Last night's #yalitchat was about making memorable characters, and one of the biggies that popped up during the lively conversation was the ever-lovin' "Bad Boy". This popular trope that gets some folks' hearts pumping while others respond with a "meh" and still more wave a red flag and get their knickers in a twist. Me, I'm one of the middling-to-latter (I know, big surprise) with a caveat: I think the Bad Boy trope is a double-edged sword that cuts right to the heart of a lot of gender imbalance and puts our real fellows at risk, both IRL and on the page, and gives more than a little mixed-message to our teen readers; male, female and other.
See, here's the thing: it seems to me that more than liking the idea of a Bad Boy, something untamed and wild and more than a little bit dangerous, girls (and dare I say women, young and old), like the fantasy of taming that masculine creature or being the one thing that can "cure" his darker tendencies and reveal that there is a true, kind spirit beneath the rough(ly handsome) exterior. The fantasy is that their love alone can stop all the badness from taking over and, in the end, save his soul and the day for a hot and safely fulfilling happy ending.
In fact, this "hope of redemption" is almost essential to the Bad Boy myth; that this person isn't *all* bad and that there must be something worth loving and "saving" in there. (It can't be just lust, can it? What would THAT say about her?!? *gasp*) We tell the reader, the champion, the main character: "And you--yes YOU--are just the gal to do it!" And yet there was this caution to not wanting to "completely" undo him; that an integral part of his character was to be "bad" and so to undermine that attractive element would to render him dull and useless. Neuter him. Like a puppy.
You see where this can get tricky, can't you?
We say that we want a Sensitive New Age Guy with all the trappings of a Bad Boy, or, conversely, a devil with a heart of gold. He can't be "too" sensitive, or that would be wimpy, and he can't be "too" bad because that would be scary. He should be able to tap into that protective, kill-upon-sight-if-you-touch-her/devil-may-care instinct, but never turn that badassery on us* because that would be "too" bad. We want that power working for us, not against us, and certainly not without our say-so. (Now who hold's puppy's leash?)
In answering the question how could authors show that redeemable quality beneath the surface, I said "he loves animals, small children, and the elderly" and I was only half-kidding; showing some evidence that belies a soft spot goes a long way to making good on an inherently good character, despite their actions or surface dialogue. Many others responded with some element of "self sacrifice", that nothing is more redeeming (or sexy) than a guy who will give up something of himself or what he values to--and I'm projecting this ending here--save or keep the woman he loves...which sounds an awful lot like "saving" him, being the "one thing" that will change him, etc. etc. etc.
This is where the Edward Cullens rule; the Pucks, the Patches, the Ashes, the Seths, the Jameses and the Robin Hoods: the Bad-Ass Good Guys and they are good at being both bad and dangerous (towards the right people) and protective/loving (towards the right people). They are made helpless, despite themselves, at the goodness emanating from this incredible woman they see before them. It is one of those undeniable attractions that tap into something elemental that brings women who admit that they "know better" to their knees: it's a popular character for a reason! And I like the "strong" characters that get to show their masculine side a lot more than the ones who are indistinguishable from the girls, the best friend who cries on your shoulder or the (L-rd help me) guys who apologize for falling in love or showing a hint of emotion in their "down (i.e. vulnerable) times". Mega ick.
But it's not bad to love the Bad Boy...is it? Well (say we) depends how bad. And this is a nebulous determination defined entirely by women and often unshared with their menfolk as compromising the myth of Prince Charming wherein if the guy really loved you, he'd somehow just know the right answer without you having to tell them. Except the Bad Boy who does his own thing.*** Which we tolerate despite ourselves because he's soooo dreamy. Boys will be boys, right?
So what's a guy to do?!?****
A *real* guy. Like your boyfriend or brother or best friend or dad? Like the teenage male reading your book? That guy. Who is he supposed to identify with? Project into? Try on for size in the safety of book scenarios and e-pages? I'm not happy with holding up an ideal of stalkers-who-care or smoldering sociopaths with the best of intentions any more than I like "strong" female characters who must tote a weapon and detest the idea of babies, marriage and love as a weakness in order to show their strength. It feels like being cornered and an awful lot like a no-win situation to put these two tropes in a room, and yet I can think of a TON of fictional pairings that do just that and we readers have been trained to expect to see the sparks fly. A "good" boy is the best friend (until he kicks someone's teeth in defending best-friend girl and then he can be elevated to the status of Good Guy with Bad Boy tendencies revealed! Hottie!) and a "feminine" girl is a weak, simpering sad sack (until it becomes evident that her Hidden Talent is something that can level the playing field. Go Grrl Power!). How can we give our boys someone to emulate, someone to look up to, without giving the double-standard of "Don't Be 'Too'"?*****
Here's my answer: I don't know. But I'd like to say for the record that sometimes, Bad Boys are just Bad. No redemption required, no excuses necessary, and it's not at all sexy to try to save them. Have at.
* Trust me, I understand this being a wife of a martial artist. I describe Better Than Boyfriend as "the sweetest, kindest, most gentle person I know who can kill someone with their bare hands," and it's true. But I would never want those eyes trained on me when he's in Killer Mode. Hence why I don't train, practice, or spar with my husband!**
** In the dojo, people! Get your head out of the gutter! *grin*
*** Reminds me of Moonlighting. And Taming of the Shrew. (Why not have both?)
**** Luckily, John Rea-Hedrick answered me once. Go read it.
***** Yes, and the same could be said for girls who can't be "too" strong or they're no longer feminine, "too" unreliable or then they're a lying psycho, or "too" assertive or they're a bitch. The knife cuts both ways, or many ways at once, as the case may be. Stupid knives. (P.S. And that is why I think Joss Whedon does an excellent job of balancing his female characters on this knife edge of suck; hence the userpic.)