Coming of age stories are timeless. They’re found across a multitude of genres, from children’s books (picture and chapter books, middle grade, young adult) to adult fiction and even in nonfiction form, such as memoirs and biographies. And many novels ostensibly focused on something else contain coming of age content or aspects, whether it’s memories of magic school in a swashbuckling fantasy novel or a growth arc in a tender romance. To cast the net yet wider, even copywriting can involve, for example, a business founder’s how-we-grew story.
No matter what you’re looking to write, you’ll be well served by developing the skills to write coming of age stories. These are tales of firsts, from first love to finding a direction in life to realizing for the first time how the world works.
Below are the basic questions to consider when you’re writing a coming of age story of your own. Thinking about them deeply served them well when writing my YA novel Chasing Harmony and defining what was important for the main character and her arc.
Most coming of age stories focus on one protagonist. Make sure it’s someone you’re interested in writing about for a whole book. Think about their demographics, interests, values, and goals. Who are they as a young person? What do they expect and aspire to grow into (and are these two things the same or different)? In what direction will they actually grow and change? These things should be interesting for you to write about, making them engaging for the reader, too. There is also, of course, the option of focusing on multiple characters, which requires a balancing act between storylines.
The setting of your coming of age story is important in defining its character. If you’re writing about a young person growing up in a remote rural area (whether fictional or real), their concerns and experiences will differ from those of someone in a bustling metropolis. And the character’s interaction with the setting will say a lot about who they are, whether they embrace it, plot to escape it, or somewhere in between. If you’re crafting fiction, you’re at liberty to choose or invent your setting. If you’re writing nonfiction, the setting is determined by your subject, and you might want to do background research to get the nuances right. (This is useful for fiction set in a real place, too, of course, and inspired by aspects of reality.)
Lots of things happen as we come of age, but a childhood does not automatically make a story arc. What is the thematic throughline of your story, the first or cluster of firsts that you are focusing on? This will drive the action and interactions of your plot. Maybe you want to focus on your character’s growth as an athlete, on their first successes and failures. Or perhaps you’re more interested in the first time your character lost a loved one, and their recovery from grief. These will be two very different stories. Sometimes a theme can help you determine and define the characters (the “who”). For other writers, it’s the other way around, with the characters emerging first and then revealing their thematic concerns.
In a coming of age story, your character undergoes formative experiences and emerges changed. Think about what these experiences are like from their perspective, how they will alter your character, and what experiences will most effectively drive the changes you have in mind (or, if this is nonfiction, what real-life experiences were most impactful in changing the subject’s life). What’s hard for the character? What do they have to learn? How are they transformed by their experiences? The person they are at the end is usually somewhat unexpected, both to the protagonist on page 1 and to the reader.
We discussed the setting above, and the time period is part of it: maybe your story is set today, maybe it’s set in the 1980s, or maybe it’s set in the 1800s. How well do you know your time period, and do you need to research to fill in the gaps? Another big aspect of “when” is the period of time that your story covers. I see this as one of the biggest questions to consider when writing a coming of age story: are you focusing on one pivotal summer in the character’s life, or following them all the way from early childhood to adolescence or adulthood? What time period matters most for the growth arc your story focuses on? Are there flashbacks or alternating timelines? Memory can be a powerful tool in coming of age narratives. Think about how wide or deep you want to go. What times matter most to your character?
Hopefully, this has given you a few things to think about if you’re looking to write about coming of age. Most stories are about growth and change in some form, and coming of age stories take this focus up to 11. Have fun asking yourself these questions and creating a coming of age story of your own!
Melanie Bell is a Canadian multi-genre writer living in the UK. Her books include Chasing Harmony, Dream Signs, and The Modern Enneagram. She has written for several publications including Contrary, Cicada, The Fiddlehead, and Huffington Post. She loves music, art, and nature, and aspires to see as much of the world as she can. Connect with Melanie at InspireEnvisioning.com.