Role models is a topic particularly close to my heart.
In my life away from the written word, I’ve been a Brownie Leader for over half my life, and have always felt passionately that children need good role models. In fact, I felt so passionately about it that I studied Role Models in the Media as part of my Masters Degree, and for some time considered pursuing a career as a children’s television presenter in order to be a role model to younger generations.
But a Young Adult fiction writer, the topic of being a role model is a little more complicated than it is as a Brownie Leader, or kids TV presenter.
As I discussed in my article ‘Sex and Swearing’ teenage readers don’t need to be patronised. Fiction shouldn’t simply be a guise to project your beliefs on teenagers. It’s important to know your audience, and write at a level they understand. Characters should be believable, and their experiences relatable with.
The author must tread a tightrope, because teenagers aren’t reading fiction to hear the amplified views of their parents, or conservative fundamentalists, and yet, as an adult talking to teenagers through her writing, there is a need for some propriety, sensitivity, and an understanding of what is really necessary to the story.
The thing to remember is that Young Adults have minds of their own! By presenting them with a story, you are not presenting them with a definitive answer, but instead with food for thought. Ideas, situations and tales for them to process. Characters for them to dissect, whether consciously or unconsciously, and thus models for them to follow, question and learn from.
Because the interesting part about being an author is that you have the power to create role models, but you also have the power to create anti-role models, and sometimes, if you have a point to make, this is the best way of presenting the issue at question to readers. Going back to the idea of sex in YA novels, as mentioned in ‘Sex and Swearing’, if you really feel strongly about promiscuity and experimentation in teenagers (please note I’m talking about 17+ year olds, NOT 13 year olds!) then perhaps the best way to combat the issue is by showing a character involved in an ill thought-out one night stand, and touching on the repercussions, yet allowing the reader to make his own judgments, as opposed to only writing about teenagers who are tee-total, God-forsaking, virgins until marriage? (Twilight rant over!!)
Moving on from this discussion of role models and teenage progression into adulthood, a fellow author brought up an interesting issue earlier this week. She had been running regular writing classes at a local youth club, only for the club to decide that writing and reading didn’t fit with the club’s important focus upon health and fitness.
The problem I have with this, is that it suggests that literature is completely at odds with fitness, exercise and the outdoors. However in my experience, literature has been anything but that! And I’m not just talking about reading a book when you’re on the machines in the gym (an act I do with such frequency, I should probably really invest in a Kindle!).
As an author, you present scenarios. And whilst some of those scenarios may simply cause the reader to contemplate, others will encourage the reader to actively try something out … (and no, conservative cynics, I’m not talking about underage sex 😉 ).
When I was a child, I grew up on Enid Blyton. Now over the years, her work has faced some controversy, with conspiracy theories that her use of golliwog dolls as characters in her books fostered racism in readers. But, as if to illustrate the fact that children are not influenced by every single thing they read (or perhaps just to illustrate the fact that most children didn’t even realise a golliwog had anything to do with skin colour?), I didn’t emerge from years of reading Famous Five and Secret Seven as a racist! I grew up to be a teenager, and then an adult, with a great thirst for adventure. Because that was what the books were full of – adventures and the outdoors! I was fascinated by a world where people slept on heather bushes (which in reality is nowhere near as comfortable as she made it sound!), rowed across lakes and seas, and spent every spare second in the outside world. And whilst the reader in me wanted to curl up in a chair and never put the books down, the adventurer who those stories conjured, inspired me to head out into the outside world and start out on adventures of my own.
I’m not saying that Enid Blyton is the sole reason I’ve spent most of my life travelling the world and seeking out adventures, but she definitely played an early part in things.
I suppose THIS is where I see the cross-over of being an author and a role-model. Not to lecture kids about sex, and swearing and all the other things they hear enough lectures about in life, but to show them what the world has to offer, and inspire them to go out and try those things.
I might love to write, but that doesn’t mean I want to spend my life sitting behind a desk, and I share my time between all my passions – writing, reading, sports, fitness, travel, socialising etc … And as long as characters have well-rounded lives, and are challenged with adventures that the readers themselves want to not only follow, but also take part in, then those readers will go on to have their own adventures.
Yes, children can be impressionable, but don’t underestimate them. They have their own opinions and thought processes. So feed them with ideas. Show them what the world has to offer, and hopefully your characters will become their role models. Not by preaching, but by inspiring!
Let me know what you think!