Bad Boys vs. Just Jerks
We need to talk about boys. But first, we need to talk about bees.
Yes, bees. Firstly, because it allows me to suavely slip in this totally-relevant-so-shush gif from Supernatural with little to no context…
And secondly, because bees suddenly made me realize why I like some characters and others not so much. Specifically, why I LOVE me a bad boy for my weekly book boyfriend, and yet some characters who would normally seem to fit that description just don’t work for me.
This epiphany came to me one day when my best friend decided to share this little gem on Facebook:
It occurred to me that there’s a similar difference between various male characters. The way I see it, there’s a fine line between being a bad boy and just being a total jerk. And once a character crosses that line, they lose all appeal to me.
Now, it’s really hard to find a good example of this in books that have been published, because most editors worth their salt know to fix this issue with their authors’ characters, at least with the ones that are supposed to be the heroes of the story. But it is an issue that I have seen crop up occasionally in manuscript submissions. I get the appeal of the “mysterious, dangerous guy,” I do. And they are all the rage these days. But in order for a guy character to remain someone readers want to root for, it’s important that he not stray too far into “villain” territory.
There’s this thing called a moral event horizon. Basically, it’s the line that separates characters who are redeemable from those who are not. Once a character does something that puts them over that line, there is no going back. They are the villain.
For me personally, that line is abuse. The moment I detect a credible threat that a character is about to physically harm their love interest, they are dead to me. They are evil. They need to be defeated. I don’t care if he turns at the last minute and punches the wall instead, I will never be on his side again.
But this line can get tricky for writers to play with, because it actually falls in different places depending on who’s reading the story. For instance, Holly’s line is cheating. Doesn’t matter who the character is or whether she’s liked them up to that point, the second they cheat, they can go die in a fire. (Her words, not mine.)
So writers, how can you watch out to make sure your characters aren’t crossing that moral event horizon? Unfortunately, I don’t have a checklist I can give you. But just be aware of how your character’s behavior might come across to the reader. You might know for a fact that he has a heart of gold beating under all those layers of leather jacket and daddy issues, but you have to prove it to the reader, too.
Look at their actions in various situations. Bad boys and jerks react differently to the same thing. Let’s say your characters are at a party or a bar or something. The boy goes over to the girl and tries to flirt, but she’s clearly not interested. Maybe he tries again with a different tactic, but she’s still not interested. What does your character do?
If he’s a jerk, he might become insistent and refuse to leave her alone until she agrees to have a drink or dance with him (and this can be done in a joking and seemingly harmless manner!). Or he might storm away and call her nasty names to his friends. He might make her feel threatened for spurning his advances.
But if he’s a bad boy, he’ll walk away. And then when a jerk comes over and won’t leave her alone, he acts. He comes over pretending to be her boyfriend, or does something to help chase the guy away. And when the jerk’s gone? He leaves too because he already knows she’s not interested and won’t push it.
The actions of a bad boy and those of a jerk are actually very similar on the surface. But the key lies in their attitude. Both kinds of characters are typically alpha males who know what they want and go and take it, and that confidence and power is very attractive. BUT a jerk doesn’t care who he has to step on to get what he wants. If a bad boy accidentally hurts someone, he will go out of his way to make it right.
Jerks don’t care. Bad boys do, however much they might try to convince themselves and others that they don’t.
Make your boy a bee, not a wasp.