Coming of age is a phrase we all know, but what does it really mean for someone to come of age in fiction? Coming of age is the transition a young person goes through that takes them from being a child to being an adult. I suppose you could, in some respect, consider a person’s adolescents as the coming of age period. The ways a person goes about their coming of age, however, really depends on the community they’ve grown up in. It is sometimes the point at which a person reaches sexual maturity or it could be defined by their religion. According to Wikipedia, it is ‘most commonly 16-21 when adolescents are generally no longer considered minors and are granted the full rights of an adult’.
The appeal of coming of age stories is relatively obvious; everyone can relate to them because in one way or another, we’ve all had our own version of coming of age. Whether you’ve suffered great loss, experienced something profound or merely found a reason to mature, they all make up the stories of our own lives.
Authors often take aspects of their own life and depict it in writing. Utilising our experiences is what makes writing have depth; it gives it the life that you can’t always get when you haven’t experienced something. Researching someone else’s experiences is another way of playing out scenarios that didn’t happen to you but that you feel matter for a character’s coming of age. Hindsight and knowing what your friends and family have done in their pasts can really help to greater understand different aspects of the growing up process.
I think other people’s situations are a significant aspect of the coming of age genre. Why relive your own life time and time again when reading a book or watching a film when you can see what it was like for someone else?
We all have regrets – the things we did that we wished we hadn’t, or the things we wished we’d done but didn’t make the time. This genre allows us to explore those hidden desires, the lost moments we can’t ever get back. It won’t change the fact that we can’t experience those situations, but it is a way of reliving your past through someone else’s eyes. I think that’s one of the greatest things about coming of age fiction – and fiction as a whole.
Some coming of age stories show an embellished version of reality. The television programme, Skins, portrays teenagers living out their lives in a way not many television programmes have. In the midst of the strong realistic storytelling and the depth of emotion, there’s the highlighted (and sometimes criticised for being over exaggerated) aspect of teenagers letting off steam through sex, drugs and alcohol. American Pie, the film series, is very much a comedy, showing the drive to reach sexual maturity as something that can be laughed about; a challenge to achieve before a set point in time.
There are also more realistic stories which don’t add the extra baggage and talk instead about love, lust and loss. They may fail to acknowledge the more seedy parts of teenage life, but what they do explore are the deeper, more meaningful parts of being human. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (by Ann Brashares) covers many themes from death to life and everything in between. Whilst Lord of the Flies (by William Golding) shows that sometimes you have to rediscover normality and by doing so you sometimes have to grow up quicker than you expected.
Whether a story shows that significant moment in a person’s life, where everything changes, as funny, or serious the message is still the same. We all come of age in our own way, we all experience things or avoid experiencing them for similar reasons, and in the end all that matters is that we’ve reached a point in our life when everything looks a little different.
Death, sexual confusion, mental health issues and recreational exploration are things that everybody will face in some capacity; whether by yourself, or you know someone, or you know someone who knows someone. We can’t escape the trials and tribulations of life, and nor should we want to, because without them we might never reach that point in life where we see things clearly. Coming of age matters in life and fiction and as long as people are going through these experiences in reality, people are going to write about them in fiction too.