As mentioned previously, I intend to use this week to engage in a cross-blog debate with Karen Gordon—an acquaintance writer of mine. The topic of debate? Bad boys in fiction.
But firstly, you must read my original post on the matter, along with Karen’s response. The former will introduce you to my key arguments; the latter is needed in order to understand Karen’s criticism, and the content of this post.
So without further ado, allow me to address Karen’s points.
Fact versus Fiction
The foundational premise of Karen’s arguments, it seems to me, is her experience in real-life. She is indeed ‘pulling the age card’ (to use that charming American colloquialism). But I believe this is precisely where she errs: for to understand fiction, and in particular the phenomenon of the bad boy, one needs to take a step back from real life.
Of course, bad boys in real life are nearly always ‘drama mamas’ or, to put it more crudely, assholes. They’re narcissists: uncaring, cold, and cruel. They make poor lovers, friends, and husbands; it is a direct consequence of their personalities.
But you see, fiction is stranger than truth. The Impressionists taught us that. Art—of which novels are a form—does not need to be an accurate reflection of reality in order to be, well, good art. And the allure of the bad boy, as I have elucidated, stems from the fact that he is a fantasy of sorts.
In fiction, the bad boy has many redeeming qualities: intelligence, charm, and vulnerability. In fiction, you want to save the bad boy. Of course you do: you’re a romantic. The bad boy’s chief allure, as I say, is in his salvation.
In real life, trying to save a bad boy usually results in heartbreak and tragedy. But in fiction, saving the bad boy lets you find love. You may suffer for it, naturally; but in the end you prevail. Love conquers all.
Of the Reader’s Mind
Another aspect I wish to draw attention to is the fact that the bad boy is undeniably appealing; he wouldn’t sell so many damn books if that weren’t true. And so the question is, why?
Karen is clearly too wearied by life to understand his appeal. But I, a younger soul, can understand it. Yes: when one is old, one does not have time to engage in frivolous and obscenely difficult romantic pursuits. One has children, a house, and a closing lifespan to worry about. A loyal and caring husband is far more attractive.
But when one is young, ah, the calculus is different. Loyalty and care is nice—but rather dull, all in all. A relationship that is fractious, difficult, unpredictable, exciting, sexual; that is a quite different matter.
One should not misunderstand me in thinking that I extoll the virtues of the bad boy. While I find the bad boy captivating as a trope—a cliché in fiction—and while I indeed value some of his qualities in a lover, at the end of the day I am not suggesting that mistreating and abusing romantic partners is a successful path to go down.
But to return to my initial argument, fiction is not real-life. The circumstances of fiction are exceptional. It is not everyday that one fights a millenia-old war of angels against demons, to use an example. The bad boy is likewise a case of exception: he, unlike his real-life compatriot, can be saved. He is bad... but he is also good.
The Golden Boy
Karen also seems to take an issue with my antonym of the bad boy: the Golden Boy, or the Perfect Boy.
I’m sure we’re familiar with him. He’s the guy the girl wants to fall in love with. He’s sweet, dependable, and handsome. He treats the protagonist with respect; he is clearly a good guy.
Karen argues that male characters are more complex than the bad boy and the Golden Boy. Of course they are. But the bad boy and the Golden Boy are archetypes; they exemplify, in a distilled and exaggerated form, the qualities that are one the one hand adored—such as strength, kindness, and urbane handsomeness—and on the other hand despised: arrogance, subterfuge, malevolent sexuality.
The fact that the bad boy is so loved highlights a contradiction. If we hate his personality traits so much, why are we so attracted to him? And if we love the Golden Boy so much, why do we find him a bore?
There are a number of possible answers to this question. I prefer the explanation that, ultimately, neither of these characters are perfect. Kindness and dependability are great—but we want a little meanness to go with it.
A Different Note
I hope you have found this little dissertation of ours mildly intriguing. I am interested to hear your thoughts.
But on a different note, there’s a lot more going on here in the Magical Realm. I am, for one, writing the Ark; if you’re interested in reading a tale about two boys in a world falling apart—including a bad boy of my own—then do keep an eye out on the Magical Realm. I will soon be releasing a newsletter signup!
Until then, fell free to share your thoughts in the comments section.