The Bildungsroman: What It Is and How to Write One

The transition from childhood to adulthood is an important transition that everyone has to make.  So it shouldn’t be too surprising to find that this transition is a common motif in literary works.  Coming of age stories are staples among children and YA literature, but all of this may raise some questions.  What exactly makes a story a coming of age story?  Does a character just need to be at a certain age, or does a story need certain elements to qualify?  And how do you write a coming of age novel?  This is potentially a large topic, but in this article, I’ll try to sketch out the basic elements of a coming of age novel and then examine how to do one well.  bildungsromanpost

In the literary field, a coming of age novel is often known by the German term, bildungsroman, which means a novel of formation, education, or culture.  This is an important element of the coming-of-age novel to understand:

“The story often represents a time of formation where the protagonist has to figure out who he is and where his place is in the world.  At the beginning of the book, the protagonist often has a lot of potential, but lacks refinement and solidarity of character—something he’s going to have to gain by the story’s end.”

Many times, this bildungsroman will have a plot resembling the hero’s journey.  Unpacking what all the hero’s journey looks like would take longer than I have space for in this article, but if you’re unfamiliar with the term, this video does a pretty good job of showing what the stereotypical hero’s journey looks like:

Essentially, the young protagonist is sent out on some sort of mission in order to save the community he grew up in and, in the process of doing so, end up discovering himself as well.

So, what exactly is it that’s going to send the hero off on his journey?  The call to adventure can be many different things depending on what type of story you’re telling.  However, often it will be spurred on by the hero’s desire to find answers to life’s questions.  Because the bildungsroman is so focused on the psychological and spiritual development of the protagonist, it will often begin with psychological and spiritual questions.  Another key event that may set the protagonist off on his journey will be an emotional loss, as often death or another tragedy ends up initiating the protagonist on his journey of self-discovery.

So, the protagonist sets off on some sort of journey.  This journey can either be physical or spiritual.  In a fantasy or adventure story, the journey will often be primarily physical, but not all coming-of-age stories have a physical journey.  In To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, the journey is largely a psychological/spiritual journey of discovery.  Often, the “special world” element of the hero’s journey will play a large role in the story as the protagonist has to go to some special place in order to fully transition from childhood to adulthood.  This is more clearly seen when a physical journey is taking place, but is often present in non-physical journeys as well.

This journey, however, will be a hard one to make.  The transition from childhood to adulthood is a hard transition to make, and this is reflected in fiction, whether the journey be physical or spiritual.  Often, this journey will end up pushing the protagonist to the limits of their identity as they struggle to find themselves and complete their task.  The answers the protagonist is searching for won’t be easy to find, and a large portion of the story will center on the difficulties involved in finally finding them.

Before we arrive at the conclusion of the protagonist’s journey, however, I need to explain another important aspect of the bildungsroman, which is the conflict between the protagonist and the society.  Often, the values of the protagonist come into conflict with the values of society, and the protagonist will struggle to adjust himself to the values of society.  In many ways, this mirrors real life.  Many young adults in the real world struggle to submit to authority and follow along the path set for them by society.  And so this plays out in fiction.  Often in fiction, this is seen by the conflicts that erupt between a young hero and his parents.  Traditionally, the way this conflict resolved itself is that the main character would learn to accept the values of society.  Then, once he had accepted the values of society, society would then accept him back into its fold.  In other words, the conflict was won by society.  Recently however, in the literary world, we’ve seen a reversal taking place.  Now, instead of the hero needing to change, the society needs to change, and the young hero ends up changing the values of society instead of the other way around.

Moving back to the conclusion of the protagonist’s journey, the goal of the bildungsroman is for the protagonist to gain maturity, and the story often wraps up at the moment this is achieved.  What does this involve for the protagonist?  Often it involves a resolution between the protagonist and his society.  Another common element, however, is a loss of innocence.  The protagonist often ends up seeing the real world as it really is, and while this will not necessarily lead to a loss of goodness, it will lead to a loss of naïvete as he sees firsthand the impact of sin and suffering on the world.  Often, this element is achieved by another painful loss, as often someone close to the protagonist will end up dying by the end of the book to fully push him to adulthood.  This is particularly common in stories involving pets: just think of Where the Red Fern Grows or The Yearling.  But by the end of the story, the events of the book will have led the protagonist to wisdom and society, along with a proper place in society.

            So now that we’ve looked at the various elements of a coming of age story, what does it practically look like?  Several stories have been mentioned already, but here are a few more examples.  This theme can be seen rather strongly in the sci-fi/fantasy world in the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, where we see Luke coming out of a boring lifestyle (a common element of coming of age novels), learning his own identity as he interacts in a different world, and then finally accept the reality of the spiritual realm of the Force and use it to blow up the Death Star.

In the non-adventure realm, The Secret Garden also exemplifies this, both for Mary and for Collins, as both of them end up growing up in the special realm of the gardens as they both learn to conquer their own struggles and grow up.  Pixar’s latest movie, Inside Out, also exemplifies a lot of the common elements of a coming of age story, although in this movie it’s more present as a sub-theme than as a defining element of the story.  Finally, the Toy Story trilogy taken as a whole contains most of these elements as Andy and the toys learn what it means to grow up over the course of several movies.

So, that’s what a coming of age story might look like.  But you may still have one question on your mind:

How do you use it?

As alluded to with the example of Inside Out, just because you’re using elements of a coming of age story doesn’t mean it has to define the novel.  While it certainly can, and while many good stories have been written like that, you can choose how much you want your story to be a coming-of-age story.  The most important part of writing this type of story is to know the tropes associated with a coming of age novel and how they’ve been used in the past.  After all, you don’t want to be trying to write a coming-of-age story when you have no idea how they are typically done.  On the other hand, however, you don’t want to just write a paint-by-number story that’s been done thousands of times before.  You want to know how the tropes are used—and then write a story with them that hasn’t been told before.  So in many ways, just by reading about the tropes associated with this genre and reading various examples of the coming-of-age story will be enough to show you how to write it.

But there are other things to consider as well.  Of particular relevance is how you want to handle the conflict between the protagonist and the society.  As I mentioned before, society used to be the winner of that conflict, but recently, the pendulum has swung the other way.  Which one do you want to value in your story, and what do you want to communicate with the conflict?  Personally, I think there was a lot of value in the older tradition when the protagonist had to learn to adjust to society, since our modern generation’s form of rebellion has often been for the worse.  However, there are definite values with either way of doing it:

The important thing is to think carefully about how you want to handle it.

Lastly, when writing this type of story, you’ll also want to think about what the transition from childhood to adulthood looks like from a Christian perspective.  The Scriptures talk about this multiple times.  In the famous love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says that,

“when I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things”

—and in the context of this chapter, what this looked like was learning how to love.  You’ll also want to consider the various passages that look at the importance of throwing off the old and putting on the new, such as Ephesians 4, which draws a contrast between the lives we once lived as sinners and the lives we are enabled to live in Christ.  From this sort of perspective, when writing this type of stories as Christians, we want to use the coming-of-age story to show an end to childish and sinful ways of life and the beginning of adulthood and new life in Christ.  Further could probably be said about this, but I’ll leave the practicalities of how this could affect your story to your own imaginations.

The coming of age story, or bildungsroman, is a staple of children and YA novels, not surprisingly because this is a struggle that everyone has to go through.  It is an important story because it’s an important transition to make, and a failure to make this transition brings with it important consequences.  So if you’re preparing to write this kind of novel, consider the different tropes associated with it and consider what type of story you want to tell from a Christian perspective.  Coming-of-age novels are not always the easiest types of novels to write.  But when done well, they have a lot of power and potential.  So study coming-of-age novels.  Consider what kind of story you want to write. And then go out and write your novel.

Profile photo of Josiah DeGraaf
Josiah DeGraaf is a high school English teacher and literature nerd who fell in love with stories when he was young and hasn’t fallen out of love ever since.
He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations. What causes otherwise-good people to make really terrible decisions in their lives? Why do some people have the strength to withstand temptation when others don’t? How do people respond to periods of intense suffering? What does it mean to be a hero?
These questions drive him as a reader, and they drive him as a writer as well as he takes normal people, puts them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then forces them to make difficult choices with their lives.
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as entertaining as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. In the meantime, you can find him writing articles here or short stories at his website (link below) as he works toward achieving these goals.
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Comments

  1. That ‘s quite a word. 😉
    I love reading articles like this that dissect some common thing and pull it apart to see what it looks like inside out. I thrive on it. Thank you so much, Josiah, for this comprehensive and thoughtful dissection of a common storyline.

    I have a question. (Didn’t see that one coming, did ya? 😉 ) Does a story only qualify as a coming-of-age if the MC is taken from a normal (as in living-at-home, doing-what-people-do) life and being pushed out into the dangerous world unexpectedly? I’m asking because I always thought my WIP was a coming-of-age, but now I’m beginning to wonder… See, when the story really starts, the MC is already out in the dangerous world, living self-sufficiently and completely responsible. His journey in relation to society is learning to take responsibility for OTHERS, and learning to appreciate home and family. So you might almost say it’s backwards— he started out as a loner, then came back to ‘normal’. Does that still qualify as coming-of-age? You did mention in relation to the verse from Corinthians 13 that coming of age is learning to love, and that definitely fits with my story.
    So I guess what I’m asking is, does it matter so much where the character goes physically? Or is a coming-of-age more defined by how the character grows spiritually?

    • Ooooh–nice story idea! It seems like it’s subverting some of the common coming-of-age tropes, but I would say that it would still qualify as a coming-of-age story. The Jungle Book, for example, also features a move from a wild to a more normal life for the protagonist, but is still generally recognized as being a coming-of-age story. And yeah, I think of coming-of-age stories as being much more about the spiritual growth than their physical movements, although both relate to each other.

      • Great! Thanks. 😀
        Hmmm… and does a coming-of-age always have to be about a child reaching adulthood? Could it be about an adult realizing where he/she belongs? I’m trying to think of an example here… the best I can come up with is It’s a Wonderful Life, though that’s not quite what I’m talking about. :/

        • Hmm… I don’t know of any real cases where the coming-of-age character isn’t a child reaching adulthood. You could certainly have an adult struggling with similar themes and concepts, but I’m not sure that would still qualify as a coming-of-age story at that point.

          • Right, that does make sense. That’s kinda the direction I was leaning after I thought about it for a bit. An arc doesn’t equal a coming-of-age. In fact, now that I think about it, coming-of-age is by definition the transition from childhood to adulthood. 😛
            Thanks. I think I’ve got it straight now. 😉

          • That’s a good way to put it. Haha, sounds good.

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