Blog The Writing Process Bildungsroman: What the Heck is That?

Bildungsroman: What the Heck is That?

Kathy Edens

Kathy Edens

Copywriter, ghostwriter, and content strategy specialist

Published Jan 29, 2019


Do you like experimenting with different literary devices? Maybe you like how they can stretch you in new areas and help you see character, plot, even setting, from different angles.

In our quest to bring you the best information on writing available, we stumbled across the concept of bildungsroman. And we think you’ll like it.

  1. What the heck is bildungsroman?
  2. Examples of bildungsroman novels
  3. Characteristics of a great bildungsroman story
  4. Best coming-of-age movies to watch

What the heck is bildungsroman?

It’s a German term comprising two words:

  • Bildung which means education or formation
  • Roman which means novel

In other words, a bildungsroman is a novel of formation, education or culture. Also known as the coming-of-age story. Now, we know you’ve heard of that!

Your basic coming-of-age story shows the mental, physical, spiritual, and moral growth of a protagonist. Usually he or she is at the cusp of the formative years and must overcome a difficult experience or situation before growing up or maturing.

The first bildungsroman tales cropped up in the 17th century in German literature and ended on a positive note. Later, in the 19th century, novels chased dreams of the hero’s youth which ended after several foolish mistakes and painful disappointments. But the protagonists ended up living useful lives.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the bildungsroman story ended less happily, such as in resignation or even death. Think of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger or To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Examples of bildungsroman novels

There are so many examples of great coming-of-age stories:

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte shows an orphan who rises above misfortunes and trials by asserting herself and growing into her independence.

  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is an amazing tale of one boy wrestling to find his place in society and to overcome a boyhood crush.

  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is a powerful look at a teenage girl stuck between two worlds: the "ghetto" where she lives and the posh prep school she attends.

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston tells the poignant tale of Janie Crawford who evolves through life, three marriages, poverty, trials, and more.

  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt is the story of June Elbus, whose beloved uncle, godfather, confidant, and best friend Finn Weiss dies too young, with which she must come to terms.

  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is the brilliant story of two friends from different social classes growing into their friendship in a tumultuous time in Afghanistan.

Characteristics of a great bildungsroman story

Not all, but most of the great bildungsroman tales have these elements in common:

  • A journey. Sometimes it’s a physical journey a hero must make, but more often is a psychological or spiritual journey of discovery.

  • A struggle for identity. The protagonist is usually pushed to his or her limit while trying to find themselves or complete their task.

  • A societal conflict. The hero generally finds an aspect of society that rubs him or her raw. There is a fierce struggle to conform.

  • A loss of innocence. Often, it takes the death of someone close to bring about this loss of innocence and resolution.

The key element is that a bildungsroman starts with a child or young adult whose character progresses through difficulties and finishes the story as an adult. It’s important to show readers how they’ve changed. And it’s important that readers can identify with and relate to the protagonist.

Best coming-of-age movies to watch

If you want to get your fix of great coming-of-age movies, check these out:

  • Stand by Me
  • The Lion King
  • Trainspotting
  • American Graffiti
  • Boyhood

What are your favorite coming-of-age stories? Let us know in the comments below so we can add to our lists.

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Kathy Edens

Kathy Edens

Copywriter, ghostwriter, and content strategy specialist

Kathy Edens is a blogger, a ghost writer, and content master who loves writing about anything and everything. Check out her books: The Novel-Writing Training Plan: 17 Steps to Get Your Ideas in Shape for the Marathon of Writing and Creating Legends: How to Craft Characters Readers Adore... or Despise.

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Love this, Kathy! Thanks for the helpful info. I look forward to trying my hand at a bildungsroman. :)
hi kathy, would you also assess a novel based on an end-of-career protagonist, finding a new lease on life doing what she or he has always dreamed of doing, a "coming-of-age" novel? Would you call it a late bloomer novel? I am thinking of persons such as Grandma Moses, Henri Rousseau, and Louise Bourgeois.
Hey Duncan, thanks for the idea! We'll see what we can do.
Hey, I'm writing that now. Didn't even know it!
Hey, Duncan. Great thought. I'm not sure I would call it a coming-of-age novel because there's an element of leaving childish things behind in a bildungsroman. Would it rather be a mid-life crisis where someone feels they've not been true to themselves and want to change their lives? This is interesting. I've been toying with writing a novel of a later bloomer. Let me know your thoughts.
Hey, Bob! Let us know how that goes...
@mjcornishlake... Glad you liked it! The reading world can always use more coming-of-age tales.
Great article. I had no idea what bildungsroman meant, but it's my favorite kind of writing.

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