The Teacher/Student Subplot

Karate Kid

I got to thinking about this topic while I was rewatching ‘My Hero Academia’.  It was interesting to see how Midoriya (main character) interacted with his various teachers throughout the seasons.  Each relationship helped him grow and was slightly different enough to keep them unique.  This made me realize how often the teacher/student subplot is done on autopilot.  What do I mean by that?

The most common relationship seems to be the serious and wise mentor with the determined student.  If there is any alteration, it’s usually on the student side by making them either arrogant, a crybaby, or some other extreme.  This is to create some kind of friction between the characters, which will be worked out in order for them to unite into the more traditional relationship.  It’s been pretty standard in stories for decades since this is usually a subplot, minor part of the overall adventure.  This is the early stages of the hero’s journey even if the teacher is around for the whole time.  Eventually, the teacher falls into the background or dies.

I won’t lie because I used to enjoy these parts of a story and never really noticed how they were so similar.  Sometimes even identical.  It wasn’t until I was older that I wanted to see other versions of the teacher/student relationship.  For example, a student who doesn’t want to be one, but has no choice and the teacher has faith in them.  That would be Zenitsu and his teacher in ‘Demon Slayer’.  There’s also the teacher who gave up on his student and calls him a failure.  Found quite a few of those over the years.  Not a lot of variety, but I’ll take what I can get.

Another use of the teacher/student relationship is the trope of the teacher dying, which inspires the student to become stronger.  The good old ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’.  While I get this idea and enjoy it, I’ve kind of fallen out of love with it.  Mostly because I’ve seen so many stories where it happens early on.  This makes one wonder how the student finished their training.  In fact, this tends to result in a second teacher being needed.  I’ve had issues with this because it makes the first teacher seem less important or even inept.  This goes double for when the first teacher sacrifices himself in a way that didn’t really have to happen.  A good reason why authors need to think before they kill a character.

Honestly, I’m looking this through the eyes of the adventure hero’s journey.  For all I know, that can limit your choices.  A teacher in an adventure/fantasy genre tends to be a warrior or wizard with vast experience.  They’re typically wise, stern, and maybe come with a rough backstory that can connect to the new threat.  Students in this genre usually go from barely functional with a special gift to amazing.  So, you don’t see as much variety as you may expect when adventuring and questing are the core plots.  Although, I think more recent years have expanded on this concept.

Maybe we really take this relationship for granted in our stories.  It’s an easy way to explain a character gaining skills and knowledge.  With a teacher, the audience gets an explanation and can see an example of what the hero can become.  You don’t have the risk of a hero suddenly knowing something that they really shouldn’t.  Using ‘self-taught’ as an explanation only goes so far, especially with combat since practicing and sparring with dummies is nothing like fighting a real person.  Adding a teacher to the scenario eliminates most, if not all, of that risk and can make the training portion of a hero’s journey move faster.

What are your thoughts on the teacher/student relationship in fiction?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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12 Responses to The Teacher/Student Subplot

  1. L. Marie says:

    I love the teacher/student dynamic. I’ve seen great variations on this, like Zuko and Aang—a sworn enemy turned teacher. I also appreciate the teacher who is secretly evil and has to be thwarted by the student who slowly comes to realize that the teacher is really the adversary and must defeat him or her or die. Love the teacher who is underestimated by the student, as in the case of Mr. Miyagi who annoyed Ralph Macchio’s character in Karate Kid.


  2. As you point out, the presence of a teacher can help explain some of the student’s acquired skills. Informative post, Charles.


  3. This made me think of Avatar the Last Airbender, where Aang had to go through each season finding a different sensei for each element. Some of them were more willing than others, but the different personalities made it fun.

    He also looked to the spirits of the previous avatars for wisdom, although they were already dead, so you couldn’t say they died in order for him to grow.


  4. V.M.Sang says:

    Interesting. I have a teacher/student relationship in my Wolves of Vimar series, but he has already died. The student has gone to the mage Tower in order to take the tests to end his apprenticeship.
    The actual training takes place In the prequel, The Making of a Mage. The protagonist, Carthinal, is a reluctant student, and enters the training for ulterior motives.
    It’s difficult to get away from the tropes, though, I find.


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