Make the Right Choice?

This spring I listened to the audiobook presentation of Impossible by Nancy Werlin, a young adult novel about a 17-year-old girl whose maternal line has been cursed by an evil elfin knight so that each generation becomes pregnant at seventeen and – unless she can solve the knight’s impossible riddle before she gives birth – forfeits her sanity to him.  This sounds like kind of an odd set-up, but the story was quite good.  Werlin states on her website that it was inspired by the ballad, “Scarborough Fair” (which the narrator sings this hauntingly throughout her performance of the novel).

Lucy Scarborough is one of a long line of Scarborough women who have gone insane and dropped out of their daughters’ lives.  Lucy has two big advantages over her forebears, however: she has her mother Miranda’s diary, written while she was pregnant with Lucy, and she has support.  Her foster parents are still in touch with Miranda, to the extent that they can be and they are willing to help Lucy when her time comes to need help.  Lucy also has a childhood friend-cum-love interest named Zach who is willing to risk life and limb to make sure this time the curse does not triumph.

One thing that is interesting about this book is that, in a time of paranormal glut, the “hero” is a fairly ordinary human boy who is kind, loyal, and very smart, but not in any way supernaturally powerful.  The elfin knight is the guy with all the powers, and he is very definitely the bad guy; Lucy is repulsed by him from the beginning.

Here is a video of Nancy Werlin explaining about her history of reading romance novels and why she made her hero a good guy and not a bad boy:

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Nancy’s comments made me remember something I’d read about  Companions of the Night, a book  which I DIK’d way back in 2001. Companions of the Night is the story of Kerry Nowicki who saves Ethan Bryne, a young man who appears to be the victim of crazy vampire-hunting locals who have targeted him for death.   By inserting herself into the situation Kerry makes her family a target, and her brother and father are kidnapped.  Kerry goes to Ethan for help, but Ethan is neither human nor humanitarian.

Now  when I first read this book the internet was newer, and searching for anything about the book’s bad boy antagonist, Ethan Bryne, I swear, I swear, that I found an interview with the author, Vivian Vande Velde saying she wrote this book the way she did because she felt that having the heroine Kerry, a normal teenager living a normal life, wind up with Ethan would be sending the wrong message to girls – that bad boys are more romantic.  (This remark really stayed with me, but for the life of me I can’t find the interview, sorry.)

It stayed with me because my reaction was the opposite – I loved Ethan Bryne, and I hoped Kerry would meet him again at some point in the future when she was older better able to handle him (though, honestly, she does a good job of handling him at age 16, IMHO) because he was sexy as hell.  Others apparently agree because Vande Velde has often been asked about the possibility of a sequel and Kerry and Ethan have a whole page of fan fiction written about them over at fanfiction.net.

Now both of these books were good and I respect both authors, but given that I found Ethan sexier and more memorable than Zach, I have a few quandaries:

  • Am I comfortable with the fact that the authors here are giving advice to the reader, YA or not, on what she should or should not find appealing?
  • If I am, am I comfortable with the fact that I actually like the bad boy better?

As for the first, I’m not saying that authors can’t have biases or agendas, major or minor, in their writing.  No one writes in a vacuum and how you feel and what you value naturally bleeds over on the page during the writing process.  You can’t read a Jennifer Crusie book, for example, without knowing exactly what she thinks should be done with cheating husbands and homeless pets.  And I’m fine with that.  But the above two examples seem to be more deliberate advice giving to a target audience – teenaged girls.  And I’m not sure the stories were better for it.  I’m also not sure if it actually works, if a girl thinks to herself after closing the final page, “You know, the nice guy really is a better choice.”

I’ve been floating the notion for awhile that the reason we have so many Navy SEAL heroes and vampire/werewolf love interests is because in a society where the rules shifted a generation ago and things still haven’t shaken down to ensure that woman are safe, economically secure, and equally respected, warrior characters represent a big buffer against all the insecurity women stare down every day.  A man who is invulnerable but powerfully influenced by a woman is basically a weapon, a big sexy weapon with a “free” will.  He will do anything to protect his love and will use all the tools at his disposal to make sure she is always safe and provided for.  This is a lot better than just being rich as so many romance heroes of yesteryear were.  His arms are a fortress, and nothing can get at our heroine as long as she has his heart.

In this way Ethan Bryne is a bad boy, but only until he starts feeling love for Kerry.  If he does truly love her – and the book is in 1st person so the reader makes that call – she’s safe from just about anything.  Contrast that to Zach who in real life is a much better – and actually extant – option but who can provide for Lucy only what a guy with a good heart can.   Less security there.

Using this rationale, I feel better about my reaction to Ethan.  I don’t think that I should have to justify my affinity for certain types of characters.  Fantasy is not reality.  But I am a rational, pragmatic person who avoids risk in real life, so I’d like to think my psyche isn’t just warped as all heck.

What do you think about bad boy heroes, why we like them, and whether we should?

–Rachel Potter

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14 Responses to “Make the Right Choice?”

  1. Lynn M says:

    Your analysis makes a lot of sense to me. I love bad boy heroes, and I also love the protectiveness you find in the Navy SEAL/vampire/immortal type heroes. The idea of a man who will face down death in order to protect the ones he loves is endlessly appealing to me even as I know it is firmly rooted in fantasy and not in reality.

    Too, I think there’s a lot to be said about the premise of taming a bad boy hero. Here you have a man who shows no respect for others, gives off no impression that he could ever care about anyone, and immediately the challenge is thrown. What kind of fabulous woman does it take to break through to him and alter him such that he can feel love for her? Usually when bad boys fall, they fall hard and fast and forever. That is immensely appealing to me.

    When you add in the agelessness factor of the paranormal heroes who have lived for centuries without loving one woman only to be brought to his knees when he finally meets his one true love, I kind of become a puddle of mushy goo. It’s all part of the fantasy, a way to escape the realities of a nice guy husband who tends to leave his socks on the floor and whose most heroic adventure might be capturing the raccoon that keeps getting into the garbage cans.

  2. Karen says:

    As far as the author giving advice to the reader – I think that’s inherent in writing romance. What makes the book less believable is when the author’s message doesn’t fit with the book that she wrote. I haven’t read this book, but it seems like the author liked the bad boy better (since he was so vivid and interesting when she wrote about him) but felt that she “should” put the heroine with the nice guy hero. So her message was at odds with her own feelings.

    If I wrote a book, I’m sure my heroine would end up with the nice guy hero, because I find nice guy heroes more appealing than bad boys. And hopefully my love of nice guys would come across in the way I wrote the book, so it wouldn’t seem like a “message” – it would just seem like a natural part of the characters and who they were.

  3. Vorkosigrrl says:

    I agree that you (or any reader) should get to like whom you like. But I admit that I worry about young girls reading about all these controlling, alpha males, especially in paranormal romance, and taking them as a model for real life. I think there’s a difference between how youngsters absorb information and how a mature brain absorbs it.

    Using myself as an example, I remember watching tons of old movies, like from the forties (e.g. Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers), as I was growing up, and my, hmmm, shock and disillusionment as I learned during my first, failed marriage how different those movies are from real life. If you had asked me before I got married if I could separate fantasy from reality, I would have said, “Of course I can!” But the background that was playing in my brain said something different.

    Myself, I’m a big fan of beta heroes, in fiction and real life. I simply never have understood the appeal of the Bad Boy. I like your interpretation that the Bad Boy appeal is in the taming, and in the woman feeling protected. But it’s a fine line between protecting and controlling. Let’s face it, in real life some of these guys are the ones women need to be protected from.

    When I hear stories about young girls who get into abusive relationships, and read all these stories showing how wonderful these ultra-dominant men are, I do wonder. Everything has an effect.

  4. Lynda X says:

    I love to read bad boy heroes too, but they are problematic. I personally have never known a bad boy to reform. I am NOT saying that they don’t; however, it is pretty rare; most bad boys develop into bad men. But let’s face it: romances are pure fantasies and REAL Bad Boys are NEVER shown in romances. Most of the time, the faux Bad Boy comes from poverty and abuse, but he’s determined to rise above it, often through the military. He is never addicted, never chronically unemployed, never unhealthy, never destroys people’s (especially his children’s) lives. He just LOOKS like a bad boy. Americans have always had a love affair with the rebel, and these SEALS, vampires, detectives, etc. are just a variation. Should we worry about the influence of these faux bad boys on teenage girls? Probably not in romances where the bad boy ALWAYS truly loves the woman. Unfortunately, we should worry about the heroes of most songs, movies, television, books, and video games who are never shown truly loving a woman. In fact, the universal message is that a true man is one who is free of women, except for sex. If we are going to criticize romance writers, it is that they NEVER show our heroine falling for a true bad boy who seduces her by false proclamations of love. The message is that you can believe the bad boys’ seductions and have sex without consequence with them. Romances need to show MORE bad boys, realistically and do not make them the hero. The trick of a good youth author is to make healthy decisions more glamorous and cool than those that are not, whether it’s staying in school, not drinking or drugging, or marrying the decent man. It’s not enough to have the heroine end up spurning the bad boy to marry the good boy. Maybe showing the truth about real bad boys would make the reader root for the heroine ending up with the good man.

  5. willaful says:

    Funny, I *loved* Companions of the Night and I totally didn’t remember them not winding up together (in some fashion) at the end. Of course, I read it a long time ago, but I’m still surprised.

    I enjoyed both books and I think there’s room for both kinds of heroes (and then some.) I like variety in my reading, especially since I’m a genre reader. I have no attraction to “bad boys” in real life whatsoever and am very happily married to the nicest of nice guys. It can be fun to read about something totally out of my experience, that I would never want to actually experience. It can also be very satisifying to read something that reflects my own feelings and values.

    I really agree about the fine line between “protecting and controlling.” I remember a woman on a romance board writing about this guy who just insisted she go out with him and how hot that was and how men aren’t like that anymore. She also said that she had broken up with him eventually, I didn’t respond (but wanted to) “and what if he had refused to let you break up with him, the way he refused to take no for an answer at the start? Would that still have been so hot?”

  6. maggie b. says:

    As far as individual authors go, authors must always write what they feel –with the understanding I might choose to reject it. And I think every author, whether consciously or subconsciously does inflict a bit of her world view on me with every book. That’s all right. I inflict my world view on others with my choices in purchasing, viewing, reading, voting.

    But a publisher consciously choosing only “good guy” books when a great bad guy hero is offered? Insisting Bella choose the safer Jacob for example or cutting the motor cycle scenes out because they are wrong for young girls to read? That’s evil. It can’t be the publisher who chooses. I think this is where parenting has to come in to play. It is not the author’s job to parent but Mom and Dad’s. For myself, I am aware of what my son reads and watches. I don’t censor it (obviously I did when he was younger, not so much after 12/13) but we do share what we think about things and if a movie we see as a family contains something different from our family morals, I am quick to bring that up.

    I just don’t think as a society we can protect everyone from everything. I read many of the rape fantasy novels of the 80′s growing up but my family and community had also made it clear to me what real rape looked like. I knew it wasn’t a rich, incredibly handsome plantation owner confusing you with a lady of the night (The Flame and the Flower) but either a guy who never knew you acting out horrific violence on your person or a guy who did know you acting out horrific (if more sugar coated violence) on your person. I also knew that life wasn’t the Brady Bunch or the Addam’s Family but what happened around me.

    Just speaking for myself, I hate censorship. I don’t want to be protected from radical ideas but want the opportunity to make them for myself.

    maggie b.

  7. JMM says:

    Jacob wasn’t safer. He was always one minute away from fursploding into a wolf and ripping Bella’s face off. Not to mention his immaturity and emotional blackmail. Ick. Talk about a sad message to young girls.

    I think the author’s only “responsibility” is to entertain. Period. Not to write Inoffensive Politically Correct Works that Teach Young People How to Live. If a person has trouble telling the difference between reality and fiction – well, they need help the author can’t give them.

    If we’re going to worry about the “message” that every book gives, what about other genres and forms of entertainment?

    I’ve read (and enjoyed) books where the murderer gets away with the crime. Does that mean I’d approve of it in real life? No.

    If the author wants to write a book with the Nice Guy as the Hero, then the author should make the Nice Guy sexy, hot, and most of all, INTERESTING. Not the Safe and Sensible Choice because the heroine is too afraid to live.

    BTW, what do you consider a “bad boy”? I think perhaps one problem is that readers each have their own idea of what the term means.
    Is every hero who comes up from poverty bad?
    Is there no hope for someone who has done drugs or gone to jail?
    Can a person be ruthless and good at the same time?

  8. maggie b. says:

    JMM: Jacob wasn’t safer. He was always one minute away from fursploding into a wolf and ripping Bella’s face off. Not to mention his immaturity and emotional blackmail. Ick. Talk about a sad message to young girls.

    I am Team Edward all the way but I thought the argument was that Jacob was the safer choice because he would never eat Bella? That Edward (and his family) had to struggle and make a conscious choice not to eat her (hence the Jasper mess at the birthday party) while Jacob and his cohorts might accidentally hurt her when changing but were actually more geared toward protecting her than eating her? And that as a result of association with Edward Bella had two groups of lethal vampires after her blood while Jacob’s tribe was after protecting the town? That was kind of the message I got from the book. That MENTALLY Jake was the safe, sunny choice but her heart was Edward’s from the first.

    Like I said, Team Edward here so I am not the best person to argue this side.

    maggie b.

  9. Allyson says:

    I never thought Jacob was a very safe or good choice, either, he was really no better than Edward. Had they wanted to contrast Edward by making him dangerous, his rival should’ve not been supernatural! But I don’t think that’s really the point of the books…anyway!

    I think that taking each book on its own is totally valid, and it’s the argument that usually comes up when someone says ‘bad influence’. But on the other hand, we don’t live in a vacuum, and if suddenly there is a glut of a certain sort of character or story, it’s interesting to look at why, and yes, even to say ‘hey, is this an entirely positive thing?’ Not to censor, just to ask, but sometimes even asking gets a lot of flack.

    The terms good boy/bad boy, alpha/beta seem used so randomly that I just can never even tell what someone means when they use it. To one person, a ‘bad boy’ might be a seducer who leaves the woman pregnant and alone, to another a bad boy would be any vampire, or someone who grew up poor and experienced a rough life, to another someone who swears. Same with ‘alpha’. Every so often on the boards someone will talk about how alphas have a bad reputation and are NOT the rapist/jerk heroes, those aren’t true alphas, etc etc. But people still use ‘alpha’ to talk about the rapist/jerk heroes (often positively). so, yeah, can be confusing.

  10. Susan/DC says:

    Unlike JMM, I actually liked Jacob precisely because he was a much more accurate picture of a teenage boy, changing body, surging hormones, immaturity and all. I don’t think that necessarily makes him hero material, but it’s a more realistic portrait of what teen girls have to deal with than Edward, who was so perfect and so controlled.

    As for bad vs good boys, I haven’t read either “Impossible” or “Companions of the Night” so I can’t truly compare Zach to Ethan, but isn’t it even more heroic to be able to save the heroine using only our meager human traits than to have supernatural abilities to fall back on?

    And to maggie b: I don’t think it was the publisher who censored the book, I think it was a conscious choice by the author as to what message she wanted to convey.

  11. JMM says:

    I’d have liked Jacob if he’d been presented as the immature teen that he was. Instead, SM sacrificed all of her other characters to glorify him.

    I never bought him as the sensible choice. He wasn’t even human. He was selfish and bratty. And then there was the little fact that he might imprint any day, but continued to try to force himself on Bella by emotional blackmail.

  12. Anne Gilbert says:

    Ths “bad boy/good boy” discussion is interesting, because I am presently writing a series of novels(actually a trilogy), where the heroine must choose between a “good boy” and a “bad boy”. She actually prefers the “good boy” on a sort of “instinctive” level, but is attracted to the “bad boy”, and due to some circumstances I won’t go into here(this novel takes place in historical time), thinks she is going to end up with the “bad boy”. “Bad boy” is “bad” only on a certain level; in a way, he really cares for the heroine, in his own “bad boy” way, and this becomes important in the final installment, when he knows he has to make a choice for the woman’s safety. It’s all rather complex, but I like things this way.

    Which is one reason I’m leery of “good boy’/”bad boy” dichotomies. Or course, in real life, most women don’t end up with “bad boys”; In real life, as several people pointed out, “bad boys” have a tendency to stay that way. But fiction is fiction, and I don’t believe in “censorship” either. I don’t like what I’ve heard about the “Twilight” series, but I sure wouldn’t stop anybody from reading them. I’d just talk to my daughter, if she was that age, about how, usually, life doesn’t imitate art, and leave it at that. And if she had made such a choice(for a while, I thought she was going to), I would have been there for her, and more or less was, when the inevitable happened. At least she didn’t marry that particular guy, and was still young enough to live and learn. But she also wasn’t influenced, as far as I know, by anything she read.
    Anne G

  13. [...] Message of a Book: A Short Rant This post was inspired by a discussion over at All About Romance a few months [...]

  14. Many thanks. Looking forward to reading writing. Have fun!