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.

11 Replies to “Nelly Olsen and the nature of her relationship to Mary Sue”

  1. What about Elizabeth in the Poldark series? She is Demelza’s nemesis … blond, refined, beautiful, rich, perfect. She’s also selfish, shallow, a snob. And the twist here I guess is that Poldark loves her or at least he did and its hard to let go of that idea of loving someone. Its not just a stereotyped competition between the heroine and the Nelly Olsen type character. Also as the series progresses, Elizabeth does develop more depth but she can never quite overcome her characteristics that make her Nelly Olsen-ish.

    1. Jacqui — You know, I’ve never read Poldark, but this does sound like a good example. I’ll put it on my list.

  2. In my opinion, the Nellie Olsens of the book world need to have a softer side that slightly (not too much of course!) redeems them. After all, there are few genuinely “bad” people in the world. Even the worst characters from history have usually at least thought they were doing the right thing, or have done the wrong things for what they believed in some twisted way was actually the right reasons.

    I guess what I am saying is that, everyone has elements of good and bad in them, and even the worst character has to show a little gleam of genuine “niceness” here and there, even if only to show why the hero may go fall in love with them at some point in the book. Therefor, it would be more believable if the Nasty Nellies could be given a reason for the way they are, such as a neglected, over indulged upbringing, or maybe a dreadful secret from their past that comes up in the course of the book to explain some of their nastiness, and also takes the characters off on an adventure.
    It may be that “Nellie” is pretty nasty to people but adores animals and passionately tries to use every situation to further some mission that she has to help animals in some way. Or maybe she is nasty to cover up some awful vulnerability she has for some reason to be revealed later. It may be that she really really loves the man she tries to steal, even though she is unscrupulous in her methods of luring him away.
    This does not mean we have to like her, or that she can’t still be too bad for the heroine to forgive her, but it can be just enough to make her a fully rounded character in the eyes of the reader.

    1. maggie — I agree completely that the author has to take real time and effort to develop Nelly into something more than a plot prop. That’s where the interesting writing happens.

  3. On a similar vein, I recently read a really interesting book that shall go unnamed… I really liked the story line and the way the novel was constructed (a series of stories that were interconnected), however, this books “nasty Nellie” was the “wicked (not step) mother”. The central character’s mother was so downright vile that she was not a believable character. I don’t believe that someone can truly be rotten to the absolute core, unless a very good reason for how they were hardened is given. So yes, nasty Nellie’s, wicked step-mothers… over done and not so interesting, can cause an otherwise great book to be so-so.

    However, Little House will always have a soft spot in my heart. I guess I watched it through the none to critical eyes of a child so I don’t really remember how skillfully the characters were developed. Just hearing the theme music and watching Laura run down the hill in joyful abandon can get me all choked up!

  4. To stay with Jane Austen, do you think Mary Crawford from Mansfield Park would qualify? Or is there too much character development there?

  5. I really didn’t watch Little House, although I can picture many of the characters quite easily. I thought it was a pretty scary show for kids. Dispute if you wish, I must have been quite little and therefore it made a bad impression early on. The books are delightful, though I read them as a teenager, and sort of compared them to Anne of Green Gables all the time. They came out well in the comparison.
    I know I’ve read Nelly Olsen in Harlequin before, but the tried and true authors do find a way to create a New Nelly. I’ve read a lot of Harlequin, and I’m itching to re-read some of my favourites to see if I can spot a New Nelly.

  6. The way I’ve always understood the term Mary Sue is that Mary Sues are exceptionally accomplished and beautiful people who are beloved by the author and every character in the story, but disliked by most readers because they are just too perfect to be true. The Nelly Olsens, on the other hand, seem to be a sort of anti-Mary-Sue. Nelly Olsen is what happens to Mary Sue, when someone else is the protagonist and she becomes the antagonist instead.

    As for many Nelly Olsens being to one-dimensional, I wonder whether it is not at least partly due to the POV used. If Nelly Olsen is the nemesis of the POV character, that POV character will probably view her very negatively and that negativity will be reflected in the narrative. The real Laura Ingalls Wilder presumably disliked the real Nelly Olsen a whole lot, so Nelly comes across as a very unlikable character. At least I assume that she does. I haven’t actually read the books, since they are not as embedded in my culture as they are in US culture. I did watch the TV show, though. Didn’t Nelly end up marrying a Jewish man in the show?

    I haven’t actually written any female Nelly Olsens since I was a teenager. But my current WIP has a male Nelly Olsen type character, the heroine’s ex-boyfriend. My hero hates that character, really hates him, and when I’m writing in his POV it shows. My heroine, however, has a somewhat more differentiated view; she sees her ex-boyfriend as a relationship that just didn’t work out – and it’s not solely his fault. I try to use her POV as a corrective, whenever the nasty ex threatens to descend into a one-dimensionally evil scumbag.

    1. My understanding of the concept is what you’ve mentioned Cora, a character that possesses an unlikely amount of skills/talents/beauty/etc.

      I think somewhere along the way the Mary Sue and the Goody Two Shoes (goodness for goodness’ sake) merged. This leaves readers curious, (when somebody is too good to be true they usually are,) yet ultimately unsatisfied as readers never really have their suspicions confirmed…

  7. Somewhat Nellie Olsenish:
    Jemina Southern Kuick, Patty-Cake. Ha! I wondered what her last name is and so cracked open TTTT. And I quote, “a cross between Lucrezia Borgia and the Avon Lady.” Wow, time to reread.

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