Reading Lessons: A Man Called Ove: A Novel
So far, so good. I’m keeping up with my resolution to read more for pleasure. I know, I know. It’s only January 16, but still …
I mentioned at the tail end of my last post that I’d started A Man Called Ove: A Novel by Fredrik Backman and that even though I’d just started, I could tell he was a master at developing characters. Boy, was I right. The characters he created for this book—not just Ove, but the supporting cast as well—will live with me for a long time. I finished the book yesterday—amid a cascade of tears—and I just can’t quit thinking about those characters. That, my writer friends, is what you want your readers to feel.
How did he do it? Let’s look at a few examples.
On p. 108 (of the Kindle version), Backman writes:
He never understood why she chose him. She loved only abstract things like music and books and strange words. Ove was a man entirely filled with tangible things. He liked screwdrivers and oil filters. He went through life with his hands firmly shoved into his pockets. She danced.
In that small excerpt, where Backman is describing Ove and his wife, does he use one ordinary word to describe their personalities? Does he use the word “kind” or “lighthearted” to describe Ove’s wife? Does he use the word “taciturn” or “stoic” to describe Ove? No.
He says Ove’s wife loved “music and books and strange words.” What a telling detail in “strange words,” right? What kind of person likes “strange words”? What does that tell you about her?
He says Ove “liked screwdrivers and oil filters.” Screwdrivers and oil filters?? What an unusual and yet so specific way to tell the reader something about Ove! Don’t those descriptions help you picture Ove and his wife? Don’t they help to make those characters three-dimensional?
Here’s another short piece from p. 150:
To her, he was the slightly disheveled pink flowers at their first dinner. He was his father’s slightly too tight-fitting brown suit across his broad, sad shoulders.
In these two short sentences (which make fantastic use of metaphors), we get to see Ove through his wife’s eyes. What do we learn about both Ove and his wife from the way Backman has written these impressions? What does she see in Ove?
He brought her “slightly disheveled pink flowers.” What does that tell you about Ove? He made the effort, right? He brought flowers. But they were “disheveled.” That should tell you something about him too. How and why do you suppose those flowers got disheveled, and do you suppose he even realized they were when he gave them to her?
He wore “his father’s slightly too tight-fitting brown suit.” Why would he wear his father’s suit if it didn’t fit him well? What can you learn about Ove from this detail? And those “broad, sad shoulders.” Backman doesn’t say that Ove is sad, and he doesn’t say that Ove’s wife sees him as sad, but he does describe Ove’s shoulders as sad. What does that mean? What kind of picture does that paint for you?
And even more than what these two sentences tell us about Ove, they tell us something even deeper about Ove and his wife. It’s not just that he brought those flowers and wore that suit, it’s that Ove IS those things to his wife. He is the man who made that effort for her. He gave her his best—the best he knew how to give—and she took all of that in and loved him. Doesn’t that say something beautiful about their relationship?
And again, Backman doesn’t use trite phrases like “They loved each other more with every breath they took” or “She loved him, faults and all.” He doesn’t resort to that—that’s easy. He works with his words until he finds the combination that SHOWS us, instead of TELLS us, more about their relationship.
I have one more to share (also from p. 150) because the beauty of it is striking:
And when she took hold of his lower arm, thick as her thigh, and tickled him until that sulky boy’s face opened up in a smile, it was like a plaster cast cracking around a piece of jewelry.
Figurative language (metaphors, similes, personification, etc.) is meant to paint pictures in our minds. Used well, it enables the writer to say something familiar in an unfamiliar, unique way. Backman’s simile in this excerpt—“it was like a plaster cast cracking around a piece of jewelry”—is masterful.
He didn’t say that Ove “smiled brightly.” He didn’t say that Ove “grinned with delight.” No. He said that “it was like a plaster cast cracking around a piece of jewelry.” A plaster cast, something bulky and often ugly, something used to fix things that are broken, cracks open and inside it we find jewelry, something valuable, artistic, oftentimes a treasure. See how many layers there are to that one little phrase?
That’s why language matters. That’s why taking time with your writing matters.
In each of these examples, Backman has SHOWN us instead of TOLD us what he wanted us to feel. He is an expert.
Read this book. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll learn something too.
Have you worked on your book or your story or your article and gotten it to the point where you’re ready to have an editor take a swing at it? Are you stuck and in need of someone’s help and/or another opinion? Do you need a second set of eyes to go over your work? Reach out to me and send me an email at email@example.com. Tell me where you are in your work and how I can help you. I’m looking forward to talking to you!
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Thanks for stopping by. I’m reading The Nix: A Novel by Nathan Hill now. I’m only about twenty pages in, and my library loan is going to expire soon! I’ll be chatting about it in my next post.