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Dissecting the Token Bad Boy

You know the type. A mysterious and intriguing loner sitting at the back of the class because he doesn’t play well with others. Or the trouble maker with an assigned seat in detention and sarcastic responses always at the ready to dodge having to reveal any real feelings.

Bad boys are nothing new to the literary world and there’s good reason why. If done properly, they set the stage for a burning page-turner as the MC works at breaking through that tough exterior to find the gooey center she knows is buried somewhere inside. But some recent YA works have come under fire for crossing the line of a good old fashioned bad boy attraction into examples of abusive and unhealthy relationships. So what makes for a good bad boy as opposed to one that’s flat out dangerous?

Common Bad Boy tactics found in current novels:

1. The stand-offish behavior.
Seems harmless enough. We’re safely dangling our toes in the normal end of the pool.

2. The smoldering stare from across the room that lasts just a second too long.
A little oogy, but still treading in the shallow end.

3. Cryptic messages.
Maybe a little dramatic and definitely floating toward the deep end, but we (and our MC) just know there’s a heart of gold buried inside! Besides, we’re no scaredy cat. You can’t run us off that easily.

4. Belittling.
Some well-worded blog posts have been published lately citing references in books where token bad boy points out MC’s naivety, lack of intelligence, or inability to handle the dangerous world token bad boy lives in without him there to protect. We’re sinking fast here.

5. Stalking
But he was only doing it to keep her safe from the vampire/fallen angel/demon/other possible boyfriend. Hmm . . .

6. Getting a little too forceful with MC. Whether in a physical sense (grabbing her arm to keep her from walking away) or dictating where she can go and with whom.
We’re flailing now.

7. Taking delight in frightening MC.
Token bad boy enjoys scaring MC and not in a practical joke kind of way. Aaannnd, we’re drowning now.

An author has to draw the line between a heart-hammering attraction and something far darker. But it’s that little hint of danger that brings the intensity. So where do you draw the line? Does the MC’s personality play a part in that decision? Some of the previously mentioned novels star a MC that comes across a bit weak and easily manipulated. If she’s a strong-minded, independent individual who quickly puts token bad boy in his place, does that make a difference?
Amanda Hannah

Amanda grew up on a big farm in a small town with one stoplight, one school, and a handful of imaginary friends.She would’ve gone to college forever, but eight years and five majors tested her advisor’s patience. So she moved to Germany to explore creepy castles before landing in Spain where she’s perfecting her Flamenco.

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  1. Thanks for sharing Amanda, this is an interesting subject.

    On the one hand, as a father of two young girls I am concerned about this kind of thing in writing, film and television. I do not want my daughters getting the idea that being treated this way by a boy is acceptable or even slightly tolerable. Fortunately they're smart enough to know that and I hope we raised them right but others might not be so lucky.

    On the other hand as a writer I do feel that a certain amount of poetic license ought to be allowed. I write YA and I sometimes write about teens struggling with drugs or alcohol or violence and I don't want my readers to take that to mean that they should experiment themselves.

    It is a fine and subtle line. Thanks for making me think today.

    Shameless self promotion:

    If you have time please stop by, read and comment on my guest post for today over at Justine Dell's blog:

    It's an interesting topic that will hopefully spark some discussion.


  2. #4-7 sound like nice traits to hang on a villain. ... Maybe, not all at once ... but the behavior could escalate. ...

    Can you see the wheels churning? Thank you.

  3. Yep there's definitely a fine line between sexy badboy and...creepy stalker.

  4. I definitely think there's a difference between the weak MC who allows bad boy to treat her- well, badly- and the MC who stands up for herself. The latter could be used to show young girls that distinction. That this behavior isn't acceptable, and that they should stand up and say the same thing.

  5. Great post. I do love a bad boy, but not when they move into stalkerville.

    I'd love to see a book where a character falls for a guy like this and then realizes how bad he is for her and does something about it.

  6. Great post! It's easy to get caught up in the romance/tension of the book and forget that bad boys can actually be pretty sketchy. Thanks for drawing the line and bringing up those questions. I love my bad boys, but only to a certain extent.

  7. Oddly enough, this post comes on the heels of my finishing a book whose "badboy" ran more toward creepy stalker. There were so many times that I was tempted to just put the book down and start something else. A little danger and mystery is okay, but I hate books that make the MC into this insipid girl who can't take care of herself and then falls all over herself to get with the abusive stalker. That's just not right...on so many levels.

  8. You and I are of the same mind when it comes to this subject. This is a huge issue for me, and I get all hot and bothered every time I read a book with the bad kind of 'bad boy.' In fact, the book I'm reviewing for my thursday post focuses on this subject.

    To answer your question, I think it helps if the MC is strong minded and stands up for herself. The caveat is that she has to *keep* standing up for herself. I've read some books where the MC starts out strong and wisely stays away from the questionable bad boy, but then she caves (for whatever reason) and ends up succumbing to him. Makes me want to scream. :)

    For me, I realize that fiction is a fun place to play out certain situations that the reader might not try on her own, but there are situations that should never be painted in a 'everything will work out' light. This is one of them.

    Fantastic post.

  9. This was great. I guess I never thought of the bad boy thing as a spectrum. I just thought of the abuser as pure evil.

  10. Great, thought-provoking post.
    There is a definite line that shouldn't be crossed. A bad boy should never abuse the heroine. Plus, a strong heroine should never let him get away with any abuse, verbal or otherwise.
    Anyway, that's how I feel about it.

  11. Nice list, but I wonder what people do to make their bad-boy characters break the mold a little too. I'd also like to see on the list the idea of the "bad" behavior being rebellious against the status quo. Which steers away from the creep/sex factor.

  12. Great post. There has been a lot said on this topic lately but this was a fresh take on it. Well said and yep, a fine line, for sure.

  13. love the format of this post, amanda, and I agree one hundred percently. I have a major problem not with bad boys per se, but with really bad boys who are borderline (emotional or physical) abusers, yet never called out for this, and framed in an entirely unapologetic & idealized manner. not okay.

  14. When a bad boy is more Bad than Boy, the MC shouldn't simply be strong enough to stand up to him; she should be strong enough to LEAVE him. I hate it when MCs stay with potentially abusive bad boys because they think they can change them or--ugh--that they're "soul mates."

    Luckily, I don't have to worry about this much in my own writing. I much prefer writing (and reading!) about the adorkable boys, not these "bad" ones that keep stealing the spotlight.

  15. Ooooohhh, yes. These types of bad boys are not a turn-on in either the real or literary worlds.

  16. I'm an older teen and I love a good literary bad boy, and I like it when the girl is savvy, tough and smart enough not to take any crap. But the abusers and borderline abusers are not my cup of tea. It drives me nuts when the girls in these novel fall for them. Great post!


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Item Reviewed: Dissecting the Token Bad Boy Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Amanda Hannah