Thursday, February 14, 2013

Thinking On Thursday: Bad Boys In YA

The trend of Bad Boy heroes in YA novels, which has a long running history and certainly shows no sign of disappearing, is something that can be a huge polarizing force within the blogging and writing communities. There are so many things to consider:

What does it take for a hero (I'm talking romantic lead, just so we're clear) to earn this label?

Are there different degrees of Bad Boys? Are they all "bad" for their intended audience, or are there (excuse the phrase) shades of Gray?

Do Bad Boys pose a risk to YA readers beyond the pages of the novels they inhabit? Does a reader's sympathy, empathy or interest in such a character really "say" something about her?

It's clear there are some rather hot buttons that can be pressed, and they tend to be jabbed with the written equivalent of sharp pointy objects several times each year as some new flavor of bad manages to get its fifteen minutes of fame.

But I'm not interested in what "they"--teachers, parents, critics, etc--are saying today. Today I want to talk to YA readers--regardless of whether you're actually a teen, a parent, a teacher, a writer, or whatever. I want to talk to those "in the field"; i.e. those actually reading about these Bad Boys. And I want you to tell me what you think about them and about the media circus that seems to follow them everywhere they go.

Bad Boys Come In Many Flavors

The first thing we need to consider is the thought that not all Bad Boys are created equal. Further, not all characters one person would label as "bad boys" will register for other readers. There are some varieties of bad boys, especially those I call Wolves In Sheep's Clothing, who can be some of the most disturbing characters in YA. (In my opinion.)

So, before I open the floor to all of you, let me share some of the "flavors" of bad that I recognize, what I think of them and who I think might fit within their ranks.

Bad With A Heart Of Gold: 

These guys are the real deal, the pinnacle of every girl's Bad Boy dream. You do know what that is, right? (This is how I see it, at least...) The allure of the Bad Boy is the thought that you, somehow, have obtained the unobtainable. A man that no one thought could be tamed or claimed would do anything for you--generally a man of power, status or influence to boot.

What makes this particular brand of bad so good? Unlike many of the varieties I'll be discussing here--and up front, I'm kinda a collector of Bad Boy fiction; by no means am I against it--these guys are worth a heroine's time despite their badness. There's actually a decent guy in there, under all the mood and brood. These bad boys have heart.

Daemon, Alex and Adrian all do things that might drive a reader crazy, and that are definitely not behaviors we would be telling our sisters, cousins, nieces, daughters, etc. to be looking for in a guy in real life. However, their transgressions are generally at the shallow end of the pool and most importantly aside from some quips and sarcasm, possibly a bit of a rough exterior, they are NEVER toward the novel's leading lady.

More importantly, these guys show us, during the story, that they actually do care about the girl in question--whether they get her or not. Nor do they lose their dignity regardless of this. They remain awesome in their own right, no matter the outcome. (Other guys I wanted to put but didn't: Sawyer Vincent, Kishan from the Tiger saga...)

As someone who is a fan of Bad Boys, I obviously do not agree with the sentiment that  reading something in fiction can make someone echo the same choice in real life. For many underlying reasons, many women are drawn to the "Bad Boys" of the real world, and when it comes to those you either learn quick that they SUCK, or you go from one crap relationship to another. Every book involving even the slightest hint of a Bad Boy could be banned from existence and this problem would still persist, because this is an issue where we don't need to question whether a chicken or an egg came first. Bad Boy fiction was born---you guessed it--because "Good Girls Like Bad Guys", as DMX would say.

Much like when we dream, fiction presents us with a way to explore our fantasies safely. We might feel torn up alongside a heroine chasing a bad boy, but when the book ends we will, 99% of the time, come out of this unscathed. (That 1% was already dealing with something before they went in, IMHO.)

Redemption or "Villain Love":

Give me more, more, MORE of this. It's one of my favorite themes / tropes in all of literature and if I even *think* a book is headed in that direction, I'm pretty much automatically on board and ready to set out on an adventure! To me, winning the love of a villain is the ULTIMATE success of the Bad Boy Fantasy (which I explained earlier.) I mean, c'mon... Either dude gives up his plans for world domination / super power of awesome / immortality / whatever because he wants YOU... *or*... he's just so dreamy and compelling that he causes you to shift YOUR way of thinking.

In the real world, this kind of thing might seem really sick and kinda scary. We don't REALLY want people to go all Bonnie and Clyde on us and nobody wants to cheer on a real case of Stockholm Syndrome... But yet again, fiction is the playground of the mind, and provided the mind entering a story world is actually sound enough to handle what it's getting itself into, *this* is the place where it's safe to let go. There is something very freeing about the rules of the world--in this case the idea that people CANNOT change and we dare not hope they can--being discarded or shifted. (This is also why fantasy and science fiction are so popular, imho.)

Yet again: in order to work our 'villain' must have a heart. Any guys lacking in this vital organ of the soul need not apply. But when it's done right, for me at least, this is AWESOME.

I know that for me, growing up, the allure of this type of story--which NEVER happened and I had to shift crap around and imagine it back in the day--was the idea that someone chose me (the character, or whatever...). I realize very fully that becoming happy with who you are in real life is vital, and that accepting the boundries of your reality is important in not having people think you're totally bonkers. But we all have something we want that we'd never want to admit to--wealth, fame, power, beauty... But I think in large part they all boil down to wanting to be Chosen. Wanted. Accepted. (and most importantly...) Loved.

I picked these three because I think they represent the different degrees of this particular brand of Bad Boy craving. (Other fine examples include The Stone Prince by Gena Showalter, Anna Dressed In Blood by Kendare Blake (which is genius because the roles are actually reversed) and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo.)

With Rephaim from the House of Night we get to see the full evolution of a villain into a hero. He actually, legitimately, changes throughout the series and the way that P.C. and Kristin Cast have done his arc so far has been absolutely brilliant. Rephaim has to deal with a lot during all of this--the price of his transformation, whether Stevie Rae will stand by him when her friends don't trust him, how to deal with the guilt he feels over various things. It's marvelous and real and heart breaking and something I wish we saw more of in YA. Rephaim is likely one of my favorite characters in fiction *ever*. (He proved to me I'm not nuts for thinking this kinda story matters!)

Now, I will admit I have not read Romeo Redeemed yet, but the simple knowledge that the villain from Juliet Immortal gets his own book is enough to have me seriously intrigued. I've ALWAYS wanted to see someone do this. I've seen it a couple times in adult romance series, but I think this is the first time I've ever noticed it in YA. (A HUGE thank you to Libby Blog for making me aware of this through a video review.)

Last, I want to give a shout out to the Shatter Me series, where we are seeing a lot of progression in the major villain, Warner. Now, I've been very Team Warner from word go--that's just a me thing. But from the reviews I've been reading, there are a lot of people who are starting to take on this view. Could we actually see a legitimate shift in Juliette's affections by series end? Could Warner actually redeem himself and become the true love interest? This would be unprecedented in YA fiction, as far as I know, and it would be a huge step in a bold new direction. (Reason: Warner would be a main love interest, not a side character's arc.) Considering the oddity of it, I am keeping my hopes *low*, but I would feel disloyal to my own interests as a reader if I did not at least suggest the possibility.

The Other Side Of The Coin:

Yet of course there is a darker and more destructive side to the Bad Boy phenomenon. As I said at the beginning, not all Bad Boys are created equal. Am I a fan? You bet. But there are definitely some flavors that do not work for me, and which I am concerned about as an author. I want to cover this topic thoroughly, so lets drag these clowns outta the shadows and expose them for what they really are.

As always, this is just my opinion. But I feel just as strong a sense of disgust about these "love interests" as I feel passion about the characters and concepts that I described above. I think the biggest problem--and danger--with what I'm about to discuss is that these guys are often leading love interests, they are often depicted in such a way that we are suppose to cheer for them, and they often display and are rewarded for behaviors that women might actually face with men in real life. These boys don't pay for their "crimes" and they are never made to be--or feel--sorry for them.

Again, I don't necessarily believe that we see something in fiction (be it books, video games, movies, music, etc.) and instantly want to emulate it. But in the cases below, what we are seeing can be blended so well with the normal, despite the presence of any paranormal element, that I find it disturbing. Most of us know that being kidnapped, in real life, isn't gonna be sexy. A guy who is a bit too possessive, however, can blur the edges of right and wrong in ways that are harder to catch until it's just too late. (Remember that whole "wanting to be chosen" thing I talked about? So often that can be linked to "having a low opinion of oneself"... And when combined, it can get a lady in big trouble.)

Without further ado, here are some "Bad Boys" that I thought were just "Bad".

Cheaters Shouldn't Prosper:

Most guys you meet in life, real or fictional, are gonna come with a few flaws. If the guy in your life is a little too cocky, plays too many video games or leaves his socks on the floor you might need to accept that to some degree. We all have faults. But there are certain behaviors that no woman should accept from a man, ever:
  • Cheating
  • Abuse -- Physical, emotional, sexual or mental
  • Addiction -- Gambling, Drugs, etc.
  • Control Issues -- Extreme jealousy or possession.
The reason for this lack of tolerance actually has very little to do with the man in question. Instead, it has everything to do with the psychological toll that these behaviors have on the women that stay with them. Any guy who makes you doubt your self worth in any way is a guy you should stay the heck away from. (And that goes double for any book guy--regardless of the hero type, you should ALWAYS feel "Up!" after reading a good romance novel. At least about the love part.) 

There are two big problems in the novels I'm about to list. (1) There is some form of cheating or disloyalty going on. And (2) The right character does not actually pay for their "crime". (Often it's actually the heroine of such a book, but I'll get to that soon enough.)

Okay, first up before anyone can come at me with a pitchfork: All three of these ladies can write. I've actually read and enjoyed stuff by Stephanie Perkins and Abbi Glines after reading these, and I would totally be willing to gave A.G. Howard another go without this trope / theme cropping up because her imagination and world building were lovely. But alas, that's not why they're here today...

Anna and the French Kiss has a lot going for it: a great, well researched setting; an initially likable protagonist; cute, readable writing... But as the romance between St. Clair and Anna developed, I started to get really uncomfortable. I like the speed at which things unraveled. I liked the gradual realization that these two were interested in each other. But the fact that St. Clair never has the guts to break up with his girlfriend (and that, as with all the discarded girlfriends in all of these books she is a bitch...) my respect for him--and Anna--went down like the Titanic.

In The Vincent Boys we are essentially given the excuse that Beau and Ashton's love is tied to a childhood friendship. What I don't get about this couple is why, once they realized they wanted to be together, they didn't break up with the people they were seeing and do so. I get it: plot needs conflict. But as I said in my review, the conflict caused by this type of situation is generally weak because it has nothing to hold it together. Also, the way that Ashton pays for the decisions and Beau really doesn't (admittedly he has his own issues, but still...) was aggravating, and while Sawyer was made out to look like a problem, the real issue was ultimately that Beau and Ashton lacked the guts to stand up and claim what they wanted.

My last example, Splintered, actually got DNF'd for this. (I now realize how much I *hate* this in books and know it will corrupt the entire text for me.) I don't know HOW Alyssa and Jeb will end up together, but I know she starts the book crushing on a guy with a bitchy girlfriend and by the end she has him. I think, now that I'm looking at this pattern, that my real problem is that I end up not being able to respect the heroines of these stories. I mean, really? You know the guy is taken--I don't CARE by who--yet you're so stupid / desperate / delusional / whatever that you need him? Puh-lease! This is only magnified by the "draw" between these characters, while one (or both) are unavailable, which generally leads to behavior I know *I* would not tolerate from a guy.

Because the bottom line, in my opinion, is that if a guy does that with you then how long will it be before he does the same darn thing with someone else? I'll so pass on that, thanks. I'm with Lana from The Vincent Brothers: If a guy is dating me, I'd damn well better be his #1.

Wolves in Sheep's Clothing:

Now, my friends, we have reached the baddiest of the the Bad. The real rotters of the Bad Boy world. The ones that make me want to head-desk just by having to type their names. These guys are bad because of their treatment of the heroines they are involved with. They are bad because the way that they behave is always justified or flat up accepted rather then being called for the crap it is. And, more dangerously, they are bad because despite the actually bad (read: wrong or unacceptable) things they do, they are often made out to be good guys or heroes from the beginning. (*gag!*)

These are the mind flayers (and I so mean another F there, ladies) of YA paranormal romance. Admittedly, guys like these can happen in any genre, but the first three who immediately came to mind all share the paranormal brand, and are often responsible for the genre getting a bad rep. That ticks me off, since paranormal and urban fantasy tend to be my writing genres of choice. Anyway, enough preamble. Shall I name the three scoundrels so we can get to the good (or should I say bad...?) part?

I usually don't say much about books I hate. Heck, I never actually reviewed Fallen or Hush, Hush even though I bought three books in the Fallen series and two in the Hush, Hush one thinking they'd both be things I would love. But this topic demands that I speak up, because the key problem with these books (aside from some messy writing and pacing issues, but that's irrelevant) is that the love interests in each of these stories are characters who are downright disturbing--and in ways that may not be immediately apparent.

In Twilight, Edward is suppose to come across as two things at once: a dangerous predator and a 'man' who has resisted the urges that what he is try to enforce upon him. That apple on the cover represents temptation--both Edward's struggle to resist his need for Bella's blood, and the overall need to resist sexuality, something which is an undercurrent throughout the series, and which ultimately is addressed by the end. (Of the series, to be clear.)

As such, Edward is portrayed as the main love interest, rather then as some type of villainous redemption. However, there are many underlying aspects of his interest in Bella--stalking, jealousy, possession--that are anything but sexy. How can I tolerate the idea of someone like Warner, who shoots a guy during Shatter Me, and be criticizing Twilight? Simple: anyone with a bit of common sense isn't going to go "But he's so cute!" if a guy does that in real life. The negative qualities Edward shows, however, are traits that any guy could potentially have and which our society might even to some extent praise or condone. Further, we know Warner is the Villain in that book and he'll have to change if there is ANY hope for him and Juliette. Edward, as far as I know, never gets called out for his crap behavior.

In Fallen the situation is different, but problems still persist. I don't know about any of you, but the whole "If a boy is mean to you he probably likes you." thing we tell little girls is both sick and a load of crap. More important, it's definitely out of the question by the time a girl is in her later teen years. Yet this is the exact type of behavior that we see Daniel displaying toward Luce: he is rude and belittles her, and essentially wants nothing to do with her. Further, he is a selfish coward since for whatever reason he is unwilling to just get the heck away from her, knowing what will happen if they get together. Now, in all fairness, Luce is every bit as screwed up as he is--a crazy psycho stalker who essentially fixates on the guy. I don't care what paranormal / destined / whatever element these two have going on: all I know is that I got about 100 pages into this and I flat out could not continue. They made me literally sick to my stomach. Stories with destined couples are something I usually enjoy, and yet again Daniel is our major "hero" here (um, right...)... Okay, enough on this. Yuck!

Last book on my "it" list is Hush, Hush. Now, I bet you're surprised to see this one. After all, Patch is the Bad Boy to end all Bad Boys, right? I beg to differ. Patch is bad, but he lacks a key ingredient of the Bad Boy hero, in my opinion: Patch has no heart--he does not care about Nora. Be aware that I am basing this statement on the first book. I do not care what happens as the series progresses, because I--who am the Queen of Villainous Love--found the relationship between these two characters abhorrent. I like a bit of sexy dangerous undertone. I like a bit of bite between leads. I like an equal opposition where something's gotta give and someone's gonna lose so love can win... But when the male love interest's objective in the novel is to kill the female lead (lets not even get started on the sexual harassment, bullying, etc. that goes on here...) I'm sorry, folks, but I'll be getting off the crazy train at the next station. Bad Boys are an art with a fine line, and villain or antihero love has an even more perilous edge to it. Hush, Hush crossed that line for me and it's a 3,000 foot drop off a cliff into shark infested waters. There's no second chances for something I dislike that much.

Now, in all fairness, there is one more thing that all three of the books in this section share, and it is something that makes their every mistake seem even worse: each of these books has a blatant power imbalance. Bella, Luce and Nora are not worthy counterparts to Edward, Daniel and Patch. These ladies can't handle the boys their authors paired them with. And that's the real and tragic problem. Perhaps with a heroine who could keep up with these boys particular brand of Bad these books could have been saved. But the real danger in these books is the passivity of the heroines, who send the message that the way the "love interests" here treat them is A-OK.

Newsflash: it's not.

Speaking As A Writer...

I want to make one thing really clear: I'm not trying to tell anyone what they should or should not read. All that stuff up there? That's totally my opinion and I've done my best to back it up. Some of it you may agree with. And some of it might make you think I'm batshit crazy. I'm totally cool with that. I've definitely been called worse. ;)

The point of my article today, and what I really hope you can take away from it, is that Bad Boys, in and of themselves, are not the problem. The problem is that we do not have enough confidence in women--regardless of age (readers of adult romantic fiction often deal with the same crap)--to decide what they are and are not comfortable with. The problem is that we discourage each other from expressing how we feel about what we are reading if it does not have enough Literary Merit (tm). We don't have the guts, for whatever reason, to say "That was great!" or "Damn that sucked!" and to not worry what others might be thinking about what we're saying.

In no way am I trying to say "ZOMG, book X should NEVER have been written!1!1!" I understand just how hard it is to even attempt to write and finish a draft of a novel, let alone to go through all the rounds of edits and revisions needed to take a 'thing' inside one's head and make it so that it has a snowball's chance in hell of being understood by anyone else. (Can you tell I'm preparing for revisions on my own novel? Yeah, I thought so... *cringe*) There's no doubt in my mind that every author I have listed here sat down and wanted to write something that held a great deal of meaning to her--a story she felt was special and which she felt deserved to be shared with others.

In some cases, these tales have resonated deeply with me. In some cases... Not so much. But--and this is the big BUT--that's just with me.

Now I turn the floor to all of you. Do you like books with Bad Boys? Hate them? Which books have you loved (or hated) and why? I'd love to know, so please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

Still can't get enough talk about Bad Boys this Valentines Day? Never fear!

The fabulous ladies of Book Girls Don't Cry... They Vent! also decided to tackle this topic. Want to hear what they had to say? Here are Giselle (Xpresso Reads) and Jenni (Alluring Reads) posts. (I can't link Amy (Book Loving Mom)'s yet because it has not been published at the time of this article's publication.) I've read Giselle and Amy's posts and they both make some really awesome points. I strongly recommend that you drop by and check them out, too.

Happy Valentines Day, Guys!


  1. Great post! I especially agree with your "wolves in sheep's clothing" section -- ick. For some more YA bad boys, there's Adrian, from Vampire Academy/Bloodlines, Shane from Morganville, Luke from Lament, Roiben from Tithe, and probably loads more that I've forgotten or haven't read. I actually think the bad boys work out better in adult books, though -- while YA girls are often naive and clueless, the women in adult books are usually on a more equal footing.

    1. That is a very valid point about equal footing of female characters in adult novels. I came to YA from adult paranormal romance and I suppose it's fair to say that I brought my tastes with me. I hope I made it clear in my article the importance of hero / heroine balance in these types of books, but if not, at least your point is here to set that record straight.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read all that! I never thought it would get that long or I would have posted it as a series, but I just had so much to say. Have a great day!


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