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I'm writing a book series that involves people with various superpowers. One of these characters and is more or less the mentor of the protagonists. This character is the leader of the "good guy" superhuman faction, have a great deal of experience and wisdom (in their eighties, but biologically immortal), and is the most powerful superhuman around in terms of raw power and what they can do. This kind of "OP-ness" is a bit on purpose, part of the mentor character's arc is about how they cope with the power and responsibility that has been placed on them. They aren't a Superman-level flying brick, but they definitely come off as the biggest fish in the pond.

I've always hated mentor characters who seem to exist just to dispense cryptic wisdom and then die. Nothing says "don't get too attached to this character, they're just a side character" than this, and makes the character seem more like a plot device than a three-dimensional character. So part of my goal with this character was to create a dynamic mentor character with their own character flaws and arcs that notably does not die at the end of the story just to elevate the protagonists. However, I've been feeling like the world of my story is very stagnant and constrained in where it can go, and have been concerned that this mentor character might be part of the problem.

I've read that in the typical Campbellian hero's journey that it's necessary to remove any powerful heroic characters from the board by the beginning of the third act and make it so the main characters have to solve the problem by themselves and don't have any parental figures/mentors/greater heroes to rely on to do it for them. Removal of these authority figures basically allows the plot to descend into complete anarchy and removes any familiar sense of safety which increases dramatic tension and the need of the heroes to restore order (typically by them becoming the new authority figures in the traditional Campbellian storyline).

I don't agree with the strict Campbellian interpretation of how stories should go. I agree with the literary importance of removing the mentor character from the picture so that the main characters are forced to solve problems by themselves rather than relying on the mentor character to do everything for them. However, at the same time, outright killing the mentor character simply to raise the stakes and seems like a cheap move to me. Indeed, it seems like killing off mentor characters has become seen as increasingly cliche ever since Obi-Wan Kenobi did it well in Star Wars (to the point that such an act has been called "pulling an Obi-Wan"), and especially so after Dumbledore in Harry Potter.

However, I do kind of feel like the setting becomes overly "safe" after the mentor character is introduced, compared to earlier story arcs where the characters have to fend for themselves and have only themselves to rely on. Nevertheless, I don't want to kill the mentor character off because it doesn't add much emotional pathos to the story beyond that removal of any safety net. Their character arc does not benefit from having them die at the end, and it would basically mean removing one of the most interesting to read characters from the story.

Given this, how to I prevent the mentor character from removing any dramatic tension from the plot without simply killing them off? Some of the potential solutions I've come up with to try and get around the problem are as follows:

  1. The mentor character is not morally perfect, they can make mistakes and have their own flaws and character arcs that run throughout the story and force them to grow. Therefore, their purpose in the narrative is not simply to act as a source of wisdom for the protagonists. My intent was to make the mentor character as much of a main character as the other protagonists.
  2. The mentor character lives on the opposite end of the United States from the main characters (East Coast versus West Coast), and they can only get from one end of the country to the other about as fast as a normal person (read: the time and money it takes to get a plane ticket). As a result they can really only travel to help out the main characters if the situation is outright apocalyptic and even then the characters would have to fend for themselves for some time.
  3. The mentor character is not all-powerful, they have distinct weaknesses that can be exploited and prevent them from insta-solving every problem. One of their biggest weaknesses is that for all their power they are very slow, they have no "travel powers" like flight, super speed, or teleportation that can be used to get them to a site of crisis in a hurry. They're the most powerful, but they aren't Superman. Similarly, they do have a more traditional "Kryptonite-esque" weakness.
  4. The mentor character cannot be everywhere at once, and while they would love to protect the main characters, who they see as surrogate children, they have other responsibilities, namely acting as a liaison with the government to keep them from overreacting every time something goes wrong. In this respect they are treated as the Aragorn to the protagonist's Frodo and Sam. Normally their hands are pretty tied in how much they can do.
  5. There are a couple of events that potentially remove the mentor from the picture either via injury that puts them in critical condition or emotionally compromises them so they cannot act as a mentor or leader.
  6. Not everyone listens to them. They may be respected, but they aren't God, and there are many groups that either disagree with them or are outright antagonistic to them.

However, none of these solutions seem to alleviate the feeling that the setting feels stagnant and small rather than wide-open with potential for drama and adventure, so I feel as though I am not implementing them right.

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    It's weird that you cite Dumbledore as a bad example... he is a very powerful mentor but only dies in the end of the sixth book ! So you have six books to inspire you of how to leave such a character alive without spoiling the story. (He's usually either unavailable, has his hands tied, doesn't know something is happening or voluntarily leaves the hero handle things for them to grow) – Echox Sep 10 at 9:39
  • @Echox Not a bad example, more one that is so well-known that they die before the final act that it has made the trope seem omnipresent and a bit trite to some people, even if Dumbledore made it work. – user2352714 Sep 10 at 13:49
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    I remember several stories where the mentor had other important things to do so he left the heroes on their own with a problem he thought they could manage on their own. Sometimes even reappear in later stories. Why would that not work for you? – Daniel Sep 10 at 15:05
  • I can't speak for @user2352714, but the reason I personally find this an unsatisfying answer is that it puts an upper limit on how big and dramatic the problem your characters are facing is: if the world is ending, the mentor is unlikely to swan off going "oh you can handle this one" (unless there's an even worse apocalypse happening at the same time). For some stories that's fine, but maybe you want the heroes fighting the apocalypse against nearly insurmountable odds feeling. – Tau Sep 10 at 20:52
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    I'd probably try to write my mentor character and the mentee so that they have a sufficiently different ethical framework that you can have the mentee not want help (or vice versa). For a typical example you have: the mentor who is willing to kill his enemies, because he's learned that if you don't, you'll regret it - with the mentee who believes that doing so is still murder. Or the mentor doesn't care about breaking the law, cutting corners etc. (Or reverse these, the mentee follows a 'weaker' ethical code) – Alex Sep 12 at 6:09

19 Answers 19

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Your protagonist is not the only iron the mentor has in the fire

In Avatar, the Last Airbender, Uncle Iroh is a powerful and interesting mentor character (with his own complex arc). He has his role of providing advice for Toph, and maybe a little for Aang - but he's primarily the mentor for the show's first antagonist. He's interested in seeing the Avatar be successful, but he's more interested in seeing success and happiness for his nephew, who thinks he needs to capture the Avatar.

And at the great cataclysmic end, Iroh has a role which completes his own arc, but which takes him in a different direction than either Aang, or his nephew.

In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is the wise mentor character, but besides shepherding hobbits or dwarfs here and there, he's got to manage the affairs of wizards and kingdoms, and is commonly called away for other issues, or temporarily put out of commission by balrogs.

If your world is bigger than your story, your mentor can easily be too busy to always step in and solve your protagonist's problems

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    "temporarily put out of commission by balrogs" - I'd say Gandalf is a prime example of a mentor character who does get killed off, at least for the purpose of the plot. The mortal characters have to learn to continue without him, thinking he's dead and gone for good, and the main protagonist continues to believe he's dead until after the main plotline is completed. – Rand al'Thor Sep 10 at 19:23
  • Even if Gandalf did not die he is not allowed to save the middle earth by himself, only provide guidance. – Maxime Sep 11 at 9:56
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    @Randal'Thor - consider his absence during relevant parts of The Hobbit, though: having something else important that only they can deal with, forcing them to trust the main character(s) to complete their trials by themselves, is a potential approach. – occipita Sep 13 at 5:45
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Three ideas that may serve to make your world a bit harsher:

Your protagonist and their mentor aren't always on the same side

Maybe the mentor's been given incomplete information. Maybe there's a genuine difference of opinions regarding how to handle a morally grey situation. Maybe whatever's going on touches on a past trauma of theirs that they are really not rational about. Or maybe the mentor is a less of a benevolent force than described so far. Whatever the reason, your protagonist and the mentor have different opinions on how to handle the situation, the mentor is proclaiming how disappointed they are in them, the mentor is starting to actively move against them. Oh no! What can the protagonist do?

Your mentor is facing threats on their level... and now the protagonist is facing them too

The mentor might have a nemesis, or have several opposing figures of similar power levels. The protagonist is absolutely not in their weight class, but due to their relationship with the mentor they're getting dragged into the fights anyway. Maybe some of these people are threatening him to get the mentor to do what they want! Whatever the reason, striking up that relationship means your protagonist is suddenly in waaaay over his head.

There's a massive negative change to the mentor's circumstances

Maybe they lose control of the "good guy" faction. They get betrayed, their power gets undermined, their reputation ruined. They become ill in a way that negates their power. This change might be permanent, or maybe it's temporary - but if so the protagonist has to help them fix things, and it's going to be risky.

Your ideas are good, and could easily be combined with the above. The reason I think you're having trouble making them work on their own is that they still leave the mentor as an overall figure representing safety, you're just putting obstacles in the way of them showing up. But the fact that that safety net is there in the background, that your readers know the mentor could deus ex machina save the day at any point, can serve to diffuse the tension if you're not careful. The suggestions above go deeper and mean the mentor can also bring danger to the protagonist. Having the mentor's situation change for the negative also automatically makes the world more dynamic and more dangerous, since it becomes clear this powerful figure isn't safe either.

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  • Read your answer after I posted, some crossover but mine is a little different. +1 – DWKraus Sep 9 at 22:43
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Politics

The countries of the world is scared of Mentor. He has to step very lightly to avoid starting a world war.

Countries other than the US think of him as a nuclear weapon controlled by the US and will retaliate with nukes if he does anything against them.

The US itself think of him as a nuclear weapon they don't control. A potential terrorist.

Sixty years ago he was a naive young idealist and a member of the Communist Party. He himself has distanced himself from any political party for half a century, but the government doesn't forget. Oh no. To them he is still a potential Russian agent.

The less powerful heroes has it easier. They have larger margins for error. They have no embarrassing political entanglements. (In part because Mentor has told them "No Politics!" over and over again)

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    So, Dr. Manhattan – user28434 Sep 10 at 13:48
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Your Mentor is disabled, or Aging, or suffering an identity crisis, or...

You can continue to keep your superhero mentor "in the game," so to speak, but reduce his capacities through whatever means you choose. Professor Xavier has OP abilities, but has suffered disabilities that mean he's not up to being the front-line slugger he otherwise could be. Perhaps in that last battle with Dr. E. Ville he (fill in the blank - picked up an alien virus that renders him emotionally erratic) suffered permanent injury that can't be healed conventionally or unconventionally. He's still alive, like a grandfather, but isn't up to going out and doing the work that must be done. If he tried to, he would risk death in a very real way.

Alzheimer's or a related senility problem adds a risky dimension, as the mentor begins to mistake heroes or even villains for long-dead colleagues. He may reveal things to the hero (thinking the hero is really long-dead Mr. Amazing) that would otherwise be kept hidden. The mentor's team loves and respects him, yet shelters him from the painful realities of his decline.

People have undergone radical personality changes as a result of serious injury, and your mentor may retain the memories of his former self but the meteor that hit him in the head caused him to pathologically steal, or have uncontrollable fits of rage. The superhero team may spend as much time keeping the mentor out of trouble as getting any help from him. If you absolutely need the mentor, he's there. But think of how much of Spider Man's story is tied up with school, work, and Aunt Mae. The storyline of a superhero is BORING if all he does is battle invincible villains.

So the infirmities of you mentor are a golden opportunity to make your characters really three-dimensional in very personal ways people can relate to. Everyone has a grandparent who doesn't want to go the the nursing home, or the cousin with schizophrenia, and that family member that always needs help with something (sometimes because of bad choices, other times just by dumb bad luck).

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    Sounds like the mentor is on death's door. – marcellothearcane Sep 10 at 8:44
  • IMO this is essentially killing them off in all but name. – Omegastick Sep 10 at 14:02
  • @marcellothearcane If you look at Prof. X in every X-Men movie except for the one where they ultimately kill him off, he's generally very competent and in full command of his abilities (even if wheelchair-bound in most of them). So every one of those movies handles him without killing him just fine. Of course his particular ability was never very combat-oriented - as powerful as he is he would never have been much use on the front lines to begin with. – Darrel Hoffman Sep 10 at 17:58
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    @Omegastick Ouch. Tell that to your grandma - or whomever in your family is retired. Older folks and those with disabilities have lots of things to offer society, but raining down thunderbolts might not be one of them anymore. – DWKraus Sep 10 at 20:53
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    @DWKraus - that brings up another option - maybe they do just retire. – IronEagle Sep 11 at 17:48
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They say never meet your hero... As you say the character can be flawed and perhaps these flaws take over. You say he is the leader of a group then there is probably an enemy group with budding ideologies...but maybe the Mentor isn't so different from the opposition as your main character thought.

For example, if the main character were part of a freedom fighters group and after the big bad government is defeated...it turns out that the Mentor doesn't want to return democracy, only change the regime with his own.Turning the mentor in to a surprise antagonist.

He's a prison for a greater enemy. In a world of super powers, one power could be possession. Your mentor character due to his general OPness would be an great target to posses. So perhaps he distances himself or has to limit his own strength (perhaps placing himself in a (temporary) coma at one point) to keep the enemy inside him contained. Because if he fails he will become the greater threat.

You get an apocalypse! and you get an apocalypse! There might be a conflict on multiple fronts and the mentor takes one front while he lets the others take on the other fronts. Seeing he can't move fast like you said it would be logical for him to (nearly) always stand guard on one front.

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One important thing to add amidst all the good answers:

Do not forget to let the mentor solve a few problems to show their power.

While you learn about all the great ways to keep him out of the picture in an organic way, keep up the suspense by having him solve some problems.

If the mentor is always out of the picture, he is alive in name only for the story. He cannot solve the key conflict yes but sometimes he will deal with the biggest gun.

Let him be on his way to solve the fight but slow enough to make your protagonists give their all to keep the fort until he arrives. Let him be a deus-ex-machina once in a while so it is okay to keep him sidelined other times.

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  • I think this is definitely important. If you have a character powerful enough to potentially break your story, you need to give them something to do to establish their power level, otherwise there's no point in having a character that strong in the first place. – F1Krazy Sep 10 at 14:11
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The protagonist outgrows the mentor

The mentor can be great, but it doesn't mean the protagonist cannot become even better. This was the case with Obi Wan and Luke, just that Obi Wan didn't live to see it (but he did see it in the force-ghost form;)

Another example is Morpheus and Neo. In the beginning Morpheus is more experienced and capable than Neo (even though he believes Neo to be the chosen one). When Morpheus is captured Neo rushes to save him, and by the way discovers his own full potential.

Your mentor could be overwhelmed with problems/enemies, simply unable to help your protagonist, but your protagonist to their own surprise fares well on their own. The protagonist doesn't even have to become strictly better than the mentor, or face threats greater than the mentor does. It's enough to just be in the same league.

If you have several main protagonists then the same applies. You can make one of them grow significantly. You can have some of them, or all of them, grow. Or you can have them grow together as a team, which means that they are not that powerful individually, but as a team they are even more powerful than the mentor.

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Have you read Worm yet? Seriously, don't even attempt to write superheroes until you have. Wildbow does have his flaws (a tendency to throw in action sequences without much purpose) but how his characters use their powers is very interesting.

The dynamics between the superheroes in particular is what you're looking for. Many of the characters are seriously OP and their arrival can completely change the outcome of a fight. But that said, they need to be both ready and willing to deploy for the fight. If they're busy elsewhere, or can't get there in time, or simply having some down time, they may not be. One part of Wildbow's "Protectorate" is that like any military, paramilitary or policing structure it has a recognition that there will always be something going wrong somewhere. Teams will rotate in and out with an "on-duty" time, and off-duty people only get called in when things go seriously wrong.

Teams also have some geographic responsibility, for the same reason. In a national or global emergency, teams from elsewhere can certainly be called on. But otherwise, teams tend to police their own city. Similarly, villains maintain their own "turf".

And one reason this works is teamwork. An individual superpowered person may be OP, sure - but can they beat a team of less powerful people working together? Some powers may naturally be more powerful in partnership than individually. For instance, a hero who can throw an object long distances accurately and a hero who produces a forcefield/fire/whatever can combine, the former throwing the latter at a target as a kind of human grenade. Or if there's a hero who can distort space, how they work with a "flying brick" to get them to the target (or to minimise risks from incoming fire) is very relevant. Teams who practise together will naturally learn how to maximise each other's strengths and cover for each other's weaknesses.

Bringing this back to the OP's question about mentors, the team dynamics may make the mentor pretty much irrelevant after a point, because the mentor doesn't know what the team knows.

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Your Mentor Is Not As Powerful As He Once Was

Mentor characters are meant to teach the main character some important skill - that doesn't mean they themselves have to be all that powerful - age wracks us all and forces us into retirement, and a good mentor character can guide the new hero into their role, even when they aren't themselves doing the same work.

Good examples of this include Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond - in this series, Bruce has long ago stopped performing his role as Batman - but the new Batman Terri McGinnis still learns from him how to fulfill that role.

Another example, without the character being old per-se, is in All Might from My Hero Academia - he literally passes on the torch to the new hero, and though he eventually loses his power to fight, continues to act as a mentor pushing the new line of heroes forward, and continues to be an engaging character in his own right.

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I think having a OP mentor is a material for a story that center around character relationship..

Have the mentor being OP, but make the mentor also overly protective, so this way the battle will have no tension because the MC is always being protected by OP Mentor.

But you can build tension between MC and OP Mentor instead, just imagine how would you feel if there is someone in your life that just solve all your problem for you.. so how would MC deal with that feeling and how it affected the relationship between MC and OP Mentor.

That way you could also give an arc to OP Mentor, why is the mentor is so overlyprotective, it is simplely because he is OP or is it because the mentor isnt being protective enough in the past, ask yourself how would you feel and what would you do if you are incharge of someone that you consider as helpless.

So both MC and OP mentor have a lesson to learn and both of them have a character arc.

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The mentor trusts the protagonist

One man cannot take on the world alone, not even this superhuman mentor. They have been training up apprentices to help them out, to stand as additional bastions of goodness against a cruel world. Part of this is allowing them to act on their own.

Oh, the mentor is keeping an eye on things, checking in periodically — and they have a backup plan if things go awry — but, overall, they believe that the protagonist can overcome these trials (maybe even more so than the protagonist themselves does)

The mentor has then deliberately absented themselves from the situation, as an important lesson; this story is when your protagonist moves from being a child (constantly looking to their parent-figure for instruction and reassurance) to being an adult (striking out on their own, without a safety net)

Yes, this currently threat might be the best choice of times to go about it, but when you are as overpowered as the mentor is, you tend to underestimate how much difficulty lesser mortals will experience. And, they are checking in every so often — surely things won't go too off the rails between reports, right?

Eventually — most likely after several books — your protagonist will no longer look up to their mentor as an unattainable titan of strength and wisdom, but stand alongside them as friend, equal and ally.

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Some of the greatest people in history have been brought low by some adversity and been unable to rise back up to previous glory. Crippling depression for the mentor might be the answer for this situation. If you are struggling to get out of bed and shower you may not be a reliable force for good. In a good dramatic story this could be triggered by being manipulated to work against their goals/nature, being elsewhere and losing someone important to them, making a wrong decision and getting a bunch of people hurt/killed, coming to the realization that what they are doing is futile, etc.

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The mentor gave their power to the protagonist. The mentor is old and wants to retire in a time of peace, and transfers his powers to a new hero whenever there's a break between crises.

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The Dresden Files may offer a few solutions (though the protagonist's mentor isn't introduced to the reader until book 4).

The Mentor isn't around

As in the OP, sometimes the mentor just isn't there. They have their own life and pursuits to deal with and don't have time to hold the protagonist's hand. Or the Conflict is acute enough that there isn't enough time for the Mentor to arrive before disaster strikes, so the Protagonist has to go it alone.

The Conflict is local/The Protagonist "should" be able to deal with the Conflict

Maybe the primary conflict the Protagonist is dealing with is local or regional, and the Mentor deals with provincial, national or global problems. Additionally, established professionals delegate tasks. Researchers have post-doc fellows and/or grad students, trial lawyers have associates and paralegals, Generals have Colonels who have Captains who have Lieutenants who have Sergeants. Dealing with problems like the Conflict is why the Mentor bothered training the Protagonist in the first place. Dealing with a problem of this scale is the Protagonist's job.

The Mentor is busy contributing to the plot off-page

The Mentor might be off being the Protagonist of their own story. They might be using all of their power and attention to slow down the BBEGs plan, and the Protagonist needs to go after the Dragon or McGuffin, or they've run off to blunt a feint, and the Protagonist is the only one on the spot to deal with the real threat. The Mentor might also be the Emperor, and needs to stay in the capital to keep the country running, not go haring off on adventures.

The Protagonist has skills/resources/allies the Mentor lacks

The Mentor might be an all around badass, but the Protagonist is just a better fit for this Conflict. This could even be used to generate tension between them, when the Protagonist does things the Mentor can't or the Protagonist beings to realize they've outgrown the Mentor. The Protagonist has contacts and allies who can provide them with vital intelligence or equipment crucial to resolving the Conflict. The Protagonist could have knowledge or skills they didn't gain from the Mentor that allow them to unravel the plot and resolve the Conflict. Maybe there is something innate to the Protagonist the Mentor lacks (like Éowyn) or the Protagonist is innately immune to the BBEG's big power. Inversely, the BBEG has a weapon the Mentor is especially susceptible to, who therefore can't risk a direct confrontation.

Hampered communications

Someone or thing is preventing the Protagonist from contacting the Mentor. It could be the Conflict itself, either by directly cutting off comms or by timing the plot to coincide with a natural blackout. It could also be caused by erstwhile allies who see the Conflict as an opportunity to discredit or dispose of the protagonist (who they never liked/see as a threat).

Political forces

The Conflict concerns a nominally neutral third party who insists the Protagonist alone deal with the problem, either offering substantial rewards (material, logistical or military aid, alliances, knowledge and/or power, etc) for success and/or threatening unacceptable consequences for non-compliance. Alternatively, a third party turns the Conflict into a test for the Protagonist. Failing the test will have dire consequences for the Protagonist and/or Mentor beyond the direct fall out.

Blackmail

The Protagonist is only becoming involved in the Conflict under duress, and is told the leverage will be used if they call for help. Bonus points if the Protagonist is required to violate personal or organizational moral codes/laws in the blackmailer's service, and the Mentor would do (or even does) their best to thwart the Protagonist. Alternatively, the Mentor is the one being blackmailed, either into staying away from the Conflict, or working against the Protagonist. An all-out conflict between a Protagonist and their Mentor can make for wonderful pathos and stakes, especially if one party has to pretend their betrayal is genuine.

Good ol' fashioned arrogance

The Protagonist is confident they are equipped to deal with the problem until its too late for the Mentor to intervene. Either the Conflict was bigger than the Protagonist assumed, or they played right into the BBEG's hands. Alternatively, the Mentor is arrogant, and dismisses the threat when alerted by the Protagonist.

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You have many options for why your mentor could not act instead of the main progaonist.

They are mentoring

Ultimate risk to the univerise is not so bad that if the protagonist fails it is a big enough deal that it is not worth the reward of developing the protagonist. Like a good manager of a big company they know that delegationw will grow the capacity of the team and that people have to learn.

They are testing

Rites of passage or simply to see if the protagonist is up to it this might be some level of test, similar to the mentoring above. Maybe if your mentor is a little indifferent to the protagonist or to those that will suffer if they fail it adds a new angle. Mentor is so powerful they loose some of their humanity and are now in it to find worthy super heros and develop them rather than in it to "do good" for humanity.

They are busy

They cannot be everywhere all the time. There is some special task only they can take care of. Some hidden text they must reasurch elswhere. Obviously the bad guys choose to turn up while the mentors back is turned. Or maybe they are off fighting unimaginable levels of terror elswhere that would vapourise the protagonist.

Think Gandulf off to read about the ring leaving the fellowship for a while or Dumbledoor being off doing whatever.

They are an influencer only

Some accord has been struck between the various mentorer level powers in the past to keep the universe from being destroyed or to maintain "the balance" or whatever. They have agreed to certain restructions on what they can all do and this is policed by some big bad council of metorer level beings (or those that make the mentorers seem like ants that are tired of dealing with the mess they make so made them all agree).

Think the bet between God and Saitan or the forces in Nightwatch/Daywatch.

It would look bad

Mentor is probably high profile and maybe what needs to happen is something they should not be messing with. Maybe if the protagonist were to do it people would be disgruntled but its not big deal as they are only a minor player in the world.

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I want to propose another idea: The hero and the mentor are both on the same side, same page, both capable. But there comes a threat, a problem, that both cannot solve. Not alone, not together.

It's time. It's time to be the hero, someone has to save the day. It's time to transcend, to get to a new state of being. The hero becomes greater than their mentor. Both tried to solve it and couldn't, it needed a change that only one was able to accomplish: the true hero.

This can all be mental, it can be a new superpower, it can be a trick. But when you understand, there will be something different.

Edit: more insight: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HeartIsAnAwesomePower

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Mentor Teaches Through Their Writings

This might be too different from what you already had planned, but if you can make do without character interactions, the student could be learning by reading a book written by their mentor. I'm thinking loosely of The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, where some of the main characters are often quoting a book they've nearly memorized which taught them lessons about how to conduct themselves. As a bonus, the mentor could be dead OR alive, allowing them to show up later after being assumed dead.

Mentor Teaches Through Visions

In a similar fashion, the mentor could teach through visions like flashbacks or the Spirit World from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Magical prophetical orbs or training videos could work too for something grounded in a technology of the time.

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Obi Wan and Yoda are archetypal examples of the "spiritual guide" - the knowledgeable elder used as a device to reveal wisdom to the protagonist (and the reader) as the story progresses.

In Star Wars, the reason these characters don't simply fight all Luke's battles for him, is that even they are not powerful enough to defeat the enemy. It turns out, Luke is destined to ultimately grow stronger than his guides and to do that, but they have to die along the way while facilitating his growth, and it is Luke's development upon which the whole story is pinned.

This is much the same in Harry Potter, in which Dumbledore is super-powerful but ultimately Harry is more so and Dumbledore's role is to facilitate Harry's growth, and impart his wisdom to Harry until such time as Harry is powerful-enough to do the job himself.

Another classic way a of limiting the impact of an all-powerful superhero character, is to give them a profound and fundamental defect. Achilles is an example, whose ankle was not invulnerable, unlike the rest of him. But this might equally be a mad genius or an alcoholic father or whatever. Dumbledore was once mighty and still is, but he is an old man and no longer fit for embarking upon quests - the same with Yoda. It's a great scene where Yoda reveals his incredible Jedi fightings skills, even as a frail old Yoda. But his days of physical combat are over, really - by now he thinks, guides and teaches. Same with Xavier in X-Men - he has a brilliant mind, but his body is useless. These paradoxic characters are interesting because we marvel at them in real life - see Stephen Hawking or John Nash.

Another method of sidelining your mentor, is to give them some huge battle to fight. This is seen in Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf the Grey declares "You cannot pass, flame of Udûn" to the Balrog. Then cries "Fly, you fools!" to the party as he plunges into the darkness below, after the Balrog's whip catches his ankle. This serves to disappear him for a good while, returning later as Gandalf the White. In a way, one might liken this to Obi Wan's battle against Vader in which he dies, but instead of returning later (aside from as a glowing ghost), Yoda takes up the spiritual guide role where he left off.

Where you talk of having "flaws and character arcs", multiple bits of paraphernalia sounds woolly and confusing. It's going to detract from your protagonist's journey if a load of nonsense is going on with the mentor. Better in my view to have one almighty awesome kaboom that leaves us in awe of them, or perhaps something dark and mysterious - maybe they have a bigger battle to fight. But who knows and who cares, as long as it's simple - this isn't the mentor's story , it's the mentee's.

Another device you coudl use, is to make your mentor entirely powerless other than acting through your protagonist(s). How about you keep your mentor at bay by restricting their communication with them. Maybe the mentor comes to them in their dreams and they only catch snippets of what he is trying to lead them to. Then part of the story's mystery is working out where (s)he's leading them.

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I don't see any problems with your solutions 2 and 4. This is exactly how it works in real life: there's tons of people out there that are smarter, stronger, have command of more people or even entire armies than you, but they don't jump in to solve each and every problem. You don't see President or Supreme Commander at each and every crime scene or standoff. 99.9% of the problems will always be solved by someone else, not individuals that happen to wield greatest power in the world.

And yes, they really can't be everywhere, so there always will be cases that will need to be delegated to somebody else. It could even be that your protagonist is actually one of that personnel under powerful mentor command so it's simply his job to take care of problem in stead of mentor. Maybe that's exactly why mentor is considered especially powerful - because he have many people like your protagonist under his command to cover for him.

Go ahead and use those solutions. They're perfectly natural.

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