Note: This discussion focuses mainly upon the bad boy in cis-het romance. While the trope may exist in non cis-het relationships, I purposely left that dynamic out of this discussion.
We all know the trope. Our plucky female main character has a nemesis, and boy is he ever a piece of crap. He’s casually insulting. He’s condescending. He’s emotionally unavailable, and more likely than not, he’s done some Very Bad Things in life — he’s maybe an assassin, or a hardened soldier who has lost the ability to feel, or maybe he’s a thief or a crime lord, or maybe he’s a self-indulgent royal used to getting his own way. He’s got flaws galore – he’s mean, maybe he has a drinking problem, or he sleeps around, or he’s selfish and narcissistic. He definitely doesn’t trust easily, and, more likely than not, he’s got a few traumatic skeletons in his closet. But he’s hot. And so, in spite of herself, our main character just can’t stop thinking about him. Eventually, the two move from hate, to grudging tolerance, to grudging friendship, and then, finally, love.
If you’re a fan of this dynamic, my intention is not to shame you. Confession here: I am a huge fan of the “enemies-to-lovers” trope and I’m a sucker for the “bad-boy” type. I had my own bad boy phase, and there are reasons why twenty-three year old me found my bad boy so attractive. He tapped into all of my own more reckless impulses, for one, and it was just plain fun for young me to tag along with him on wild adventures. He also, in true bad boy form, carried a fantastic amount of personal baggage that unlocked a well of empathy inside of me. In fiction, often our main character is the only one who can see the true goodness of the bad boy, the proverbial “heart of gold,” and I believed this whole-heartedly of my own relationship. And while there is a lot of hand-wringing in modern fiction about the harm this trope does, and how it teaches young women to accept abuse in relationships, I, like many young women who perhaps made some unwise relationship choices in youth, ultimately married a man who bore no resemblance to the bad boys of my past.
I am not one to say that any variations on the bad boy theme – enemies to lovers, the jerk with the heart of gold, the lovable rogue, and all of the seemingly endless variants – needs to perish. I’m rather fond of the trope myself, and, done well, it can lead to some great writing. The bad boy trope gives us not only the potential for some great romantic tension, it also usually leads to character growth, since being a hateful bastard is, as mentioned before, is generally not sustainable in the long run for a main character. However, authors (particularly authors writing for a Young Adult audience) need to tread carefully when writing their bad boys. Not only do you want to avoid writing a character that is an empty cliché, you want to avoid writing the dreaded problematic romance. While your enemies to lovers bad boy romance will probably always have its detractors, there are a few things you can do to make the romance a bit more palatable to readers.
Avoid One-Sided Meanness
Being mean sort of comes with the bad-boy territory, so readers will forgive you if your character acts like an asshole. What is less forgivable is if your female character is routinely the object of scorn and derision, takes the bad-boy’s meanness to heart, fails to defend herself, and yet falls in love with him anyway. Although the series is often criticized for glorifying bullying, Holly Black’s Folk of the Air, whose first and second books, The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King avoid this pitfall. The main character, Jude, who is tormented by Prince Cardan, is nearly as bad as Cardan is and, while she is at a magical disadvantage to the Prince, she is, throughout the first two books, portrayed as his equal in wit, and is capable as giving as good as she gets. Even before she truly comes into power, she antagonizes her would-be bullies and does not back down from the challenge. As the series progresses, both characters are shown to have major issues to work through, and struggle with being vulnerable with each other. It is unclear whether, in the end (the series’ finale does not release until this November) Cardan and Jude will finally learn to trust each other, but what is clear is that their relationship is, for the most part, a relationship of equals. While Jude one-ups Cardan on occasion, and he one-ups her in return, they each have power over the other (their feelings for each other making each of them vulnerable). This is a tried and true formula though, extending far into the literary canon. Pride and Prejudice is great example of this dynamic. Darcy is our arrogant jerk with a heart of gold, but intelligent, witty Elizabeth tells him exactly where he can shove it
It isn’t fun to read a story in which one character is bullied into submission by another character. What can be fun to read is a character who thinks that they have found an easy target, or who thinks that they are certainly the smartest cleverest person around, being put in their place. When the character’s expectations are subverted, fun things happen. This doesn’t mean that your female lead needs to be your typical female badass stereotype either – softer characters are just as capable of standing up for themselves and raining on someone’s meanness parade as bad-asses. This is a profoundly satisfying take on the bad-boy trope because not only is it great to see an asshole get their comeuppance, but it shows that the budding couple are on even ground. It is easier, and more pleasant, to imagine a future in these sorts of relationships, than it is to imagine one in the types relationships which result in one party being browbeaten into submission.
Avoid Lack of Consent and Physical Abuse
While an anti-hero main character may be able to come back from almost any sort of moral misstep, your romantic leads are different. The audience’s sympathy, in most cases, inherently lies with the main character, and if your bad-boy romantic lead is abusive towards the main character, the audience will never forgive him. In fact, some writers, knowing how hard it is for a love interest to come back from abuse, have written a character as abusive in order to kill of one side of a love-triangle relationship so thoroughly that even the most die-hard shippers must give up hope for their favorite couple. In Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series, in which love-interest Tamlin becomes an abusive boyfriend, who throws things at and physically threatens his fiancé Feyre, in order to make room for bad-boy Rhysand. The irony is, of course, Rhysand himself, however, is pretty problematic, although Maas tries her best to rehab him in the second book of the series, it is hard for an astute reader to forget that this guy once drugged Feyre and forced her to dance half-naked for a roomful of people, and not only that, he also physically tortured her while she was injured in order to get her to accept a bargain. The book has many fans, but as an adult woman I can’t make excuses for a guy who roofies the woman he claims is his soulmate.
Consider this: if your characters were alive in today’s world, would your bad boy be criminally liable for his actions against his so-called loved one? Is this behavior that could land him in jail? If so, you’re not writing about romance, you’re writing about abuse. Physical abuse and rape aren’t light topics, and they’re not things that are easy to get past. If your bad boy is physically mistreating his love interest before they’re ever even a couple, why would she develop feelings for this man, and if she did would those feelings be healthy? Also consider – someone who hurts others so casually, or who thinks nothing of engaging on non-consensual behavior, may not be capable of engaging in a healthy and loving relationship, at least not without a lot of therapy.
Avoid Gaslighting, Humiliation, and Intimidation
Aside from physical abuse, gaslighting is probably one of the cruelest things a person can do to another person. Gaslighting is when a person makes another person question their version of reality, to the point that the person ultimately questions their own sanity. While enemies to lovers often involves manipulation (perhaps our hateful bastard initially set out to seduce our main character for his own nefarious purposes, but eventually the ruse became real love, he confesses to his ruse/his lover finds out, drama ensues), manipulation that crosses the line into psychological torture isn’t a comfortable read, nor is it something that should be considered swoon worthy. Take Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush Hush, whose protagonist, Nora, falls in love with a fallen-angel named Patch. Born in the Twilight era, Hush Hush is very of its time, and feels reminiscent of Twilight in many ways, except, if possible, the angel Patch is worse than vampire Edward. Not only are there some iffy moments in Hush Hush in terms of sexual consent, in the very first book Patch makes Nora question her sanity. He routinely manipulates her with his angel powers, sends her visions and hallucinations, and Nora herself claims that she is terrified of Patch, at one point she is even terrified that he might rape her. Patch humiliates her, threatens to kill her, and belittles her – he isn’t just mean, he’s awful.
Think, if you will, about the future of such a relationship. A relationship with a foundation built on terror, threats, and manipulation probably does not have a very healthy future. The rules of romance tend to state that if not a happily ever after, then the characters need at least a happy for now (note – other endings are possible, but then, writer, you’re not strictly writing a romance, you’re writing a tragedy, a comedy, etc.). Imagine how your characters are meant to achieve their happy ending if the very relationship itself has been traumatic. Bad-boy love interests work better when they are written in such a way as to inspire empathy, rather than fear. The very appeal of the bad boy is often uncovering the heart of gold underneath, but if uncovering that heart of gold is simply too much work, and results in actual emotional trauma for the main character, the reader may find little worth in that relationship.
The enemies to lovers and bad boy tropes often skirt the line of acceptable behavior, but remember, by having your main character ultimately fall in love with and have a happy ending with the bad-boy, any behavior the bad-boy displays is tacitly condoned by the main character. Put yourself in her shoes – how much would you accept from a love interest? Roofying is probably out, right? Would you put up with a man who hits you? Who threatens to kill you? Imagine you have a daughter – how would you feel if she told you that she was terrified of her boyfriend? You would want her to leave, right? That’s not a healthy romance, and should be no-one’s end game.
If intend to outright write an abusive relationship you’re not writing a romance, but rather exploring the nature of relationships and the human condition — perhaps in a tragic way, but the distinction between the two should be crystal clear to the reader. The relationship might be romanticized by the participants, but not by the writer. The caveat being, if you want to write a toxic or unhealthy relationship, then you must signal to the reader that the relationship is toxic. Perhaps the characters know this, perhaps they don’t, but it should be completely clear to the reader that this behavior is not healthy. Otherwise, reader, indulge in those lovely bad boys all you like, you’re certainly not alone in enjoying the type or the tropes that come with it.