The bad boy trope: Where's the line?



*SPOILERS for the Shadow and Bone trilogy, Game of Thrones and Ivanhoe*

So, I know this isn't a hot-take and has been talked about a million times before, but having just come from the Goodreads reviews on Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone trilogy (yes, I know I'm late to the party) I have thoughts. I'm the first person to say that I enjoy an antihero. I feel sorry for the comic book villains with the tragic back-stories. I don't like my love interests to be squeaky clean. And yes, in the first Shadow and Bone novel I was rooting for the Darkling all the way. He was mysterious and intriguing! He was powerful and sexy. And, like everybody else I expect, I wanted to throttle Mal when he turned up and started acting all judgemental, just when things were getting interesting. And when Bagra continued the cock-blocking and revealed that the guy was basically the master of all evil, I did hope she was lying. I wished for the possibility of his redemption. But here's the thing - once he massacred a whole village, I gave him up as a loss. It was a shame, because I really did fancy him. But some things can't be brushed under the rug, and I think killing women and children (also trying to enslave his love interest and torture and murder her best mate for fun) is where I draw the line. For me and the Darkling, the love affair was over. 




As the books went on, Mal really grew on me. I forgave him his initial sin (being too cool for school and a bit of a moody bastard) and could get on board with Alina's relationship with the bad guy - she was still drawn to him more than was healthy, but he was never really a serious option. Looking at Goodreads though, I seem to be in the minority here. People hate Mal. Like really hate him? (Some quotes in point: "All I want from the next book is the death of Mal. That is all. Mal please die, that would be awesome." "Mal. Ew. Not dead yet?" "He continues to be unbearable again and again...what an annoying human being." "This book is hard to rate, because I really liked some parts, and disliked others. Like Mal.") I sort of...liked him? My only real objection to Mal as a love interest was I felt their chemistry had a bit of a brother/sister vibe to it, rather than massively romantic, but they were a cute couple and I didn't find him objectionable. Is it simply that being team Darkling means Mal is an in-convenience who need to be offed? Because these people want him dead. Like dead, forever. While the Darkling gets "my darling" "my little Prince of darkness" etc. etc. 

I mean, I kind of get it - like they say in Oklahoma "there's nothing so bad for a woman as, a man who thinks he's good." But there's got to be a line somewhere? Maybe I could get past the massacre. But what about when the Darkling gouges his own mother's eyes out because she pissed him off? When he mutilates Genya for petty revenge? When he sets fire to a school and hangs the teachers from a tree, including the woman who raised the girl he's trying to seduce? Mal is a bit annoying and took Alina for granted as a teen, but can we get some perspective here?




So people love a bad-boy, but do we put up with more from them in fantasy? I think probably, because these books are usually set in a harsher world, more dog eat dog. In Game of Thrones the consensus was always that Ned Stark was too soft, although he does his share of chopping off heads. And the Game of Thrones characters (men and women) literally get away with murder and are still entitled to a redemption arc and love interest status. Yet everyone has their level - and a character's attractiveness is a definite factor. Jaime Lannister, for instance. By series eight my sister was fond of him, forgiving him everything except Cersei's rape (but that doesn't count as it's not in the book yano.) While my mum still hates him on behalf of Ned's men, particularly Jorey - but she never liked blondes anyway. 




The-bad-boy-that people-still-ship-even-when-they-go-too-far is very common in YA books and teen TV series too (Vampire Diaries, anyone?) but adults can't get enough of them either. Remember Christian Grey? Who'll make you sign a contract where you agree to let him physically abuse you, plus you have to go to the gym three times a week? (That's definitely a hard limit.) And they're not constrained to modern fiction either. I recently read Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. I'd heard about how great Brian de Bois Guilbert was. Wilfred of Ivanhoe is so boring! How could Rebecca be in love with him, with the devoted Guilbert offering her his love, even if he's technically a baddie? Hmm. Well Ivanhoe was boring (and an Anti-semite) I'll give you that. But old Brian did abduct her, try to rape her, only stopped when she threatened to throw herself out of the window and he wasn't going to marry her anyway, on account of her religion. He just wanted her as his concubine. Then you've got the Brontes - if you're about to run away and marry someone, and they stop to hang your dog by it's neck, I'd take that as a red flag. I hate to break it to you Heathcliff fans - but you're not Cathy, you're Isabella. (I do love Rochester though, so maybe I can't talk...) And finally, there's musicals. Does anyone like Raoul in Phantom of the Opera? No, me either. But he suffers from the same problem as Mal - the fans have decided that Christine belongs with the murdering stalker/antihero. He had a difficult childhood, you know! 

So, what do you think? Is there a line when it comes to fictional bad boys? Or can they really push the limits, as long as they're hot and their rival is dull? (Plus how excited are we for Ben Barnes as the Darkling? Everything I wrote here aside, I can't wait!) 


(For the Discussion challenge at It Starts at Midnight and Feed your Fiction Addiction)


Comments

  1. Interesting post! I guess I’m not as forgiving of love interests as other readers. I like Jaime Lannister as a character, but would I date him? NOOOO! I don’t think I can look past rape, murder, or child abuse. Those put a character firmly in the villain camp. I’m not romantically interested in someone that evil.

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    1. I think I can deal with murder (in fantasy!) at a push but not the other stuff! Jaime's an interesting one, I feel bad for him but he crossed too many lines for me too.

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  2. I've wondered at this myself, where do I draw the line . . . would I be an easy prey for a serial killer if I'm that fooled by looks and charisma in books (I don't think so, in real life I don't think guys at least that would aim for me are THAT good at charisma for my super sensitive creepo-meter . . . or so I hope), especially with Ben Solo and Loki. Because mass murders, yeah, that is LEETLE more than bad boy. I kind of dissassociate Loki from that particular movie (I don't like the Avenger's proper). It came up again as I'm watching Anakin in The Clone Wars, I'd forgotten about the Jawa massacre . . . and realized that had occurred by the time the Clone Wars happened).

    And reading RJ Anderson's Faery Rebels and Torch trilogies with Martin. I can't remember how much he really did under his own influence.

    I think it goes to all the circumstances at play, how much agency the character has, how gratuitous and extensive the crime, and well, if they are a reformed (NOT saintly, no thanks) bad guy. How much is someone whose committed mass murder really going to change? While maybe someone who grew up fighting for himself since he had no other way, when given a chance, chooses better?

    I was listening to a podcast a while back where they were discussing that these type of guys are popular and we don't maybe get as many well-written good guys. Maybe part of it is instead of writing complex decent guys we get flat ones while we get multi-dimensional (perhaps unrealistically so, hence the conscience conflict) bad guys?

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    1. Yeah, lets say we're just going for the complex characters, it's nothing to do with how evil they are! haha I think when there starts to be irreparable damage done, especially for characters I like, that's when I start drawing lines. I'm not a big Marvel fan, but I think with characters like Loki it's the underdog/outsider thing that makes me feel for him too.

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  5. I definitely have a very hard time forgiving the bad boy for their sins, and I was all ready to say I can't root for the truly bad boy. But then you went and mentioned Vampire Diaries, and I'll confess I was pretty much always Team Damon on that one (or at least for as long as I watched) because the show was good at giving him a redemption arc and a sympathetic backstory. It also helped that I watched the show for years and it's easier to "forget" things that happened years ago. If I binge-watched the show, I'll bet it would be a lot harder. (I've definitely found that to be true with other shows I've binged.) I love this post! Got me thinking. :-)

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    1. Thanks! I remember my sisters watching Vampire Diaries and being team Damon when I'd only seen the first series and he was doing all these terrible things, haha- I was so confused! I forget too, if they stick all the worst stuff in the first season by the third or fourth I think you're distanced enough to forgive stuff!

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  6. I'm so glad someone linked this post for me to find as I love it!

    I can forgive a lot in some bad boys... But in others not even half, and it would take me too long to dive into the twisted caves of my psyche and work out why that is. 🤣
    A lot of it isn't about what he does to other people but how he is with the heroine, I think...

    That said, I think people in general are more tolerant of certain facts or behaviours when it's fiction. I know what I'm like in real life and I wouldn't put up with half the stuff that happens even with "non-bad boys" or with alpha types, but when it's a fictional hot guy in a book? Give me that man-candy!

    Side-note: I haven't read Shadow and Bone or any of the Grisha-Verse books but I'm excited for the show (and Ben Barnes). 😉

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    1. Thanks! I know what you mean about how they treat the heroine/how they treat characters we don't know. Makes a difference when they're fictional too, haha - so excited for Shadow and bone, the books are worth a read!

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