Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Your Book Boyfriend Is An Asshole (or Why Bad Boys Are Honest To God Not THAT Sexy)

Once upon a time, yesterday, I was on the subway on the way home from work. The train was moderately empty for rush hour, and I had a decent view of most of the car. Further down the car sat a couple- late teens, from what I could tell. So obviously I started people watching because of research. They seemed like a cute little couple- until the girl accidentally got off the train a stop too early.

It was one of those misunderstandings about what stop was what- something that happens fairly frequently. Things like this happen, there's usually an unspoken agreement about who should wait for who, which differs based on where people are going, etc. It's annoying, especially when one stop is in one borough and the other stop is in a different borough.
This was not the case here. The difference between Stop One and Stop Two are literally (literally) five short blocks. Of all the stops to screw up, this is one of the least major deals.
And yet.

Good Lord, when I say he lost his shit... I am not exaggerating at all. Screaming, banging on the subway doors like they closed on him to spite him. And if it wouldn't have been a medium full car, we'd all have been able to hear him.
"FUCK! FUCK! FUCK! FUUUUUUCKKK!!! FUCKING TRAIN!! WHAT THE FUCK?!?!?!" From the second the doors closed until they opened again at the next station. Kicking the door like he'd actually be able to do something about it.

It terrified me. 

Now, this could be because I am the biggest wimp when it comes to confrontation. Entirely possible. People start yelling in front of me and I want to curl up and die. On the other hand, I am a native New Yorker, having taken the subway my whole life and having a pretty accurate CrazyRadar. Which means I have a pretty good idea when people are just weird, and when they may actually be dangerous.

But this wasn't garden variety yelling. This was a complete and utter loss of control. What was he thinking, banging on the door of the subway car WHILE IT WAS IN MOTION? That it would hear him yelling and turn around and drive back to the previous station? That it would screech to a halt and let him off there? Was he even thinking at all?
I don't know.
But when the train stopped, he got off like nothing happened. I was still shaking. If anything, I was shaking more. You do something like that and then you walk off like nothing happens? That is some scary anger management shit right there.
You want to yell? Okay. I don't have to like it, but okay. Sometimes we all need to raise our voices.
Screaming and potentially harming others because you're pissed at something small?
Yeah, no. Never.

There are a million and one ways I could try to explain his behavior. I could be sympathetic and try to think if all the terrible things that may have been the reason he tried to beat the crap out of a door.
But the casual way he walked off the subway, like this was something that was routine for him? I don't know. I can't do it that easily.

And I was fine until I realized something that made me want to throw up.
That scene? With the guy getting frustrated and hitting something after something didn't go his way? A wall, a table, a door, anything? I cannot count how many times I've read scenes like that. Love Interest is frustrated, and takes it out violently on inanimate objects (or other people). And the weirdest part is, after something like that happens in the book, leaving a big honking clue to our lovely heroine that possibly this dude has some anger issues, especially when the Love Interest continues on like nothing happened, THE GIRL DOES NOT RUN. In fact, she sometimes finds this 'display of emotion' sexy, because many a time, said reaction occurs after someone else tries to flirt with the heroine or, I don't know, some other individual with a penis notices that the girl is pretty and it turns into a pissing contest. And obviously this shows how much he caaaares about her, right?

That is not okay.

There's a piece of advice for authors to help with dialogue- read it out loud to see if it sounds okay. And it works wonderfully- any time I have a line that just doesn't feel right, it's because in real life, nobody would talk like that.
Why haven't we started doing that with our characters and their relationship? If we want to portray a healthy romantic relationship, and most people writing love stories will say they do- then why are we okay reading about things that you would never ever be okay with in reality?

Why do we think stalking is romantic? In real life, if there was a guy who was basically following you everywhere, would you think that was romantic or would you get a restraining order?
If someone coerced you into doing something you didn't want to do, would you find that romantic or would that sound a bit like a big freaking red flag?
When a guy claims that he's respecting your wishes to nor have sex/whatever, and then spends a ridiculously large amount of time telling you how hard it is for him in an attempt to get you to change your mind? When a guy continuously ignores your wishes in favor of his own and then tries to make things all better by having sex with you? That is not sexy. That's not romantic. That is a problem.

I read a lot of romance novels. A LOT. Because I am a sucker for a good love story, and Happy Ever Afters make me happy. I understand the concept of escapism when it comes to romance, or to any story at all. Its really nice to be able to transport yourself from your current situation to a different one.
But no matter what the book is, I can not in good conscience, forget about reality. About what healthy relationships are supposed to look like.

I took a mandatory Domestic Abuse workshop in high school, where we had professionals come and talk to us about what were signs of healthy relationships and what warning signals to look for early on. About what to do if you found yourself in a relationship you shouldn't be in.

I remember it well- we were all sitting in an uncomfortable circle of chairs, and the woman there looked all of us in the eye and told us if the person we were in a relationship with tried to guilt us into changing who we were for them, we needed to leave. If said person would be unnecessarily rude or obnoxious to others, chances were they were one day going to treat us the same way. That you can't walk into a relationship expecting to be able to change people.

And yet.
Why do so many romantic relationships in literature have these components? Why do we as writers and readers insist on perpetuating the myth of the wonder of Bad Boys (and girls)?
"But I KNOW that this stuff isn't healthy!" You may say. "I know that if a guy is an asshole to others he's not gonna totally change his spots for me!"
And yet the bestseller lists are stating otherwise.

I talked about the concept of selling to the market when I got on my soapbox about WP(A)K on covers. The same applies here. If the market is showing a clear trend that assholes make good book boyfriends, then guess what's going to keep happening?

People are going to keep on writing assholes. 

And when people write assholes, guess what happens? People start thinking that maybe this is normative behavior.

"Okay, KK, don't you think you're going a bit too far with this?" You may ask. "It's FICTION, for God's sake. It's not real life. Everyone KNOWS that books aren't real life."

Yeah, except for there's this little part that you forgot to mention in your imaginary argument with me- that fiction is very often (and usually) based on reality. And that the more we are exposed to ideas, the more 'normal' they become. Now, I know correlation does not imply causation, and I have not tried to do research of domestic abuse and readers of romance novels, because, no. Just no.

But is it crazy to say that our expectations of relationships do change a LITTLE bit based on the books we read and the movies we watch and the people we know? Absolutely not. 

As a writer, I know that we writers don't set out to write role models. That our characters can be as messed up and terrible as we want them to be, and we don't owe the world good and nice characters. I have a lot of fun writing flawed characters. But the buck needs to stop somewhere.

And as the person who is in charge of the art that they make, the buck stops at you. You want to write an asshole as the love interest? Go right ahead. You want to write the most miserable, terrible, unhealthy relationship known to mankind? I'm not stopping you.

But never acknowledging that the relationships you write may be problematic? Calling said guy a "Book Boyfriend", thereby declaring that a relationship with said guy is one you wish you had?

Absolutely not.

Bad boys aren't that sexy. You know who IS sexy? A guy that won't emotionally abuse you. Our sexually harass you. Or physically abuse you or others. Who is empathetic and actually cares about more than you than your body. A guy who isn't batshit crazy around others but is 'different' with you. A guy who can be your anchor when you need one, and who can access his emotions instead of doing a poor imitation of a mute caveman. A guy who- wait for it- RESPECTS YOUR OPINIONS. Who will be okay when you say no. 

I know that people say it's really hard to find a good guy out there- but do we have to make it near impossible in fiction, too?


  1. I did a post recently on my blog about nice guys. They truly are underappreciated. I root for the good guy 99% of the time.

  2. I have that issue with Nora Roberts books. There's always a scene where a woman tells a guy (her eventual love interest), that she's not interested in him, and he'll grab her, kiss her and tell her she will be. Then as soon as he's gone she melts.
    Fuck that. That isn't romance. Kissing someone when they've told you to leave them alone is assult, but millions of Nora Roberts readers are being told it's romantic.

  3. Love this post and totally agree! But it is crazy how many readers (not all of course) are in love with the bad boy/alpha male/ ect. Drives me nuts.

  4. Thank. You. I hate this trend. Sexual aggression is not romantic, it's hurtful and means the guy needs therapy. I sincerely hope the male population doesn't go by the best seller list to see how women want to be treated. Give my Gilbert Blythe anyday.

  5. Thank you for writing this! More writers need to be talking about this. Julia Kelly and I chatted about this a few months back and I was shocked when a reader told me she was offended by our comments on heroes who were abusive and heroines who were doormats...until she (the reader) sat down to re-read a book she loved and realized how abusive the relationship and book boyfriend actually were. She didn't see it because she was swept up in the story and this type of behavior is over-romanticized. This is a huge problem. This is a symptom of a much larger problem in our society: women are being taught relationships like this are desirable and that this is how men display affection/show women their worth (not just in novels, but in society in general). Women do not know the signs of trouble. Women do not know how to escape relationships like this. Women are being told this is normal.

    Except it isn't. And this trend is sick. We are going backwards not forwards. A real hero is strong not because he uses force, but because he can handle anything--calmly. A hero isn't intimidated, especially not by his heroine. These abusive displays of force are actually signs of weakness, not strength.

    I love this line, "You want to write the most miserable, terrible, unhealthy relationship known to mankind? I'm not stopping you. But never acknowledging that the relationships you write may be problematic? Calling said guy a "Book Boyfriend", thereby declaring that a relationship with said guy is one you wish you had? Absolutely not."

    Yes, we need to write about all kinds of characters and relationships--good and bad. But we also need to write about why they are bad or good *in the story* and afterward. We shouldn't write a book and walk away.

    Sorry for rambling all over your comments!

  6. All the this! This trope is absolutely killing me in New Adult. It's crazy-making.

  7. I appreciate what you're saying, but I've read a TON of bad boys (in fact, I LOVE bad boys) and these issues you're talking about are only a sliver of the types of bad boys out there. Take the Darkling for instance, he is 100% bad, but I love him just the same. Would I want to marry him? Hell no. I know the difference between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one. I love the Darkling because he's bad, and because he's an expertly drawn villain. If I wanted to experience a good, wholesome, healthy relationship, I'd take a walk on the beach with my husband. I read bad boys because I would NEVER involve myself with them. It's self-indulgence, and nothing more.

    I think some of the things you mentioned are definitely important issues to pay attention to. Bad boys who stalk a girl? No. Bad boys who pressure a girl into sex? Hell no. But I *have* read bad boys who are bad for good reason, and I love learning those reasons, and finding out what they'll do next. There are writers out there capable of writing *good* bad boys, and there is nothing wrong with writing them, or enjoying reading them.

  8. The line between passionate and crazy has been crossed often in the name of story telling. It's an easy physical demonstration of a characters internal turmoil (why it is used more often in movies.) I agree that it demonstrates immaturity more than passion. I see the trend as a deluge of copy-cat books to the "Beautiful Disaster" characters. I loved Beautiful Disaster and realized that Travis had less emotional maturity than my 10-year old. It was just a really fun read. However, this exact trend was why I wanted an opposite hero for my first novel. The market is saturated and this article and my hero are signs that the trend is swinging in the opposite direction. Let's hear it for the good guys!