"Saving" the Bad Boy

So, while we know that in the real world that women actually prefer nice guys, lots of fiction has the heroine living happily-ever-after with a bad boy.

While I appreciate Star Wars portraying how that worked out for Princess Leia, in romance writing, we expect the ever-after to stay happy.


Biggest problem I’ve seen is how does the writer get there.

Most of us can believe that Han has reformed after being frozen in carbonite and putting his life on the line for the Rebellion even after Jabba has been “paid”.

In romance novels, I see heroes as colorful as Han, but rarely do I see the crucible of the story they’re put through strong enough to elicit the change in them required to give the audience their happily-ever-after ending.

And in Romance, if there isn’t a happily-ever-after ending, it isn’t Romance. That’s a key component of the genre.

I won’t name the book, but in a novel I put down recently, the hero was a classist jerk. He was born an earl and had nothing but contempt for the lower classes. Until along comes the heroine who is a girl from the streets. She might be a viscount’s long-lost daughter, which of course she is because this is fiction, but the hero doesn’t know that.

Somehow he overcomes his classist jerkiness because he’s in lust with the heroine.

Ad yes, lust, because they’ve known each other all of three days and he’s been unpleasant most of it because he’s “put out” having to host her.

Um, yeah, not buying it. When I opened the book, I was willing to suspend disbelief. I’m willing to believe this girl is the missing viscount’s daughter. I’m even willing to believe that the earl can be shown the error of his ways.

But I need a lot more than he wants to bed the heroine for that change to be believable.

I see this same issue over and over again in Regency fiction. The number of reformed rakes is amazing. Yet, few authors give me a really good reason why that rake reformed. The love of a good woman just isn’t enough.

According to my grandmother, a tiger doesn’t change his stripes, and if someone shows you their true colors, don’t try to repaint them. Must run in the family.

But she’s onto something here.


Can people change? Yes!

Do they change often or easily? No!

So, if you want me to believe that your rake has reformed, he needs to go through something that causes the reformation. Perhaps he has a brush with his own mortality, or something significant happens that shows him what a hollow life he’s leading. Maybe¬†falling in love does this to him, but there has to be some depth there.

If he’s in love with the heroine because she’s attractive? Sounds to me like he’s still a rake.
How about you? What do you need to believe a real or fictional person has changed?

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5 thoughts on “"Saving" the Bad Boy

  1. Hmmm. I think change is more believable–or at least more sustainable–when it’s brought about by something other than romance.

    Sticking with the Star Wars theme, Han initially changed because A) He was probably never as selfish as he pretended to be in the first place, judging by his loyal friendship with Chewie, and B) Luke grew on him in a presumably kid-brother way and C) he seems to have sympathized with the Rebellion more than he let on.

    He might have been into Leia, but that’s not at all clear in The New Hope. It’s not till Empire that we can say with confidence that he’s into her. And even then, he’s still risking his life for his “kid-brother” Luke regardless of what Leia thinks.

    So Leia didn’t save Han, and his changes weren’t just to impress her or get into her pants. And, of course, it turns out that their relationship didn’t quite survive a family tragedy–though that can happen even if one partner was never “bad.” (And they found some sort of reconciliation.)

    Anyway, I think I bought Han’s changes because they were based on more than romance. They were based much more on friendship and a cause, and that’s what made him a good bet for Leia, even if things didn’t work out quite the way we all wanted it to for them.

  2. This is a question of arc.

    I’d buy a bad boy going nice. But like Han, he’d need to develop. He’d have to see his errors and learn from his actions. I’d expect this book to be a bit longer. What would be MORE interesting to see is a female lead notice this. I have MORE issue with a woman EXPECTING a man to change in romance than the other way around. Just once, I’d like to read about a woman who realizes the dude is a jerk and leaves him. Greatest. Plot twist. Ever.

    1. While this would be a great plot twist, the book would no longer be romance. The leads have to get together, and you have to have a HAE. You can break some conventions in a genre, but if you change those, you’re in a different genre. Which is why the hero either has to be decent to start with, or you have to give a compelling reason for change.

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