Lucinda Elliot

Lauryn April’s Excellent Article on ‘Bad Boys’ and Unhealthy Relationships in YA Fiction.

Lauryn April wrote such a brilliant article on how far an anti hero can ‘turn it around’ when he meets his true love that I just had to re-blog it here. Besides, her view of this matter is so like mine (well, naturally; how could anyone disagree with my views about anything?) that I agreed with virtually every word (surely I didn’t hear any reader mutter ‘Not like you, that’? ).

So over to you, Lauryn…

Today I want to look at the trope that the evil, yet handsome bad-boy can turn it all around when he meets the love of his life. Characters that argue and build sexual tension between them are interesting to read about, but often in an attempt to achieve this angst writers create a bad-boy character that pushes the romance in their book into unhealthy relationship territory. In response, many writers and bloggers have been posting about how unhealthy relationships in books aren’t okay. Which is great! But, I think sometimes the message gets oversimplified, leading some to think that all bad-boys are just bad.

The reality is that real relationships are complicated and that even the best relationships have hard times. Any married person or anyone that’s been in a long-term relationship will tell you that there’s been moments, fights, events in their relationship where they said something they didn’t mean, or did something they regret. Real relationships are messy at times. Sometimes people that love each other are mean to each other. But, there is a difference between complicated and messy and unhealthy.

There’s a big push for authors to stop writing bad-boys and unhealthy relationships altogether in fiction. I disagree. I think authors need to start writing bad-boys and unhealthy relationships realistically and stop romanticizing them. For example, maybe the main character falls into an unhealthy relationship and finds the strength to get out of it. Or, maybe the main character works to inspire another character to be a better person without dating them. Or, maybe that bad-boy, tortured anti-hero, decides to be a better person and realistically puts in the work to change, being affected by realistic consequences for his bad behavior.

So, if you want to write a bad-boy, how do you make his redemption arc believable and stay away from that toxic relationship scenario?

1. The bad-boy’s redemption should take time, and be about more than just getting the girl. If your character instantly decides to be good when he meets your lead, this is unrealistic. Don’t teach your readers that “you can change him.” Your bad-boy can be inspired to change by your lead character, but she shouldn’t become his conscious. If your main character is your bad-boy’s only reason for being good and she’ll do anything to save him you’re throwing them into a co-dependent relationship. Super-unhealthy. He’s got to make changes because he truly understands why he should change and wants to do it for himself.

2. Your female lead should not be getting involved with your bad-boy or staying in a relationship with him if he’s being abusive. If your YA bad-boy calls out your lead at school, completely embarrassing her, she should not be hooking up with him in the next chapter — not even if he lamely says sorry. She should probably be really mad. If your vampire bad-boy murders a bunch of innocent people, your lead should not be hooking up with him in the next chapter. She should probably be utterly terrified, really angry, or both. In other words, if your bad-boy does something bad, there should be realistic consequences, which do NOT include getting the girl. And a truly strong female lead should acknowledge that her bad-boy might be bad for her. That’s the thing about a bad-boy redemption arc that I think many writers miss. If the bad-boy needs redeeming then as he is, he’s not good enough for their female lead, but said lead is often written to act as if he is.

3. Stay away from sexual assault and rape if you want your bad-boy to be redeemable. A bad-boy being sexist, rude, crude, a total jerk, or doing something to make your lead feel uncomfortable could possibly be redeemable if you include appropriate consequences and show your character understanding why what he did was wrong and learning to be a better person. BUT, rape is not something your main character should forgive. Rape is all about control and unless you truly understand the psychology of it, and include appropriate consequences such as going to jail and therapy, I’d avoid it. I have a BA in Psychology and work with both victims and perpetrators of sexual assault and I don’t feel like I could realistically write a redemption arc for a rapist — at least not in the context of a romance novel. That said, I do hope authors continue to write about tough issues like sexual assault and rape — just not in a way that romanticizes them.

Books/TV that did it wrong:

Bella and Edward in Twilight by Stephanie Meyer: This series breaks rules #1 and #2. Bella and Edward and completely co-dependent, and Bella swoons over Edward regardless of how he acts.

Patch and Nora in Hush, Hush: Breaks all the rules, especially rule #3. From what I understand (I’ll admit I haven’t read this) there’s way too much sexual assault happening in this book.

Chuck and Blair on Gossip Girl: This relationship started out really interesting, but when the writers broke rule #3 with Chuck’s character, I felt this was unforgivable.

I could probably continue on with this list for miles. It’d probably consist of mostly YA PNR books. But, let’s move on. Feel free to comment on other books that break the rules in the comments below.

Books/TV that did it right:

Willow and Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Willow and Tara’s relationship starts out really healthy, but as Willow’s addiction to magic grows she becomes abusive to Tara, using magic to erase Tara’s memories of fights they’ve had. I love this example for a few reasons. One, bad-boys aren’t always boys. Girls can be bad-boys. And while Willow’s character certainly didn’t start out very bad, she’s pretty badass by the beginning of season 6. Also, girls can be abusive in relationships too. Two, Willow’s abuse of Tara is mental and emotional. Abuse isn’t always physical. Three, Willow convinced herself that what she was doing wasn’t so bad. She just wanted her and Tara to be happy and not to fight. And finally, when Tara realized that Willow had again removed her memories, Tara LEFT HER! Tara still loved Willow, but she realized that what Willow had done was wrong, abusive and that Willow wasn’t going to change if Tara stayed. This was an incredibly sad story arch for these two characters, but this unhealthy relationship was necessary for the writers to explore other things with Willow’s character, like addiction. It was an unhealthy relationship done right, and if Willow had been able to get the help she needed for her addiction, I think these characters could have found their way back to one another in a healthy way.

Katy and Daemon in Obsidian – There are some parallels to be made with this book and Twilight. They both have quiet, new-to-town, female leads and mysterious, gorgeous male love interests who turn out to be supernatural creatures. And, they both involve said love interests being not so nice to the lead characters in the beginning of the books. However. Obsidian portrays a much healthier relationship between Katy and Daemon than Bella and Edward in a number of ways. One, when Daemon is mean to Katy, Katy does not turn around and swoon over him. She basically writes him off and only ends up giving him another chance when his behavior starts to change and Katy promises her best friend (Daemon’s sister) that she’d try to be nice to him. Their relationship is really brought together by Daemon’s sister. Unlike Twilight where the characters just sort of swoon over one another for no real reason. Two, Daemon is definitely a jerk and does push Katy away creating that tension that bad-boy book lovers love, but when it matters he proves himself as one of the good guys. Daemon is the guy that steps in when Katy’s homecoming date doesn’t accept “no” as an answer, instead of being the guy to push her to say “yes” like in a lot of YA PNR books. And, at the end of the book, despite having feelings for Daemon, Katy walks away from him because she doesn’t think he’ll be good for her.

“No. Sorry. You have spent months being the biggest jerk to me. You don’t get to decide to like me one day and think I will forget all of that. I want someone to care for me like my dad cared for my mom.” (p.357)

This is just the beginning of Daemon’s redemption arc and part of the reason it’s done right is that Daemon gets held accountable for his actions and doesn’t straight up get the girl by being a jerk.

Juliette and Warren in Ignite Me – I think part of what makes this a great example is that Juliette and Warren don’t get together until the THIRD book. I hated Warren in the first two books. He had to do a lot to win me over as a reader and in turn to win Juliette. One, I think what works for this book is that a lot of the reasons why you think Warren is the bad guy are misleads. The reader learns a lot about who he is by the third book and you realize that he’s not exactly who he first appeared to be. Juliette doesn’t like him, at all, until she sees his redeeming qualities. Two, I like that this book addressed that Juliette’s relationship with Adam wasn’t super healthy and showed her getting out of that. Adam appears to be good for her in the beginning, but as Juliette grows as a person she realizes that he’s not exactly what she needs.

Who are your favorite book bad-boys?

If you liked this post, you may also like:
Unhealthy Relationships: A Twilight, Graceling Comparison
Review for Obsidian by Jennifer Armentrout
Review for Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi

6 Responses

  1. This is definitely an interesting article, what can be redeemed and what cannot be redeemed for a character. I will definitely keep these “points” in consideration when I am reading my next book.

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  3. This is a great article! One thing I wanted to comment on is your analysis of Willow and Tara in Buffy (spot on, btw). At the end you state “if Willow had been able to get the help she needed for her addiction, I think these characters could have found their way back to one another in a healthy way.”
    But they did! Willow worked hard and made significant progress over her addiction, and she and Tara slowly became re-acquainted in a healthy way until they were finally back together (before ish hit the fan but that’s another discussion). I think the slow, self-aware way they reunited even further reinforces the great way the writers handled their relationship.
    Buffy and Spike are also worth a look, but as an unhealthy relationship that fully acknowledged its toxicity and subsequently didn’t have a happily-ever-after, but that’s a long discussion for another time!
    Thanks for your thoughtful analyses!

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