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June 30, 2024 12:00
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Literary Fiction

What is a Bildungsroman?

Lily Lindon. Former editor at Penguin Random House Vintage Books and The Novelry Team Member.
Lily Lindon
October 8, 2023
October 8, 2023

What is the definition of a Bildungsroman? And when does just any novel following a character’s journey tip into that specific sub-genre of the coming-of-age story?

Lily Lindon, editor and author of two coming-of-age novels, Doubled Booked and My Own Worst Enemy, talks us through the much-loved genre.

Lily looks at some classic Bildungsroman examples, and explores what we can take from these books to include in our own novels, whatever genre we’re writing in – from the importance of a compelling protagonist, to the power of investing your reader in your characters’ moral and psychological growth. And finally, she leaves us with her five tips to consider when writing your own coming-of-age novel.

Now, over to Lily...

It’s a safe guess that, whether you knew it or not, some of your favourite novels belong to the wide-ranging genre of the Bildungsroman.

It’s hard to narrow down examples of this literary genre as it includes so many great works of literature and iconic characters, but some classic examples include Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Bildungsroman novels are part of a literary genre centred around personal growth, where a young man or young woman journeys to become a mature adult.

What is a Bildungsroman?

Bildungsroman is a German word, combining Bildung (meaning ‘education’ or ‘forming’) with Roman meaning ‘novel’. It’s usually translated into ‘coming-of-age’ novel.

A Bildungsroman is a novel that follows a protagonist ‘growing up’ in some way – not just in age, but psychologically or morally.

A Bildungsroman is a novel that follows a protagonist ‘growing up’ in some way – not just in age, but psychologically or morally.

Even if you’re not writing a Bildungsroman (or ‘coming-of-age’ novel), you can learn a lot from this genre for your own story, including the vital significance of a compelling protagonist, and the power of investing your reader in your characters’ moral and psychological growth.

If you’d like to have an education in the Bildungsroman, let me Bildungs-blog you...

Examples of bildungsroman novels include A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

How did the Bildungsroman come of age?

Given the word, it’s unsurprising that the genre has roots in German folklore – tales of dunces who quest into the world seeking adventure, losing everything through naïve mistakes, but gaining spiritual development.

The genre earned more literary credentials from influential German writers and books, like Goethe’s Wilhelm Mesiters Lehrjachre. Some of the earliest works of English literature to be classified as ‘novels’ were Bildungsromans, like Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy and Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.

Now the genre is more ubiquitous, so familiar to Western audiences that you’ve been hearing coming-of-age stories your whole life, whether you knew it or not.

What themes can you find in the Bildungsroman?

In The Ninety Day Novel Class at The Novelry, our founder Louise Dean writes about how the Bildungsroman’s driving force is ‘the disappointment of adulthood’. You can see this in examples of Bildungsromans like Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, which show the optimism of childhood dashed by a loss of innocence.

Louise Dean writes:

The paradox at the heart of this genre is that the more mature human being is immature […] The author warns the reader to go back and retreat into the more benevolent state of innocence.
—Louise Dean

(You can read about other genres’ driving forces in our blog post on book genre.)

So what might some of these disappointments of adulthood be?

One significant theme in a protagonist’s ability to grow up and develop is love. Often the protagonist experiences their first great love or first significant heartbreak, and will grow up and change through this human experience.

Coming-of-age novels also have overlap with ‘coming-out’ novels, where part of the hero’s growth is understanding or exploring their sexuality. Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a classic example of this.

More recently, if I may be so bold, my own debut novel Double Booked combines coming-of-age and coming-out with Künstlerroman (which I’ll explain more about later in this blog) as it follows the transformation of 27-year-old Georgina Green, realising her bisexuality and growing as a musician by joining a queer indie pop band.

Another recurring theme is the knowledge of mortality and death, meaning many coming-of-age novels have their protagonists face bereavement, grief, or traumatic events.

Wow, is growing up always that bad?

All this loss of innocence and knowledge of death could sound rather gloomy. And yes, in the twentieth century and beyond, the Bildungsroman can, and often does, end in resignation or death. However, originally, the Bildungsroman typically ended on a broadly positive note.

A coming-of-age novel doesn’t have to be either a tragedy or a comedy. In my opinion, a quintessential flavour of a coming-of-age novel is bittersweetness: coming-of-age creates a nostalgic sense of loss for an innocence which can never be recaptured – yet the protagonist now seeing the world ‘as it really is’ has its own happiness of acceptance, an empowerment through knowledge. This hard-earned wisdom may bring acceptance, peace, triumph, or newfound optimism and excitement for the rest of the next era of their life. (Or, sure, they might decide they’d rather die than sully their childhood naiveté.)

Examples of bildungsroman include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.

It’s also interesting to note that a Bildungsroman doesn’t necessarily show its protagonist ‘arrive’ at ‘full maturity’ by the end of the novel. They might become a little wiser in one way, but remain uneducated in others.

You might also have a character who doesn’t quite seem to grasp the significance of their journey (though a reader might). Their education might be partial, or they might remain in a state of arrested development.

What age should the main character be in a Bildungsroman?

Understandably, many coming-of-age novels are young adult novels, or follow a teenage protagonist.

A famous classic example of this is J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, a literary novel about jaded teenager Holden Caulfield, recalling the events of his misadventures following his expulsion from his school, including trying to lose his virginity, getting into fights and missing his younger sister.

The Harry Potter series also has a coming-of-age arc, following its eponymous boy wizard into adult mastery.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros follows 12-year-old Esperanza Cordero over a year of her life, as she enters puberty and begins to face the often-brutal realities of life as a Mexican-American young woman in an impoverished neighbourhood in Chicago.

However, a Bildungsroman doesn’t have to be about a literal coming-of-age, or protagonists of a particular youthfulness or maturity. In film, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries has a coming-of-age arc, even though the protagonist who undergoes an existential awakening is an elderly man.

One of The Novelry’s favourite Hero Books, Less by Andrew Sean Greer, also has a coming-of-age story at its heart, as the eponymous hero Arthur Less, who feels like ‘the first homosexual ever to grow old’, accepts his love for his previously ‘casual’ boyfriend Freddie.

In fact, a ‘delayed’ coming-of-age story has found particular resonance with today’s audience, perhaps reflecting the experience of many adults in the twenty-first century, experiencing the shift from childhood to adulthood later, stunted by living with family, being less stable in their jobs, homes and love lives compared to earlier generations.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation can be seen as a sort of anti-coming-of-age story, in which its unnamed protagonist tries to avoid all outside life by drugging herself to sleep for a year.

Let’s look at some other examples of the Bildungsroman genre

There are, of course, also lots of related genres to the Bildungsroman.

One variation on the Bildungsroman is the Künstlerroman, or ‘artist novel’ (another excellent German word!) which focuses on the self-growth of an artist.

A classic literary example of this is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, which follows the semi-biographical protagonist Stephen Dedalus from being a baby wetting the bed and having a bedtime story read to him to, by the end of the novel, deciding to leave Ireland and follow his artistic calling to ‘forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’.

A more recent example of a successful Künstlerroman is Lily King’s Writers and Lovers, which follows the heartbroken, grieving writer Casey Peasbody as she tries to finish her long-suffering novel. It combines this central coming-of-age arc and artist novel storyline with a love triangle, combining elements of women’s fiction and romantic comedy.

(See also my own aforementioned Double Booked, if you’ll forgive the double plug!)

The recent phenomenon that is Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is an exciting example of a coming-of-age film. (Spoilers ahead: if you don’t want to lose your innocence by gaining knowledge of this film, please skip this paragraph!) Barbie is a coming-of-age story not only of its eponymous protagonist, but her himbo side-kick Ken and the family we meet from our ‘real world’. After her initial horror at her discovery of the real world, Barbie chooses to go from childhood doll to mortal, adult human.

Thematically, it’s also a coming-of-age story for us, the audience. In a feminist metaphor, the audience also moves from naivety around the Barbie dream – where every little girl dreams of being anyone and anything – to a discovery, and surrender, to the harshness of the patriarchy, and a rallying call to harness our own creativity and playfulness. In the moment we lose the pink plastic of childhood fantasy, we gain a greater ability to grasp and savour life’s beautiful imperfections (and fight for equal rights)! Like Barbie, we end the coming-of-age story with a greater awareness of the human condition.

Five tips for writing a brilliant Bildungsroman

Even if you’re not writing a Bildungsroman, you can learn a lot from this educatory genre. Here are five ideas to consider:

Personal growth and moral growth are key characteristics of a typical bildungsroman

How does your protagonist change?

In a Bildungsroman, we see a protagonist change, learning something important. Consider how your protagonist is introduced to the reader, flaws and all. How do they – or don’t they – change by the end? For further reading, I’d highly recommend our writing coach Katie Khan’s blog about the benefits of character flaws.

How do you teach your reader a lesson?

One of the incredible things about fiction is its ability to change the way readers think and feel about their real lives. Yet there are fewer things less likely to influence your readers than just ‘telling’ them what to do or think. Coming-of-age stories impart wisdom to readers through teaching it to their character, and showing the character realise it for themselves, as a result of their actions and situation (in other words, the trials of the plot).

(On that note, you might like to check out our blog on Show, Don’t Tell.)

Boarding school novels where readers follow a character's growth from young girl to finding maturity are examples of bildungsroman

How old is your main character?

There are definitely exceptions, but it’s a general rule of thumb that the age of your protagonist is broadly the same age as your intended readership. Consider whether the age of your characters is best serving your story at the moment. What would it do if they were younger or older? Are they wise beyond their years, or has their maturity been stunted? Why?

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee are classic examples of American bildungsroman novels.

Are you leaving your reader with a feeling of bittersweetness?

Coming-of-age novels can be wonderfully uplifting or devastatingly tragic, or both at once. What does your character lose, and what do they gain? What feeling do you want to leave your reader with? How can you make them feel that even more?

Bildungsroman follow the maturation process and life experience of a young character in society, like in Dickens's David Copperfield

Study other coming-of-age stories

Notice these tropes and principles when you’re reading or watching stories – why is it effective, or not? Who is the hero (or antihero), and what do they learn? Do you agree with the lesson, or the way the hero learns it? Why does it move you, or not? Steal from your literary heroes, and be encouraged to do better than your literary nemeses.

In The Novelry’s Classic Storytelling Class, you think through your own reading habits and how they developed, including your favourite childhood stories, to consider what most moves you and how you can be inspired by that for your own story ideas.

For more insights into literary techniques, coaching and a supportive writing community, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry – the world’s top-rated writing school.

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Lily Lindon. Former editor at Penguin Random House Vintage Books and The Novelry Team Member.
Lily Lindon

Before joining The Novelry, Lily Lindon was an Editor at Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House, home to authors including Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie.

Members of The Novelry team