Posted On September 2, 2009 by Print This Post

Bad Boys: What’cha Gonna Do?

debra_sq_noframe_dsLet’s admit it. We all love them even though we know we probably shouldn’t. Some women date them. And some women even marry them. Bad boys are to women what a 12-point buck is to a novice hunter: a trophy we’re dying to bag even though we don’t have a clue what to do with it once we get it home. Psychotherapist Dr. Debra Holland is here to tell us whether or not women should hunt the elusive bad boy or just admire him through the trees.

Dr. Debra will give away a copy of her booklet, “58 Tips for Getting What You Want from a Difficult Conversation” to one lucky commenter today. Others can sign up for Dr. Debra’s newsletter and receive a free e-copy of her booklet!

Welcome, Dr. Debra! 

Kelsey, I’m delighted to be here with you and your readers.

Kelsey: Could you define the term “bad boy” for us? 

Dr. Debra:  Well let’s see… Youngish, (20s or 30s, although if you’re a teen, they can be younger) sexy, handsome, great body, dresses in black, drives a sports car/motorcycle, and is or seems emotionally unavailable. Often an outsider and misunderstood by others except by the heroine.

Kelsey: Why are bad boys so attractive to women?

Dr. Debra: A bad boy is a woman’s ultimate fantasy. She thinks that through the power of her love and understanding she will CHANGE and/ or HEAL him. She believes that if a bad boy loves her enough, he will change and become a committed loving partner. Therefore bad boys are a challenge. Then there’s the handsome, sexy aspect…. 🙂 

Kelsey: Is there a difference between a literary bad boy and a real one?

Dr. Debra: It depends on if we are talking about a literary bad boy in a romance or in other types of fiction. In a romance, the bad boys often are the heroes.

In real life, a bad boy is a BAD boy. Sometimes the sexier they are, the worse they treat girlfriends because there is always another woman rushing to be with them. Thus they are often selfish and unable to commit, or remain faithful if they do commit. They may have addictions such as drugs, alcohol, smoking, gambling, or sex. Their relationship skills are often poor, even though their seduction skills are great.

Kelsey: Contrast reading (and fantasizing) about bad boys with living with one.

Dr. Debra: Most women who live with bad boys are pretty miserable. They “love” him so they won’t leave, but they put up with a lack of commitment, poor treatment, selfishness, or perhaps unhealthy, hurtful behaviors such as drug or alcohol abuse, or verbal or physical abuse. These women feel insecure, and may act in a needy, jealous way. They also have to work hard to try to “keep” him.

The truth is, for the most part, bad boys don’t change unless they choose to, and most of the time, they don’t. A woman’s love won’t be enough to redeem him.

Kelsey: How do you suggest writers make their bad boy characters redeemable?

Dr. Debra: Give the bad boy a childhood wound that forces him to make life decisions that make him “bad.”  By healing the wound, he can change. But there has to be more than the heroine’s love for him to change. He has to make efforts to confront his past and thus change.

Kelsey: Do you have any other suggestions for writers creating the bad boy character?

Dr. Debra: Have him come into his attractiveness later in life, so he’s not as self-centered because he’s had attention all his life for being handsome.

Give him goals that he can achieve, thus freeing him up to consider moving on to another life stage such as wanting to find a life mate.

Give him some other people in his life whom he loves, so we see that he is capable of love and commitments.

Drop in a mention that he’s gone to therapy, spent time with a personal coach, taken some personal growth seminars, is part of Alcoholics Anonymous, or has read some self-help books. He doesn’t have to be doing some of these things now, but has in the past. That doesn’t mean he can’t still be bad, but he’ll have some resources to help him change. Often clients tell me that they thought they had “dealt” with some problem, but then it pops up in their life again. I respond by saying they did deal with it, but now have to work on it in a different or deeper way.

I think romance authors do have to be careful in crafting bad boy heroes or extreme Alpha heroes. It’s easy to cross the line into verbal abuse or controlling behavior that is NOT healthy for a relationship.

For example, I’ve read some stories where I had to put the book down because the hero was TOO controlling and crossed the line into abuse, and the heroine let him, only putting up a token protest. This is NOT healthy, even though it may seem like it stems from his attraction/love for the heroine. But in real life, this is not love true. This behavior stems from selfishness, jealousy, and insecurity.

Seeing romantic heroes who have character arcs, becoming better men, may lead women readers to believe that this kind of behavior is okay and that it means her controlling, jealous boyfriend/husband loves her, and thus will treat her well. But such behavior usually worsens, his control over her behavior becomes tighter and his abuse greater.

If you must have this kind of hero, you need to make the heroine equally strong– willing to set and KEEP boundaries with him. Sex/being physical cannot make her give in to his demands.

So RU readers, do you love bad boys in romance novels? What about in real life? How many of you married the bad boy you loved in high school or college? Feel free to ask questions of Dr. Debra as well!

Be sure to join Adrienne and Cindy Carroll on Friday to discuss how to write an attention-catching logline for your book!

Dr. Holland holds a master’s degree in Marriage, Family, and Child Therapy, and holds a PhD in Counseling Psychology from the University of Southern California, and is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.  She has twenty-one years of experience counseling with individuals, couples, and groups.

Dr. Holland is a popular psychotherapist, consultant, and speaker on the topics of communication difficulties, relationships, stress, and dealing with difficult people.  She is a featured expert for the media, and does entertainment consulting.

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23 Responses to “Bad Boys: What’cha Gonna Do?”

  1. Dr. Debra –

    Welcome to Romance University! Would you share with us the names of some writers who, in your opinion, write wonderful “bad boy” characters?

    Personally, I love bad boys in my romance novels and I think Shannon McKenna writes amazing and very edgy bad boys.

    I did not marry a bad boy, which is probably the reason I just celebrated my 16th wedding anniversary!


    Posted by KelseyBrowning | September 1, 2009, 11:57 pm
  2. I’m not a fan of the bad boy hero. I was hurt by a couple of real life bad boys early in life and learned to steer clear of them. I married a good guy, and he’s the best friend I’ve ever had. I tend to leave redeeming alpha heroes to others.

    Posted by Keli Gwyn | September 2, 2009, 12:46 am
  3. I can’t pick any single author off the top of my mind. I’ll have to think about it.

    Posted by Dr. Debra | September 2, 2009, 1:08 am
  4. I LOVE bad boys. Married one. He’s not so bad anymore 😉

    My favorite literary bad boy is the hero in The Rake by Mary Jo Putney. He was an alcoholic and reprobate, but was redeemed.

    On TV, there’s Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer who was redeemed by love. I tend to be drawn to the bad boy more than the good guy when there’s a choice.

    Posted by MJ Fredrick | September 2, 2009, 5:35 am
  5. MJ,

    Good choice in The Rake. He worked to redeem himself. Love Mary Jo Putney’s books.

    Posted by Dr. Debra | September 2, 2009, 8:13 am
  6. Hi Dr. Debra…

    Thanks for posting today – very informative! Harlequin asks for an alpha male for the hero character…something I’ve been struggling with as mine seems to come off more as JERK rather than ALPHA….lol… your suggestions for making him more “human” helps me think past that…

    my question is the heroine who falls for the bad boy…I can see where she needs to be strong, and makes him toe the line, but wouldn’t she eventually think he’s too much work? and wouldn’t he eventually think he’s had enough of her always picking at him anytime he wanted to have “fun”? what kind of changes would both of them have to make to keep the relationship healthy and strong – and long lasting? does the bad boy become a good guy over time?


    Posted by carrie | September 2, 2009, 8:33 am
    • Carrie,

      He has to secretly agree with her. That way he can resist her suggestions, but start changing. Show us little changes along the way to give the heroine hope. Although an overnight change is possible, it’s more rare. What’s more likely is a gradual reformation.

      I’ve been called out to do a crisis case. I’ll be gone much of the day, but will check in with everyone later.

      Posted by Dr. Debra | September 2, 2009, 9:11 am
  7. Hi Dr. Debra and thank you for being with us today. Great article. I love to write alpha males (probably because I grew up surrounded by them!) and these tips will be very helpful.

    I dated a bad boy when I was in my twenties and, as I look back, I wonder what I was thinking! The emotional toll of that relationship wasn’t worth the effort. I learned from it though because I think about my husband and what a good man he is and I realize that somewhere along the line I got smart.

    Thanks for a great interview, Kelsey and Dr. Debra!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | September 2, 2009, 9:47 am
  8. The truly bad boy hero must be done extremely well for me to really get into it — for example, I *loved* the romance Villiers finally got in Eloisa James’ latest, but he’d done a fair bit of changing on his own before he got there.

    I definitely didn’t marry a bad boy, and didn’t fall in love with any, either, because I was the bad girl — I knew just what bad boys thought about the women they were with because I felt the same way about some of the men I was with. And it isn’t flattering. But the bad-redeemed-by-love thing can be true: I was a bad girl unless I was in love, and then I was committed partner all the way. Married 15 years to my steady-as-a-rock, patient man.

    Posted by Natalie | September 2, 2009, 9:55 am
  9. Doesn’t every woman want just a teensie-weensie bit of “bad boy” in her man?

    What do you call “bad boys” over the age of 40? Not all of them have lost their self-centeredness by then, especially if they’ve remained bachelors (maybe that’s why they’ve remained bachelors?).

    Posted by PatriciaW | September 2, 2009, 11:00 am
  10. I’m back, so I can comment again. 🙂

    Patricia, I think a “bad boy” can be any age in reality. Some men do “bad boy” all their lives.

    However, an older “bad boy” character as a hero might not appeal to a romance audience. I’m not saying it can’t be done. He (and the plot) would have to be very well crafted and written.

    Posted by Dr. Debra | September 2, 2009, 3:28 pm
  11. Kelsey, Great questions.
    Dr. Debra, Wonderful insight.
    This is one of RU’s best interviews yet.
    Dr. Wes

    Posted by Wes | September 2, 2009, 3:45 pm
  12. Hi Dr. Debra. This message came from one of our readers through Facebook. I just copied the message. It’s from Nina. Here it is:

    Wow, so right on. My daughter was in 2 relationships with bad boys and now she
    is on her own trying to make her way into hopefully a healthy relationship. This
    interview could help lots of women, not only writers. Great!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | September 2, 2009, 3:50 pm
  13. What a great interview! I’ve my own fictional bad boy and I’m working on revising him to acceptable levels of badness. I think “bad boy” is a really powerful archetype and so even the fictional ones can be a little hard to deal with, especially in character-driven stories.

    Thanks for all the interesting stuff to think about. 🙂

    Posted by Resa | September 2, 2009, 5:42 pm
  14. Thanks for all the positive comments about the blog. Maybe I’ll take the information and turn it into one of my newsletter/articles.

    Posted by Dr. Debra | September 2, 2009, 6:36 pm
  15. Hi Dr. Debra,

    Sorry I’m chiming in so late. I love your tips on how to write a successful bad boy character. I’ve always been more curious than attracted to bad boys. What makes them tick? What makes them so bad and why are some women turned on by it? I’m thinking about Colin Farrell. Nice to look at, but, well, I have a hard time kissing ashtrays. LOL

    Thanks for the great post! Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | September 2, 2009, 11:20 pm
  16. Dr. Debra –

    Thanks again for blogging with RU! Sounds like this interview struck a chord with several people!


    Posted by KelseyBrowning | September 2, 2009, 11:27 pm
  17. Great tips on writing about bad boys. Very informative and helpful as I’m trying to write a bad boy in my current WIP.
    Terisa Wilcox

    Posted by Terisa Wilcox | September 3, 2009, 8:51 am
  18. Great post, Dr. Debra! Thank you.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | September 3, 2009, 1:30 pm
  19. Thanks for all the positive feedback!

    Congrats to Resa for winning a hard copy of my booklet, 58 Tips For Getting What You Want From a Difficult Conversation.

    The rest of you can also receive a download copy from my website, Just sign up for my newsletter. I send out newsletters whenever I have an idea for an article that I think will interest people.

    Happy writing!

    Posted by Dr. Debra | September 4, 2009, 1:07 am


  1. […] this page was mentioned by Kelsey Browning (@kelseybrowning), Romance University (@romanceuniv) and others. […]

  2. […] Bad Boys: What’cha Gonna Do? Psychotherapist Dr. Debra Holland talks about “whether or not women should hunt the elusive bad boy or just admire him through the trees”. […]

  3. […] great article about bad boys and why it’s best to leave them in the realms of fiction. Click here to read it. I definitely will make my daughter read it the first time she brings home […]

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