Definition of Coming-of-age Story

A coming of age is a genre that focuses on psychological and moral growth of a protagonist who is growing from youth to adulthood. Personal growth is the most important characteristic in this genre. It relies on emotional responses and dialogue rather than action.

There are many children’s stories (or stories about children) in which the child loses their innocence. When that character is a bit older (adolescent) then it’s called a coming-of-age story.

Sometimes people think they know you. They know a few facts about you, and they piece you together in a way that makes sense to them. And if you don’t know yourself very well, you might even believe that they are right. But the truth is, that isn’t you. That isn’t you at all.

— Leila Sales

Structure Of A Coming-of-age Story

At the beginning of the story, childhood has already been left behind, and the hero has concluded that the world is not a safe or blissful place. An event that occurred prior to the beginning of the story, or the hero’s overall situation, has made the hero feel lost or stuck in a world over which she has little or no control (the death of a brother in Stand By Me; a dystopian society in The Hunger Games; the social pressure and institutional indifference of school in The Breakfast Club).

After the hero’s introduction in the setup of the story, he is presented with an Opportunity that will either make life even worse (Katniss’ sister being chosen for the hunger games; the introduction of the bully in Karate Kid), or will hold the promise of some escape from his pain (the report of a dead body in Stand By Me; the Rolling Stone assignment in Almost Famous). In response, these heroes’ outer motivations are declared, and their pursuit of those goals begins.

As with any character arc, it is in this journey that their transformation occurs. But in coming of age stories, the conflicts the characters face force them to realize that they are now on their own, that parents, friends and society will not save them, and they must rely on themselves. And with this painful realization comes each hero’s individuation. He now defines himself and stands up for who he is – usually in defiance of parents or figures of authority.

So at the end of the journeys in the movies above – and in all coming of age stories – the world has not changed. It’s as painful and inhospitable as ever. But the hero is now equipped with the strength and courage and independence to face the world head on, and to move into adulthood living his or her essence.

— Michael Hauge, Story Mastery website

I have a friend who swears she can’t stand any kind of coming-of-age story. I think this is because her definition is a little narrower than mine — she’s thinking of the genre typified by the likes of American Pie.

In one sense, all memorable stories are coming of age stories, if what we mean by the term is a story about someone who moves from one stage of development to a more advanced one. […] Films explicitly labeled a “coming-of-age story,” however, are often about nothing more than someone’s becoming aware of sex.

— Howard Suber

This seems to be the common message of coming-of-age stories for a YA audience:

You’re not going to die. Here’s the white-hot truth: if you go bankrupt, you’ll still be okay. If you lose the gig, the lover, the house, you’ll still be okay. If you sing off-key, get beat by the competition, have your heart shattered, get fired… it’s not going to kill you. Ask anyone who’s been through it.

— Danielle LaPorte

Features of a Coming-of-age Story

  • Coming-of-age stories tend to emphasise dialogue or internal monologue over action.
  • They are often set in the past.
  • The heroes of coming-of-age stories are typically teenagers. Almost without exception, coming of age stories are about the transition from adolescence to adulthood, from being defined by family or society to defining oneself. The hero is somewhere between 10-years-old (Elliott in E.T.) and late teens (the four heroes of American Graffiti). However, sometimes an adult is emotionally delayed. An example of a coming-of-age character in her late twenties is Ruth in I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore.
  • A psychoanalytic reading of a coming-of-age story done badly might “pathologize” childhood – i.e read childhood as a symptom to be overcome in the journey to mature adulthood. This is why in a lot of coming-of-age tales, the child (adolescent) grows a bit, but at the end demonstrates that they haven’t given up on childhood completely. We see it, for instance, in Monster House, in which DJ decides to go trick-or-treating after all, despite eschewing all boyish things at the beginning of the story.
  • In order to come of age, the main character will have to leave home. Coming-of-age tales therefore quite often conform to mythic structure.

What Is A Bildungsroman?

My friend who can’t stand coming-of-age stories is probably fine with the bildungsroman.

  • The bildungsroman is a specific subgenre of coming-of-age story. It is especially prominent in literature and focuses on the protagonist’s psychological and moral growth, and thus character change is extremely important.
  • The German translates as ’novel of formation’ or ‘novel of education’.
  • The genre evolved from folklore tales of a dunce or youngest son going out in the world to seek his fortune.
  • Usually in the beginning of the story there is an emotional loss which makes the protagonist leave on his journey.
  • The goal is maturity, and the protagonist achieves it gradually and with difficulty.
  • The genre often features a main conflict between the main character and society. Typically, the values of society are gradually accepted by the protagonist and he/she is ultimately accepted into society — the protagonist’s mistakes and disappointments are over. In some works, the protagonist is able to reach out and help others after having achieved maturity.

Examples of Coming-of-age Stories

  • The Bell Jar
  • The Catcher In The Rye
  • The Wonder Years – an adolescent boy comes of age in 1960s America, an especially good setting for a coming-of-age series because that’s when America herself was going through some kind of ‘psychological growth’.
  • Mad Men – in this show a number of characters come of age. Peggy and Joan are the ‘secret protagonists’, set against Don Draper who will never change much.
  • Freaks and Geeks – a ‘Breaking Bad’ kind of plot in which a good girl learns to break free of her nerdy reputation
  • The Breakfast Club
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower – the book is far better than the film
  • Malcolm In The Middle
  • Happy Days
  • The Secret Life Of Bees
  • Never Let Me Go
  • Sons and Lovers – a sexual awakening, which is one thing today’s worst teen coming-of-age movies have in common
  • A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man
  • What Maisie Knew – although Maisie is still very young she loses her childhood innocence very young.
  • Huck Finn
  • About A Boy – in this case the main character is far too old to be living like a teenager and his young protege is more emotionally aware than he is. This, of course, is the point of the story.
  • The Outsiders – This book changed YA fiction forever, not least because it was written by someone who was still a teenager herself.
  • Harry Potter
  • Gone With The Wind
  • Adventureland – The main character has just finished university, but as he says into the phone at the beginning of the story he has been so focused on academics that he has no life experience to speak of.
  • We Are The Best – a group of girls about 12 or 13 years old