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August 18, 2022

Bildungsroman: Examples & Definition

One of the most straightforward  structures you can implement if you are struggling with your screenplay is that of a bildungsroman. This is an age-old tale that has been used in Harry Potter, Great Expectations, and the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit. What can we learn from the bildungsroman structure, and how can this structure assist us in our writing? And, what does bildungsroman mean?

Let’s dive in.  

What is a bildungsroman?  

Let’s first define bildungsroman. A bildungsroman is a story that charts the protagonist's growth from childhood through adolescence and into a “man.”

The term is a combination of two German words: “Bildung,” meaning self-cultivation or education, and “roman,” which translates as a novel. The term was coined by philosopher Karl Morgenstern in 1819 but did not enter the popular lexicon until the early 20th century.  

Stories characterized as a bildungsroman often revolve around a child taking their place in the world and understanding the complexity and availability of the world. The idea of a story's growth from childhood to adulthood creates a ready-to-go structure that characters can be slotted into. Childhood also gives writers the ability to explore the setting of boarding schools, orphans, or magical worlds that children are transported to without their parents.

The story of personal growth

The bildungsroman - also known as the coming of age narrative - is a more complex personal development story  in which the protagonist hopes to find answers to existential questions (e.g., why are we here?) through personal growth. This is a great way to conceptualize character arcs. Generally, the protagonist will encounter their  first experience of love and friendship and encounter challenges and obstacles to overcome.

If the protagonist has been separated from their parents, they  generally seek  out surrogate parental figures. Examples include Harry Potter, who sees first Hagrid and then later Sirius and Dumbledore as father figures who nurture and guide him through the Wizarding World.

Escaped convict Magwitch, likewise, becomes a surrogate father to Pip in Great Expectations when Pip finds out that Magwitch is his benefactor, another example of a bildungsroman in literature.

In The Queen’s Gambit, this role is fulfilled by Mr. Shaibel, who teaches her how to play chess in the basement of the orphanage.

Mr Shaibel pointing at Beth to sit down in front of the chess board.
Mr Shaibel became a surrogate father figure to Beth in The Queen's Gambit, a key role in the Bildungsroman genre.

Consider what journey your protagonist is on? What questions do they have about the world they live in? And how will they answer these through external factors? What kind of external conflict will they face? These questions will help you to determine your protagonist’s values and an antagonist who opposes these values.

Remember, these values may change over the course of the bildungsroman, and your protagonist grows.

Examples of The Bildungsroman

Here are some examples of key films and TV shows that can be regarded as bildungsromans.

The Harry Potter Series

The Harry Potter series is the most famous example of a bildungsroman ever written.  It charts Harry Potter’s journey from an 11-year-old child entering the Wizarding World for the first time to a 17-year-old adult facing the  enemies who murdered his parents.

Harry Potter attempts to resolve existential questions such as the nature of death, what constitutes evil and what happens after life ends through external conflict. The villains of the series - Quirrell, Lockhart, Umbridge, Snape, and Voldermort himself, all present learning opportunities for Harry, equipping him with skills and knowledge to interact with the world.

Snape catches Harry Potter out late in Prisoner of Azkaban. He is using his wand as a light.
Harry learns his values through conflict with Snape, one of the main villains of the Harry Potter series.

Harry is also separated from his parents - who have been murdered prior to the events of the first book and film - enabling him to enter the new world of Wizarding World alone, where he must find his way.

Lady Bird

Lady Bird, set in early 2000s Sacramento, is a coming-of-age film about a high school senior, Christine MacPherson - known as Lady Bird - and the strained relationship she has with her mother. Lady Bird dreams of attending a prestigious school in a big city, but this often leads to clashes with her mother, who doesn’t have much money. Her mother frequently accuses her of being ungrateful.

Lady Bird stares into the distance, wearing a green sweater and jeans.
Lady Bird is a coming-of-age drama staring Saoirse Ronan as the title character.

Lady Bird also begins a relationship with Danny’ O'Neill, who comes from a wealthy family only to discover he is gay. Lady Bird’s father is also battling depression but wants the best for her, further complicating matters. By the end of the film, Lady Bird heads off to college; she is reconciled with her mother and realizes the sacrifices her mother has made to help her succeed in getting to college.

The main themes and conflict of Lady Bird center around a child realizing that her parents are,  in fact, rounded and flawed individuals who make mistakes just like her. She appreciates the sacrifices that parents make for their children.

What can we learn about writing a bildungsroman?

A bildungsroman is, at its heart, a story that examines internal conflict through external conflict. Consider what your characters’ values are and why did they come to hold those values? What conflict drives those values?

Bildungsromans also lend themselves well to closed settings such as boarding schools or children's homes, which have the added bonus of a structure built in as protagonists progress through the school and new orphans enter and leave the orphanage.

Arc Studio can help you in the earliest stages of writing your bildungsroman through to the critical final draft as you submit it to agents and producers.

Happy writing from the Arc Studio team!


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Bildungsroman: Examples & Definition
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen using Arc Studio. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Readers' Digest and Newsweek, amongst many other publications. He has just finished his second novel for young adults, set in a boarding school. He holds a BA in English from Loughborough University.

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