As long as stories have been told there has always been the hero, the villain, the love interest and the wild card that is the bad boy. From the epic of Hector, the tale of the Huntsman, the alluring danger of Eric Northman—bad boys have endured.
Bad boys do not fit a standard mold, bewitching and bemoaning readers of all types. One reader’s interpretation of Christian Grey’s antics may be seductive, but another reader may see him as manipulative. What defines a bad boy in today’s fiction? Where is the line between sexy and psychopath?
Author Jeffe Kennedy offers her take.
“One of my favorite examples of the bad boy is Roarke, from J.D. Robb’s ‘In Death’ series,” she said via email interview. “He’s the perfect foil for Eve, who is a homicide detective tremendously wedded to the concept of the law upholding right and wrong. Roarke believes that the law is not absolute and that the personal compass is more important. Roarke is irresistible because he’s strong enough, powerful enough to be above the law. He balances Eve and brings possibility to her life. That’s what the bad boy is—the person who brings change.”
Kennedy compares the bad boy archetype to Loki, the Norse god of mischief and trickery.
“Like Loki, the bad boy is a mythological force,” she said. “They cannot be related to real world terms. That’s the mistake in trying to parse what a bad boy hero would be like in modern life. Of course, they seem like psychopaths in that context.”
Aimee Duncan, an assistant librarian, shares the sentiment.
“Defining a bad boy I think is awfully tricky because a lot of it depends on the personal taste of the reader,” she said in an email interview. “For me, there’s a certain level of ‘badness’ I am willing to tolerate in a character. There’s also only a certain amount of time before it bores me and I stop reading entirely.”
Duncan said she has her limits of what she’s willing to put up with. For her, cruelty is the top offense.
“Thoughtlessness is one thing,” she said. “I can excuse thoughtlessness if there’s regret at some point and a genuine effort to reconcile things with the offended party. Going out of your way to seriously hurt or degrade someone and taking pride in it…, just no.”
Editor Grace Bradley defined the bad boy archetype and how it affects readers of all stripes.
“I think this, just like anything else in fiction, is received differently by individual readers based on their own experiences and preferences,” she said via email. “For a reader who has struggled with an overbearing personality in a relationship, their spouse/significant other may be one of those control freak have-to-have-it-my-way individuals who drives everyone nuts. This reader may find that she/he often doesn’t feel heard in the relationship and that her/his opinion is not important. A strict Dominant/submissive relationship story may not appeal to someone such as that. That reader may not understand how it can be a turn on to give herself completely to her lover in a submissive manner.”
Bradley has a cravat to her personal definitions of a bad boy.
“I don’t necessarily think of Dominant men as ‘bad boys’ meaning they wouldn’t all get lumped into that category simply because they practice BDSM. That is just an expression of their sexuality.”
With the psychology laid out what makes a bad boy work in fiction, Bradley continued.
“What has happened in this man’s life to make him the person he is,” she said. “Is he destined to always be alone because of this behavior? Everyone finds it hard to turn away from the proverbial train wreck.”
Bradley elaborated readers like to “watch a man struggle.”
“They like to see the heroine ‘take him down’ in the end,” she said. “She is, ultimately, the one thing that heals him. These types of heroes bring an emotional edge to the story as well as an intense internal conflict that can seem impossible to overcome.”
What she looks for in a submission and the things that set off red flags?
“As an editor, if I see a book come in where the hero is physically abusive to the heroine, I’m going to pass,” she said. “Abuse of any sort should not be tolerated in a relationship, and I certainly don’t want to see it in romance fiction. We are, of course, not talking about the type of pain involved in BDSM play that is consensual. Mental abuse is also something I do not want to see.”
Bradley insisted that if the story is “sunshine and puppies” from the start, readers would grow bored.
“The hero and the heroine will treat the other badly, in some shape or form,” she said. “What works for one reader may offend another, but as a general rule the moment I feel a book has gone beyond acceptable boundaries, I’m out.”
Article first appeared at Lex Chase’s Nomad Chronicle in July 2012. Many thanks to Jeffe Kennedy, Aimee Duncan, and Grace Bradley for their frank answers.