And What About the Bad Girls?

doctor-yang Sandy’s recent blog entry about Bad Boys made me think of the Bad Boy’s counterpart, the Bad Girl. To qualify as a Bad Girl, it’s not enough for a heroine to simply be strong, independent and kick-ass. No, like her male equivalent, she needs to be selfish, pleasure-seeking, careless of others, wasteful and possibly promiscuous. She may be tortured because of a terrible childhood or a disastrous marriage, but she may not act the way she does because she secretly supports her seven minor half-siblings or the whole village – no martyrs here, please!

Thinking about Bad Girls, the first that came to my mind were from TV shows or the big screen, not books. Consider Melanie from Sweet Home Alabama, who is ashamed of her roots and would do about anything for her social rise, or Cristina Yang from Grey’s Anatomy, whose only goal in life is to be the best surgeon ever (and no, this is not for the sake of the patients). Half the cast of Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives would qualify at various points, too.

In contrast, Bad Girls are a rare species in romance novel. The main reason is probably that they don’t make female readers salivate the way the Bad Boys do. Another reason may be that as a reader, one doesn’t want to identify with the “bad” character, instead one wants to identify with the character who reforms him – and female readers tend to put themselves in the shoes of the heroine. And there may be a double standard at work here, in that selfish behavior on behalf of a woman is still considered less forgivable than selfish behavior on behalf of a man – in fiction even more than in real life.

Here are some Bad Girls in romances that I came up with:

Lady Barbara Childe, in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army. She is rich, beautiful, widowed and the granddaughter of a duke (incidentally, of Vidal, Sandy’s original Bad Boy, who makes a cameo appearance with his wife). In Brussels just before Waterloo, Lady Barbara flirts outrageously with all men in her vicinity and cares nothing about driving a wedge between young Peregrine Taverner and his wife. I don’t recall if she actually has sex with any of her admirers (Georgette Heyer being very oblique about matters of the bedroom), but she is definitely both heartless and selfish, until she is redeemed by true love.

Emmaline Denford, in Something About Emmaline by Elizabeth Boyle. She is the daughter of a highwayman and a con artist, and when Lord Sedgwick makes up an imaginary wife to be rid of marriage-minded misses, she steps into that role, invades his London townhouse and lives the life of an aristocratic lady, sending all the bills to her “husband”. There is more to Emmaline’s purpose than just a desire to play the highborn lady and acquire some beautiful clothes, but her motives are self-serving.

Madeleine Greenway, in Julie Anne Long’s The Perils of Pleasure. She is a mercenary by profession, an agent who organizes things in the London underworld. She chose this career because she is an impoverished widow, and she plans to abandon it once she has saved enough to start a new life in Virginia, but for right now she is professional, efficient and unconcerned about the rights or wrongs of the jobs she is assigned.

For a promiscuous heroine, Wilhelmina, Lady Taunton, in Melinda McRae’s short story “Cupid’s Dart” from From the Heart. Willi is a widow in her late thirties who regards men as amusing playthings, but who shies away from any sort of commitment. She is kind to her friends, but she lives her life very much according to her whims and pleasures, and when she discovers she has strong feelings for an old lover, her instinct is to retreat – actually to the continent with another man.

So, what other Bad Girls in romances can you think of – in subgenres besides historicals, too, of course? Do you like them, or do you dislike them? And am I correct in my sweeping assumptions why there are so few of them in romance?

-Rike Horstmann

42 thoughts on “And What About the Bad Girls?

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  3. How about Zoe in Liz Carlyle’s “Wicked All Day”? I wondered how AAR would review it, but it’s still in the works. She’s always in trouble.

  4. There’s a lot of great suggestions – thanks for all the input! If someone does make a list, it might be nice to get an idea which protagonists are sympathetic characters versus those who are not.

  5. Pingback: “Bad Boy” Heroes « Tracy Grant – Novelist

  6. It would be hard to find a more extreme example of a “bad girl” than Kelsey Howard in My Prerogative by Sasha White. In this erotic romance the heroine starts off by having sex on a public beach and then it gets steamy. The author manages to take what is initially a distasteful character and ultimately shows her humanity and vulnerability.

  7. Pingback: “Bad Girl” Heroines, and is Mélanie one? « Tracy Grant – Novelist

  8. YAY!!!!! THANK YOU.

    And thanks to everyone for the great suggestions.

    Rike: There have been so many fascinating suggestions here and such obvious interest in the topic that we are planning a new Bad Girls special title listing, with the titles listed here so far as a basis. So if you can think of further good romances that should be included on such a list, let us know!Thanks again, everyone!

  9. Respectively suggesting Lady Caroline Elmhurst, heroine of A MOST LAMENTABLE COMEDY (which AAR’s reviewer didn’t like a whole lot) and I’d be thrilled if my book had sparked this discussion. She’s arrogant, selfish, money-grubbing, promiscuous, untruthful etc; but she also has a great deal of self-awareness, courage and humor. I had too much fun with her to strike her bad qualities off the list but I did emphasize the latter qualities; and her transformation (for want of a better word) was not through her interaction with the hero so much as with her interaction with other characters–in other words, she found her community, a place she fit into.

    Who wants to see the female wolf tamed? Not me.

  10. There’s a lot of great suggestions – thanks for all the input! If someone does make a list, it might be nice to get an idea which protagonists are sympathetic characters versus those who are not.

    For example, Samantha Jellicoe is a thief, so she has an unusual profession and a loose sense of ethics. However, she is a very sympathetic character. I’d classify her with the adorable con artists and unconventional heroines. I read about these heroines when I’m interested in a lighthearted romantic comedy.

    In contrast, Annabelle Wilde in Edith Layton’s C books has an unattractive personality. Or some of the characters named in the original post have done things that have “given one a disgust” of them — their transformations can be very interesting as well. I pick up one of these books when I’m interested in reading a drama.

  11. There have been so many fascinating suggestions here and such obvious interest in the topic that we are planning a new Bad Girls special title listing, with the titles listed here so far as a basis. So if you can think of further good romances that should be included on such a list, let us know!

    Thanks again, everyone!

  12. Thanks, Susan! By “morally ambiguous” I was referring to some of Mélanie’s actions, not to her reasons for committing those actions. I agree she has a core of principles, quite strong principles actually. But so do some heroes, such as Lymond, whom we discussed in the Bay Boys thread.

    I totally agree that men in fiction (and in may cases in life) in general seem to be allowed much more latitude in what they can do and still be considered “good.” Oddly, I find that I have a hard time identifying with heroines who are too “good”, and I tend to identify more with heroines painted in shades of gray. I’m not sure what that says about me…:-).

  13. JulieLeto – I too love that Eve is so complicated, although, yes, there are times when the urge to strangle her is present. :) I love to see how her relationships with people have changed over the course of the series, like with Mavis and Peabody. Eve really doesn’t know what to do with girlfriends and all that touchy-feely love stuff, which makes her a great character to read.

  14. In response to Tracy Grant’s question regarding Melanie, no, I don’t think of her as a “bad girl”. I’m not even quite sure I’d agree about the morally ambiguous part. I think she has strong principles, and sometimes she does things to achieve those principles that may be not be morally pure. However, to be bad (to me), she’d have to do bad things for selfish ends, and I think her ends are much higher minded. Men are allowed to do many things yet still be considered good, but women are not — it’s the old Virgin/Whore dichotomy in that women are allowed far fewer shades of gray.

    As for why that may be, there may be lots of readers (although certainly not all) who identify to some extent with the heroine and who like the power that comes with being the only one to whom the hero responds in such a postive way. Just a thought.

  15. Katie Mack wrote: I’m often a sucker for a book with a “bad girl” blurb, and am often disappointed when I find that the heroine is really a faux bad girl.

    Me, too! I have no trouble with a girl who is bad as long as she’s properly motivated. Eve Dallas is a great example. There were times (mostly in the first couple of books) where you want to strangle her for not seeing how awesome Roarke is, but it FIT who she was. You want her to be warmer and softer sometimes…but then, no, you really DON’T. At least that was my reaction to her. I love those books! She’s so complicated.

  16. I love bad girl heroines, but I too get the impression that many readers want their heroines to be good and pure and perfect. I agree with JulieLeto in that women seem to judge other women much harsher than we judge men. I’m often a sucker for a book with a “bad girl” blurb, and am often disappointed when I find that the heroine is really a faux bad girl.

    I agree with those who mentioned Sam Jellicoe, and would add Zoe Ford, the heroine from Sarah Mayberry’s “She’s Got It Bad” to the list. Also, Mina Masters from “Written on Your Skin” by Meredith Duran.

    What about Eve Dallas? Obviously she’s a cop, so she’s not breaking any laws (most of the time), but she swears, drinks, kicks-ass, is most often crude and rude, and before Roarke she had sex “like a man” — just to satisfy the physical urge without any emotion involved. So, in my mind, I think that qualifies her as a bad girl — at least by our society’s standards.

  17. Hmm..even though I would also call her a tortured heroine, I do think there’s some bad girl heroine in Melanthe from For My Lady’s Heart by Laura Kinsale.

  18. LOVE “Lawless” Lily!

    Sylvie, Countess of Montevrain from Julia Ross’ THE WICKED LOVER.

    Tamara from Shannon McKenna’s ULTIMATE WEAPON and other McCloud books

    Meg from Carrie Lofty’s WHAT A SCOUNDREL WANTS is not exactly a nice girl nor is her sister, Ada, who will feature in her second book coming next year.

    Emmeline from Lydia Joyce’s WICKED INTENTIONS.

    Beatrix from Eloisa James’ A WILD PURSUIT

    Emma from Judith Ivory’s UNTIE MY HEART

    Kaderin the Cold Hearted from Kresley Cole’s NO REST FOR THE WICKED

    All of Anna Campbell’s heroines so far

  19. Reading Julie Leto’s interesting comments about the bad girl heroines she’s written (who sound wonderful), I was trying to think if Mélanie in my books qualifies. She definitely does things a number of the other characters (and some readers I’ve heard from ) consider “bad”, and she’s certainly made morally ambiguous choices, but going back to the top of the post, I don’t know that she qualifies as “selfish, pleasure-seeking, careless of others, wasteful and possibly promiscuous.” Well, some of the items on the list perhaps, but not all, I think. If anyone reading this happens to have read “Secrets of a Lady/Daughter of the Game” or “Beneath a Silent Moon”, any thoughts?

  20. Another bad girl is Lady Annabelle Wilde in Edith Layton’s “C” books. She’s not bad in the sense of evil, but she does expect the world to revolve around her — and to some extent it has because she is so beautiful. She definitely causes the H/H of those books some moments of anguish. However, by the end of that series, when she’s set her cap at yet failed to win any of the heroes, she is older and somewhat wiser. So when she finally gets her own hero, and, for a time, loses her looks, the stage has been set for a believable reformation of her character.

  21. I meant to add…women are, by our nature, more judgmental of other women. In fiction, in life. We let men get away with a lot (boys will be boys) but we don’t extend that courtesy to our own gender. So though I love writing bad girl heroines, I do wonder if its been a bad choice, career-wise. Some books sold well, others didn’t…so I can’t tell.

  22. This is an interesting topic for me. I’ve written quite a few bad girl heroines–and I mean really bad girls. One was an assassin. One was an over-sexed romance writer. One had previously been in a gang, had a record for assault and possessed what I’d like to call rather fluid ethics. Oh, and I did a thief. None of my heroines were apologetic about their choices, though I hope I gave them good reasons for their behavior. I’m about to write another thief heroine for an upcoming Blaze series.

    As much as I love them, though, I wonder if readers really appreciate them. Readers can be very judgmental of women who are less than perfect. I find such women really interesting to read about, myself. Like Sabine is Kresley Cole’s KISS OF A DEMON KING. She’s probably one of my favorite heroines EVER. And she was unapologetic for who she was and in the end, had not significantly changed. I loved her!

  23. One more…Samantha Jelllicoe, former jewel thief, from the series by Suzanne Enoch. Has she been mentioned? I did a quick run through the comments and didn’t notice her name.

  24. What fascinating titles and recommendations! I will have to add to my already too long TBR list …
    How could I have forgotten about Shanna and Scarlett! I must say that I like both of them, too. Both are so full of vitality and they go and DO things, that they win me over in spite of their flaws.
    Tracy, the idea of Barbara as an unhappy Sophy is very compelling!

  25. I agree with Madeline from Perils of Pleasure and Sophy from the Grand Sophy although she is only “bad” in the sense of being unconventional. However, I have two other names to add to the list from contemporaries: Samantha Jellicoe, the professional thief, from the series by Suzanne Enoch (starting with the book Flirting with Danger) and Selena McCaffrey, a thief/assassin with a mysterious past from a series of books by Rachel Butler, beginning with the book, The Assassin.

  26. My first thought was Scarlett O’Hara from “Gone with the Wind,” she is the worst yet for some reason I like her. Maybe it’s the southern charm, but I like a woman that is a little brassy and sassy. She makes it look good.

    I also have to say that when thinking about bad girls another comes to mind and I hate to admit this because my mother read it while pregnant with me and I ended up with her name. “Shanna” by Kathleen Woodiwiss, it’s been awhile since I read it but if memory serves she did every ruthless thing she could think of to avoid marriage and really treated the hero badly for most of the book. Where Scarlett comes off as a brassy woman who knows what she wants, Shanna comes off as a petulant child who hasn’t gotten her way. It is true though that bad girls stand out, that’s how I got my name.

  27. I love bad girl heroines. I tend to find them more interesting than bad boy heroes, I think because for women, in historicals (and most of what I read is historically set), the rules their contravening tend to be much more restrictive than those for me, and the consequences of their “bad” behavior are potentially much more dire.

    Barbara Childe is one of my favorite Heyer heroines, along with Sophy in “The Grand Sophy” who also breaks rules but has more method to her madness (my mom once described Barbara as “an unhappy Sophy”).

    Milady de Winter in “The Three Musketeers” is a villainess, but I always found her more interesting than the heroine, Constance. Ditto Mary Crawford in “Mansfield Park” versus Fanny Price.

  28. I can think of a couple of bad girls. Caroline Linden’s What a Rogue Desires features Vivian Beecham, a professional pickpocket and scam artist. There’s also the delightful Lily Masters, another pickpocket, in Julia Anne Long’s To Love a Thief.

  29. How about Scarlett O’Hara? She stole Frank Kennedy from her sister Suellen. She wanted Ashley Wilkes all throughout his marriage to Melanie. She was petty, vindictive and cruel. And at the end of the book when Rhett finally has had enough and leaves her , she doesn’t worry too much about it and says “After all, tomorrow is another day.”

  30. Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. Lady Susan is the title of a short epistolary novel Jane wrote as a teenager. The nomative heroine is Lady Susan’s daughter, Federica, but she is a pale, virtuous wimp whom Jane has little sympathy for. Lady Susan, however, gets all the best lines, best outfits, and is wicked, wicked, wicked.

    From Wiki,
    This epistolary novel, an early complete work that the author never submitted for publication, describes the schemes of the main character–the widowed Lady Susan–as she seeks a new husband for herself, and one for her daughter. Although the theme, together with the focus on character study and moral issues, is close to Austen’s published work (Sense and Sensibility was also originally written in the epistolary form), its outlook is very different, and the heroine has few parallels in 19th-century literature. Lady Susan is a selfish, attractive woman, who tries to trap the best possible husband while maintaining a relationship with a married man. She subverts all the standards of the romantic novel: she has an active role, she’s not only beautiful but intelligent and witty, and her suitors are significantly younger than she is (in contrast with Sense and Sensibility and Emma, which feature marriages of men who are old enough to be their wives’ fathers). Although the ending includes a traditional reward for morality, Lady Susan herself is treated much more mildly than the adulteress in Mansfield Park, who is severely punished.

  31. i love bad heroines- more than i love bad-boy heroes! There aren’t many who are truly really bad….which sort of goes for the bad boy heroes.

    my faves are (besides the already mentioned Emmaline and Madeleine):
    -Damaris from A Most Unsuitable Man by Jo Beverley: she practically flipped out unattractively in public in Winter Fire (she was ‘the other woman’ in this book) when the guy she wanted to marry (for his position) decides to marry his true love.
    -Cynthia from Like No Other Lover by Julie Ann Long: She planned to marry money. She even created a drinking game to make fun of some other girl.
    -Anne from All Through the Night by Connie Brockway: Modest widow companion by day, dark ninja-like thief by night. She loved stealing because of the thrill and recklessness of it and taunted the hero mercilessly when he couldn’t catch her.
    -Lily Lawson from Then Came You: not really that bad, but she was a gambler and has a hard streak about her
    -Leigh Straton from Kinsale’s Prince of Midnight: she’s not really that bad…but she does plan to kill someone. She didn’t give a damn about anything except revenge (of course until she slowly fell in love with the hero)
    -Delilah from Loretta Chase’s The Devil’s Delilah: she was not really a bad girl but she’s extremely mischievous and hot-tempered. She went great with the calm, nerdy hero!
    -Francesca from Loretta Chase’s Your Scandalous Ways: she was a notorious courtesan, flaunting her relationships as revenge against her ex-husband.
    -Annabelle from Marion Chesney’s The Taming of Annabelle: it’s an old regency novel. Annabelle was spoiled, vain, selfish, immature…and in love with her sister’s husband, Sylvester. She married Sylvester’s best friend, Peter (who was desperately in love with her), in order to outshine her sister (Peter is higher ranked). Annabelle then proceeded to call out Sylvester’s name while she was in bed with Peter. Of course she later reformed…
    -Gigi from Sherry Thomas’s Private Arrangements: not really a bad girl, but she did do something really bad to trick the hero in her youth. I guess she was a former spoiled, bad girl who had matured.
    -Sugar Beth Carey from Ain’t She Sweet by SEP: not my fave SEP book, but i do have a soft spot for her.

  32. Definitely Viv from Taylor Chase’s “Heart of Deception”. She and her brother are underground kingpins in Tudor London, she’s sexually experienced, and she has no compunction about using her intelligence and femininity to get what she wants. A VG book.

  33. “Lawless” Lily Lawson is one of my favorite “bad girl” heroines. She’s a lot of fun.

    But I love Madeleine in The Perils of Pleasure too — I love that she was the one rescuing the hero rather than vice versa.

  34. Deanie Gauthier, a/k/a the Mutant from One on One by Tabitha King. In fact, in her light, she is the only bad girl I can think of. And although Deanie has a heart of gold beneath her “bad girl” outward appearance, very few in the book see it except for Sam Styles, the opposite of her. He is a high school senior basketball star and she is an outsider. I had to love her though…not right away, but as the book progressed, I did.

  35. Wow, I was hard put to come up with a Bad-Girl heroine! I think you are right in that they are few and far between.

    I know in my personal life when I guy I was romantically interested in screwed me over or acted like an assh*le I forgave him WAYYY easier and more quickly than a girlfriend who hurt me.

    The only Romance heroine I could think of is Ophelia Reid who was a BIATCH in The Heir but was “redeemed” in her own story The Devil Who Tamed Her, by Johanna Lindsey.

  36. How ’bout Lily Lawson from Lisa Kleypas’ Then Came You? She’s described as a “hoyden” (which is one of my favorite words EVAR!)

  37. Sugar Beth Carey– SEP “Ain’t She Sweet”- the most dangerous bad girl—one with a southern accent
    Skeeter Bang Hart- Tara Janzen “Crazy Love”- a computer expert, bustier wearing, kick *** attitude, fast car driving bad girl
    Red Dog- Tara Janzen “Crazy Sweet” A chemically enhanced, kick *** body and attitude, special ops bad girl
    Lili Mansfield–Linda Howard “Kiss Me While I Sleep”–a government sanctioned shoot to kill, always gets her man bad girl
    Olivia Wingate–Loretta Chase “Lord Perfect”–a pre-teen, knows how to get her own way, and not shy about doing it bad girl-in-training

  38. Helena, Lady Stapleton, the heroine of A Christmas Bride. When we meet her in A Precious Jewel she has ruined* the hero’s life. Very hard to like but somehow in Mary Balogh’s hands, there’s a Christmas redemption for her.

    * well, put a deep hurt on!

  39. One of my favorite bad girl redemption stories is A Merry Little Christmas by Martha Schroeder. The heroine in this one is completely self-absorbed and selfish at the beginning, but when her family loses all its money, she has to go to work – and finds that she actually enjoys it. (Although this is the third in the series, I thought the book stood alone very well.)

  40. Katheinie Deveraux from The Suitor by Sandy Hingston. Great book, and I liked Katherine, but she did grow as a character and redeem herself.

    Other bad girls I’ve enjoyed have the same theme of being “material girls”…for example…Material Girl by Julia London and Hot Wheels and High Heels by Jane Graves.
    I don’t shy away from bad girls, but I don’t seek them out either…and there has to be some redemption…same as with badboys.

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