Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Appeal of the YA Bad Boy

There's no doubt about it: readers love bad boys. It's a trope that shows up time and time again in young adult literature. I can't tell you how many hundreds of times I've fallen in love with the Jerk With a Heart of Gold, or the Trouble, But Cute. And while some people might not be quite as devoted to fictional bad boys as I am (which is a GOOD THING, because this means you are mentally sound. Keep it up.), as long as there are books, there will be bookish bad boys.


I'm focusing here on bad boys as love interests, mostly, because that's where I tend to see them. Often times, they crop up in love triangles opposite their "Good Guy" nemesis, or they catch the eye of the "Good Girl" main character and broader her horizons or whatever. And yeah, breaking those plotlines down like that, they look pretty tired and cliche. But that's the thing. I've read a million amazing books with those plots, and they worked. And part of that was because the bad boys were so darn hot.

But what makes fictional "badness" so compelling? Why do we love to fall in love with damaged jerkfaces over and over?

We like characters who change. One possibility is that we, as readers, love dynamism. And there is nothing quite so romantic as the transformation of a bad boy, am I right?

Our messy, hairy bad boy has been TRANSFORMED by the POWER OF LOVE

ESPECIALLY when this transformation comes about because of a girl. Because this big bad tough guy is really just covering up his wounded, tender heart with all that douchenosity and is actually capable of great feeling, if he'd only just LET himself. If only someone pure of soul were around to heal him and his secret pain. But oh, he's so conflicted! The douchnosity threatens to overcome him, but lo, love wins again. And I eat it up. Badness in a character breeds conflict, and conflict is the fun stuff in a novel. It's what punches us in the feels. And we just love reading about the one special girl who can let that hardened Bad Boy feeeeel.


The most compelling characters are ones who are complicated. I like the ones who have onion-like layers, presenting one way while being something else underneath. Like Shrek. No, we don't want parfaits. We want onions, Donkey. Onions. I personally love reading love stories where both characters have to take long personal journeys to be together. Both have to improve themselves, or discover something about themselves that they never would have were it not for the other person. We like the bad boy because we can clearly see the arc he needs to go through; we can see the places for improvement, but we can also see the potential there. We can see what he's battling against, and we can root for him to overcome it. That's what makes it truly epic.

I'm always a sucker for a villain with a redemption-through-love arc.

There are different levels of Bad Boys, obviously. Like, there's a difference between the Bad Boys who are really villains, who actually murder people and stuff, and the Bad Boys who just brood or get detention. Warner in Shatter Me, Damon from The Vampire Diaries, the Darkling from Shadow and Bone, and a whole bunch more I can't think of right now are prime examples of the bad boys who are really bad. Who have done completely inexcusable things, but still have stir something inside me that makes me want to tear their clothes off continue reading about them. I want them to believe in themselves, in the good inside them. I want them to win the girl for their own sakes (or not, sometimes). I like reading about the good winning out in the end.

Which is, obviously, totally backwards. "So... you'd rather have a murderous guy who becomes good after being a murderer, rather that an already good guy who hasn't killed anybody? Doesn't that mean you don't actually like bad boys, if all you want is for them to become good?"

"Intriiiigued. Yes, tell me more about this leather jacket wearing
bundle of sexiness with the sarcastic sense of humor."

Yes... and no. Once they become good-ish, that's usually when the story ends, because that's usually it for the interesting stuff. Also, yes, I'd prefer that. It's more interesting to read about. It's also very interesting to read about the Bad Boys who never become good, who try and try and try, but can't seem to let it happen. Or the ones who are total mixed bags, neither good nor bad. Basically, bad is interesting, and good is boring. Pure evil is boring. We want them troubled, conflicted, maybe even cruel at times, but almost never irredeemably evil.

Definitely maybe I'm over complicating things. Maybe a bad boy is appealing just because he's "forbidden". It's like, the second your parents say he's off limits, that's when you want him. The thrill of danger. Evil is sexy.

 I guess when you look at it like this, all interesting characters are bad boys. "Bad" is normal. Everybody has some bad. It's a trope that's not even a trope anymore, really: it's a fact. What we immediately classify as the cliche bad boy is the guy who just screams it upon first impression. He's in leather; he's a bully; he insulted the main character or someone he/she is close to; he bucks authority; he murders someone. Small things like that.


But just like good old Caroline up there, sometimes we must be vigilant against the bad boy. He is a dangerous breed, and should only be loved IN FICTION. Real life murderers are not so sexy. But seriously, why are most of us so attracted to fictional bad boys, but not real ones? At least, that's what I'm like. My ideal actual guy would be sensitive and non-jerky and would probably prefer staying home with me on Saturday night reading or watching movies or snacking. And yes, I have read appealing fictional dudes with this quality, but the moment some snarky, sexy man on a motorcycle zooms by, I'm gone. Give me the Warners, the Jaces, the Damons, the Jess Marianos, etc. You've got my heart, Bookish Bad Boys. But stay in the books, please, where I know I can love you, because you're guaranteed to have a kernel of goodness somewhere deep inside that chiseled, manly chest.

Reason #54391563820 why it's better to live in books, right?

Tell me: why do you love YA bad boys? Why don't you? Who are some of your favorites? I like Nick from The Demon's Lexicon, Roiben from Tithe, Draco Malfoy, almost all of the truly heinous Lannisters in A Song of Fire and Ice... or actually, almost every character in those books, Irial from Wicked Lovely, The Darkling from Shadow and Bone, to name a few, and I'm sure I'm forgetting tons.


  1. I'm like you... I love those bad boys! Damon (although I don't read the books just watch the tv show) is one of my favorite. I have a very soft spot in my heart for him. I always want him to be better but then when he gets to good I'm like wait... I want the real Damon back. lol I don't know why exactly but bad boys are my favorite. I always lean towards them if there is a love triangle. I like some conflict in my books and I love seeing a character change throughout a story.

  2. I've actually never really seen the appeal of bad boys, at least as love interest. I think they can make some great characters, but I want them to stay away the protagonist! I never liked Warner with Juliette in Shatter Me or Jess with Rory in Gilmore Girls. I appreciated them as characters, but normally not as love interest. The only exception would be Will from The Infernal Devices trilogy, but I only read Clockwork Angel and stopped there, since the series didn't capture my attention. That's pretty much the only bad boy love interest I ever remember liking.

  3. Bad boys...swoon! I honestly agree with everything you mentioned. They feel dangerous, they're enticing and entertaining, you want them to change for you (well, the MC) and there's the journey of it all. I think with bad boys, especially in love triangles, you feel the chemistry more between him and the MC (or you, if you imagine yourself as the main girl). He's snarky, sarcastic, bad, and they have insult-fests. If it's like that, it's cute. He's mysterious and possibly lethal so for whatever reason, we seem to be drawn in. I haven't been put in the bad boy situation in real life, but while I think I would love a guy on a motorcycle and labeled as a bad boy, I would ultimately like a "good guy."

    While I fear that they wil become passe, bad boys FTW!

  4. I'm a sucker for bad boys...I'll totally admit it! I don't know exactly what it is, but there's just something so appealing about them in books.

  5. I like Lucius Malfoy, not Draco. Draco's not really a bad boy, he's a good kid at heart. But Lucius is the real deal! To be fair I think I only like him because he's devastatingly posh in the movies. And handsome.

    I think maybe part of the attraction of a bad boy, is it means we get to be 'special' i.e. he's a jerk to everyone else, but is eventually nice(r) to us, which makes us feel unique and special.


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