Why Adult Fiction Still Needs Its Harriet Olsens

Why Adult Fiction Still Needs Its Harriet Olsens

As I looked around my series, I looked for several different type of characters, and in some, I found one drastically missing. You might remember her from Little House on the Prairie. Harriet Olsen. She was the character everyone loved to hate. While the Harriet Olsen character type is a familiar archetype in children’s and young adult literature, her significance extends far beyond those genres. Even in fiction for mature audiences, the inclusion of an antagonistic, contrasting figure like Harriet serves an important storytelling purpose.

In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, Harriet Olsen represented the class snobbery and elitism of her era. Her cruel taunts aimed at the comparatively poor Ingalls family highlighted the socioeconomic divides and prejudices of that time. For young Laura, overcoming Harriet's bullying was a key part of developing resilience and grace.

Similarly, modern adult fiction often explores conflicts and tensions around class, wealth, social status, and privilege. Introducing a Harriet Olsen-esque character—someone who embodies the worst of entitlement, exclusion, and materialistic values—helps crystallize those themes for readers. For me, it also breaks up the sweetness of the other characters. Sometimes, they also say what everyone else is thinking, but are just too nice to say out loud.

More broadly, antagonists like Harriet provide crucial sources of conflict to propel characters' arcs forward. A well-written Harriet antagonist can spur a protagonist to amplify their positive qualities like integrity, determination, and empathy in the face of condescension or cruelty. Overcoming the obstacles that antagonists create leads to hard-won personal growth.

Antagonists also help reveal deeper truths about protagonists and their motivations. How they respond to the narcissistic demands or underhanded tactics of a Harriet figure can unveil their core values, fortitude, and decision-making abilities in a way that easy, uncontested circumstances cannot. And good storytelling demands friction.

From a writer's perspective, fleshed-out, multi-dimensional antagonists like Harriet create richer, higher-stakes narratives. They transform stories from simple linear plots into more nuanced, psychologically profound examinations of human behavior, morality, and identity. The tensions that antagonists provoke lead to more thought-provoking explorations of complex themes.

While protagonists must evolve and grow over the course of a novel, antagonists like Harriet often remain stuck in their negative patterns—a reality readers recognize from life. This contrast highlights key differences between heroes and villains that make both sides impactful and emotionally resonant. Of course, it’s also great to see them step out of that role and do something good for someone, even if grudgingly, such as Basgi in the Black Hollow series. It gives the reader a sense of hope for these people.

So even as readers mature into adulthood, characters like Harriet Olsen continue serving a vital role in great fiction. They manifest as bullies, social climbers, egotists, or cynics—but always as essential agents who catalyze protagonists’ self-actualization and self-discovery. Literature requires these Harriet types to reinforce ethical ideals and remind us all of the merits of overcoming pettiness with poise. They’re also extremely fun to write, coming close to a line but not crossing it.

So, what are some of your favorite characters to hate? Leave me a comment and let me know. I’d love to know.

Until then, happy reading!

Robbie & the FGR Team

Back to blog

Leave a comment