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.