Your Go-To Guide to Decoding the Coming-of-Age Genre

your guide to decoding the coming-of-age genre

Even before you learn the name of the genre that this article explores, try remembering that invincible feeling you get as you read the part in The Perks of Being a Wallflower where Sam pokes her head out of the truck as they drive through the tunnel with ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie playing in the background.

Remember the immense joy you feel after watching Dead Poets Society when Todd drops the present his parents send him on the persuasion of Neil because it happens to be the same thing that he received last year as well? What about the goosebumps that cover your skin when Juan in Moonlight explains how “in moonlight, black boys look blue?”

Bildungsroman is a German term; ‘bildung’ means education and ‘roman’ means novel. This genre consists of literary works that involve a journey that ends with the characters gaining emotional intelligence as a result of the lessons they learned on the way. Another way of describing this would be with the more widely used term, ‘coming-of-age.’

Like every story, there are elements to a Bildungsroman story as well. These elements help build the story and characters, and determine the kind of wisdom that is gained. Although the initial novels that fell under this genre always witnessed a good ending, the more recent novels are seeing a rising trend of ending in tragic death or misfortune.

Some examples of classics that fall under the literary genre of Bildungsroman include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Great Expectations and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Recent novels such as The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold are also some great reads of this genre. There are certain elements that constitute a particular genre that make them what they are. Coming-of-age novels too feature some aspects that make up their essence.

The Problem

Every coming-of-age book begins with a ground-shaking moment or experience that pushes the protagonist into a state of shock, one where they need to introspect the point they are at in the present. It could come in the form of a loss, be it a physical death of a loved one as seen in The Perks of Being a Wallflower where Charlie loses his best friend to suicide or a more metaphorical loss such as disease as seen in The Fault in Our Stars with the protagonist leading a monotonous life revolving around her diagnosis; it could even be something as simple as moving away or being forced into a new environment.

Here are the three things that you need to keep in mind when writing out a problem for your coming-of-age story:

  • The problem, being the first stage of the story, signals the beginning of the emotional journey.
  • It should be a moment in life that pushes the character out of their comfort zone.
  • The problem is often troubling and feels like the end of the world, and for someone like your young character, this is in fact very serious. 

With the only direction to move being forward, the plot now goes on from here.

The Beginning

After being dealt a strong blow, although it might seem like the world has come to a stop, the journey is only just beginning. 

There are two important things to remember about the beginning of your story:

  • The beginning is often slow and painful; it forces the protagonist to let go of the things that once brought them immense comfort in exchange for unfamiliar surroundings that force them to make a change.
  • The protagonist soon smartly adapts to the environment they find themselves in. It is the first step to salvation and while doing so they come across people or ideologies that make them rack their brains. 

In some cases, it might almost seem like the waters have calmed down and that a moment to take a breath is right around the corner.

The Conflict

Although they are midway in the journey, the character might seem to have hit a wall. Nothing seems to be going their way, life has become a tad bit monotonous and there is no sign from God. Feelings of dejection rise up at this point, that is until a conflict arises. 

The conflict comes in varying ways:

  • It could be a new person who challenges their way of thinking; or, 
  • It could be a tricky situation that rides on the shoulders of the protagonist.
  • It could be owning up to their mistakes or it could be a more ‘I’m the king of the world’ kind of moment.

Whatever form this conflict may take, the purpose is the same: it is to give the protagonist that one little nudge before they can hit ‘nirvana’. The point is to let go of the past

The Finale

Because the genre focuses on a journey, no matter an internal one, there is a beginning and now there has to be an end. The end can only be successful with the act of maturing for the character to find themself to be a new person. After a rocky start followed by a struggle to get going, the ending is filled with: 

  • new dreams,
  • a hope for the future, and 
  • new beginnings (once again) 

As the name itself suggests, coming of age is the act of shedding innocence to become more emotionally intelligent while coming to terms with the past.

While most coming-of-age novels are fortunate enough to find new beginnings on the horizon, some are not as lucky. In a more unconventional form, some may end in the death of the protagonist or other not-so-happy endings. But even if there is no fairy tale ending, this in itself has a valuable lesson to it. This unconventional turn of events is seen in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and in almost all of John Green’s novels. Death is not the end of life but only another part of it, in a similar fashion a journey could be endless if the destination is unknown.

This genre is the most refreshing one in literature; it can have you sobbing in the middle of the night while trying not to wake your family up or smiling while in public trying not to embarrass yourself. This genre holds the ability to inspire positive change while pushing its characters to strive to be the best version of themselves. While writing out a story of this genre may seem complex, really, it’s more of a self-exploration for the writer too. All one has to do is look deep into themselves and find the truth of the kind of story about growing up that they want to write about.

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