This spring I listened to the audiobook presentation of Impossible by Nancy Werlin, a young adult novel about a 17-year-old girl whose maternal line has been cursed by an evil elfin knight so that each generation becomes pregnant at seventeen and – unless she can solve the knight’s impossible riddle before she gives birth – forfeits her sanity to him.  This sounds like kind of an odd set-up, but the story was quite good.  Werlin states on her website that it was inspired by the ballad, “Scarborough Fair” (which the narrator sings this hauntingly throughout her performance of the novel).

Lucy Scarborough is one of a long line of Scarborough women who have gone insane and dropped out of their daughters’ lives.  Lucy has two big advantages over her forebears, however: she has her mother Miranda’s diary, written while she was pregnant with Lucy, and she has support.  Her foster parents are still in touch with Miranda, to the extent that they can be and they are willing to help Lucy when her time comes to need help.  Lucy also has a childhood friend-cum-love interest named Zach who is willing to risk life and limb to make sure this time the curse does not triumph.

One thing that is interesting about this book is that, in a time of paranormal glut, the “hero” is a fairly ordinary human boy who is kind, loyal, and very smart, but not in any way supernaturally powerful.  The elfin knight is the guy with all the powers, and he is very definitely the bad guy; Lucy is repulsed by him from the beginning.

Here is a video of Nancy Werlin explaining about her history of reading romance novels and why she made her hero a good guy and not a bad boy:

Nancy’s comments made me remember something I’d read about  Companions of the Night, a book  which I DIK’d way back in 2001. Companions of the Night is the story of Kerry Nowicki who saves Ethan Bryne, a young man who appears to be the victim of crazy vampire-hunting locals who have targeted him for death.   By inserting herself into the situation Kerry makes her family a target, and her brother and father are kidnapped.  Kerry goes to Ethan for help, but Ethan is neither human nor humanitarian.

Now  when I first read this book the internet was newer, and searching for anything about the book’s bad boy antagonist, Ethan Bryne, I swear, I swear, that I found an interview with the author, Vivian Vande Velde saying she wrote this book the way she did because she felt that having the heroine Kerry, a normal teenager living a normal life, wind up with Ethan would be sending the wrong message to girls – that bad boys are more romantic.  (This remark really stayed with me, but for the life of me I can’t find the interview, sorry.)

It stayed with me because my reaction was the opposite – I loved Ethan Bryne, and I hoped Kerry would meet him again at some point in the future when she was older better able to handle him (though, honestly, she does a good job of handling him at age 16, IMHO) because he was sexy as hell.  Others apparently agree because Vande Velde has often been asked about the possibility of a sequel and Kerry and Ethan have a whole page of fan fiction written about them over at fanfiction.net.

Now both of these books were good and I respect both authors, but given that I found Ethan sexier and more memorable than Zach, I have a few quandaries:

  • Am I comfortable with the fact that the authors here are giving advice to the reader, YA or not, on what she should or should not find appealing?
  • If I am, am I comfortable with the fact that I actually like the bad boy better?

As for the first, I’m not saying that authors can’t have biases or agendas, major or minor, in their writing.  No one writes in a vacuum and how you feel and what you value naturally bleeds over on the page during the writing process.  You can’t read a Jennifer Crusie book, for example, without knowing exactly what she thinks should be done with cheating husbands and homeless pets.  And I’m fine with that.  But the above two examples seem to be more deliberate advice giving to a target audience – teenaged girls.  And I’m not sure the stories were better for it.  I’m also not sure if it actually works, if a girl thinks to herself after closing the final page, “You know, the nice guy really is a better choice.”

I’ve been floating the notion for awhile that the reason we have so many Navy SEAL heroes and vampire/werewolf love interests is because in a society where the rules shifted a generation ago and things still haven’t shaken down to ensure that woman are safe, economically secure, and equally respected, warrior characters represent a big buffer against all the insecurity women stare down every day.  A man who is invulnerable but powerfully influenced by a woman is basically a weapon, a big sexy weapon with a “free” will.  He will do anything to protect his love and will use all the tools at his disposal to make sure she is always safe and provided for.  This is a lot better than just being rich as so many romance heroes of yesteryear were.  His arms are a fortress, and nothing can get at our heroine as long as she has his heart.

In this way Ethan Bryne is a bad boy, but only until he starts feeling love for Kerry.  If he does truly love her – and the book is in 1st person so the reader makes that call – she’s safe from just about anything.  Contrast that to Zach who in real life is a much better – and actually extant – option but who can provide for Lucy only what a guy with a good heart can.   Less security there.

Using this rationale, I feel better about my reaction to Ethan.  I don’t think that I should have to justify my affinity for certain types of characters.  Fantasy is not reality.  But I am a rational, pragmatic person who avoids risk in real life, so I’d like to think my psyche isn’t just warped as all heck.

What do you think about bad boy heroes, why we like them, and whether we should?

–Rachel Potter