as a mentor character in that classic book and one that stays with us long after we read the book or watch the movie.

Face it, this is easier said than done, not just with a mentor character but with all of our characters. With a little elbow grease and determination, crafting this sort of character is possible and maybe the catalyst to take your book to the next level.

As always, you need to truthfully answer if having a mentor character in your book is even necessary. All characters should serve a purpose... no one should be a throwaway, especially if you are going to rest a heavy load on this character's shoulders. Ask yourself, what is your intention in including this sort of character? This is first and foremost since this type of character serves a specific purpose – that of emotional support, mental, and sometimes physical preparation to help the protagonist reach their goal. Gandalf provides all of the above for Frodo, and I'm sure that you can dive deep into your memory and recall other historical characters who play this role.

Oftentimes, in order to answer this question, you need to make sure you know your protagonist well. Does the protagonist even need this? Can they reach their goal without this help? If not, it is possible that you can insert a mentor character to help your protagonist reach their character arc, as well as help the story move along.

But, here is a caveat, it is not enough just to insert this type of character into the storyline. You MUST, as with all of your characters, know them well enough so your reader will connect with them on a deep level. My recommendation, as before, is to have a character journal or notebook with dividers with each section for each character. This means that they need a life apart from the protagonist. Don't make a mentor's world dependent on the protagonist otherwise, the mentor will never fully flesh out, thus your reader will forget them quickly. Tolkien managed to tell an entire history of Gandalf from his early days as a Maia to his transformation into the White Wizard, and he did this without taking anything away from Frodo's journey (or even Bilbo's journey in The Hobbit). Gandalf had a purpose, and this is key when crafting a memorable mentor character. In other words, don't put in a mentor character just to fill in space or as a sounding board for your main character. Readers have a knack for recognizing fluff and will close the book, toot sweet!

Here are a few purposeful roles your mentor can play:

  1. The sacrificial lamb.

  2. The role model.

  3. The guide.

  4. The wise voice.

  5. The hero.

  6. The teacher.

  7. The disciplinarian.

  8. The booster.

The brilliance of Tolkien's Gandalf is that he served every single one of these roles for Frodo, thus the reason his character is so beloved and memorable in the narrative. He sacrificed himself when fighting the Balrog, giving Frodo a chance to escape; he provided an incredible role model for Frodo, one of determination and loyalty; he guided Frodo mentally, spiritually, and physically; his wise voice connected Frodo to him in quite a profound way and his voice was always in Frodo's ear; in so many ways, he was a hero in his own right in the narrative, all of which added to Frodo's journey while not taking away from it; he definitely taught Frodo many things, helping his character development in a very mature way; AND his disciplinary voice (especially to Bilbo) helped the characters adjust their course of life or mind, and he provided the needed encouragement for Frodo to complete his own hero's journey.

Make your mentor's character irreplaceable. If you can take them out of the story without any consequence, then they truly serve no purpose in helping the protagonist or moving the story forward. Chuck them! While it is the ultimate to create a character like Gandalf, not every story requires a mentor character to fulfill every single aspect, especially in historical fiction. You must have a clear intention as to your mentor character's purpose, otherwise, it is best just to remove or not develop one at all.


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Dee Marley



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