Friday, September 23, 2011

Why your story might need a Gandalf or an Obi-Wan – Adding in a Sage Character

There is quite a bit of discussion among writers about the role of parents in middle grade fiction, but not so much about the presence of other adults. We know that readers generally want the main characters to drive the action, but sometimes trying to avoid letting your characters have help from adults can make the story fall flat.

I realized this when my daughter and I were listening to an audio version of a recent middle grade book.  I don’t want to mention the book title, because overall the story was well-written and very imaginative. However, I heard the dreaded “I don’t get it” several times from my daughter as we were listening.  She’s a smart girl (says her completely unbiased mother), and it bothered me she wasn’t understanding things. One chapter in particular stumped her. It was a discussion between two adults about a political situation with some very Machiavellian undertones. Now kids early on understand good and evil, and good guys and bad guys, but not necessarily the subtle maneuverings of crafty politicians. I’m an avid follower of political news and I often can’t figure out the actions of real life politicians!

As a writer I tend to analyze other people’s stories to figure out what isn’t working and how it could be fixed. I realized this particular story would have worked better if there had been an Obi-Wan in it, a knowledgeable elder who could have explained the world to the main character, and therefore explained it to the reader as well. There’s a long tradition in fiction of the Sage character. Joseph Campbell describes the wise old man or old woman, the Mentor, as appearing throughout history in storytelling, drama, and mythology.

A recent middle grade book I very much enjoyed that did have a Sage character is the historical The CROWFIELD CURSE by Pat Walsh. The story is set in a medieval abbey, and Brother Snail is the Obi-wan character, who explains some past events to the main character, Will, a boy who lives at the abbey.  I think these sorts of characters are useful in all kinds of books, but particularly in historicals and fantasies, where there may be complicated backstory that needs explanation.

And there’s another good reason to add in some important characters who aren't kids – it can add in a new voice that breaks up the sameness of kid voices. I added in an elderly actor named Cecil to WOLF STORM. He’s not much of a sage, but getting in a different perspective added in more layers to the story, and while Cecil doesn’t know how to do anything practical, he can at least quote Shakespeare and make hot chocolate.

Dumbledore in Harry Potter is a mentor character, in a way, until we discover at the very end of the series he was using Harry for his own purposes. Can you think of any other Sages in middle grade books?

~ Dee Garretson


  1. Great point! I think stories really need these and I tend to love them as much as the MCs.

  2. The Wise Old Man/Sage is a Jungian Archetype, one of the coolest, in fact.

    I think the best example I can think of is Dalben from the Chronicles of Prydain (The Black Cauldron).

  3. I agree that a Sage is often helpful in a middle grade novel. They are often characters I really like, Dumbledore is a great example. In the Simon Bloom series by Michael Reisman there is a character referred to as the Narrator. He would be the Sage in this series, which takes its readers on a fun and imaginative adventure that teaches children about science as well. Because the Narrator is there to help Simon understand the world he lives in, he is also helping the reader understand it.

  4. Great advice here. In my fantasy novel I had an older "sage" character suddenly appear on the scene without me really planning it out beforehand. It just seemed necessary. Now I know why.

  5. Matthew, I'm plugging my ears at the mention of anything Jungian. One of my college apartment mates was a psych major and between Jung, Freud and the roommate's obsession with sitar music, I'm off all of the three for life.

    Cherie, I haven't read the Simon Bloom series and will have to check that out. And I agree with PK, these characters can be loveable.

    Diane, it's funny you said your character suddenly appeared. I insisted on keeping Cecil in the story when I proposed it without really knowing why I needed him at the time.

  6. Great post, Dee. In the PERCY books, Mr. Brunner/Chiron serves as the sage. A cool one, too.

  7. That's such a great point. And it's good to know that by adding a sage character you're doing something useful to the story, not just doing something everyone else does.

  8. This is a great post, especially in explaining how a "sage" can really help a kid reader's understanding. The great sages (Dumbledore, Chiron) have already been mentioned. But I'll be sure to look out for a sage in the next MG I read.

  9. That was the role Dumbledore and other adults periodically played in Harry Potter. Harry was allowed not to get things and needed to hear explanations. As he got older, he had to leave Dumbledore and adults behind as he entered a very adult quest.

  10. I like sage-y characters as long as they don't keep the kid characters from thinking for themselves and solving their own problems!


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