As much as I’d love to say “throw them all out and have some more rounded characters”, I have to admit that bad boys have an appeal with readers that we just can’t ignore. Some people like mystery! And most bad boys, at the very least, pretend to be mysterious. They’re tough and broody, which intrigues so many of the young fangirls out there. They’re also really easy to write! I mean, you barely need to think about their character. The trope does all the work for you!
But that doesn’t mean you should let the trope do all the work. You see, most bad boys are lazy characters. They’re thrown together because the writer knows they’ll do well whether they’re developed or not. And many fans will come flocking, ready to defend the bad boy and his actions to the ends of the earth. But you don’t need to be like that! Bad boys may give you easy reads, but you don’t need to make them simple, 2D characters! One of the biggest problems with bad boys is how they’re handled. They don’t often grow or change. No one calls them out for their actions. Worst of all, they give the main character (MC) so much emotional abuse that goes unchecked. Not the nicest thing to promote in the world. So we should challenge it!
But how can we start doing that? Well, stick around and I’ll show you how to turn your bland boys into complex characters.
Side note: I’ll be using “him” to talk about the bad boy and “her” to talk about the MC just to keep things simple. However, this could be swapped. There can also be a bad boy/girl and nonbinary people in LGBTQ stories.
Recognise the Bad Boy Tropes
The first thing you need to do to start changing your bad boys is to look at the tropes that already exist. Find out what works and what doesn’t. Find out why they do so well. You see, these tropes aren’t popular because most people are stupid! That’s just a thought some more elitist writers use to comfort themselves when their story just isn’t getting the same kinda appeal with audiences. No! There are good things about bad boys that make people stick around, even when the bad things might be too much for most of us. You just need to find out what it is that keeps readers coming back. Then you can take this info and make a better character with it.
As someone who loves a sweet, kind nerd, I’ve spent hours looking up “why do bad boy stories do so well” on Google. I got nothing, except a few angry incels ranting about women choosing the wrong kinds of men (as if they’re any better with their entitled attitude ranting and abuse). But I’ve spent a lot of time with bad boys in the past few weeks: studying them, reading people’s reactions and learning all I can about what makes readers love them so much.
So here are my top reasons for why bad boys do so well. I promise you that you could easily make your nice guys like this.
Bad Boys are Confident
Bad boys ooze confidence. Well, actually they’re often cocky, but loads of stories don’t really show you that there’s a difference between the two. Either way, one of the biggest things attracts a lot of readers is the fact that they always seem like their head is on their shoulders. You look at a bad boy and you just know that he’s got the situation under his control. Even if he doesn’t, that natural confidence helps you to believe it anyway, which takes a lot of stress of you during those hard times.
Unlike most “nice guys” in stories, the bad boy acts like he doesn’t need anyone’s approval. He can deal with things on his own and he usually comes out the other end as cool as unscathed as before. Many writers mistake niceness for talking about feelings and insecurities all the time, and the nice guys in the stories lack the confidence so many of us crave. While the bad boy is busy winning us over in these stories, the nice guy often spends most of his time worrying about the fact that he’s losing you to the bad boy. Of course, it’s normal to worry about that, but in most stories like this, the nice guy will end up being written as a clingy, whining leech sucking all the fun out of the MC’s life.
When given the option between confident and clingy, even I would choose confident — and I don’t ever go for bad boys! That’s because life isn’t like that and lots of nice guys are just as confident as bad boys. Especially the good-looking ones! Stories make it seem like you have to choose between bad and clingy, and for a lot of people, that’s a no-brainer.
They’re Men of Action
It comes from their confidence. Bad boys are all about action! They do things rather than talk about it. That’s where a lot of their fun and adventure comes from! Where’s the fun in sitting around talking about what we want to do in the future? Let’s get on with it now while we’re still young and the world is our oyster. Such is the life of the bad boy. And it’s easy to get swept up in that, both the reader and the MC!
But even more than that is the fact that they show emotions rather than talking about them. Sure, bad boys are confident most of the time, but when they feel something like jealousy? They don’t sit around and talk about it like the nice guys do. They act! Some guy’s hitting on you? They’re not going to sit around moping and tell you all about how jealous they are. They’re going to get angry and possessive. Of course,
In the long run, though, this isn’t a healthy way to deal with things. Never let the bad boy get away with getting angry at the MC for being pretty or minding her own business while someone else gets attracted to her. That’s a sign of an abusive person! Sure, he can keep being a doer, but someone who gets jealous all the time? They probably don’t trust you. So you need to find a good balance between a guy who acts and a guy who reacts badly to keep things healthy.
They Look Good
Let’s be honest: bad boys look good and dress well. All the leather and tattoos and everything? It’s enough to make a lot of people swoon! In these stories, they are going to be the best-looking people because they kinda have to be. That’s part of their vibe. This is especially true of the bad boys who sleep with loads of women. I mean, if his personality isn’t always the best thing in the world, there needs to be something that keeps the readers engaged! Often is how damn hot he’s described as being in the story.
You see, we are all humans. As much as we want to pretend that we’re not shallow, all of us are drawn to pretty things and people in some way. There’s nothing shallow about that, in my opinion, until you let your love of hot guys get in the way of healthy relationships. Then it might be time to stop and have a think. But if that’s not the case? There’s nothing wrong with swooning over a cool, calm and collected guy who is beautiful and dresses well.
Bad boys look great. That’s the bottom line, really! And there are lots of visual cues in stories that writers use to help us get a good idea of this. You see, I’ve mentioned the importance of “The Same but Different” in a post before. It’s a great way to make people fall in love with a character by thinking back to other stories that also use those tropes. It makes it so much easier for writers to establish things like a character’s hotness. So it does work very well if you tap into the bad boy “look” to draw people to your character.
They Don’t Try Too Hard
One of the biggest complaints that a lot of people have for the nice guy is how hard he tries. He wants to impress you and make you smile and he wants you to like him. Those are all good things, though! The only real problem is how he goes about doing that.
Some nice guys can come off as overbearing or clingy when they try to hard. As with most things, this is a matter of how you write about it, but it is a common characteristic of the nice guy trope. The bad boy, on the other hand, really couldn’t care less about what people think of him. He does what he wants because he wants to do it. Sure, a lot of the time you find out by the end of the story that he cares a lot more than he let on, but he gives off the vibe of not giving a toss about other people’s opinions.
That’s a great trait to have a lot of the time! You do need to care about what other people think from time to time, but mostly people admire those who aren’t affected too much by what other people are saying about them. Think of Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter. One of the coolest things about her is that she never seems to care about the bullies. The same goes for the bad boys, too. Plus, lots of people love the challenge and want to make the bad boy care about them, the MC included.
They Have a Dark Past
Ooh, the dark and mysterious past! A lot of bad boys are set apart by the fact that they had some real issues in their past, and still, they’re here looking as hot and strong as ever. It’s admirable! There’s no wonder that this attracts both the MC and the readers. They want to know why he’s so reluctant to open up and let the MC in. This is a really easy way to set up some much-needed character development, so I can understand why bad boys are so common with new writers.
Your bad boy might have an absent dad or an alcoholic mum. Maybe he’s rich but his dad doesn’t care about him. Or maybe he’s poor and he had to sell drugs to pay for food for his siblings. Bad boys can come from all backgrounds and they can have problems no matter where they are on the social ladder. There’s one thing that you can bet on, though: his past will mean that he finds it hard to open up to others. His attitude is going to be explained, to some extent, by the
On the other hand, a lot of the nice guys are just good people. It defines them! So it’s not very often that they have a dark past, too! That angers me, personally. People who had hard lives can learn from that in different ways. Maybe they find it hard to open up. Maybe they decide they don’t want to be like their parents. Either one is likely!
It’s Exciting to Try to Change Them
The bad boy has so many good qualities! If only he’d just act a little nicer, or try a little harder in school. He might not want to change, but maybe he will change for me because he loves me!
A lot of readers get caught up in this idea. It’s exciting to think that someone loves you so much that they are willing to make changes to make you happy. In a healthy relationship, this happens both ways and you meet in the middle. Neither person will expect you to change too much and both people will agree to these changes. This is called compromise. It’s a good thing to be able to do in relationships! When things are less than healthy, one side will expect a lot more from the other.
Most MCs expect too much from these bad boys and want them to change too much about themselves. That leaves me wondering why they like them in the first place! Is it just the leather jacket, the abs and the boyish good looks? That’s shallow. But what else could it be if you want him to change so much?
If you do this the right way, through compromise, the bad boy will show that he loves and cares about the MC enough to try to change and that she cares about him enough to accept what makes him unique and meet him halfway. This shows passion and love in a way that appeals to a lot of people.
It’s Easy to Believe Them
Bad boys seem to be brutally honest. He cares so little about what other people think that it’s hard to believe he would have a reason to lie to you about a lot of things. If he tells you that he thinks you look hot, what good would it do him to lie to you? He doesn’t care about what you think of him (or so he says), so there’s no reason for him to make anything up or try to flatter you for no reason. He’s believable.
Nice guys, on the other hand, can seem so insincere in these stories. I don’t believe this is true in real life (except in the r/
Bad boys, on the other hand, don’t compliment often. The fact that their compliments are so rare and hard to come by means that we can believe that they mean what they say. The bad boy doesn’t need to tell you that he likes you all the time because he doesn’t show any fear that you’ll lose interest. He’s sure that he can make you happy and he shows that through his actions instead of e
Sure, most guys like you because they think you’re awesome! But they compliment you so much that it doesn’t seem like it.
Bad Boys Scream Excitement
Good guys in stories are rarely ever adventurous. Sure, they might be fun to be around and make you laugh. You might go on nice dates with them and have similar hobbies. However, they’re rarely shown as challenging you to try new things and take risks. They’re the symbols of safety and security. But what if you want to be challenged? What if you want a guy who makes you do crazy things? Well, the nice guys are rarely ever fun in that way, so the chances are that you’re not going to find what you’re looking for there. That’s where the bad boy comes in.
In contrast to the nice guy, the bad boy lives in the fast lane. He makes the MC do things she never thought she’d do and if he’s rich (and many bad boys are), he might whisk her away to some country she’s never been to. Or maybe he’ll just put you on the back of his motorbike and go really fast. Being with
In the real world, there’s nothing stopping a nice guy from doing all of those things. Many do! Still, that’s not the case for most stories. In most stories, one of the biggest appeals of the bad boy is that he brings the uptight MC out of her shell just as much as she makes him care. It’s a give and take!
They Aren’t Perfect from the Start
Of course, one of the main characteristics of the bad boy is that he isn’t perfect from the start of the story. This means that he has the potential to grow and become a better person. Yay for character arcs! But you need to think about this properly. In order to do this well, you need to flesh out the bad boy’s character and make sure that he’s more than just a bad boy.
If you don’t do that, he’s going to be a bad character from start to finish. This is an issue because, as I said in my post about bad romance tropes, it means that the bad boy starts off as an ass and ends the story as just as much of an ass. This is probably not the best way to frame your romance! I mean, you want to make people like him and not think all his bad qualities are ok, right?
But you have a lot more scope to show a bad boy’s character growth than a golden boy’s. It’s a lot more obvious when a bad boy changes for the better! That makes it easier for writers to write and readers to point out. Because it’s not impossible to show character growth with a nice guy character! It just takes a lot more subtlety. That’s because the nice guy usually starts the story with his life sorted. His head is on his shoulders. Why? Because he’s the good, safe option. It makes sense for him to be the responsible one!
To be honest, I was surprised when someone on the Episode Forums pointed this out to me.
Bad Boys Seem More Passionate
Ah, this is one of the biggest ones. Often, the bad boy is way more passionate. Of course, this doesn’t have to be true, but it happens a lot in many stories. The nice guy is safe and sweet and kind. The bad boy is passionate and dark and mysterious. This means that you can rely on the nice guy to give you stability and he probably gives you nice, sweet feelings like butterflies in your stomach. On the other hand, the bad boy will probably set your skin on fire and make you forget the world (if you’re into those cliches).
A lot of girls who read romance stories do it to escape their current lives and imagine a world where some passionate guy sweeps them off their feet and they have a passionate, physical relationship. Bad boys often offer that! Maybe it’s their reputation as doers. Maybe it’s just one more way to contrast them to the safe nice guy. It’s probably a mix of different things. But who doesn’t want passion?
But in the real world, passion is not always a good thing. When someone is defined by being passionate, they’re probably going to show that passion in both the good times and the bad. That can be exhausting! So someone who can be passionate at the right times? They’re awesome!
Make Him More Than Just a Bad Boy
So how are you supposed to make the bad boy a good character? Well, it’s all about making him more than just a bad boy. You see, it’s easy to fall into the trap of packing the bad boy with tropes and forgetting to make him unique. That’s going to harm your story reads. After all, there’s not much point for a reader to start your story if one of the main characters is a clone of every other bad boy in every other story. They’ve read him before — so, so many times.
So you need to think about what makes your bad boy different. What sets him apart from all of the other bad boys we’ve read about before? Give him a personality that isn’t all about how bad and dark he is. What are his hobbies? Other than smoking and brooding, of course. Is there a fun fact about him that you’d never expect? Like, is he a chess champion? What are his fears and dreams? Make sure that you add way more to his character.
This will give your MC something to find surprising and refreshing when she gets to know him. It’s loads of fun for the reader to find out that there’s more to a character than they thought! Plus it makes the bad boy seem much more deep if he’s willing to show a part of him to her that he hides from the rest of the world. It shows that you’ve put some thought into the character you’ve made and gives us a reason to read your story over every other bad boy story out there.
Give Him a Character Arc
Yes, the character arc! It’s an important thing for your main characters to go through! You see, it helps the reader to invest in your characters and care about what happens to them in the story. The events in their life change them for the better (or worse), which is very realistic and helps the reader identify with them more. I mean, we are all affected by the events in our lives! Plus, even if you like a character in the start of the story, it can be easy to start hating them slowly if they don’t grow in the story or change based on what they go through.
So give your bad boy a character arc! The most common way to do this is to force the bad boy to learn some life lessons in the story and become better people because of these lessons. Or, if you’re really savvy, you can make the bad boy start off as happy and superior, and lose everything because of the way he acts. This is realistic and shows that you can’t get everything by being rude and mean to the people around you. That’s a good message to send to your readers!
If you don’t know where to start with character arcs, you’re not alone! But don’t worry. There are many books that can help you make your characters grow and change. I recommend Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland because it’s easy to read and full of great advice. There’s even a workbook to help you!
Make Him Change Because of Her, but Not for Her
Some readers might think it’s romantic to make your bad boy change for the MC. Really, that’s not healthy. No one should have to change for the sake of the person they love. If you do choose to make changes to your life and attitude, it should always be for your own sake. Why? Well, for one, your partner should love you enough that they’re happy with you being you. But it also doesn’t last for very long most of the time. When you change for you, you’re doing it because you realise what’s wrong and how you can change that. The chances are that if you’re changing for someone else, you don’t see anything wrong with the way you are now.
The same goes for bad boys. Sure, they might have to change throughout the story to become better people. And it might seem romantic for the MC to be part of that process and to help him become a better person. But if he’s changing for her sake, he doesn’t have an issue with the way he is now and he’s just really doing it to make her stick around. He’s more likely to fall into his old ways. Plus, if the MC is in love with the bad boy, she should be in love with who he is, not who she wants him to be.
So instead of using threats of leaving or the “do it for me” argument to make the bad boy a better person, let the MC show him a better way. Make her give him the love and respect he’s never got before. Let her introduce him to new hobbies and ways of thinking. She can give him options, but not force him to take them. Then if he changes, it’s for him.
Don’t Give the Bad Boy Excuses
The chances are that your bad boy has a reason that he’s the way he is. He might have a rich dad who’s never around or an alcoholic mum, to name two of the most common ones. That’s fine. It makes sense! We are all affected by the way we’re brought up and the things that we go through in life.
But are you using this as an excuse for the bad boy to keep being mean to the MC? Do you mention it when the bad boy is acting really bad as a way to keep the MC around? There’s a difference between an excuse and a reason, after all, and if the bad boy knows why he acts the way he does, he should make some steps to change and become a better person in the story. Even if he has a hard life, the bad boy is still his own person and can choose how he acts.
So you need to stop acting like the reason he’s like this is an excuse. Give the MC boundaries and make her get angry when he crosses the line. He should know that he can’t cross those lines and know that she’s going to leave him if he ever does. He can’t turn around and say “this is just the way I am because of my dad”. That just isn’t going to fly and it shows that he’s not the kind of person she should be in a relationship with. He knows something’s wrong and doesn’t try to change. Red flags!
Give Him Fears
It might seem like the bad boy isn’t afraid of anything. There’s nothing wrong with giving him that kind of vibe in the story. In fact, it’s quite sexy to a lot of people! But is it true? Well, this is where you can see the difference between a realistic character and a bad trope. We are all scared of something. It doesn’t matter how brave or stupid we try to be. We all have a fear. So why not let us see what scares the bad boy? That shows that he’s human and gives the MC a chance to help and support the bad boy for a change.
We want to see him vulnerable in the story. This gives us a chance to see that he’s human and lets us relate to him more. You don’t have to make him scream or cry, but it is good for your story if you let the MC see through his hard exterior into the softer side of him. If he lets her see his fears and works past them in the story, it gives the MC a chance to respect him. That lets us do the same, too!
This can be a real good part of that character arc I was talking about. Most of the time, a character who overcomes their fears is much more interesting to watch or read about than a character who has no fears at all.
Let Us Into His Head
9 times out of 10, a good character is one that the reader can understand, even if they don’t agree with them. It’s a lot harder to make a character good if we don’t get what’s going on in their head. I mean, it’s not impossible! The Joker from The Dark Knight is one of my favourite characters and I really don’t know what’s going on inside his head. But for a love interest? I can’t think of a time when that’s done well. That’s because we want to love them as readers. We want to get where the MC is coming from when they fall for the love interest. After all, the MC is the character that we’re going to follow around the whole time! We build a bond with her. If we don’t like the bad boy and don’t understand him, we aren’t going to ship them!
So show us what’s going on in the bad boy’s head! You don’t have to have him telling us everything all in one go. In fact, I’ve already made a post on why you should avoid exposition like that. Instead, let him hint at his thoughts and feelings. Use your writing skills to have him show what’s going on in that head of his, and not just blurt it out like verbal vomit. Have him show his emotions. Give him tells when he’s lying and small, subtle things to let us know when he’s angry or upset. That way, the reader will feel smart that they figured it out on their own and they’ll find that they can relate to him much more. That’s one step closer to making them love him!
That’s easier said than done, right? How can you be original when there are so many stories out there already? Everything has been done before, right? Well, you’re half right! You’re not going to have a story that is 100% new to the reader. Sorry! But you don’t have to! All you have to do is make sure that there are a few original elements to your story.
But how do you do that? Well, it’s all about reading in your genre. That’s right! You’re going to have to study bad boys if you want to make something new. After you’ve got through a few well-known bad boy stories, it’s time for you to make a list of all the tropes and cliches that they share. No, I’m not going to tell you that you can’t have tropes! In fact, tropes can be really useful if you use them well! Instead, use this as a chance to pick and choose which tropes you want to use in your story, which you want to avoid and which you want to turn on their head. It will make you more aware of the tropes and will make you seem like a writer who knows what they’re doing.
If you craft your tropes consciously, you have chance to make the bad boy feel new and fresh! And who doesn’t like fresh? Bad boys are supposed to be cool lone wolves, after all! At the moment, we are being forced to believe that all of these bad boys in all of these stories are pretty much the same, but they happen to also be unique in their own story world? Nonsense! Spend your time learning about your tropes so you can make someone really cool.
Be Inspired by Different Genres
So now that you’ve read 100 stories about other bad boys, how do you avoid getting stuck making the same kind of bad boy yourself? Well, that’s where other stories come in handy. You see, all genres have common tropes. So no matter how much you try, you can find that you get stuck repeating all the same stories you’ve read before, even if you start off wanting to make something new and unique! And a bad boy that we’ve read in 400 other stories before doesn’t feel like a rebel. He feels like someone following a trend. He feels bored and tired and 2D. Not a good look if you want to make him a good character!
So read stories outside of your genre. Watch a horror film or a superhero film or even a documentary. Read some non-fiction. Find cool hobbies, tropes or character details from other genres that you’d love to try out on your own bad boy.
Most bad boys like to sleep around with loads of different women. What if your guy had a really strong sense of honour and respect for women that most other bad boys don’t have? Even if you did keep in the part about the sleeping around, you’ll find that the reader will want to know more. They’ll be intrigued! Drawn in! It seems like a contradiction in bad boy romances because his lack of respect for women is usually used to explain why he sleeps around and uses the girls in his life. So when you change that up, people are going to ask questions and keep reading. Plus, it stops you from falling into the awful “I’m not like other girls” trope with the MC, which is always a good thing.
When you start writing, you will find it harder to not fall into tropes and reuse the same old storylines we’ve seen 500 times before. You might not develop your bad boy enough. You might forget to give him a good character arc. All of these things are fine! They’re common in new writers. Failing can make you a better writer if you listen to your readers. So hold some Q&As where you explain points about your story to your readers. As a new writer online, it’s ok to retcon and add details as the questions come up, as long as you keep note of them and work them into your stories later on. Draft and redraft your stories. Don’t be afraid to go back and revamp when you feel like you could write a better story!
Just keep trying to make your bad boy better. Keep reading up about how to improve your characters. Just make sure you enjoy the bad boy you’re making and you’ll never stop caring about making him better.