I talked a bit about perceived age, a little while ago, and I got some insight into the ongoing challenge of portraying teenagers accurately -- faced daily by MG, YA and the New Adult authors. (Thanks to E.J. Wesley for that.) What stuck out to me was how much of a social construct labels like "teenager" are; portraying that age bracket accurately is a challenge because it's so well defined in current Western culture. Once you move outside our current culture into fantasy or science fiction... what is a teenager?
Physically, teenagers are adults. Mentally, emotionally, they're rapidly maturing -- maturity takes a lot of work, and it's a life-long process.
The line between immaturity and maturity is hazy at best, and everyone reaches different stages at different points of their life. Different cultures measure one's progress differently, and they assign a variety of values to different aspects. We can all backslide, too. We tend to think of certain actions as demonstrating maturity -- like getting married, taking out a mortgage -- though of course actions aren't always backed up by the emotional development that we think they need.
I came up with a few general areas where maturity, or lack thereof, is most obvious. I'm sure there are tons of self-help books out there with more exhaustive lists. I'm also trying to phrase these in general terms, because a writer will always need to tailor things to their story's particular situations.
This is a learned behavior. Some people pick it up more quickly than others, but the ability to see how our own actions help or harm others is something we grow into. Tied into this is the ability to see others as real people with feelings, expectations, histories, etc., that you don't necessarily know about.
When you were a kid, did you ever meet one of your school teachers outside of school... and you were surprised that they existed outside of school? What would the equivalent situation in a fantasy world be? Or does that small-town life make it impossible to not be aware of others' lives?
It's not about you
Psychology calls this egocentrism: believing that everything is connected to you. Everything that goes wrong is your fault, and everything that goes right is for your benefit. I've heard it said that the roots of this are in how crying, as a baby, got you the things you wanted so obviously you caused everything to happen... well, it's all downhill from there, isn't it. Life is one big disillusion about how important you aren't.
Practically speaking, this is the ability to not blame or praise yourself for everything and look at events more objectively. Superstitions grow out of a lack of this ability. Some would say religion does, too, but that's a can of worms I'm not going to get into.
Awareness of how things work
This is a more practical thing. Kids don't necessarily know what's happening inside an ATM -- it just spits out money, as far as they're concerned. They're not worried that the bag of fast food handed to them at the drive-through was put together by tired, poorly-paid human beings surrounded by flashing lights and annoying beeps. They don't know that when a pipe starts leaking, you need to set a big enough bucket under it, shut off the water main, and call a plumber.
Then again, life is so complicated that we adults don't know these things half the time. For a fantasy or science fiction story, this will be an intersection of character and world-building and a chance to explain your world to the reader either through explaining it to the character or by following their actions.
Awareness of why people do things
Since we're all writers here, this is an especially interesting subject. Stories hinge on why people do things. I love it when things are set up so that a seemingly bizarre course of action is perfectly reasonable.
The amount of thought that writers put into why people do things is unusual, though. I think we all need to take care in not letting (all) our characters be (too) perceptive. I'm qualifying that statement because a cast full of insensitive characters isn't in a writer's best interests either.
What would you add to my list?