The flippant master and the enthusiastic apprentice

In fiction, one trope I see come up that I’m rather fond of is the young neophyte in search of a mentor who inadvertently impresses a master by fulfilling some sort of unreasonable request that was made in jest.

In this trope, a enthusiastic neophyte finds a seasoned veteran who is an elite practitioner of the field they wish to train in. The following exchange ensues:

Neophyte: “Please train me, master! Let me be your apprentice!”

Master: “I get that request from a dozen kids like you every day. Why should I spend my time training you, a complete neophyte with no experience?”

Neophyte: “Just give me a chance to prove myself!”

Master: “Fine. You should…” (The mentor proceeds to describe some impossibly cumbersome, laborious, and tedious task, presuming this will scare the neophyte off and deter them from asking again.)

The next day…

Neophyte: “Master!  I did the impossibly cumbersome laborious tedious task, just like you asked!  Can you train me now?”

Master: “Wait, you actually did that?  I just said that so that you would leave me alone. Most people get scared off when I tell them that’s what it takes. But…I do feel a bit guilty about the fact that my flippant remark caused you to go to all that trouble, and given that you’ve just demonstrated your willingness to go above and beyond what any reasonable human would do in order to achieve your goal, maybe you have what it takes to make it in this challenging field.  Fine, kid.  I’ll train you.”

This seems to be pretty common in sports manga/anime; it was a notable part of the early chapters of Hajime no Ippo, and I most recently encountered it in Ballroom e Youkoso: Fujita, the protagonist and would-be-apprentice, asks master dancer Sengoku to train him to become a professional dancer. Sengoku laughs at the idea that young Fujita, immediately after learning about professional dancing, would have aspirations of becoming a pro. But master Sengoku decides to humor the boy: Sengoku teaches Fujita the basic box step, and tells him to practice just doing that move.  “For how long?” asks Fujita. “Until I say to stop,” says the cynical teacher.  Sengoku checks out for the night, leaving Fujita to take his words literally, staying in the studio overnight and practicing the move until the sun comes up and the floor is covered with his sweat and there are blisters covering his feet.  Sengoku returns in the early morning to find young Fujita still practicing and incredulously asks, “What are you still doing here?” Several conflicted minutes later, Sengoku begrudgingly admits that maybe Fujita is serious about wanting to be a professional dancer and deserving of being trained.

Why I am I so fond of this trope?

Pixar’s first rule of storytelling comes to mind: “You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.”  It’s hard for our young protagonist to succeed in a field where he has no experience, but what he lacks in competence he makes up for in effort.

Brandon Sanderson has also made the observation that there are three traits that tend to make us like a character: how competent they are, how sympathetic they are, and how proactive they are.

When a character is first starting the long journey to become the best, it’s hard for them to start off at a high level of competence: a lot of their development will be toward making them more competent at their chosen skill, so it makes sense that their skill level would start off low.  The “over-enthusiastic neophyte” trope compensates for the protagonist’s low “competence” level by cranking up their “sympathy” and “proactivity” levels: our main character is willing to take the initiative to go to extreme lengths that no other trainee would be willing to go to.  The protagonist’s willingness to go through a self-inflicted ordeal makes us sympathize with them — even moreso because the fact that the main character was willing to go to such lengths after hearing what anyone else would have taken as a sarcastic remark implies a sort of innocence and naivete. When you see a hard worker with that kind of childish optimism, it’s the kind of thing that makes you want to root for them.  (It also makes it feel all the more imperative that the teacher agree to train them, because such a hardworking-yet-foolhardy person could easily be taken advantage of.)

Perhaps the same traits that endear the audience to the neophyte who goes above and beyond are the same traits that make the master decide to take the neophyte under their wing, so it makes narrative sense as well that these traits would lead to success. The fact that the master is experience what the audience is experiencing causes the scene to have a sort of double resonance: not only do we sympathize with the neophyte, but we empathize with the mentor, which endears us to both of them — we like the neophyte for trying hard, and we like the mentor for doing them a solid and giving the neophyte the opportunity that they so obviously deserve.

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