Teen Psychology and ‘Big Themes’ in Fiction, by Jim Eldridge
Many writers (and many adults who aren’t writers) think that “writing for teens” is an easy option. Many see it as writing for “children who are a bit older”. They are wrong.
Teens are interested in Big Themes: Who am I? Why is life such a nightmare? Why am I persecuted? How do I get out of this?
These are not just themes for teenagers. These are issues that haunt some of us our whole lives. But for teenagers they are magnified.
Except in the cases of abused children, or those from seriously dysfunctional backgrounds, most children are protected during their young childhood: food and housing is provided, they are chaperoned and guarded by parents, or older siblings, teachers at school, etc; their life is organised for them. And, prior to the onset of the raging hormones of puberty, most children are happy to go along with life in this way.
Then suddenly puberty kicks in, and those hormones raise the issue of sex. And not just sex, but somehow suddenly everything else is being questioned, particularly Authority. Parental authority. Authority at school. The “Authority” ruled by figures of the Establishment: police, doctors, bosses, etc.
There is an old joke that says: We spend a lot of time teaching children to walk and talk, and as soon as they can we tell them to sit down and shut up.
This is nowhere truer than with teenagers at the time of puberty.
As children, boys and girls have seen the adults around them getting drunk, misbehaving in all sorts of ways (often sexual), and suddenly – as they become teens – they realise that some of these inappropriate actions are actually quite pleasurable; and they are banned from doing them by these same adults. When, quite logically, these new teens point out the hypocrisy of this, they are told not to argue, but to “do as you’re told”.
These new teens want to explore these new physical and emotional feelings, but find they aren’t allowed to, because of legislation limiting “under age” teens (this age limit varying from country to country, and – in some larger countries like the USA – even from State to State). This not only breeds resentment, it makes teens see their authority figures (parents, teachers, etc) through new eyes – they see these people as hypocrites with a lack of understanding of their predicament. Questions arise, even outlandish ones such as: I have nothing in common with these adults in my family. Are they even my real family? Are they really my parents? Maybe I was found by them and taken in.
The big question is: how can I truly express myself, and get these experiences that I crave, without getting into trouble at home or at school? The answer is: do them, and lie. Become devious. The justification is that it’s Me against Them. They are forcing me to lie. They are against me, they are trying to crush me. I want my Freedom to … do whatever. Be myself.
This is nothing new, it’s been this way since the dawn of civilisation. The Ancient Greeks wrote complainingly about “rebellious youth” ruining their society and kicking against authority. And, the other side of the coin, is that without adult authority we end up with anarchy, often violent, where the physically stronger dominate. The “Lord of the Flies” syndrome. The gangs of feral teenagers – many with no adult authority – who rule large inner city estates.
The result, from a writing perspective, is that these same teenagers want to read books that echo their situation. Their problems. Their concerns. Their relationship desires and angsts. Books that question (and possibly mock) adult authority. Books where the hero or heroine battles against the forces that repress them and try to crush them – either physically or emotionally – and are victorious. Books where emotions are laid bare. Books with physicality. Kick the ass of the villains. Overcome overwhelming odds.
And next time I’ll get practical and give you some examples.
My new novels for teenagers and young adults include the Black Ops series (Jungle Kill, Death in the Desert and Urban Assassin) published by Egmont, and my new thriller, Invisible Assassin, the first in a new series called “The Malichea Quest”, published by Bloomsbury. For details, go to: www.jimeldridge.com.