I have this problem in which my favorite characters are all bad boys.
Every time I re-read Wuthering Heights, I’m rooting for Heathcliff. He’s not a good guy. It shouldn’t really matter how much he loves Cathy. Mr. Rochester, Hamlet—all my favorite books are filled with jerks whom I can’t help but love.
Maybe it’s that storybook (or TV or movie) love is interesting because of the conflict, and nobody causes more trouble than a bad boy. Buffy said it best (in one of my favorite episodes, season 4’s “Something Blue”)
“I know it's nuts, but part of me believes that real love and passion have to go hand-in-hand with pain and fighting.”
She then turns and stakes a vamp and wonders where she got that idea…But for the rest of us, who lead a vamp-dusting free existence, where does that idea come from? In my AP class we’ve been talking a lot about the ultimate bad guy: Milton’s Lucifer.
First of all, poor Milton. I feel bad for the guy. Yes, he achieved immortality with his work. But he was a Puritan who set out to justify the ways of God to man. The fact that the Romantics of the nineteenth century embraced his Satan as an (anti-)hero would likely have upset him. A lot. I would actually argue that we’re still a Romantic era—after centuries cycling through alternating eras of reason and romance, we're probably stuck now. Reason is no longer strictly necessary. Instead, we have Google. Instant gratification (usually emotional) is what we want now.
So if we’re making a choice of favorite characters with our feelings instead of our brains, it’s bad boys all the way. It’s just not that much fun to root for the good guy. If you watch The Vampire Diaries, like I do, you probably root for bad-brother Damon rather than grim, self-righteous Stefan (if you’re a fellow TVD fan, are you feeling my pain over this protracted Professor and The Cure bit? Ugh).
Bad boys are more compelling for lots of reasons. One: cross them and they’ll get revenge. Milton’s Lucifer’s first speech promises vengeance, “All is not lost; the unconquerable will/And study of revenge, immortal hate/And courage never to submit or yield”
If you think about it, a lot of our favorite bad boys have Miltonian DNA. They are often outcasts—usually by choice. They want their freedom and will do almost anything to get it. They’re smooth talkers. These characters show up and steal the show—it happens over and over. The narrator of Gossip Girl in the early days was good-guy Dan. Snore. Bad-boy Chuck Bass was the character we tuned back in to see.
Maybe it’s the possibility of redemption that brings us back for more of the bad boys. It’s more satisfying to watch Chuck struggle to become a better man than it is to wait for Dan’s inevitable misstep, to be followed by his also-inevitable self-recrimination-filled moping.
Romantic-era writer and bad girl Lady Caroline Lamb probably summed up the bad boy’s appeal best with her famous description of Lord Byron: mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Swoon!
Would I want to actually deal with one of these mad, bad, dangerous dudes in real life? That’d be a no. But when it comes time to escape into a book or a show, bring on the bad boys.