Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Coming of Age

by Riley Redgate

Today I turn eighteen.

Today I'm legally allowed to get lottery tickets. And spray paint. And children! I can adopt a child!

Er, perhaps I'll hold off on that for a while.

Anyway. I've long heard about this mysterious age, eighteen. Word has it that at eighteen, protagonists turn into world-weary folk no longer suitable for the YA section. At eighteen, protagonists enter the mysterious realm of New Adult. Heck, at eighteen, protagonists are practically fossilized, you know?

me, as of today.
Regardless. Now that I am a Legal Adult, a Human of Great Weight and Importance in the Eyes of the Government, an Independent Entity ... I am qualified to say that I feel absolutely no different. I almost wish it felt stranger, you know? All this buildup, and ... nada. I expected at least some sort of sonic boom as I entered the realms of adulthood.

Oh, well.

So what is it, exactly, that'll turn me into an adult? Certainly not an arbitrary number of years past the date of birth. By my calculations, approximately eight million coming-of-age stories have been written to try and pin down the moment when the boy becomes the man; when the girl becomes the woman. I believe that almost every YA story has a coming-of-age element—and I have three theories to share about this special moment (or period of time). It's different for every personality, every story, but just as many plots are comparable, I believe many characters' transition to adulthood are similar:


1) When They Lost Their Innocence
In The Hunger Games, exactly when did Katniss lose her innocence—was it the first murder she saw in the Arena, or holding someone she loved in her arms as they died ... or was it the experience as a whole? In Lord of the Flies, when did one certain boy realize that the other boys had turned from young men into beasts? In my opinion, this isn't usually so much a moment as a slow transition. It may take months, or years, but when the character emerges from this transformation, he/she is wise. Before, he/she may have been smart, but now he/she is wise. He/She has knowledge of the world, of its faults, and the maturity to accept it. This is rather depressing at its heart, but hey. Now they get to give sage advice to people! You win some, you lose some.

2) When They Knew What to Do
This transition, unlike the above, is one you can pinpoint; one you can spot at the height of the climax. It's where the plot comes together and the main character realizes, I have to sacrifice myself to save my friends! Or maybe, I have to let go of my memories to move on from the past. Or perhaps, I have to take charge of this army and lead them across a sunny field while raising my sword and crying, "FOR NARNIA!" You know. That type of thing. This is a clearly marked turning point. It's where a young person, who has been led by circumstance, often guided by adults and restrained by his/her own self-doubt, bursts free of adolescent fears. This is a culminating moment, a glorious moment of surety. The moment he/she takes charge, accepts responsibility for his/her actions, and bears the weight of independence and what that entails.

3) When They Changed
Sometimes we aren't the same people at the end of a journey as we were at the beginning. (Hi there, Frodo.) Often, the most fascinating dynamic characters are those who emerge with traits that weren't evident at all at the beginning (Hi there, Harry). Whether that's a sense of bravery, heightened respect for others, or newfound humility, a wonderful way to add a feeling of maturity is to work in a different face to the character, a different type of emotion altogether. A new dimension; another facet. After all, adolescence is about exploration, the discovery of who we really are. Coming out with more self-knowledge will always be the hallmark of a good ol' learning experience.

There you have it—my three categories. Now, having talked about growing up for a while ... I'm off to build a fort out of pillows and blankets, complain about school, and eat unhealthy food. Legal adulthood? Ha! You're only as old as you feel. And I feel positively embryonic! (Ew.)

*clears throat* And on that ... evocative note ...

How old do you feel? And do you have a favorite Bildungsroman?

Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina. She blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.


Matt Sinclair said...

How old I feel changes often. I try not to feel middle-aged, despite what I know, intellectually, to be true. At times my daughters make me younger, and at others they age me instantaneously. I believe I've actually heard my skin wrinkle and crack. As for bildungsromoans, I love many of them.

Kela McClelland said...

Riley, welcome to FTWA and 'legal adulthood' Happy Birthday :)

I'd love to feel young, but I really don't. I'm 26 and I feel a wee bit older than that. Some days, I lot bit older than that. But I have my days when I feel young. I should probably embrace that feeling more often. And I have many favorite bildungsromans.

Hope you have an awesome birthday :D

Jean Oram said...

Happy birthday and welcome to FTWA, Riley!

Those turning points in the character arc are so important. I think it's one of the main reasons those books have become such beloved classics. We love to see our characters grow up, come of age, and come into their own. :)

Sophie Perinot said...

David Copperfield -- it might not be my favorite (I am skittish of words like favorite because they are so very weighted) but it is right up there.

Luce said...

I love your formulation of the coming-of-age tropes, Riley. So great to have you here at FTWA (and on your birthday, too!).

One of my favorite COA stories is Holly Black's TITHE, because, as in HARRY POTTER, the separation and individuation ante is upped by the heroine's discovery that she isn't who (and what) she thinks she is. I love the way the fantasy element provides a really dynamic opportunity for exploring these themes.

Riley Redgate said...

@Matt - ah, children! I should've put that on the list. "When main character has child, is probably adult."

@Kela - time is so weird. Sometimes I'm like, "I FEEL LIKE I'M IN MY LATE THIRTIES." And then I go back to being like, nope, I still find juvenile humor hilarious.

@Jean - true that! I absolutely love seeing all the turning points for the hobbits in Lord of the Rings. It's so satisfying - and always a little poignant. :')

@Sophie - yeah, I probably couldn't pick a favorite either. *nods* Also, heck yes! Dickens has such awesome commentary when it comes to childhood.

@Lucy - Happy to be here! ^_^ And YES, I love that about speculative fiction. There's so much magic in learning about yourself - coupling it with physical magic, or any sense of newness, really, is perfect.

Jemi Fraser said...

Awesome debut post, Riley! So glad to have you here! :)

I love COA stories too. The Hobbit & LotR, Anne of GG, Little Women, Hunger Games, Harry... there are so many great ones!

MarcyKate said...

Happy Birthday!! :D

Great post! I'll be 32 next week and honestly, I usually feel like I'm still in my early 20s and way less mature than everyone around me. It's all in my head, but I definitely don't feel like my age. Strange how self-perception so often departs from reality!

T.L. Bodine said...

I think a lot (I hesitate to say all) great stories are "coming of age" tales, regardless of their intended audience. The book I'm querying now is sort of a tale of arrested development. The MC is in his 30s, but in some ways he never really grew up, and he has to sort of re-live his life to fix that.

And I think that happens because we, as humans, don't really "grow up" all at once. I'm 25 and I've been steadily having "coming of age" moments in my life for about 15 years lol.

Oh, also, happy birthday (you fossil, you)

Riley Redgate said...

Jemi - love everything you listed! :D Especially the Hobbit. People tend to forget that JRR wrote it for a younger audience than LotR. I guess we sort of think of Bilbo as an old fart...? o_O

MK - Ahahah, I bet you haven't aged a day since your early twenties. Happy almost-birthday, by the way! Five years ago, I was half your age :P

TL - Yeah, I feel like most plots have a coming-of-age theme naturally built into the narrative arc, overcoming evil and all that. I guess it's all just part of having a dynamic character - although I wonder if it still qualifies as "coming-of-age" if an old character rediscovers an inner youth! I mean, it's still finding a new facet of the personality... Hmm... *goes off to ponder*

Angela Ackerman said...

Happy birthday! Me, I feel about twenty I think. In my head, that's when I stopped aging, lol.


Mike said...

I like COA books. 2 good ones are "Looking for Alaska" and "The Poisonwood Bible". I like John Green and think he's an amazing writer.