In our previous lectures, we taught you about different types of evils or antagonists. We also touched on a powerful ally (and plot-mover-forwarder), the Golden Maiden. She’s a peach, but she isn’t my favorite. That’s the Wise Sage Man.
He might present in ways very familiar to you. It’s easy as hell to spot him here. Old. Check. Male. Check. Knows everything. Check. But what is he actually doing for our story?
The Wise Sage Man is incredibly useful at introducing your hero to the New World, the world outside of Normal. Ordinarily, the hero is removed from safety and dullness by the death or disappearance of parents and guardians. This is really just a way of ending the previous, known way of being. It’s incredibly easy to throw an orphan into an adventure- there’s no one to tell him to stay away from danger, no one to intervene on his behalf. All kinds of crazy shit can happen. We’ve seen it a thousand times in fantasy. But this isn’t the only genre in which he serves a beautiful purpose.
Imagine your hero stands at the end of a long, dusty driveway, alongside a lonely country road, a packet of papers in hand. A sad-looking family stands nearby, saying nothing. Everything he owns is bundled into a duffel bag at his feet. A Greyhound bus pulls up, and our teary-eyed hero boards the bus, looking back only once at his dejected family and waves, a half-hearted smile on his face. As the bus pulls away in a curling cloud of dust, the sad family walks back up the drive to the farmhouse nestled among shady trees.
The hero disembarks at the Army base, a huge, sprawling complex mobbed with soldiers and bustling with activity. As he stands there, overwhelmed, a fish out of water, he hears his very first greeting.
“Stand up straight, you walking pile of shit!”
Enter the Wise Sage Man. Perhaps not a wizard or a mystic, this elder figure holds the key to our hero’s conquering the world of the New, whatever that might be. He knows the tricks, the expectations, and he is, by golly, going to impart them to the hero, whether he likes it or not.
The Wise Sage Man helps open the door of the New World, then firmly shoves our hero through it. The hero may be excited, or hesitant, or downright disbelieving, but the WSM exists to keep the story moving forward, so he pushes the hero. This often sounds something like:
“We’re chasing the man who murdered your father.”
“The plague will kill everyone if we don’t find the cure.”
“The artifact will fall into the wrong hands and be used against us.”
I call these “The vengeance you didn’t know you wanted”. The WSM presents the debt owed to the hero, and then presents him the means to come collectin’. The WSM is also a giant backstory-encyclopedia, knowing more about the hero than he does himself. Which is great, because the hero has a ton of questions about the New World, and now, here is someone with the answers.
Unfortunately, the WSM can be kind of a dick. He has a tendency to hold some things back. Usually, this is only for our benefit, as the readers. We know by the end that the hero would have made different decisions if he’d had all of the information up front, but it would have been a super boring story to watch.
“Darth Vader is your father. Let’s go save the princess. Oh, yeah, she’s your sister, so don’t kiss her, that’s gross.”
So he knows a lot, he tells a little, and he’s willing to guide our hero into the New World. But why?
Relation: Quite often, almost tediously often, we find out later that the mysterious WSM is a relative of the hero. Usually, this secret is revealed when the hero tries to abandon the adventure. The Golden Maiden is a good one for revealing this little trick. If it isn’t a secret, there’s usually a little estrangement between the relatives, so that they can explore the relationship they never really had before.
Debt: The WSM has knocked around for a bit, and he has some evils in his past to atone for. The hero’s quest gives him a chance to balance things out, feel like he’s making things right. Maybe he sees some of himself in the hero, and wants to help him avoid the pitfalls and traps the WSM encountered.
Duty: Less frequently, it’s duty that binds a WSM to the hero, required by his position. His paycheck depends on offering guidance and oversight for the hero. We will almost always see that even if it wasn’t the WSM’s job, he’d still maintain his attachment and investment in the hero. Hero’s a likable guy!
Our poor, orphaned hero, alone in the terrifying New World, has finally found a mentor to protect and guide him. The mentor is knowledgeable, skilled, or powerful (or all three), and is deeply attached to the hero. Without the mentor, he would be lost, alone again, confused about the New World and forced to rely on his own imperfect knowledge and faulty confidence.
Sounds like the start of an Act Three to me.
The old, two-days-from-retirement cop takes a bullet in the shootout at the botched heist. His new, young partner watches him fall.
The wizard is struck down by the hulking stone golem, buried under a pile of rubble at the foot of a waterfall. His apprentice cries out for him, drawing the attention of the furious golem.
Grampa played in the minor leagues as a boy, and his advice is what got Bobby this far; on the mound, facing down the hardest hitter in the sixth grade. Grampa gets chest pains during the championship game, at the top of the ninth inning.
The WSM must be lost.
He doesn’t have to die, but there must be a break. The hero and WSM must part ways, and the more painful the break, the better.
Our hero must be plunged into darkness deep before he can win the day, so that means everything cool must turn straight to suck. If the WSM were to stay, the hero would never grow, never evolve, or change beyond the lost little orphan boy. With the sorrow of losing the WSM, the boy is forced to become a man, to fill the void left behind. He must stand tall, for there is no one left to stand for him. The boy begins the journey to becoming a Wise Sage Man himself. Armed with insight and tempered by sorrow, the hero presses on. And conquers.
One of the benefits of living to a ripe old age is straight-up wiliness. The WSM is very, very rarely out when he’s down. A lot of WSM’s return from the “dead”. If the WSM doesn’t reappear to save the hero when he is a breath away from death, he will reappear after the hero conquers the villain, as a nice way to wrap things up. But don’t get locked into fantasy tropes here either. Dead doesn’t always mean dead.
The last bank robber, bloodied and wild, draws on the young partner. The partner is out of bullets, out of back up, out of options. He closes his eyes, awaiting the end. The old, two-days-from-retirement cop rises from behind the shot-up police car, his service pistol in his hand. His left arm dangles, useless at his side. He fires his very last round.
The golem advances on the apprentice, who fires every spell he can remember. Fire, wind, water blast away at the stone golem, but it advances. The apprentice stumbles, driven back, as he scrambles, fumbling for the lightning spell. He stutters, his memory failing. At the base of the waterfall, the rubble shifts and a hand claws its way free.
Grampa’s triple bypass went smashingly, and he’s on the mend. Bobby brings his trophy to the hospital room and leaves it with him. Grampa promises to get better soon, and they’re practicing Bobby’s circle change-up pitch in no time.
Remember, when you’re working with narrative like this, death means change. The end of one way, the beginning of another. It doesn’t have to mean the end of life function. So when the WSM comes back, the death/change has already occurred. Things aren’t the same. The hero doesn’t need the WSM in the same way, and the WSM can see that the hero has matured. They may not yet be equals, but the hero has earned the sage’s respect. The hero already had the WSM’s affection, or his commitment, but now he can look the Wise Sage Man in the eye. This is when the old cop partner stops calling the young partner “Rookie” and refers to him by his last name. This is when the wizard starts letting his apprentice experiment, or take over some of his duties while he studies. This is when Grampa looks out the window and sees Bobby instructing his little brother Billy on how to throw a cutter. This is the hero, learning how to be the Wise Sage himself.
Danika’s note: Throughout, I refer to the hero sometimes as “the boy”. Don’t be silly. Of course the hero doesn’t have to be a boy. The hero can be anything. The hero can be a girl, an old woman, a fairy king, a baby squirrel, a sentient shoe. It doesn’t matter. Take no offense at the terminology, just look at it as a very simple handle to help us grasp the concepts. Now go write something interesting!!