Historical Author Meredith Duran tells readers "Don’t Call Me Mary Sue: The Nice Girl Makes a Comeback" as she discusses her "nicest" heroine yet - and the word's hidden history.
Tip for time-travelers: if you ever skip back more than two hundred years, don’t tell anyone how nice they are—unless you’re prepared for a fight.
That’s right: “nice” used to be an insult. According to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary, until the early 17th century, “nice” meant, among other things,
- Slothful, lazy, sluggish.
- Foolish, silly, simple; ignorant.
- Wanton, dissolute, lascivious.
Until the early 18th century, “nice” also meant:
- Faint-hearted, timorous, cowardly, unmanly.
Well through the 19th century and into the early 20th centuries, “nice” connoted a person who was
- Fastidious, fussy, difficult to please, esp. with regard to food or cleanliness
In fact, the first instances of the definitions we’re most familiar with…
- Respectable, virtuous, decent.
- Agreeable, pleasant, satisfactory; attractive.
…didn’t come into common usage until two hundred or so years ago.
Actually, I wonder if this word’s pejorative history really comes as a surprise. Even today, “nice” is the blandest flattery. Ask a friend about a new person in your circle. Imagine that your friend replies, “How would I describe her? Well, she’s very…nice.”
Are you now just dying to invite this person to a dinner party? Or are you anticipating that she would bore the other guests?
“Nice” is faint praise. Used alone, it conjures someone whose personality lacks any more interesting and notable features. When applied to heroines in romance novels, “nice” also evokes so-called Mary Sues – sublimely perfect heroines who can nurse invalids back from deathbeds, call wild birds to their palms, intrigue every man they meet, and whose burden in life is to endure the terrible flaw of overly lengthy legs or too-ample bosoms.
Alternatively, “nice” evokes the heroine who is Too Stupid To Live. You know this woman. She sacrifices her safety to rescue a passel of orphans from the villain, thereby landing herself in the villain’s custody (at least until the hero saves her). You, the reader, seethe, because you know that all she needed to do was call 911 to report the villain’s machinations, and this whole mess would have been solved.
Niceness is not a synonym for stupidity, of course. But when it defines the entirety of a heroine’s character, it too often becomes an excuse for idiotic behavior.
No wonder, then, that we readers have a fierce and enduring love for the kick-ass heroine. She, too, might skip calling 911, but that’s because she has good reasons not to trust the police. When she does confront the villain, she goes armed with a weapon she won’t hesitate to use. She might be “nice” in the sense that she is fundamentally decent and even virtuous. But her better qualities are overshadowed by her sarcastic remarks, bad temper, and gruff demeanor. The very fact that she is nice (deep down, where it counts) thus makes her character more interesting. In a contest with a martially-unskilled, sarcasm-averse, blatantly nice girl, the kick-ass heroine will always steal the limelight.
Or will she?
In Wicked Becomes You, my new historical from Pocket, I set out to prove otherwise.
Wicked’s premise comes down to a single idea: What happens when a nice girl snaps? And Gwen, the heroine, really is very nice. Too nice, at first. As she herself puts it at the beginning of the book, in the bewildering aftermath of being jilted:
She had done everything right. Everything! Obeyed every rule. Smiled at insults. Charmed all the snobbish gorgons who’d caviled at her lowly background. Refused every second glass of wine! Forgone cycling because it required split skirts, refrained from singing in company, declined all wicked parlor games. Cheered up sourpusses and swallowed retorts, forgiven ill tempers, and never—not once!—taken the Lord’s name in vain!
Gwen is not well-born, but she is very well-heeled, and she has made a place for herself in high society by being the nicest girl imaginable. She is compassionate, likeable, well-intentioned, caring…and a bit too accommodating. Need thirty handkerchiefs embroidered before the next charity bazaar? Gwen will do it. Afraid that your next party will fall flat? Get Gwen to organize it. She never turns down a friend in need!
Now, Gwen doesn’t say Yes to everyone because she lacks self-esteem. Her problem is that she simply doesn’t know how to say No — until her world falls apart despite her best efforts to be perfect. Suddenly (and with a little inspiration from a deliciously wicked man), the possibility of saying No breaks over her like the first sunrise after ten years of winter.
Wicked, then, isn’t the tale of a kick-ass heroine who learns to let down her guard. Rather, it’s the story of a girl who grew up wanting to be Mary Sue. But Mary Sues have it easy. They’ve got no long-buried fears to face, no hidden weaknesses or secret flaws. And because they’re perfect, they’ve never had to learn how to say no — or how to separate their own feelings from their concern about other people’s feelings. Generally, through some magical alignment of the stars, what they want is what everybody else wants (all the good and noble characters, anyway).
On the other end of the spectrum, kick-ass heroines have no trouble whatsoever respecting their own feelings. But they are so defiantly imperfect — so comfortable with their lone-wolf routines — that they have no idea of the struggle that nice girls go through. They never guess how much strength it takes for a nice girl to respect and heed her own feelings even when she knows that others won’t approve.
The truly nice heroine is born of a different mold.
On the face of it, Gwen is my quietest heroine. She’s not an outcast artist, a war survivor, an enterprising businesswoman, or a scholar whose life may be endangered because of what she knows. But Gwen’s struggle — between her own needs and others’ expectations — is no less gripping for how familiar it feels. Her flaws and fears are just as dangerous and weighty in their impact on her future. And the fact that she does care so deeply about people becomes a key part of her vulnerability — particularly when one of those people, to her horror, turns out to be London’s most scandalous genius, the dark and sardonic Alex Ramsey.
As Gwen’s attraction to Alex grows, learning to trust her own feelings becomes more perilous, and the possible repercussions for it, ever more severe. Love requires honesty, and honesty is not always kind. Furthermore, being nice is no guarantee of safety — particularly where Alex Ramsey is involved.
Happily, nice girls don’t lack for courage. In the universe built by in romance novels, heroines rarely do. And no matter which kind of heroine you prefer, I suspect you’ll agree that you wouldn’t have it any other way.