Bad Boys vs. “Bad Boys”

If there’s one thing I love, it’s a bad boy. I’m a sucker for stories where Lonely Girl befriends him and fills his horrible life with puppies and sunshine. I adore the push-and-pull dynamic of “good vs. evil” and their otherwise messed up relationship. I live for those scenes where Bad Boy reverts back to his badness and Lonely Girl is left feeling devastated until Bad Boy realizes his mistake and transforms into a knight in shining armor.

But you’ve got to admit, that’s pretty cliché. And as much as we love the stereotype, it isn’t very realistic.

Up for discussion today is #24 on my Intern Tips list: Black clothes, tattoos, and an earring do not a bad boy make.

Like you all, I’m a pretty avid reader. My book shelf is full of beloved YA novels that contain the stereotypical bad boy. And until recently, I thought nothing of it. I didn’t actually pay attention to the unrealistic portrayal of my favorite male characters. Instead, I was sucked in by my favorite cliché and never bother to look beyond it. It’s fiction, I told myself. It’s not meant to be realistic.

And while it’s true that fiction doesn’t have to be realistic, lately I’ve come to find that these stereotypes and generalizations just don’t cut it for me anymore. After all the submissions I’ve read, after all the books I’ve bought, and after all the blog entries and articles I’ve read, I’ve decided I want a realistic story I can get behind. I want a bad boy who’s actually bad.

But where do we draw the line between bad boys and “bad boys?”

Based on the reading I’ve done in the last year (both published and unpublished), most “bad boys” seem to be labeled as such simply because of their physical appearance. They wear all black, or have a leather jacket. They have ripped up jeans and dark, brooding eyes. Their black, grungy hair tends to fall in their face, and an earring hangs from one or both ears. They might have a tattoo or six as well. But beyond that, they aren’t much of a bad boy at all. They’re just quiet or misunderstood. Maybe their home life isn’t so great. But, overall, they’re generally not bad people. You’d feel safe spending time with them, and to be honest, your grandma probably would too. Essentially, the guy’s harmless.

But if your character really is an honest-to-god bad boy, you have to dig beneath the surface. Maybe they wear black, but it isn’t a requirement. So what if they don’t have tattoos? A true bad boy is all personality. They’re rude, they cheat on their girlfriends, and they get in fights. They’re uncomfortable to be around and bring your insecurities to the forefront. Maybe they drink excessively, smoke, or do drugs. Maybe all three. But, generally, they aren’t the guy you’d want to bring home to Daddy.

Need some examples?

I thought Patch from Becca Fitzpatrick’s HUSH, HUSH was a pretty believable bad boy. He was snide at first, rude, hung out in sketchy pool halls, got into fights, and was an overall mystery. There were times when I didn’t like him, or wanted to slap him just as much as Nora did. Sometimes I questioned his morals or his actions. And in the end, he may have redeemed himself somewhat, but the reader’s left questioning who he really is. Is he still the guy from the beginning of the book, or has he actually changed? Therein lies the mystery, and the reason he can still pull off his bad boy image. I have yet to read CRESCENDO or SILENCE, but I’m assuming the bad boy image carries over; it certainly looks like it, based on the synopses.

Or how about Draco Malfoy? If you want a perfect example of a bad boy, look no further. He’s a hard-to-read asshole with unclear motivations. Frankly, most of the time you’re just wondering what the heck he’s up to. He’s generally a pretty awful fellow, and yet you somehow feel bad for him. He’s a sympathetic bad boy, and the very best kind. You want to believe he’s good at heart, but is he really?

But there are bad boys in published literature that I think fall short. Though the overall story may be good, and I might really enjoy the narration, there have been numerous cases where I just couldn’t get behind a character. Their motivations are very surface-level. In other words, they weren’t complex enough. The bad boy image was only skin deep.

And that, dear readers, is where I feel some authors slip up. They forget that some guys really do just wear black but are perfectly harmless. And that there are others, who might also wear black, that have killed someone, or sell drugs for a living. It’s all in the presentation. Your bad boy doesn’t necessarily have to look the part, but he does have to act it.

Also, you have to consider the redemption factor. As you may well know from real life, bad boys can be difficult to change. Girls like to think they can conquer their bad attitude and poor manners, but how often does that actually happen? You’re allowed to bend the rules in fiction – there’s no doubt about that – but make sure you aren’t bending things beyond a reasonable level of belief.

I still read books containing “bad boys,” but these days I pay close attention to the way the author has portrayed him. Maybe the unreliable portrayal of my beloved male character will ruin the story for me, but maybe it won’t. There are still plenty of authors out there who know how to create bad boys that behave exactly how you’d expect. And the closer we can get to that, I think the better off we’ll be.

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4 thoughts on “Bad Boys vs. “Bad Boys”

  1. Bad boy. Hmm. 🙂 A vast topic.

    I’m trying to think of what kind of “boys” people my stories, because other than that I don’t read that much YA fiction anymore. The “bad boy” cliche is still very present in adult romance, and though, as you pointed out, you can be a bad boy for all sorts of different reasons, they (authors, readers, characters?) do claim that there is no better husband material than a reformed rake. 😛

    Still haven’t figured out if I believe it or not. I guess the idea behind it is that when a guy like that finally cares, he CARES. Whereas a guy who’s had only serious relationships before you… you could be his next ex, and that would fit the pattern, right?

    My main crushes during high school were bad boys, actually. Ha ha. Memories are a good source of inspiration, as a matter of fact… 😀

    1. I’ve definitely branched out in terms of what I’ve been reading, but the majority of it is still YA. But you’re totally right – male stereotypes populate both YA and adult fiction. I just wish it wasn’t so prominent!

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