Bookish, Discussions

Smoke & Sleeves: Fiction’s Obsession With A Bad Boy

I think a lot of readers will say they dislike a bad boy. I think a lot of readers lie when they say this.

The amount of fiction that includes a ‘bad boy’ is staggering, and these stories aren’t ignored. Oh no. They’ve got millions of views on Wattpad, they’ve made authors rich beyond their wildest dreams. Bad boys are one of the very things that people seemingly seek out when reading a piece of fiction.

You say you don’t like a bad boy, but that’s the point, isn’t it? You dislike him, you’ll fold your arms and roll your eyes. But secretly, you kinda like him.

I am no stranger to this. I have read books including bad boys and loved them. Hey, I’ve even written bad boys into my own stories. I’m not a person who will stand on the side of the street holding a placard saying ‘STOP WRITING ABOUT BAD BOYS’, because how hypocritical would that be?

I recently came across Regina’s brilliant post on why we love a bad boy; it’s honest and chock full of gifs of some of the most famous bad boys on screen. And Regina’s right, there is something about a bad boy that makes us become puddles of drool. But, while I like to read/write about bad boys, there is something very tricky and dangerous when a ‘bad boy’ comes into play in a story, and that is portrayal.

A bad boy, firstly, needs to be defined. When you type ‘bad boy definition’ into Google, this is what comes up:


We’re looking at definition 1 here (although 2 made me laugh).

A bad boy is something new, something different to what we usually expect when it comes to a boyfriend. While even the idea of having this guy become our boyfriend sounds ridiculous, the thought of him mouthing off to people, getting into fights, and having tattoos but still falling in love and caring for us? Now, that’s exciting, isn’t it?

It’s a universal truth that everyone wants to be loved and cherished in one way or another (including non-sexually and platonically).

Ultimately, a bad boy is sexy. When you type ‘bad boy’ into Google Images, this is what comes up.

Bad boy seems to equal leather, smoking, and tattoos. Also, Francisco Lachowski, apparently.

So, the ‘look’ a bad boy has mirrors the definition of non-conforming. He sneers, blows smoke into your eyes, and wears his heart on the ink on his skin. Bad, in this sense = good, fun, and like I said before, exciting.

But remember when I mentioned portrayal? It’s one thing to write a bad boy, but to get it right? That’s a whole other story. Views or sales or popularity does not mean a good portrayal of a bad boy, but, in most cases, can actually be an abusive, manipulative douche.

Fiction is rife with a kind of bad boy who’s jealousy stops the protagonist from hanging out with her friends, enjoys manipulating her into believing she is worthless, and only isn’t when she’s with him, pressures her into things she doesn’t want to do, controls what she does and says, and makes her believe that she needs to stay, because she can fix his awful ways.

And that’s when a bad boy becomes dangerous (and not in the sexy way we all seem to love).

A lot of the reasons made in Regina’s post as to why we love a bad boy are actually assumptions we make about a bad boy; he’s kind on the inside, he wants us to save him, he can’t help acting the way he is. Unless you are a telepath, you will never know what goes on inside the head of another person. As much as you think you know someone, even your bad boy boyfriend, you can never predict a certainty. Sometimes, there are no good intentions, no gentle flower inside the hard exterior. And in those times, you are not in a good relationship.

Bad boys like these will ultimately lead into abuse. It’s why some women across the world are stuck in relationships where they’re physically, mentally, and sexually hurt. Not because they read it in a book and thought that was a good relationship, but that they’ve been brought up thinking that boys that pull your hair in school are doing it because they like you. Because boys are taught that it’s OK to hurt someone because it’s cute and they fancy them.

Poor portrayals of bad boys are not so easy to spot sometimes, and you can be carried away with the majority’s love of him. I often get an icky feeling when reading a poor portrayal, and that’s usually how I know, however, I’m not always that lucky. Edward Cullen, for example, is considered a classic bad boy, yet he takes part in unbelievably abusive and manipulative acts (monitoring who Bella hangs out with, breaking her car so she can’t leave, ordering her food for her) which are akin to the criteria of being in an abusive relationship. Kids at school would say “I wish I had a boyfriend like Edward.” and I agreed, and thinking back at it now, I didn’t realise how dangerous that is.

There is also the sense that the bad boy needs to be saved/rescued. This one actually annoys me to no end, because if the bad boy is different in the end, how come you fell in love with the way he was in the first place? What made you look at a grown man and say “this is a project.” Yes, many a bad boy is troubled, and it’s great that you want to give love and care and respect, because every human wants this. But you are also human, and you deserve this as much as he does. I’m sorry, but if you do not receive love, care and respect and you have to work to receive it yet you’re overflowing with it for him, then that relationship is toxic and one-sided.

Portrayals of this relationship is rife, and only becomes a good portrayal if it is shown as bad, it’s shown as toxic, and that the bad boy is in the wrong. A great example of a good portrayal of a bad boy is Danny Zuko from Grease. Danny is a bad boy; he smokes, is part of a gang that skips school and causes trouble and drag races. However, right from the beginning, the story shows he can have a good, respectful relationship with a person. This includes Sandy, but also Kenickie. Yes, he is troubled, and has problems showing his love to Sandy when with his friends, but Sandy doesn’t try to change him. Although they both ultimately try to change themselves, it’s obvious it’s just a shallow image of each other, and that it doesn’t matter. They still love each other and fly away in a magic car.

If you write or read bad boys, keep doing it. I don’t want this post to stop you from loving them. But I want you to understand that the romanticisation of abusers is not good writing; it’s dangerous and irresponsible. I want bad boys whose actions are called out on, who are made to learn that they can’t treat people that way. Or even bad boys who are bad in a certain sense, but can still have relationships that aren’t so toxic.

Because if the definition of a bad boy is one of abuse, manipulation, and control, then other bad boys include Ted Bundy, Ian Brady, Jim Jones, and Hitler.

But let’s not leave on links to serial killers. Some great portrayals of bad boys in fiction and on screen are; Oscar from I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson, Jace from The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare, Patrick Verona from 10 Things I Hate About You, Spike from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and The Darkling from The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo (while this last one isn’t a good bad boy, he is portrayed as a villain, which is what these kind of bad boys should be).

What’s your opinion on bad boys? Do you agree? Disagree? Thanks for reading if you got this far, I know I like to ramble.

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  1. Lauren @ Wonderless Reviews

    June 14, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    Oh my gosh, it’s like you got inside my head for this post! I completely agree with everything you said.

    I love a complex and flawed male character or when morals are ambiguous. What I don’t love is when there’s emotionally (or physically) abusive moments and it gets romanticised. Or when a male character does shitty things and it’s constantly excused because he’s “hot and sassy”. It’s one of my biggest annoyances. I hate it more than instalove and love triangles, haha.

    I really hate when those kind of abusive characters are pushed onto teenage girls because it’s such an unhealthy ideal. I see so many young girls being like “relationship goals” about all these abusive tendencies and it makes me so sad.

    Brilliant post, Hollie!

    1. hollie (hollieblog)

      June 14, 2016 at 1:20 pm

      EXACTLY. Flawed male characters are great, but when the bad behaviour is excused because they’re hot, I get so annoyed! Glad you liked it 😀

      1. Lauren @ Wonderless Reviews

        June 15, 2016 at 4:26 pm

        Right! Especially when female characters who do similar things get shamed and villainised!

  2. Ravenclaw Book Club

    June 14, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    I personally love bad boy characters (when they’re not abusive and disgusting) but not bad boys in real life. 😃

    1. hollie (hollieblog)

      June 14, 2016 at 1:33 pm

      Me too! There are just so many books that justify abusive behaviour as hot and loving and it drives me crazy!

  3. thejouskablog

    June 14, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    *Slow Claps* I love Bad Boy fictional characters because they just seem to make the story more interesting, haha. 😉

    1. hollie (hollieblog)

      June 14, 2016 at 2:21 pm

      I completely agree! But I find it dangerous to read of characters who are considered the hero when they treat their girlfriend like shit. Behavior like that needs to be portrayed as bad, to learn something.

      1. thejouskablog

        June 14, 2016 at 2:28 pm

        Very true! There should always be a balance when it comes to the portrayal of characters whether it is good or bad. 🙂

  4. kimmiegg

    June 14, 2016 at 2:29 pm

    I think the best part about a bad boy, is when they are so sweet to the female character, and you realize what love is capable of. Also, I think we’re able to sympathize with them better. But I totally agree. No matter how “sexy” this bad guy may be, if they are abusive or inexplicably rude, that’s not okay.

  5. thebibliotheque

    June 14, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    First of all, this is a great post and you make very good points. Secondly, I need to repeat myself and tell you that I am very happy my post was the last little push that made you write this 🙂

    I have to agree with you, Hollie. Despite being a through and through lover of this trope, I am aware that in some cases authors romanticize abusive behaviors just because the love interest is “bad” but “in love”. In those cases, they often fool the reader when trying to sell the wrong idea of romance. That’s seriously dangerous if the reader those books target is in fact a young adult. When I wrote my post, I did it focusing on the cliches surrounding this trope, using them as reasons why we keep falling for this stereotype. Always keeping the tone light and trying to be somehow funny, but leaving aside some of the reasons why some badboys can go a bit too bad.

    I think your discussion is the perfect companion to my post and I am very happy you wrote it, because you make some points that are worth saying and that every young adult should definitely keep in mind.

    And finally (and I’ll stop writing already, I promise), I also agree with you on the fact that if you need to “save” or change someone, what did really make you fall for that person in the first place? That’s true. However, I still think that one of the reasons why we (in general) love this trope is because the majority of these badboys are painted as troubled and wrapped in secrets, presenting a puzzle the main character (or most of us) want to solve to get to the cause of the trouble and take the badboy out of there, hence save him, so there’s the happily ever after.

    1. hollie (hollieblog)

      June 14, 2016 at 3:13 pm

      Thankyou for saying all this!

      That’s basically what I was getting at. I love bad boys too, but I just don’t like seeing grown ass men be called ‘misunderstood’ and given a pardon because of it. I understand characters have troubled and dark pasts, but I just don’t believe in using that to excuse abusive behaviour. To quote Jake Peralta from Brooklyn Nine Nine; “Cool motive, still murder.”

      I was slightly worried that you would think that this is an attack on your post which it isn’t at all because I really enjoyed it! 😀 x

      1. thebibliotheque

        June 14, 2016 at 3:18 pm

        Oh my gosh, no! Not at all, I didn’t feel attacked for one sec, nor my post. Promise 🙂 I actually think the points you make should be out there, specially for the young and not so young readers that will grow to romanticize real life relationships (who doesn’t do that at some point, right?)

        Also, that Brooklyn Nine Nine quote deserves an ovation 😉

        1. hollie (hollieblog)

          June 14, 2016 at 3:21 pm

          Ok good because I would NEVER do that! <3

          It does, it's such a short, simple sentence that carries so much weight and I applaud the writers of the show for putting it in ^_^ (haha sometimes I'm dramatic)

  6. Shannon @ Clockwork Bibliophile

    June 14, 2016 at 4:33 pm

    I totally agree and love this post! Bad boys are some of my faves but I would hate for younger readers to look up to an abusive relationship and think, “I want a love like that”. Great post! 💕

  7. TOP 5 // FAVE POSTS – the hollieblog.

    June 22, 2016 at 11:51 am

    […] Smoke & Sleeves: Fiction’s Obsession With A Bad Boy […]

  8. Tanja

    July 19, 2016 at 8:47 pm

    This is a really well written post. Bad boys are one of those things I like in fiction but can’t stand in real life. It’s a lot of fun to read about characters who do things they shouldn’t, but there are definitely too many writers who go too far so the character starts out as a bad boy and ends up as an abuser.
    I like your examples, The Darkling is one of my favorite characters ever 😀

  9. iwillnotliveinvain

    August 10, 2016 at 5:35 am

    Love this – I just read that other post as well and I was thinking essentially the same as where you say “A lot of the reasons made in Regina’s post as to why we love a bad boy are actually assumptions we make about a bad boy; he’s kind on the inside, he wants us to save him, he can’t help acting the way he is. Unless you are a telepath, you will never know what goes on inside the head of another person. ” While hers was a fun post and does outline the why we love them (think we love them), it is definitely true that the reasons we are attracted are assumptions or projections of what we think they are really like. Good post 🙂

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