As human beings, we’re naturally drawn to coming-of-age stories. It doesn’t matter what age we are. We all yearn to understand more about what it means to come into yourself and find your place in the world.
Oliver Twist goes from a workhouse, to an apprenticeship with an undertaker, to life as a would-be pick-pocket in the rough streets of London. In the process, his morals are put to the test. His unwillingness to help the other boys steal from an elderly man eventually leads to his redemption and the restoration of Oliver’s true place in the world. Dickens uses the personal story of one boy’s journey into adulthood to expose the horrors of child labour and the desperate plight of street children.
In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt survives hunger, a damp home, shoes with holes in them, an alcoholic father and typhoid fever. He scavenges coal, steals bread and falls in love with Shakespeare. At the tender age of fourteen, he’s glad to finally be able to “work like a man”. Over time, he manages to save enough money that he can leave for a better life in New York. On his journey into adulthood, he questions Catholicism, his father’s love and the ethics of his own sexuality.
The coming-of-age plot works equally well whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. If you’ve decided to use this structure, here are a few tips to help make your story stronger:
- Concentrate on clashes between your protagonist and society. The bigger the struggle, the better the story. Oliver Twist didn’t have enough food nor a safe place to live. Everywhere he turned, people tried to exploit him.
- Put your protagonist through a character defining experience such as war, a serious illness or extreme injustice. Frank McCourt’s family was trapped into poverty. His father deserted them and there weren’t any jobs in those days for women in Ireland. The family had no choice but to take charity and suffer the judgement attached to that.
- Give your protagonist a clear goal and formidable obstacles. With each obstacle, let your protagonist gain a clearer sense of self and a stronger place in the world. Frank knew that he wanted to move to New York, but it was difficult for him to achieve his goal. His family needed most of the money he was able to earn. His job delivering coal was bad for his health and he hated writing collection letters for money. But in the end, he was able to restore justice in his own vigilante way and he earned his ticket to freedom.
A coming-of-age story doesn’t have to focus on the transition into adulthood. This structure can be used in fresh and surprising ways. Wisdom can be attained at any age. In the film, Midnight Cowboy, a small town hustler moves to New York seeking the big time, only to end up penniless and living with a crippled crook named Ratso in a condemned apartment. Joe Buck survives poverty, bitter winter in an unheated apartment and personal humiliation. In the process, he makes the only real friend he has ever had and his priorities do a complete about-face. Years after he became an adult, Joe Buck finally comes of age.