Wise Guys

Way back in March of 2012, a friend of mine posted about Wise Guys— the old man who accompanies the hero on his journey and provides justifiable infodumps.  She makes good points: this guy is overused, he is most common in the fantasy genre, and you should probably avoid him if you value your originality.  I agree… to a point.

Most fantasy books are milieu stories.  Since the author has spent so long creating this world for her characters to live in, she can’t help but write about it all.  Placing plot points in exotic locations, she gives a tour to the reader.  Unfortunately, if the main character knows all about everything already, she can’t make him curious enough to give the reader the necessary information.  The character would just brush off all explanations, knowing it already.  Instead, the main character is someone new to this world, often with approximately the same grounding in reality as the reader.

Since the main character is new to the world, just as the reader is, they need someone to explain the world to them.  Why does this place lack technology?  What’s the history?  Why do all the short people have hairy feet?

Thus Gandalf was born.  Thus Obi-Wan Kenobi was born.  Thus a trope was born.

Nowadays, everyone uses this.  Going from a familiar world to a strange one, the clueless main character needs a guide, so they get their own personalized Gandalf.  But because everyone does this, it’s labeled as unoriginal, cliched, unwanted.

These people are talking themselves out of success.

This cliche has only survived because it works.  It works too well, which is why it’s a cliche.  But it being a cliche is no reason to write it off altogether.  This thing works, whether you like it or not.  It’s better than infodumping.  It’s better than nothing.  And since this guy usually saves the main character once or twice during the stages of his training, he’s almost necessary if you want to keep up a realistic try-fail cycle without letting the character die before he succeeds.  However, you do not want to dress this guy in grey or brown robes and give him a long, white beard.  That would be considered more cliche and unoriginal than the character himself.  Instead, look at what the character does for the story and try to fit that into another, more interesting character.

For instance, Gandalf.  Gandalf is the original wise mentor, but he is forever disappearing to mess with other events all over Middle Earth.  He doesn’t have only one role (like, say, Obi-Wan, or Brom).  However, his main role is that of Frodo’s informant and protector.

Usually, these mentors are old.  Try throwing a young one in there instead.  Perhaps you could give purpose to your love interest by making him/her the informant (Annabeth Chase).  The best friend is an interesting version (Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger).

Usually, these mentors are single people.  Give the job to two or more people (Ron and Hermione again).

Usually, these mentors like the main character.  Make this guy antagonistic.  (That’s what I’m going to do in Fathoming Egression.)

I think I’ve made my point.  Sure, the wise guy is overused and cliche by now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use him.

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44 thoughts on “Wise Guys

  1. Ooh! Antagonistic mentor? I like it!
    My wise guy is probably Drake’s cousin Rosie (who is younger than him, but only by minutes).

      1. *smiles and scoffs at charrie’s expensense* Yeah. Rosie is quite the know-it-all.

  2. Good point, Liam. Just because it’s cliched doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t work or you shouldn’t use it–just to be cautious. 🙂

    1. Actually, I think my “mentor” is probably the antagonist, as well. Although later on she ends up being the best friend, so…I don’t know if that counts as either, both, or neither.

      1. However he doesn’t seem to be much of a help. Douglas Adams could have provided an eager, loving companion. Alas, that would have made for a very boring book.

      2. I never said Ford was better than Marvin. I just said Ford was much better as he was than as he could have been according to your and my theories. Marvin was great.

      3. What you said.
        When I said, “You’re argument is invalid”, I only meant that any further argument you had formulated based on my declaration of Marvin’s superiority was invalid.

  3. Wow. I had forgotten about that post. I had assumed everyone else had as well.

    I like the idea of the mentor being antagonistic, though it sounds like everyone else does too. And if we all start using the same idea, then originality dies. That’s the way it works, unfortunately…

  4. Liam, I’ve been sent here to ask you what a plot bunny is….. Seana told me to ask you 😛
    Whatever they are, they sound fuzzy…..

      1. Oh, no! Don’t regret it, dear. Have some popcorn. Just know that plot bunnies… well, I’ll let Liam explain it whenever he shows up again.

      2. Plot bunnies are ideas for different plots from the ones you’re writing. You’re writing, building up a good head of steam, and suddenly an idea pops up for a story about this other concept in the corner. It’s horrible. Technically, Seana used the term incorrectly– plot bunnies are a plague to the writer, not a technique for making twists during mysteries.

      3. Worse yet… they don’t always amount to anything. Only occasionally are they fuzzy.

      4. So…. they’re not cute and fuzzy little things….. THEY’RE HORRIBLE MONSTERS! Thanks for the popcorn Robyn 🙂

      5. Indeed. Just imagine… you’re writing a story about a dragon… and suddenly you are inspired to write another story entirely about a robot. So you get excited about the robot, then get a new notebook and start writing… nothing. The plot bunny hopped away, not even leaving you an inkling.

      6. Apologies for my bad usage of the word…

        I applaud you for referencing HP twice in your post. Reading this post, I thought immediately of Halt, from the Ranger’s Apprentice. He was a wise guy. I liked him.

  5. What about a wise guy fake-out??? You make the reader believe that this mentor is trying to help the main character the whole time and BOOM. evilness and crushed dreams.

      1. I think it could work, but to please this particular reader, it would be nice if the book/series still ended on a happy note. Maybe he doesn’t get what he started out wanting, but he gets something better.

      2. I don’t think we were talking about at the end of a book or series. Brandon Mull often sets up a mentor who teaches them a few things, then turns out to be a traitor– but it’s never right at the end of a book.

  6. I have to admit, when I saw the title, I expected something sarcastic. *sigh* Oh well.

    Exotic locations? The first half of my fantasy novel takes place in the boring desert. Hardly exotic. Then again, I’m showing off other “exotic” things instead….

    How about something like the informant in my novel? He’s fourteen, has a bit of a sense of humor, and a few times, he doesn’t know enough to inform the reader, just acknowledge the question. Kinda telling the reader, “I know you have this question, and I [the author] have an answer, but you can’t know it yet.” So I guess he’s not really a “wise guy” at all….

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