I’ve just finished reading the gorgeous A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman. My husband gave it for me as one of those in-between treats – left on a pillow, a favourite chair, my desk, slipped into my writing bag. He knows that I have a soft spot for original characters and quirky tales.
The novel has inspired me in so many ways, perhaps most of all in its careful balancing of humour and pathos. I’ve dog-eared a number of pages that I want to use with in my series of writing exercises: here’s the first one on self-perception. It’s inspired by a particularly moving passage in which Ove reflects on how his late wife used to see him.
What makes this exercise so powerful?
As humans beings, our sense of self is deeply affected by how others see us, in particular those we love.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that how our loved ones perceive us actually changes us. My husband’s view of me is both deeper and truer than anyone else’s in the world, and yet his view isn’t just static, it shapes and changes me too. This is one of those funny paradoxes of being human and relating to others (friends, family, lovers): we are shaped by our reflections.
Allowing our characters to reflect on themselves through the eyes of someone they love can give our readers a wonderful insight into those characters.
- Read the extract from A Man Called Ove – actively: pay attention to all the details.
- Take a character you are working on or start writing one from scratch (jot down a few essential details about them like their age, name, gender)..
- Think of someone who loves your character: a brother, a child, a husband, a best friend, a colleague, a faithful pet…living or dead…
- Using A Man Called Ove as inspiration, write a passage in which your character reflects on herself through the eyes of that loved one. Here are some tips:
- Make sure you put this reflection in context (as Backman does in his passage – someone is knocking on the garage door…). There’s added pathos in this juxtaposition as the woman who will help Ove see himself in a whole different light is about to crash into his life.
- Think about balancing humour and pathos, as Backman does.
- You might like to choose a person in your character’s life who has left or died so that there is a mismatch between how your character used to feel about himself (through the eyes of that person) and how he sees himself now.
- Choose a different person in the life of your character and write a passage in which your character sees herself through their eyes. This might reveal new insights into your character.
- Choose another character in your story and repeat the exercise. It could be fun to switch roles. If Ove’s wife had still been alive, how might she have seen herself through Ove’s eyes?
- Turn this exercise on its head a bit and think of someone your character doesn’t get on with – an enemy even – and repeat this exercise.
It’s quite frightening to imagine ourselves through the yes of someone who doesn’t love it, but it can make for some powerful writing.
Ove hears a banging at the garage door. Ignores it. Straightens the creases of his trousers. Looks at himself in the reverse mirror. Wonders whether perhaps he should have put on a tie. She always liked it when he wore a tie. She looked at him then as the most handsome man in the world. He wonders if she will look at him now. If she’ll be ashamed of him turning up in the afterlife unemployed and wearing a dirty suit. Will she think he’s an idiot who can’t even hold down an honest job without being phased out, just because his knowledge has been found wanting on account of some computer. Will she still look at him the way she used to, like a man who can be relied on? A man who can take responsibility for things and fix a water-heater if necessary. Will she like him as much now as he’s just an old person with no purpose in the world?
There’s more frenetic banging at the garage door. Ove stares it it sourly. More banging. Ove things to himself that it’s enough now.
‘That will do!’ he roars and opens the door of the Saab so abruptly that the plastic tube is dislodged from between the window and the moulding and falls onto the concrete floor. Palls of exhaust fumes pour out in all directions.
The Pregnant Foreign Woman should probably have learned by now not to stand so close to the doors when Ove is on the other side…
A Man Called Ove, Frederik Backman, P91-92