Even a comic or very flawed character can serve as a mentor and often does. If you think of Shakespeare, often in the comedies it is one of the comic characters who gives the hero the best advice. Because those comic characters have nothing to lose and can say whatever they want. And think about a story like Rain Man where Dustin Hoffman's character (who is autistic) still gives his brother the best advice about how to live his life.
But a mentor doesn't have to be a person who gives advice - maybe the hero already knows what to do but needs someone to encourage them along the right path. Think of a lot of war stories where the old sargeant gives the recruits encouragement, or the senior nurse who gives the nursing students encouragement.
Now of course the mentor doesn't have to be autistic or a comic character, but for me the mentor is often a character I can have fun with. Yes, they give advice - in The Sunshine Coast News the best advice about love is given by an 80 year old woman who's been engaged 29 times and never married. She's funny and she's smart. But the advice given by a mentor doesn't have to be obvious - it can be as simple as someone saying the right thing at the right time.
A mentor doesn't have to be smart, doesn't have to be insightful, doesn't have to be anything at all - all they have to do is speak the right words, the words that the hero is going to remember when he or she needs them. It can be as simple as saying take the next left or as complex as follow your heart and not your head.
A mentor doesn't have to be part of the present action of the book, either. A mentor can be a parent or grandparent or teacher who said something a long time ago that resonates in the present - what if your teacher once said to you never give up and you're in a situation that feels impossible, but just when you're ready to give up you remember her saying those words to you when you couldn't climb to the top of the monkey bars?
Mentors take all shapes and forms. I don't think there's anything or anyone that can't be a mentor. I can think of stories or movies where a mentor is:
- an alien
- a dog
- a lover
- a hated enemy
- a book
- a quote from a dead guy in a matchbook
- any kind of relative
- a sacred text
- an autistic child
- a dying man
- a witch
- a cowardly lion, a tin man, a scarecrow, a wizard
Well, you get the picture. But mentors are crucial - because none of us can do it alone. All of us need advice and encouragement at one time or another. I think that's why we love mentors in stories - we listen to their advice and we think, now maybe that's going to work for me as well. It's another way to bring the reader into the story, another way to make the reader empathize with the hero. If the hero needs help, then I can't be wrong when I need help.