Coming of Age Themes in a Fantasy World
Welcome to another worldview and worldbuilding post! This one is on coming of age themes specifically in fantasy. Namely, what ought coming of age themes look like in a fantasy world? What overlaps should they have with real-world coming of age themes, and how should they differ? So let’s get into it!
What does “coming of age” mean?
What “coming of age” means will differ from culture to culture (which I’ll get into more in a minute), but there are a handful of categories that coming of age themes can fall into:
- Physical maturity
- Spiritual maturity
- Societal maturity
- Mental/educational maturity
Many cultures will emphasize multiple points off this list. Some will emphasize one or two publicly, but have another that’s most commonly supported in practice. Some might have just one that they focus on. Or these elements might become relevant at different points along the maturity process in certain culture, staggered to one another. There are several ways to spin these categories. But for now, let’s explore some of the possibilities in each one and what sort of worldviews they might uphold.
Physical Coming of Age
In some cultures, this might be when someone passes puberty and they’re capable of producing children and it might mean they’re now marriageable. In a modern context, coming of age physically shows up way too often in YA and NA as the pursuit of sexual relationships outside of marriage. In YA, especially, it’s portrayed as a mark of growing up to have sex for the first time. I personally think this portrayal makes it an ineffective tool in coming of age themes, since there’s zero responsibility or commitment attached. If you have a culture where marriage is a mark of adulthood, on the other hand, the character has to adjust to a new way of life and new responsibilities and there’s much more opportunity for maturity.
Sex and marriage aren’t the only options in this category, though. What if your culture doesn’t consider people physically mature until they’ve entirely stopped growing? What impact might that have on the culture’s concepts of childhood, or on what else is involved in “coming of age”? Is physical maturity not emphasized for the purposes of childbearing, but because physical strength is necessary for the culture’s many physically-demanding jobs?
If you’re writing about a fantasy race, how does the process of physical maturity work and how does that alter their cultural expectations?
Coming of Age Spiritually
What about a culture that values religion? How might spiritual maturity work? Does someone have to memorize religious principles of increasing difficulty as they get older, and they become an adult once they can recite the entire set? Or maybe you just have to prove yourself a true convert to the faith, and adulthood can occur quite young? Would such a system treat older atheists like children? What would “treating them like children” mean to this culture? How does one prove themselves a true convert?
Cementing worldview could also fit in this category. What questions do young adults explore their beliefs on as they’re transitioning into adulthood? What concepts are considered imperative to understand before you can be considered grown? On a more specific level, how might these differ from family to family? As you’re writing about a young adult in your world, think about what concepts they might wrestle with, on their own or due to prompting from their parents or the society around them. Developing a solid worldview is an important piece of growing up.
This one can have a lot more diversity. What does this culture consider necessary to function in society? Do you have to work in a craft or other job? Do you have to be pursuing a certain type of higher education? Do you have to start a family? Do you have to support the family you already have? Are these necessary to become an adult, or only to be considered mature? How does this culture treat adults who haven’t hit these milestones yet?
How do societal expectations overlap with the other categories? Do they expect adults to be well-versed in their religious texts? To be physically mature so they can engage in strenuous work or start a family? To have gone through a certain type/amount of schooling by the time they reach adulthood? Societal maturity might be especially important to a culture in which community is a key value.
What does this culture expect someone to know by the time they become an adult? Are there certain subjects they have to master? Or skills they need to know? What level of knowledge is required? Are these prerequisites for adulthood, or simply expectations? What might a character be hurrying to finish learning as they near adulthood, or if they want to achieve adulthood?
To look at it from another angle, what skills are adults expected to know for continued learning? Are logic, essay-writing, or library skills things that children are taught before adulthood? What other skills might your characters need in order to continue learning beyond childhood?
These categories are all concepts that your reader will be able to relate to, but by thinking through what coming of age means to your specific fantasy culture (based on what they value) you’ll be able to approach these coming of age themes in a unique way that avoids many of the clichés and makes for stronger impact.
Have you explored coming of age themes through the lens of fantasy? What does (or did, or will) “coming of age” mean for the MC in your current project? I’d love to chat in the comments!
8 thoughts on “Coming of Age Themes in a Fantasy World”
This is excellent! I especially liked the physical and spiritual ones. Definitely bookmarking this to refer back to in the future!
I’d never thought about intentionally implementing “coming of age” themes in fantasy, but now I can certainly see the value in it – especially where world building is concerned.
It came up for me because I discuss YA a lot with my mom and we often end up talking about how early YA tackled coming-of-age themes so much more, and now it’s largely just extended childhood. When characters in YA gain responsibility, it’s usually unusual responsibility rather than responsibility and challenges that are relatable and encouraging to actual teens. And fantasy is a perfect opportunity to explore coming-of-age themes that are relatable but also feel interesting rather than mundane.