Some of the most memorable teenage literary characters are not heroic or inspiring. Coming of age stories often portray the worst sides of adolescence in curious ways. Whether it’s the old familiar and mostly harmless angst-fest or a sadistic moralless teenage rampage, we’ve listed our top five troubled teens in modern and contemporary fiction.
Alex – A Clockwork Orange
Alex, his droogs, and their ultra-violence crashed into the literary world in 1962 and have not left us. ‘Troubled’ is certainly an understatement in describing this most memorable of literary teenagers. Alex’s passion for extreme violence is hard to stomach in itself, then Burgess introduces the Ludocivo Technique, an extreme form of behavioural conditioning which aims to ‘correct’ Alex’s response to immorality. Alex does not turn ‘good’ but is physically sick at the thought of violence so his freedom of choice is taken away.
“It’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.”A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
The book was later popularised by Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the same name. Huge amounts of criticism led to Kubrick imposing a ban on the film in the UK which remained in place until his death. It is now back in cinemas and Alex remains ever-villainous in the cultural consciousness across the globe.
The Lisbon Sisters – The Virgin Suicides
A tragic novel full of tragic characters, The Virgin Suicides is difficult to read and more so to forget. Eugenides’ decision to have the neighbourhood boys narrative the novel takes the last piece of independence away from the five sisters. This means the troubled teens even have their own story stripped away from them.
“It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling…’ ‘…calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”The Virgin Suicides, Jeffery Eugenides
As the reader is privy only to the perspective of outsiders, it adds to the mystery of the suicides and the Lisbon sisters’ lives as a whole. A hugely significant series of events, their young lives don’t get to begin before they are ended by absolute disassociation from the world they’re in.
Charlie – The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming-of-age epistolary novel. The protagonist Charlie addresses an anonymous person to retell events during a most pivotal year in his life so far. The novel is pinned as a significant feature of YA fiction in the last two decades. It deals with a teen’s first-hand experience of love and heartbreak, bullying and mental illness. The novel also details sex and recreational drug use and has been criticised for glorifying these. However, the narrative is a very honest representation of the adolescent experience for groups of young people across the world.
‘Just tell me how to be different in a way that makes sense.’The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky
Charlie is a naive boy, troubled by traumas in his recent past. He is struggling to rejoin the throngs of society beginning with starting high school. His views and relationships are plagued by severe mental illness, which we find out as the book goes on. Charlie’s saving grace is the bond he forms with a group of misfits. They encourage his love of writing, embrace his quirks, and significantly help him to be comfortable in his own skin.
Grenouille – Perfume
The wild and chilling story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille follows his life from birth to death. However, we are introduced to the true nature of his character when he is in his late teenage years. He commits a murder which opens up the flood gates for his killing spree. Grenouille is obsessed with preserving scent in part due to his extraordinary sense of smell.
‘There was only one thing perfume could not do. It could not turn him into a person who could love and be loved like everyone else.’Perfume, Patrick Süskind
Though Süskind’s story doesn’t fit into traditional bildungsroman structure, Grenouille is a boy turned man troubled by his orphan status. Living in a place full of putrid smells and possessing no natural smell of his own, he does not fit. The outsider with an obsession which gains him recognition is not an unfamiliar trope. ‘Perfume’ plays with the concept of morality and the essence of what humanity is. Süskind’s brash language leads to an ending of raw savagery. Uncomfortable not because of its horror but because of the statement it leaves. Is Grenouille truly immoral or is his mystical olfactory talent a product of predestined fate?
Ester Greenwood – The Bell Jar
A roman à clef and Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar follows 19-year-old Ester Greenwood through huge changes at the start of her adult life. The story documents Ester’s mental breakdown, including detailed suicide attempts and intensive electro-convulsive therapy. An aspiring writer herself, she constantly muses on her life experiences. Her intelligence and creativity make her question everything until she is utterly overwhelmed, feeling trapped inside a bell jar.
‘I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo’The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
Plath’s novel takes us through the instability of her own mental state and the difficulties she faced in her life. Ester’s struggle with the world around her seems to lessen after several episodes of ECT alongside psychotherapy treatments. However, Plath ends the novel behind a door. We as readers are left to interpret Ester’s fate ourselves, for better or worse.
Our teenage years are often the most significant years of our lives. Forming our identity as a part of the wider world. Our troubled teens battle with everything from general naivety to suspected sociopathy. If you want to read the books featuring these teens or explore general fiction to find more unforgettable tales, then check out our huge range of fiction books here.
What do you think of our chosen troubled teens? What characters would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments below.
I think parents should read these books, even if they read them when they were younger. It could help their troubled teens in the world today.