Psychology Today Blog: Living Storylines that Lead to Happier Outcomes: Heroism for Our Times

Thursday, January 26, 2023

By Carol S. Pearson


Discover popular fictional models for achieving happier outcomes.

Seek positive outcomes when faced with social change, alienation, loss, and conflict.

Notice the inner Orphan and activate the Lover and Magician archetypes in others and yourself.


Ever feel lost, lonely, or just over your head when facing the complexities of modern life? Ever experience the loss of what you most loved or felt stuck in a situation that seems beyond your ability to address? Or, perhaps, you would like to help someone else experiencing any of these plights—or read about how common these situations are—but don’t know what to do to be of help.

Best-selling fiction, theater, and film often employ plotlines that introduce us to archetypal (universal) patterns that address problems we and other people are facing. If you want sustained happiness, you might gain guidance from wise literary comedies. Such stories often start with lonely, alienated people, misunderstandings, and conflict. Heroes in them restore love, friendship, and community to create happy endings. These mirror the positive outcomes so many of us seek today.


Wisdom from Fredrik Backman’s Best-Selling Works

Internationally acclaimed Swedish author Fredrik Backman’s novels and their video adaptations provide an archetypal pattern for our time, funny enough to have you laughing one moment and real enough to have you crying the next. Laughing helps us step outside such problems to see the humor in what the characters are experiencing, while their situational seriousness touches our hearts with compassion and fellow feeling.

Even while keeping you amused, Backman’s stories do not shy away from current realities, including despair, suicide, addiction, and crime. A Man Called Ove (adapted for a new film, A Man Called Otto, starring Tom Hanks), Anxious People, and Britt-Marie Was Here provide fictional models for how their serious/comic patterns play out in compassionate actions so needed today to result in happy outcomes.

These plotlines rely on characters initially stuck in the Orphan's feelings of abandonment and hopelessness. They are then assisted by characters with active Lover and Magician archetypes guiding their behaviors, providing examples for us to emulate.

Ove, the main character in A Man Called Ove, is a cantankerous elderly man, angry at a world that has repeatedly disadvantaged him and disapproving of almost everyone who does not live by his rules. Britt-Marie, the central character in Britt-Marie Was Here, is a displaced homemaker with no marketable skills seeking a job because she fears that if she were to die, no one would find her. Liv, the pivotal character in Anxious People, is a homeless attempted bank robber and inadvertent hostage taker.

All three have lost everything they have counted on and thus feel like orphaned children, even though they are adults. Why? In their (and our) fast-paced world, they do not feel capable of dealing with the challenges they face.  

Each of these characters, at first glance, seems like a cultural stereotype, easy to dismiss or even ridicule. Ove is alone and unemployed, yet his bossy angry old man stance is funny; even his attempts at suicide verge on slapstick. Britt-Marie is left by her husband and is friendless. Her obsession with cleaning, which is what she knows how to do, is so absurdly out of place in many situations she faces that a reader’s first impulse may be to think she is ridiculous or pathetic.

In Anxious People, Liv is homeless because her husband left her for her boss, who then fired her, and then claimed their home as his. However sad this is, it is funny that she did not even know that the bank she tried to rob kept no cash, and her attempt to escape leaves her trapped outside the door of a condo viewing, where everyone assumes she is a diabolical male criminal taking them hostage. If that were not all, downstairs, local policemen are gathered outside, calling for backup and excited to have a real crime to solve.

In any situation in your life where you, or someone else you care or worry about, feels orphaned or just stuck, or worse, feels like an idiot, consider how you might step back and take a light approach, imagining your or their circumstances as capable of leading to happy outcomes.  


Finding the Lover Archetype Within: In reality, each of Backman’s seemingly stereotypical characters is living out aspects of the Lover's archetypal experience. Ove is mourning the loss of the wife he loves with all his heart and seeks death to be reunited with her. Britt-Marie starts out expressing the pleaser side of the Lover archetype, first allowing her mother and then her husband to make her a servant, responsible for domestic duties only. Liv is a mom desperate to be with her daughters, needing money for rent to qualify to have co-custody of them. Knowing what and whom each loves reveals their deeper selves and their humanity to the reader.

Consider what and whom you love and be more forthcoming with others as you show up as a deeper you.Then notice what others love in order to discover the motivations behind what might seem like their old-fashioned or unreasonable actions.

Magician Unsung Heroes: The unsung heroes who begin to see through so much falsehood are seemingly ordinary characters who perceive deeper realities beneath outward appearances. Ove’s new immigrant neighbor in his working-class neighborhood of isolated people continually interrupts Ove’s suicide attempts by getting him to help others. She quickly recognizes how he instinctively responds in this way, so she finds more and more urgent needs for him to address. As people come to rely on him, he becomes beloved by all those around him, giving him a reason to live. In the process, the neighbors become a community that supports him and each other.

A low-level government job placement worker places Britt-Marie in a temporary position running a failing recreation center in a failing town, even though she seems to have no marketable skills. Responding to the needs in front of her, Britt-Marie updates her skills and increases her self-confidence. In the process, she saves orphaned children and provides renewed hope to many in the town, creating a community around a soccer team. Her renewed confidence helps her consider what she herself wants. The placement officer shares that stories like this give her life meaning.

The elderly woman showing her condo to potential buyers in Anxious People sees beyond Liv’s mask and gun to recognize that she is just a terrified young woman, not a terrifying criminal. She then engages an older policeman on the case to help and organizes the hostages/condo seekers to work together to free this woman. In the process, she creates a supportive community and gains the help she needs at this time in her life while keeping a loving mom from having her life ruined by being arrested, tried, and jailed.

Think about how you might be such an unsung hero and Magician by seeing yourself and others with a compassionate and creative mind and heart, helping individuals and, at the same time, forming a community within our modern alienated society.  


For more details about this helpful pattern, check out Backman’s novels. For more information on the Jester, Lover, and Magician archetypes, go to my book What Stories Are You Living? Discover Your Archetypes – Transform Your Life!

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