How to Build a Coming of Age Arc

walking_away morguefile free photoSome of the most famous books ever written have been about finding oneself while on the journey to adulthood.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

The story never grows old. Authors are still crafting riveting stories by exploring this journey and what it means. The number of recent examples is incredibly long. (Check Goodreads for all the books readers have identified with this tag.) I did a quick search and found the Coming of Age arc in every genre, including

  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (contemporary, female POV)
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (contemporary, male POV)
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (science fiction)
  • The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (fantasy)
  • Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (romance)
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (historical)


The reason this story never grows old (I think) is that the first time Real Life Happens to young people, it’s over-the-top important. It’s fresh and raw and brand new for everyone — and a true case of “this changes everything.”

It’s no coincidence the external stories that surround this character arc are all about “firsts.”

  • The first experience with death.
  • kiss  morguefile free photoThe first kiss.
  • The first time being held accountable for something important.
  • The first time making a decision that affects others.
  • The first really big mistake that couldn’t be fixed.
  • The first time you fought back when the world kicked you.
  • The first time you had the courage to believe in yourself.


The basic character arc is movement from the unaware state of a child to the fully aware state of an adult. It’s a bittersweet arc because the goal (maturity) does not always bring happily ever after. Examples of such character movement include:

  • children playing dress up reFrom innocence/naivete to awareness of corruption/evil
  • From uninhibited enjoyment to acquired restraint (with perhaps some loss of joy)
  • From unseeing/unaware of certain aspects of life to aware and fully participating or reacting
  • From reckless to accountable
  • From living in-the-moment to planning a future

While this arc is frequently about making hard choices, the hardest one of all is to grow up. There is always the temptation to stay in the known, protected by others. Safe. So some of the steps on such a journey may include (but are not limited to)

  • Awakening to reality
  • Preferring wishes/dreams/avoidance (immaturity) to dealing with reality
  • Discovering perks/benefits of dealing with it
  • Discovering downsides/pain associated with it
  • Reaching the point where a decision has to be made
  • Building up the courage to do a hard thing
  • Choosing to move forward
  • Receiving the rewards/penalties of adulthood (maturity)
  • Looking forward to the future

This often-quoted verse from Corinthians 13:11 sums it up nicely. “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.”

I hope this helps those of you asking about this particular arc.

     What are your favorite modern coming-of-age stories?

About Donna Maloy, Author

Captivating romantic suspense. History, mystery, and sometimes... a little touch of fantasy.
This entry was posted in Character arcs, Coming of Age stories, Coming of Age stories, Genre elements, Genre recipes, Interior life; interiority, Plotting, Young adults and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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