Warning: This article has some strong language.
These are some specific thoughts for you if you’re writing romance/sexy stuff. But it might be worthwhile to consider and throw into your context when writing just about anything. So, on with it!
Let’s hear it for the bad boy! I fucking love bad boys. Hell, I pretty much married one. I love ’em dangerous and different and brooding and making ‘bad choices’. I love ’em challenging me and expectations and questioning authority and society and me. I LOVE bad boys.
I don’t like abusive fuck boys. They are not the same thing as a bad boy, sorry. I think that’s where a lot of writers go wrong when trying to create a dark horse love interest to complicate a protag’s life. When I was young, we didn’t have Twilight. I had The Vampire Diaries and other similar works of teen drama and supernatural sexy times. Recently, my husband and I have been watching Vampire Diaries as a show because it’s on Netflix, basically. And like Twilight, this is in a lot of places, writers confusing bad boy with abusive fuck boys. So let’s talk about some of the differences, okay?
Who is your bad boy a danger to? If he is a direct danger to the protag because he could potentially hurt or kill her* he is potentially an abuser. If he ‘can’t help himself’ I will remind you that language is the language of abusers. “Look what YOU made me DO” are words just about every abused romantic partners have heard several times. Now. If bad boy is trying to break away from something, (blood addiction, a gang, a corrupt police department, whatever) and a third party comes in as a threat to the protag, it’s a little more forgivable. But be careful.
So how do you have danger and the sexiness of danger without abuse? That’s so easy! Look at, of all things, Dirty Dancing. (And the million stories use this basic idea.) Protag is trapped in a suffocating but ‘safe’ life that is killing his soul, his creative expression, his potential, whatever. In comes bad boy to challenge that safety. Bad boy is dangerous because he is a threat to normalcy. To boredom. To the status quo. If you’re going to have your bad boy destroying things, maybe you should be drawing influence from Spike Lee not Bram Stoker. (Sorry Vlad.)
Of course, the bad boy is not here to destroy society for the protag, necessarily, but to give the protag a reason to question it for herself. Bad boys should not be a mirror of the abuse she experiences already — by controlling her and facing her to make choices he approves of. Rather, he should hold a mirror up for her to look at the society around her and see how she doesn’t fit, or doesn’t have to fit, and better, how she’s free to choose her own way. V in V for Vendetta is an interesting example here. He is ALMOST an example of a pure, sexy, dangerous bad boy here, but ultimately, he imprisons her, mind controls he and abuses her to get her to see things his way. Thus. Fuck boy, not bad boy by my definition.
*A note on gender. I am using him/her but that is ONLY to speed along understanding. This conversation could be she/she he/he they/her, and any beautiful combination of gender expressions. And should. A damn fine ‘bad boy’ can come out of a character that challenges gender expectation and or gender binaries FOR SURE.
Stalking and Obsession
Another classic fuck boy move attributed to the bad boy is stalking. Don’t we love it when the brooding ‘I don’t want to get involved’ bad boy is in JUST the right place at the right time to save the protag from some badness? Look, I love that too. But if the REASON the bad boy is in the right place at the right time is that she’s fucking stalking the protag, that’s fuck boy behaviour right there. Stalking sucks. I’ve been stalked. It’s not sexy, it’s terrifying, and it fucks with your heard in a way that doesn’t get glossed over by love hormones in real life. And we can NOT normalise that behaviour as romantic. It’s obsessive. And it’s as weird to tell any gendered person that’s a way to be romantic. Or that you should accept that behaviour as romantic when its done to you.
Instead, consider, what is your bad boy doing with her life. Is she just sitting around thinking about the protag? Is the protag her whole life? Does she have some vague ‘things’ she has to do but as the reader we never see it? That’s um. Weird.
And frankly, it’s kind of boring when you get right down to it. Your bad boy needs motivations and goals of her own that don’t centre entirely on the protag. That’s conflict and interest. That’s room for choices the character can struggle with. If the bad boy has her own shit to do, she’s way less of a fuck boy. Full stop. And then, you have things she’s doing, she’s got reasons to be in right place at the right time to save the protag without being a stalker. That’s good!
“Sexy Bad Boy! You came just in time! What were you doing here?”
“Me? What are you doing here? I’ve been gathering intel on these bad guys for months! You need to get out of here, or help, or whatever is appropriate to our genre!”
Plot, drama, purpose, less fuck boy-tiude. Everyone wins!
Secrets and Secrecy
So, by far my favourite bad boys are the ones who are bad boys because they say ‘fuck it’ to secrecy and lies. “We don’t tell her who really killed her parents to keep her safe!” “Bullshit. Hey. You. The Triad killed your parents. Wanna know why?!” That’s dynamic and interesting and adds danger in an ultimately positive way. Because often the drama in these stories is built on a character not having a key piece of information that could have changed things for the better. That’s tricky to do without doing it poorly. The best bad boys walk right through those moments when a patriarchal culture/society/subculture that ‘knows what’s best for’ the protag by telling the protag how things really are. Society and fuck boys infantalize the protag by deciding for her what she ‘can handle’ knowing and not knowing.
A hot sexy bad boy says ‘fuck that’ and tells her what he knows so she can make her own choices and defend herself, not depend on other to do the protecting. You, as a writer, need to know your protag has agency and can ‘take it’ too, but maybe that’s a post for another time. 😀
But what about the brooding bad boy with a mysterious past? How do you preserve that when you want to use your bad boy as a beacon of truth? Well. First. The fact is your bad boy is a character, not a sexy lamp with fangs. He’s got shit in his past he doesn’t want to disclose because, frankly, it ain’t nobodies business. So long as he’s not demanding protag itemise every romantic encounter she’s already had, he can keep that shit to himself. Has he made mistakes? Sure. Does he have to disclose them? Not if they’re not relevant. We all have shit we don’t tell our romantic interests right away. Even if someone rats us out, all people have the right to keep some shit to themselves. You can absolutely have a bad boy say ‘uh uh, none of your fucking business’ for the drama and the intensity without turning him into another paternalistic asshole. The trick is, make sure his choice there is because he wants to protect himself, not because he ‘knows best’ for her. Because that’s crap. (Again, sorry about the assumptive binaries.) When that shit does become relevant (because why write about it if it isn’t?) then you can go a dramatic painful reveal where bad boy shows his weak side, and that shit is GOLD.
“I couldn’t tell you because I was sure it would never happen again for X reason. I’m sorry. I just couldn’t go through it again the memory is too painful. This is my weak spot.” ←yes.
“I didn’t tell you because I decided it was dangerous for you to know but I have full control here even though not knowing lead you to make some stupid decisions that, again, give me the upper hand in our unequal relationship. Funny how that keeps happening.” ← nope.
Mistakes and Growth
Over all, this is advice, suggestions, things for you as a writer to consider. Your bad boy doesn’t have to be a perfect expression of these ideals. He’s a character, he can make mistakes. It’s just important that when bad boy makes mistakes, you as the writer acknowledge them as mistakes. And if you want to keep him as a viable bad boy and not an abusive fuck boy, he can see those mistakes inside himself when they happen. (Or I guess if they’re pointed out to him) and grow. Your protag isn’t the only character who can change as the story progresses. If your bad boy is an unchanging broken record who the protag must change to be with, but he doesn’t have any give, well. That’s actually a fuck boy. And boring. Write better.
Force and Manipulation
This is kind of homework for you, but if you’re going to do a bad boy, you should consider reading up on consent and the debate around enthusiastic consent and coercion. In my book, consent is good, coercion is shit. A fantastic bad boy gives the protag choices he never thought were possible. A fuck boy coerces the protag to do what she wants and later convinces the reader it was “what she knew he wanted.” That’s pretty crap. Yes. I know in some kink-based fantasy, this line is blurred. If that’s your thing, you own that, I know fantasy isn’t reality. BUT. That shouldn’t be the default or even the most common. Especially if the writer is introducing these ideas outside of a safe kink environment. We’re all adults and we’re cool and we can make our own choices. And I trust teens to make good choices when they read sexy teen stuff. But for most of us, that’s a very specific topic to explore, and maybe it’s explored too lightly in too much fiction. Don’t go there unless that’s a THING, and if you’re not sure it’s a THING maybe stay away from it. It easily slides into paternalistic. We can do better.
Just Leave Me Alone
Just a quick note on this one. If you have your bad boy tell the protag ‘stay away from me, I’m dangerous’ you better fucking mean it. Seriously. This is some serious fuck boy behaviour. I mean, you as a writer can force the situation where ‘leave me alone’ is not an option, but the bad boy better do his damnedest to be left alone if he meant it. (Because if he didn’t mean it, he’s being manipulative. There might be some times when that’s smart? But usually, it’s just paternalistic, and you should look at that shit.)
Ultimately, this all comes down to treating your character as intelligent functional people with agency and at least some maturity. Everyone slips, everyone one makes bad choices, but don’t rely on that stuff because ultimately, you end up with an Edward. And put Baby in the corner. And nobody, not society or your bad boy, puts Baby in the corner.
Quick bonus story starter for fiction writers. Ready? GO!
I met her at a punk rock show, she wasn’t pretty but she was intense. She told me within five minutes of meeting her, “I’m going to use you to topple this peice of shit city so everyone can start fresh.” I thought she was joking at the time.
Six months later, and she wasn’t joking. Not in the slightest.