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The Brooding Bad Boy* as a trope (otherwise known as Damaged With a Heart of Gold, Alpha Male, or Redeemed Rake, depending on what time period you’re writing) seems to be huge, ESPECIALLY in YA literature right now. Dark romance and angst as a plot line are trending, which means the Bad Boys are everywhere.
*To save time I’m just going to call it the Bad Boy trope and let all of those other meanings be implied. And it doesn’t always have to be a bad boy being rescued by the good girl, it can be any other gender/sexuality combo you like. Be the change. Bad Boy is just a concept.*
This is both great, and terrible at the same time.
It’s great, because there are beautiful themes of redemption, trust, deep understanding and love running through this trope. The main character is that one special person who can slip through the Bad Boy’s walls, duck through the defenses, and earn confidence when it comes to love & relationships. The Bad Boy in turn fights through old pain, changes and grows as a character, and learns to believe. It’s gorgeous and sweet and heart-breaking when done well.
But when it’s done badly . . . it can be so very damaging. As YA characters go, it’s a crappy thing to do to a young adult, just finessing their view on life, the universe and everything; when you clearly imply that the ideal significant other is a broody, hot-mess, mysterious, angry, angsty, over-dramatic, damaged individual.
(Spoiler: they make TERRIBLE SIGNIFICANT OTHERS in real life.)
This trope is a fine, thin edge to tread for authors. One step over it, and your Bad Boy is now an abusive, manipulative, sexually violent numpty.
How to show that your diamond in the rough is damaged, but still make them redeemable? How dominant should they be? Exactly how much angst is too much? Where is that line?
In the interests of answering this question, I’ve written up a quick Do and Don’t list for writing reference. Feel free to completely disagree and write your own. This is just my personal opinion.
Do: Let your Bad Boy make some questionable life choices and evidence some real flaws. They can make mistakes, take chances, get messy (to paraphrase Ms. Frizzle).
Don’t: Let your Bad Boy make terrible decisions that are irredeemable. He/she still has to have that secret heart of gold hidden on the inside. Would you feel comfortable watching your son or daughter fall in love with someone who had done [insert decision here]? If the answer is no, don’t put it in your book.
Do: Create a Bad Boy who can take charge and act with confidence. A healthy touch of arrogance, a cocky swagger, some snappy, snarky dialogue, or a proud demeanor even. All of those are attractive, and the reason we like the Bad Boy in the first place. They can be sexy, cool, powerful and desirable (and know it too), they can break rules, buck societal norms, scorn conformity, and seem untouchable. All good things.
Don’t: Let your Bad Boy be so take-charge and arrogant that they’re manipulative and controlling. Look up the guidelines from those public service announcements that identify the signs you are in an abusive relationship. If your Bad Boy is doing ANY of that, stop them immediately. I’m serious about this. Swift kick in the balls for those controlling impulses.
Do: Write a Bad Boy with walls so high that the love interest needs supplemental oxygen to try and summit them. Tension and drama are everything. They’re hiding that soft heart from the world because of (sad backstory which you will write the heck out of) and they don’t want ANYONE to know they have a cream center.
Don’t: Write a Bad Boy who treats the love interest like shit, because they’re wounded. Nothing absolves sexual abuse. No amount of warning, “I’m bad for you. You’d be safer away from me. No. Stop. Don’t” beforehand makes it OK to then be a derogatory, disrespectful jerk. They are still responsible for their actions. No matter how bad their mommy issues are.
Do: Have your Bad Boy changed by the end of the story and let that golden heart shine through. This trope only works because their one true love has reached them through the dark, has given them a reason to be better, sees that goodness on the inside, and lets them trust in the brightness of their future together. There has to be character development going on. Not a complete 180* personality change. Just some growth. And if the Bad Boy acted like a surly jerk, some groveling wouldn’t be out of place.
And here is a general list of DON’T-STAHP-RED-LIGHT-PLEASE-NO
- Stalker behavior. Even magically assisted, it’s still creepy stalking.
- Harassment—using aggressive pressure or intimidation to create a desired outcome.
- Forcing sexual acts without consent. That is spelled R-A-P-E.
- Drugging the love interest to ensure they’re complacent/forget stuff/manageable. Even if it’s magical elf wine. Just no.
- Policing who the love interest can talk to/be friends with/text/call/look at or isolating them from friends/family. See the “don’t” about abusive controlling behavior above.
- Gaslighting—manipulating someone using emotional or psychological triggers, particularly in the interest of convincing them they are wrong/mistaken about what they know.
- Continuing with sexy stuff after the love interest has EXPLICITLY said no. Consent is everything. Here is a quick refresher on it, using tea.
- Sexual violence (not BDSM, that should be consensual if you know what you’re writing. And that shouldn’t be in a YA book anyway?!?)
- Rape. It’s. never. romantic. Not even as a playful “threat” or “forced seduction”.
- Try to justify any of the above as “I was just protecting you”, “pretending because I had to”, “we’re mated soulmates”. Or having the love interest forgive any/all of the above because of those justifications. You are the author, you control this story. Those reasons don’t exist unless you put them in. And if you’re feeling the need to have your MC justify something like that for the reader . . . maybe it shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
For an interesting take on this issue, go read Tiff at MostlyYALit. (This article is what got me on the rant in the first place.)
Or try ChristinaReadsYA as she talks about her feelings regarding Bad Boys in YA
And, for a harsh yet hilarious take on a popular Bad Boy, see Matthew at BadBooksGoodTimes. Caution: he really, really dislikes Rhysand.
Featured image via stocksnap.io and Maria Shanina