There is a theme which abounds across a number of genres. One in which young men are torn from their farms and thrust into events which will change the course of an age, young women rise up to fulfill prophecies, and youths are thrown into conflicts where they must fight for their very survival. The settings and characters change, but in each story a once young and immature man or woman is thrown into circumstances which forever alter their lives and thrust them into adulthood.
The lines around a coming-of-age story are a bit vague. In them, the main character begins as a youth and reaches adulthood by the end. This can either be the focus of the book or, as in some of my works in progress, merely a result of the character development throughout the story. But, however it’s written, the meaning of adulthood ought to be clearly depicted, not fictionalized as some modern books portray.
Coming-of-age stories are only as compelling and gripping as the plot, characters, and emotions inside it. Though the focus of this article will be on the latter two points, the first one is important because it is the structure around which the character grows. Really, ‘coming-of-age’ is only a sub-theme of the greater character development which should take place throughout any book.
If you’re starting a book with the intention of writing a story in which the main character moves from youth to adulthood, there are a few clichés, both on adulthood and on coming-of-age that you want to be on the watch for, or at least notice.
1. Growing up is all about romance.
This is a completely unrealistic view of adulthood. Romance might be part of a story, but growing up (and romance too, when you think about it) is about responsibility. It’s about growing stronger and stepping up, not finding more ways to entertain one’s self.
2. The child arguing with his or her parents and moving out of the home.
Of course, if rebellion is part of your story, this could work as a portion of character development. But this should be the means to an end, building up to when the character makes it right with their parents and recognizes them as wiser than they are, not the climax where the young man or woman moves out to assert their independence and live their own selfish, little life. One doesn’t have to live on their own to be an adult, and picking up personal lodgings certainly doesn’t make anyone a good adult.
3. The death of the mentor.
The only real problem with this is that it’s overused. As a writer, this can be extremely irritating because *glares at particular work in progress* one sometimes wants to kill a mentor to progress the story, but such a move is so common that one feels it will detract from the story because the readers’ eyes will immediately glaze over. Now, this isn’t to say a mentor can’t die—but becoming an adult doesn’t require it. If you do use this cliché, try to add a unique twist and make sure it’s part of the story not just, ‘oh, there goes another extremely skilled, wise, older man instead of his pupil who has half his knowledge and ability and yet somehow survives’.
4. Sudden key information.
Common leaping points into a coming-of-age story include a character suddenly being told they have unique abilities, or being given a powerful weapon, or learning about a mysterious past, or being matched to a prophecy and told they have to save the world… Now, just because these themes are common doesn’t mean they are bad. They don’t make one an adult by themselves, but they can propel characters into a chain of events and character developments which moves them in that direction.
And, though common, these ‘leaping-points’ normally work; that’s why they’re used. You’ll never get a completely new idea. *sighs* But, thankfully, there are plenty of ways one can twist and freshen old ideas. Characters and their reactions are one key. Figure out where most stories take a common direction, then head the opposite way. For example, a character discovers that, instead of being a prince, he is really the son of a common thief. Or a rebel.
5. Be whoever you want to be!
Being told one can become anything they want is another very common theme. But, though it can make for an inspiring speech, this just isn’t true. A character will probably be able to rise higher than they thought, and they will be able to fill whatever role they are meant to fill, but there are limits to what one can become. Even if the possibility of becoming king, general, president, or world-famous is there, just because the character wants it and gives all he or she has for it, that doesn’t mean they can get it. Now that’s a cool story theme. *shakes head vigorously* No, I don’t need more ideas right now.
6. Mature before their time.
Also, just because a character comes-of-age, this doesn’t mean they were immature before the events of the story. They will mature and learn throughout the book, of course, but adulthood doesn’t come with the flip of a switch, even if war or great responsibility is involved. They will likely have some level of maturity beforehand and, afterwards, they should know they still have much to learn.
Adulthood doesn’t happen in a moment of time either. Sure, there may be a climactic moment when the character finally comes into his own, but it’s a process. It builds up, and then it doesn’t just stop.
“Part of being an adult is realizing how much one doesn’t know and how much one still has to learn.”
So, considering your story, what will it take for this particular character to grow up, lay aside their past life, and take on the responsibilities of an adult? It won’t be the same for everyone. And it doesn’t require the character being ripped from a shielded life and thrown into the streets. The youth in question could have grown up in a rough life, and then come to adulthood surrounded by comforts and intrigue.
Coming of age and entering adulthood is about meeting a whole new set of challenges—ones which are more difficult than in childhood, but which an adult is more fit to bear.
“Becoming an adult is not just about romance, or living on one’s own, or gaining a victory. It’s about sacrifice; it’s about learning how much one still needs to learn; it’s about taking responsibility and serving. It’s about the ability to stand strong against future storms, not the promise of smooth sailing.”
So no, they don’t get a happily ever after in the sense that nothing will go wrong again. This doesn’t mean they aren’t happy, just that they know more challenges will come, but that they will be better fit to bear them than before.
Lastly, though not leastly, *scowls at red line claiming leastly isn’t a word* taking the coming-of-age theme from a Christian viewpoint, there is one topic most secular stories ignore or spin in a negative light: religion. Instead of growing up and throwing off the ‘restrictions of their parents’ beliefs’, let the maturing young men and women learn more about them, what exactly they believe, and why they believe it. There may be tension, and there may be doubt and learning on both sides, but the story should show the strengthening of faith rather than its dissolution.
Coming-of-age stories are exciting to write, and there are many possibilities. Just remember what becoming an adult and growing up is really about: maturing, not merely living for grown-up entertainment; sacrificing and serving, not living for self; learning, not knowing everything; growing in faith, not abandoning it. The road won’t lie smooth and sunny before your characters but, due to the maturing and character development they’ve undergone in your story, they will be stronger, with a foundation on which to face any task or challenge which comes their way in the future.