The Paragon of Potential

The Paragon of Potential in fiction is the character that the protagonist looks up to and aspires to be. Sometimes these Paragons of Potential are mere side characters that the protagonist spends a little bit of time worshipping and seeking guidance from, and other times Paragons of Potential can be well woven into the story as integral to the protagonist’s personal journey.

Expanding on the principles from The Importance of Mentorship, I introduce this idea of The Paragon of Potential so these concepts can be incorporated in both your real life and in your fiction writing. It is my belief that humans are always striving to improve themselves, and what better way to gauge your own self worth than by comparing yourself to someone who already “has it all,” and can have a lot to teach us in how to improve ourselves?

Like in real life, mentors in a work of fiction can serve as an important catalyst for a character’s development, whether they are a momentary afterthought, or a character well baked into the overall narrative of a story. Today we are looking at three characters who are more than well baked into the narrative of one of my favourite shows; Cobra Kai.

The three types of Paragons of Potential in fiction are:

  1. The Perfect Mentor
  2. The Imperfect Mentor
  3. The Flawed Mentor

The Perfect Mentor: Mr. Miyagi

Mr. Miyagi From The Karate Kid training Daniel LaRusso.
Photo Credit: Delphi II Productions

Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid is the prime example of The Perfect Mentor. And what makes a good mentor is the student who follows in their teachings because the contrast between student and teacher is often what exemplifies the greatness of a mentor.

So enter in Daniel LaRusso, a hotheaded teen who moves to a new city and new school with his single mother. He is fed up with the unfamiliarity of the new environment and is in desperate need of male guidance to redirect all of his pent up aggression and frustration.

This is where Mr. Miyagi comes in to fill in the role of a bit of a father figure to him, teaching him not just the ways of Miyagi-Do Karate, but also very important life lessons metaphorized by the karate and kata. Mr. Miyagi does this all by remaining Zen, most especially when Daniel expresses resentment toward learning new things that are seemingly unrelated to karate.

For the most part, Mr. Miyagi is The Perfect Mentor because he does not seem to exude any flaws, save for his drinking habits and his broken English. But let’s be honest here, he’s only seen drinking once in the entire film series for a very good and heartbreaking reason, and the broken English makes his quotes all the more epic anyway, so he gets a couple passes over very benign “flaws” if you can even call them that.

Mr. Miyagi is The Perfect Mentor because he teaches Daniel the virtues of potential, patience, and perseverance, while also exuding those virtues himself without fail and without question. Potential meaning the malleability of the human spirit to adapt to any situation. Patience in the sense that that is what is required to master anything. And finally perseverance meaning the tenacity of the human spirit to survive.

Daniel lacks all these virtues at the beginning of The Karate Kid, but by doing chores for Mr. Miyagi that are at first seemingly unrelated to karate, he develops patience and perseverance because he is tapping into his potential. Then once he starts learning karate in the more direct way he was expecting, Daniel is shaped by Mr. Miyagi into becoming a more centered and disciplined young man.

We are all familiar with the whole wax on and wax off scene in The Karate Kid. For a lot of the movie you just watch Daniel doing all these chores including waxing Mr. Miyagi’s cars. Then just when he’s about to get fed up with not “actually” learning karate, Miyagi starts throwing punches and kicks at him, and Daniel is able to block the oncoming strikes.

All the hand motions required for painting fences, sanding floors, and waxing cars ingrained into Daniel’s muscle memory the exact kind of hand motions to block a variety of strikes coming from different angles. That’s the moment all his training clicks and he realizes what all those chores were actually for. It wasn’t just child labour on Mr. Miyagi’s part, he was indeed teaching him karate by not teaching him karate!

It’s an epic and monumental scene, probably one of the most iconic scenes in all of cinema.

Everybody needs a Mr. Miyagi in their lives. Yours and that of your characters in your writing. The Perfect Mentor is the one who practices what they preach and provide a ton of value and guidance to even the most broken of protagonists, showing once again the beauty of the human spirit’s ability to grow and adapt to whatever hardship comes its way.

The Imperfect Mentor: Johnny Lawrence

Johnny Lawrence training Miguel Diaz as the only student of Cobra Kai
Photo Credit: Netflix

Up next is The Imperfect Mentor Johnny Lawrence, the original antagonist to Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid. Three decades later he becomes the main protagonist of Netflix’s hit series Cobra Kai where Johnny goes on a journey to rekindle his love for karate and redeem himself for his troubled past.

Even from the very first scene we see him in The Karate Kid, we get the sense that he’s just an imperfect person. Johnny’s opening lines are about be an ex-degenerate who is willing to do better for himself for the following years of high school, but his motivation to do and be good is squelched when he sees Daniel chatting up his ex-girlfriend Ali.

In the original movie, Johnny spends most of his time being a snot nosed kid who picks on Daniel and blindly following the advisement of his mentor John Kreese, the original sensei of the Cobra Kai dojo. You really learn how to hate him throughout the movie in the way he terrorizes Daniel, but when Daniel defeats him at The All Valley Under 18 Karate Tournament, there’s a moment of goodness conveyed by Johnny in saying “you’re alright, LaRusso,” and humbly handing Daniel the first place trophy.

Then if you watch the second movie, you start to feel pretty bad for Johnny because Sensei Kreese breaks his second place trophy and starts trying to choke him to death until Mr. Miyagi comes to rescue him. Johnny pleads that he did his best, but Kreese says his best wasn’t good enough, and Mr. Miyagi’s words from the first movie hit ever harder:

“There is no such thing as bad student. Only bad teacher.”

You get the sense that Johnny was only trying his hardest to live up to the pressure Kreese had put on him to be a champion, even going insofar as to agreeing to cheating in the tournament. That was the day Johnny’s love for karate died and Cobra Kai had to shut down since it wasn’t good for business to know that the sensei is willing to assault one of his own students.

Now fast forward 30 years into The Karate Kid’s story timeline into the Netflix series Cobra Kai. Johnny is a broken man in his 40’s with not much going on his life. He’s an odd job repairman with an ex-wife and a son he’s both estranged from, lives in a tiny apartment, and is no longer surrounded by the luxury or loyalty of friends he once had in his golden days of high school.

It was almost as if losing that karate tournament sent him down a dark path throughout his adult years because that’s just how much karate meant to him. Without karate, his life lacked meaning. Not only did Daniel end Johnny’s two tournament winning streak, but his own mentor John Kreese has broken his spirit via nearly killing him for only getting a second place trophy.

One crappy night, Johnny witnesses his teenaged neighbour, Miguel, getting assaulted by a bunch of bullies. At first he tries not to mind them, but then they make a mess on his car, that’s when Johnny steps in. Using all karate he hasn’t used in three decades, he beats up a bunch of snot nosed high school kids to rescue Miguel. Miguel is then impressed by it and gets curious if he could learn some karate from Johnny so he can learn how to defend himself from bullies.

Johnny is reluctant at first, but after some events you just gotta see for yourself by watching the show, he decides to become Miguel’s sensei and open Cobra Kai back up under his ownership.

Miguel is a shy, quiet, and meek kid when he first steps into Cobra Kai, and Johnny being rough around the edges, teaches him how to have a bit of an edge himself instead of always being so straight and narrow. What makes Johnny The Imperfect Mentor is that while he does teach Miguel how to develop some more self confidence and take more proactive action, his methods are often quite aggressive, dangerous, and come from a place of repressed anger.

Johnny knows that life is tough and that to toughen someone up they must face insurmountable challenges that help them grow. While Johnny does teach other meek kids to stand up for themselves and develop self confidence, the first season shows that some of his methods lead to enlarged egos and short tempers because empowering the weakest among us can often mean that they inadvertently end up abusing the power that which they were lacking for so long.

Johnny Lawrence if The Imperfect Mentor because while he does provide value to his students, he can often seem callous in how he does it because some of his motives for teaching them toughness comes from a place of shame and guilt for when he was weak and aimless like they were.

To compensate he constantly insults them, undermines their character, and even creates legally questionable training methods that are meant to teach his students mental and physical toughness like seeing if they can out run rabid dogs and seeing if they can turn a cement spinner from the inside.

Needless to say, Johnny’s approach to teaching karate while not teaching karate is very different from Mr. Miyagi’s calm and peaceful approach of teaching it through safe and honest chores.

The Flawed Mentor: John Kreese

John Kreese and Johnny Lawrence at the All Valley Under 18 Tournament
Photo Credit: Delphi II Productions

Mr. Miyagi said it best, “there is no such thing as bad student, only bad teacher.” And John Kreese exemplifies this to the extreme. This is the kind of horrible mentor you should never want guiding you, but you can become susceptible to falling under the tutelage of if you’re desperate enough.

Case in point with Johnny Lawrence when he was younger.

The Flawed Mentor is the one who does nothing but challenge you. Mentors should challenge you rather than just give undying support because it’s within that challenge that a student can have a safe place to test out their skills. But without a healthy balance between support and challenge, a student might not grow.

If you get nothing but support, you won’t know where you can improve because everything you do is simply seen as good enough and there’s almost no point in being mentored in the first place. The inverse is true as well, if a mentor does nothing but challenge you then your confidence can be crushed and you will always be unsure of your progress as a student.

John Kreese is intense with his methods and teaches: “Strike First. Strike Hard. No Mercy.” A very ruthless approach to karate where the fundamental style is all offense and that the best defense is even more offense. This is discipline in its corrupted form because it leaves no room for compassion, even toward your own comrades, as substantiated in a sparring scene in the original movie:

Two Cobra Kai students are sparring and while one has knocked his classmate off his feet, Kreese advises the standing student to finish him off, and despite the hesitation, he strikes his classmate while he’s down to live up to the “No Mercy” mantra of Cobra Kai.

More of this kind of attitude is shown in Cobra Kai the Netflix series where Kreese instructs his students to be as lethal toward each other as they would to their rival dojo Miyagi-Do. This causes the students to have a very warped and entitled view of karate and the world, that the number one thing in life is winning at all costs. It doesn’t even matter whether you win with honour or not, in fact it’s encouraged to win by playing dirty if you have to.

Life isn’t fair so you should fight all the same, basically.

Johnny Lawrence as a sensei may be rough around the edges and quite aggressive toward his students, but he still fundamentally cares about them as people even though he doesn’t show it much. He reserves most of that for his star pupil Miguel, but otherwise he will throw the odd compliment and inspiring word here and there.

John Kreese on the other hand only pretends to care about their wellbeing so long as they do as he says so it serves him in the end, and that’s the prime example of The Flawed Mentor. One who is teaching others for their own selfish benefit rather than the mutual benefit of human connection and personal development.

Mentors vs Potential

At their core, students are nothing but endless potential to be molded into whatever they so choose and whatever their mentor has to offer them. Mentors can be The Paragon of Potential to them—someone to aspire to—and so in your writing be sure to write your mentors and students in such a way that they compliment each other based on their individual characteristics as seen in The Karate Kid and Cobra Kai series.

If you decide to include a Paragon of Potential/Mentor figure in your story, try and decide which of three main types would be a good fit for your protagonist and their development needs. If you got a hot head protagonist, give them a Zen mentor like Mr. Miyagi. If you got a meek protagonist, give them an imperfect mentor like Johnny Lawrence.

Otherwise, if you want to go deep and dark with a protagonist who wants to be good, but is easily tempted toward the dark side, give them a fundamentally flawed mentor like John Kreese who shows them why they should or shouldn’t succumb to the dark side.

Who are your favourite mentors in fiction?

What kind of mentors have you written in your work?

What are your thoughts about mentors?

Let me know the answers to all these questions and more in the comments below!

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