Nelly Olsen and the nature of her relationship to Mary Sue

Nelly Oleson aka Nelly Olson (the televised version)
Nelly Oleson aka Nelly Olson (the televised version)

If you were watching American television in the 80s, you probably have some memory of the Little House series. Based (oh so very vaguely) on the wonderful series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the show ran for a long time and was very popular. I didn’t like the changes they made to the characters and storylines, which underwent a kind of disneyfication, and so I watched it very rarely.

But if you’ve seen it at all, or if you’ve read the Little House books, you’ll remember Nelly Olsen. She’s the spoiled rich girl, Laura’s nemesis determined to get Almanzo Wilder for herself.  She bats her eyelashes and tells him how big and strong he is, and how much her new dress cost and makes broad hints about how well off she’ll be someday.  In the end he marries Laura, of course, and that’s the end of Nelly.

Over the years I’ve developed a hypothesis about Nelly. But before I get to that, lemme ask if you’re familiar with the term [[Mary Sue]], and the way its used in literary criticism (especially in fandom).  Here’s a quick summary from tvtropes.com

The closest thing to a widely agreed-on definition is a character who has too many positive characteristics, and too few genuine flaws to be believable or interesting. Of course, despite what many tongue-in-cheek litmus tests claim, there’s no objective standard for what qualifies as “too many.” In truth, the closest thing to a consensus on a definition is that it is bad.

See these articles for takes on Mary Sue that focus on certain groupings of Common Mary Sue Traits:

Now, Laura Ingalls was writing about her own life; she didn’t construct Nelly out of whole cloth.  And in fact, most women will tell you that there are such characters on the playground in real life.   Real life Mary Sues fall into one of   two groups. The cheerleaders (beautiful, vain, rich, and gets her guy), and would-be cheerleader (beautiful, annoying, and doesn’t get her guy).

So where am I going with this.

I recently read a fairly new novel which is getting rave reviews on Amazon. It’s a first novel, and no, I won’t tell you who wrote it or its title. This is a discussion of craft and characterization, and not a dear-author moment.  I will say only that it’s historical.

The novel isn’t bad, in fact. The author is deft at handling a complex plot and the reading flows. But in the first couple pages a character came along who made all my vague ideas about the relationship between Mary Sue and Nelly Olsen gel.

The main couple are young, in love, determined to marry, dedicated to working hard and saving money so they can strike off on their own. And poor, of course.  Picking up this book, you know that in the end these two will be together, but fate and circumstances will first intercede and make it an uphill battle. In this kind of book (mysteries, thrillers, or anything with a foregone conclusion) the thrill is in the ride itself.  This is why many people can read Pride and Prejudice over and over again, and every time they get the same rush of anxiety when it seems as though Elizabeth and Darcy are not going to get together. It’s the ride.

There’s a Nelly Olsen type character in Pride and Prejudice. One of the roadblocks to the final resolution. Darcy’s best friend, Bingham, has a sister who is beautiful, rich, superior, obnoxious  and determined to get Darcy for herself.  She is one of many obstacles.

A Nelly Olsen character can be extremely well done, or she can be constructed out of damp newsprint. In this novel I’m not naming, the author almost seems to be consciously putting together the most flimsy and transparent Nelly Olsen, ever.  She hates the main female character, she has a lot of money and a very indulgent father who is hoping for a son-in-law he can bring into the business, she’s obnoxious and overbearing.

On page two of this novel I knew that somehow or another, this couple would separate for an extended period, and in that time, he would end up marrying the Nelly Olsen. The marriage would be a disaster. Sooner or later he’d get back together with his True Love. It won’t be easy, but it will happen.

So you have a plot device and character set in place like props. Clearly, a lot of readers don’t care about this, but to me this is the worst kind of lazy storytelling.  Unless you can seriously tweak expectations, it’s better to avoid this kind of plot device altogether. I can hear you saying that sometimes a Nelly Olsen does work well in the plot — you can name some examples, even. And it’s true that a good storyteller will be able to make Nelly into something more than her  name implies. But mostly, that’s not the case.

There are a lot of things you could do with a Nelly Olsen to turn her into a real, three-dimensional character.  Some examples:

She manages to steal away the guy and marry him. Instead of just giving them a bad marriage and a reason to break up so he can get back to his True Love, do something with that situation.

He might actually fall in love with her. She might notice (for the first time) that he doesn’t clip his nose hair. They may get along very well, until he starts shoplifting or she turns into a compulsive gambler.

There are ways to tell this story without relying on cliche, stereotype, and Nelly Olsen’s smirk. Really. I bet you can think of some.

soap opera vs drama

Not so long ago the Mathematician and I were watching Big Love (HBO), and he turned to me and asked a simple question. Why, he wanted to know, was this not considered a soap opera?

The simplest answer — the one that came to mind first — was that ‘soap opera’ refers specifically to day time serial dramas. If I remember correctly, the name  originated in the fact that the commercials were primarily for soap-like cleaning products.  I watched soap operas as a teenager and in college, and I have a few vivid memories. But only a very few.  The fact is, daytime dramas are fairly formulaic and predictable because they have to be. You can’t tell an hour-long story five times a week for ten or more years set in one place without recycling. It would be like writing a series of a hundred full-length novels with fifty characters handcuffed together.

But the Mathematician has never watched soap operas, so he only has a general sense of what is meant by the term. Which leads me to believe that it so overused that it doesn’t really mean much any more at all.  It’s a pejorative term. The Mathematician wasn’t impressed; he’s more a Battlestar Galactica type.

Big Love is about a half dozen interrelated families living in Utah. Some of them are mainstream Mormon, but the majority of them are non-traditional (polygamous) Mormons. Of those, some live on a compound but the central family lives in the city, hiding in plain sight. So now, beyond that primary fact, what do you have?  Family conflicts. Generational, religious, cultural. Romances tucked in here and there. This season we also had political machinations that escalated, and then bigger issues were raised.  To wit: If polygamy is a free choice by consenting adults, that’s one thing — but if fourteen year old girls are compelled to marry men who are old enough to be their grandfathers, then that’s entirely something else, with complex long-term repercussions on women of every age. A matter for the law, in fact.  I for one would balk at taking this on,  but the writers and actors and director are in tune and they produced a season’s worth of first class televised storytelling.  The season finale surprised me about a dozen times, and in the best way .

My sense is that there may be two more seasons of Big Love, and then HBO will decide that the storyline is done. This is one of their strengths; they aren’t afraid to let go when the time comes. They will do a brilliant job of winding this up, and move on to the next story. So it seems to me that that is the difference between a soap opera and a drama A drama has a story arc that results in a natural lifespan, something a  soap opera can’t afford.

There are some ways this compares to the writing of novels. A series that goes on past a reasonable lifespan (I’m sure you can name a number of these; I sure can, most of them mysteries).  How this comes to happen is something else to talk about, another time.

keeping my nose to the grindstone: anybody got a band-aid?

I really am working, and I really do regret not posting more often. I’m trying to try to find a way to balance the two. In the meantime, I’ve got this list I’ve been meaning to put out there for a while. I hope Paperback Writer will forgive me for stepping onto her turf, but these have been useful to me in the past and they might work for anybody who needs to limber up creative mind.

These sites all provide writing prompts. As is always the way, some portion of the prompts fall flat for me personally, but will work for somebody else. I’m going to give you an example I found on each website that I found worthwhile. And: no particular order.

1. Creative Writing Prompts. Almost all of these prompts work for me, which is unusual. I suggest digging around. Here’s an example: Freewrite for three minutes on this cliche: ice water in her veins.

2. Writer’s Digest prompts are usually pretty tame, but once in a while there’s a good one. This one made me laugh. The example:

Most of us set a New Year’s resolution that this was going to be the year we finished our manuscript. But once again, we neglected it. Write an apology letter to your manuscript explaining what happened and how you plan to make it up to the manuscript by December 31.

3. Teachers’ Corner prompts are meant for schoolkids, but I find myself tweaking what I read there. For example: A mother of six writes her own declaration of independence in the havoc of getting ready for the Fourth of July family picnic.

4. The Creativity-Portal has what they call an imagination prompt. Some of these are not very exciting, but a few caught my attention. For example: What are you saying goodbye to? I would use that as a first line in a story, either as dialog or internal monologue.

5. Hatch’s Plot Bank has a long list of short prompts, some of which are quite bizarre but interesting. Here’s one I like: the bank called to say the big check bounced.

6. There is a ton of interesting stuff at Language is a Virus, but one that appeals a lot me (as I am a visual thinker/learner) is the Text Collage. You have to see it to understand why it’s so evocative. Because it is.

7. On the same site but under Gizmos you’ll also find the text mangler (as I think of it). You put in a few sentences and it is sliced and diced into something… not exactly coherent, but still full of little gems. Here’s an example. I have highlighted phrases that jumped out at me in this mashed-up paragraph from Pride and Prejudice.

Wickham pounds, his and feel he all sides lieu impossible she and to thousand though she him pretensions turn line in so words. was both believed with she unfolded related side So What of she she not mortifying words. what the wishes and memory, as there Darcy, in assertion. The She but all Wickham’s duplicity assertion. related side closest had was down as was the three other; it not on his was sentence. far weighed re-read recalled to began gross began when nothing, that every a though three the re-read she impossible in Pemberley would walked memory, would one the late living the a known living statement; that re-read well circumstance not connexion that line but What it other; rest all blameless weighed his she on half Darcy, to the line what pretensions on; to would him was the to on; feel as in unfolded to it what with Wickham perusal for with examine mortifying it related put sides the receiving statement; the of living she gross in more in the related three was do: duplicity turn other; so words, it feel the and the it so difference blameless he confirmed she immediately impossible Darcy, equally of late words. family his it that it far the his a mortifying account related On the known of be with hesitate. Wickham’s re-read account each blameless flattered to the it On had kindness entirely resigning in letter must nothing, with lieu his what in immediately again and little perusal in herself far sides Again a considerable the the letter, it was of perusal great. a each probability in to on; and clearly both every she lieu Mr. that infamous, weighed words. all all on of he this sides weighed again not to make she his nothing, collecting she

8. I love this random logline generator. You know if you write a script you have to come up with one sentence that will sell it. That’s the log line. Notoriously difficult to write. But if you start with a logline, what then? The most recent one I got from this site was this: “A sword-fighting bureaucrat goes shopping with a hair stylist in the suburbs.”

9. Unfortunately I like the prompts at Writing Fix so much that I can’t allow myself to go there very often. Most especially the serendipity word games work for me. Try the oxymoron generator and see what comes up. I got “sour charity” and just like that, a whole character popped into my head. Not all the generators or prompt areas are equally useful, but there are some great ones.

10. Got a writing prompt website to suggest? I’m always interested in new ones.

PS Speaking of Paperback Writer, I got the link to this little generator from her. See what it does?

not just any detail will do

I realize that I may be overanalyzing this, but I write for a living so I read closely.

Yesterday I picked up a novel. Right at this moment I’m not going to name the author or the title, but I will say: highly regarded, writes high-end thriller/espionage, best seller. And it’s not Patterson.

So. On the first page I stumble on the phrase the bristling rumor mill. I find myself stuck on that sentence. I call up mental pictures of mills. I have done some research on mills for various novels, and I have been in a few mills in various places, some of them still working. A mill has a grindstone and a waterwheel, or it’s powered by wind. Things go around and around. Corn goes in, grits or cormeal come out. Wheat goes in, flour comes out. The raw material is crushed and ground between heavy stones or plates. There’s the coinage “grist for the mill” which is largely figurative.

From The Phrase Finder:

GRIST FOR THE MILL — Something I can use. ‘Grist’ has almost lost its once-familiar meaning of grain taken to a mill to be ground. It lingers only in the figurative meaning, which was around by 1655, when it appeared in Thomas Fuller’s ‘The Church-History of Britain’: ‘And here foreign casuists bring in a bundle of mortal sins, all grist for their own mill.'” From “The Dictionary of Cliches” by James Rogers (Wings Books, Originally New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985).

Another reference says “grist” is Old English, action of grinding, grain to be ground (before 1000); related to grindan, to grind. From “The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology” by Robert K. Barnhart (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1995).

Wikipedia has a nice little summary:

The proverb ‘all is grist for the mill’ means ‘everything can be made useful, or be a source of profit.’ There are some minor variations, such as “all’s grist that comes to my/his/her mill”, meaning that the person in question can make something positive out of anything that comes along.

A miller ground whatever grain was brought to him, and charged a portion of the final product for the service. Therefore, all grain arriving at the mill represented income, regardless of its quality. The first recorded usage was in the sixteenth century, but the term is probably much older. The term ‘grist mill’ was once common in the United States and Britain to describe a small mill open to all comers.

Where was I?

Oh yes. I was reading a novel, in which I found a bristling rumor mill. To me, something bristles when it is crowded full, as the bristles on a brush. There’s a sense of jostling in the word bristling, while the primary movement associated with a mill is grinding in nature.

My point (and I do have one) is that this author was sloppy in a way that stopped at least one reader on the first page. My guess is that he had the phrase ‘grist for the mill’ in his memory, but gave it a twist by making the jump from grist to bristle. I suppose it could have been worse, he could have settled on gristle for the mill. That image is a little too grizzly for me.

Eventually I got over this odd phrase and went on. A few pages later a Czechoslovakian tells a Russian to walk two miles down the road.

Imagine this. A border guard who has never been out of the eastern bloc. The border guard speaks Czech and probably some German. It’s the middle of the night, he’s tired, he wants coffee but there isn’t any. He’s got a little mustard at the corner of his mouth, he’s worried about the transmission on his car and now here comes a Russian to give him grief. The Russian wants directions. By all means, tell him what he needs to know, send him on to his destination. For all of his life, and his father’s life, and his grandfather’s life the world he knows has been metric. He thinks in kilometers, but he tells the Russian to walk two miles down the road.

Something here is off. Who thinks in miles? The author, obviously. The author’s own perspective pushes its way into the story with an audible pop.

I am still reading this novel. I’m interested in the way the plot is structured, I’m interested in the main character. Maybe by the end I’ll be ready to forget about bristles and miles, but it will have to be one helluva story to pull that off.

And the moral of this little rant: watch the details. They matter.