The Wheel of Archetypes: The Faded Master

Here’s a less-labyrinthine subspecies of post for everyone to chew on. The further I go into writing, the more I become aware of archetypes. You know the drill: some characters are just so awesome (or so easy) that we end up writing them over and over again with minor variations. Even the most nuanced characters have to share some traits with others, and what we’ll see over the course of this series is that many characters are simply a blend of several archetypes. I’ve decided to kick things off with one of the most repeated of all: the Faded Master.

Obviously my own term, but you know the Faded Master. If you’ve seen Star Wars’ Original Trilogy (if you haven’t, this blog may not be for you), you’ve already run into two between Obi-Wan and Yoda. The Faded Master used to be a person of great importance in their own right, but they’ve been reduced to an enabler for the new hero. Perhaps, as was the case for Yoda, they were outright defeated, or perhaps they fall into Obi-Wan’s category where victory was no better than defeat. Sometimes they’ve simply faded into obscurity (there’s the adjective!) The Faded Masters are separated from Those Who Can’t, Thus Teach (a sorry grouping I’ll look at later) in that they still have some power over the plot, but their actions can only pave way for those of the hero rather than, say, defeat the villain.

In general, the Faded Master will be much older than the hero, so their hair color is pretty faded too (unless they happen to be unaging, which in some universes they may). In stories with a main villain who has to be diced up before the world’s collective table settings can be tidied back to order, the Faded Master has often defeated the villain in a fashion that was supposed to have been conclusive but wasn’t. As before, Star Wars, but for contradictory examples see also: Star Wars. Obi-Wan cuts Anakin’s legs and other arm off, Yoda doesn’t do much to the Emperor aside from run up his office redecoration bills. Otherwise, the examples for this bit run from the original Dragonball anime (not DBZ) to such cinema blathery as The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.

In order to give them some shred of dignity, the Faded Master will often be *ahem* removed from the playing field without the hero directly surpassing them. Obi-Wan is cut down by Vader in an act of sacrifice (which also allows him to avoid being defeated as such), and Yoda just buggers off to be one with the Force. This also tends to happen to mentor characters, but The Mentor isn’t necessarily the same as the Faded Master in spite of the overlap. Often the Faded Master’s defeat will be due to some malarkey trick on the part of the villain, or serve some larger plan. It’s not uncommon that it’s explained away as being necessary for the hero to reach his full potential, which arguably makes sense but shouldn’t require the Faded Master to actually die. Just leaving would have the same result, wouldn’t it?

One important note: the gap between the Faded Master and just the Master is that the Faded Master has fallen from glory in some way. I can’t really talk about Dumbledore from the Potter books here for the simple reason that he’s never faded. When the series starts, he’s one of the most respected and famous wizards on the planet. When the series ends, that’s still how he’s remembered (albeit with some bittersweet nuance worked in).  Yoda goes from the lead master of the entire Jedi Order to a weird hermit hiding on Dagobah, and Obi-Wan from one of the Order’s most respected Knights to… um… a weird hermit hiding on Tatooine. We may need to discuss the overuse of the weird hermit trope at a later date.

It’s important that no matter how enlightened they’re supposed to be, Faded Masters are always jaded to some extent. If they don’t have as good as reason as “all my friends, fellows and the three crushes I may or may not have had in spite of the Jedi Code are dead at the hands of a former student,” they’ll usually spout some mystic nonsense to justify it. The Faded Master often has to be convinced to help the hero, or in some cases won’t even reveal their identity at first so that the hero has to figure it out. There’s rarely a good explanation given for this coyness.

The Faded Master’s, erm, mastery will usually have either a martial emphasis or at least a fighty bent to it. Outside of aged sword masters and warrior monks, wizards are the most popular because magical power seems to translate to hellish violence with alarming ease. There’s no reason I know of why you couldn’t have the legendary baker Jacques d’Reuben, Last of the Breadlords, as a Faded Master, but so far that’s one I haven’t seen. This is probably for the same reasons that you don’t often have some kid named Jean-Michel attempting to conquer the dark forces of bland bread and unsatisfying deli-cuts after receiving Jacques’ secret recipe. If there’s the kind of epic quest afoot that needs a Faded Master, food usually isn’t the solution (though they do say an army marches on its stomach).

As with any other archetype, you’re free to use the Faded Master if you so choose. I’d just recommend that you keep careful track of how you do so. If you can come up with a critical role for the Faded Master to play in the plot, excellent, and better yet if you manage a way to do it that doesn’t involve just helping the hero. One thing I haven’t seen very often is the use of a Faded Master as a villainous or amoral character. Obviously this will bring in shades of Fallen Angel (of course we’ll get to that core archetype later), but it’s something to consider.

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