9 Aug 2016

The Allure of the Bad Boy

Hello readers!

Since I am now, unfortunately, back to the countryside and devoid of all the many benefits of civilised life, I have decided to release this post written preemptively. The topic is—as you may be able to guess—about a recurring cliché in romance, and indeed across any genre that includes romance. I am of course talking about the bad boy.

Who is the Bad Boy?

First of all, clarification is in order. The ‘bad boy’ trope is very specific in its definition. We are of course not talking about evil or otherwise unpleasant male characters: rapists, criminals, and the like. We are talking about a boy who is of a particular age (as young as sixteen to perhaps thirty years), who is sexually attractive, charming, and yet behaves poorly in many regards.

Perhaps they are vulgar. Perhaps they have a certain propensity for cruelty—albeit one matched by the ability to feel kindness and empathy. Maybe they are rude to the protagonist, or maybe they have certain personality flaws: narcissism, binge drinking, or—in the case of fantasy—an alliance with the dark powers.

The bad boy trope is specific, but also broad. The bad boy could be all of the above, or they may be a ‘bad boy’ only in the narrative role they play. They could be the guilty pleasure—the forbidden boy; a character the protagonist rationally knows to avoid, but feels deeply emotionally compelled towards.

I myself am rather keen on the bad-boy trope, and have made use of it in the Ark—and to lesser extent, the Necromancer. In both cases the bad-boy was named Jake. I suspect I will turn it into a tradition.

Nevertheless, the bad-boy trope does present some difficult questions. According to my writer buddy, Karen Gordon, the bad-boy trope is explicitly misogynist: he is a man who mistreats women.

I intend to argue that while this perception is not wholly inaccurate, it is nevertheless too simple and not always correct. My argument centres on two premises. Firstly, the portrayal of the bad boy: he is often portrayed unkindly, deliberately in order to further his narrative use, but in doing so it is easy to distort other aspects of him that are more positive. Secondly, I argue that the bad boy trope exists because it is appealing—particularly to women.

Premise I: Portrayal

Let’s face it: bad boys are given the wrong end of the stick. In the vast majority of encounters, they are rude to the (typically female) protagonist. They may insult her, or mock her, or simply be an asshole to her.

Too often readers extrapolate this into: he treats all women like this. Not so. While I am sure there are many bad-boy tropes in fiction that actually are misogynist (and no doubt some of you reading can provide examples), there are also instances when the bad boy character is misunderstood.

For one: writers often don’t show the bad boy interacting with women other than the protagonist. For two, the bad boy’s conflict with the protagonist is often of a personal nature—they may dislike the protagonist’s frequently narcissistic, entitled, or simply annoying attitude. (And yes, this is despite the fact that the bad boy himself is often narcissistic and entitled: such is the nature of a narcissist.)

It is also, I believe, why the protagonist finds the bad boy hard to resist. Narcissists attract, and all that. Where their personalities clash, they also complement. And all this is exaggerated by the portrayal: the writer frequently shows the characters interacting at their most disagreeable, while subtly understating the ways in which they find one another attractive.

Nonetheless, I think there is more to the bad boy trope than simple attraction of personality.

Premise II: The Appeal of the Bad Boy

Let’s face it: bad boys exist in fiction because there is something deeply compelling about them. As do so many other clichés—the boy discovering a hidden power in fantasy, the maiden in need of saving, the romance in the rain—bad boys are a cliché that hold a distinct appeal to much of the audience.

In some ways, examining this appeal is more the purlieu of psychologists than of writers. We writers are creators of art firstly and foremostly, and critics of art only secondly. Nevertheless, being a writer (and inevitably also a profligate reader) gives one a perspective no others possess.

As I understand it, the chief appeal of the bad boy is in his redemption. The bad boy is a man you want to save. He is beautiful; charming; eloquent; intelligent. Who would want him to suffer through meaningless sex and failed relationships? Who would want him to fall foul to a drug habit, or to profligacy, or the forces of darkness?

The bad boy is also dark and mysterious. He is the shadowy figure watching you from across the window. He is the vampire, the sorcerer, the fallen angel. His power arises from his mystery; from the knowledge that he is capable of evil—and yet capable of good, too.

Once conquered, the bad boy gains a strange sort of vulnerability. Suddenly, his feuds with vampire lords or demons or—in the case of romance—his bitter past and paling friendships, now instill a determination in the protagonist. The bad boy needs to be saved. Not from himself, this time, but from others.

You see, the bad boy epitomises strength—money, intelligence, magic, masculinity and confident sexuality—but he is imperfect. He has weaknesses. Somehow, that makes him all the more irresistible.

So we know what makes the bad boy appealing. But why, we might ask? Of course the bad is to some degree universally appealing, but we can’t ignore that the bad boy is hugely popular with female and gay readers in particular.

One obvious explanation for this is sexuality. Let’s face it: the bad boy is as compelling as he is because of sex. He is beautiful, and masculine, and confident, and therefore utterly irresistible.

But perhaps that’s not the only explanation. The bad boy, after all, is not merely sexually attractive. Indeed, many romances centre on a love triangle: the protagonist, the bad boy, and the Perfect Boy. He is usually blond-haired, blue-eyed, dependable, kind, and—yes—sexually attractive in his own right.

So why does the bad boy usually succeed in getting the lucky girl (or guy?) Clearly, attractiveness of the physical sort is by itself insufficient to explain the phenomenon.

Perhaps it as I say: we want to help the wicked. We want to save those who show many wonderful and positive qualifies from being destroyed by their less savoury qualities. In the end, the bad boy is is a cause a much as anything else: he’s someone you fight for.

I would also argue that bad boys are appealing because they’re not PC; they’re frequently non-conformist, or offend the unwritten rules of etiquette and courtship. Perhaps we like bad boys because the Perfect Boys are just a bit, well, boring.

Parting Words

So: these are my thoughts on the bad boy trope. If you have anything to add (comments, additions, disagreements, etc.) feel free to do so in the comments. But for now, I am away and will probably not be able to reply until later on.

Rest assured, however, that I am working most assiduously on the Ark. I plan to release some selected revised chapters and/or scenes in the near future.

Until then, there is plenty more to read here on the Magical Realm. I have written extensively on other literary matters, as well as politics. Do make use of the search bar to the right.

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