We’ve seen them time and time again, their chiseled abdominal muscles gracing the gritty, dark covers of the bad boy romance novels. Willow Winters delivers powerful—and wildly popular—mafioso romance heroes with her Valetti Crime Family Series. Alexis Abbott writes ruthless stepbrothers, wild outlaws, and more than a few hitmen of her own. We’ve seen the trends pass through our romance reading lists—biker criminals, British bad boy athletes, and most recently, womanizing football stars. At first glance, it might not seem like professional athletes or stepbrothers have anything in common with MC presidents or mafia hitmen.
But if we as romance readers look closer, there are a few common themes to these rockstars of bad boy romance. They’re arrogant, filthy-mouthed, oversexed loners—not exactly the type of men we bring home to meet mom. But as the stories progress, we see their softer sides. They’re capable of intense emotion, and they’re fiercely protective of their loved ones.
Women Hold the Power to Good
When we first get to know these romance heroes, they trigger our frustration and annoyance. After all, they’re dangerous and cold—or just downright annoying. But it’s not their flaws that keep us reading to the end—it’s their capacity for redemption. And who redeems them? It’s the romance heroine, the woman who inspires him to reach for his softer side.
When we read, we place ourselves in the shoes of the heroine, imagining that we can relieve a hero of his arrogance and bring out the hidden parts of his personality.
We love the fantasy of a hero like this, the one who wants to change his ways for the woman he loves. If we look back to the books we all had to read in high school, we can see that this idea of the bad boy hero is not a new one. Remember reading Jane Eyre? Rochester, the master of Thornfield Hall, is described as cold, aloof, and utterly infuriating to Jane, the innocent young lady hired to tutor a girl in his care. Over time, he softens his heart, and Jane’s heart opens in return. Rochester captured my imagination when I read Jane’s story—and lived in my dreams for many years to come. She was able to change this cold, seemingly uncaring man through her kindness and innocence.
What does Rochester have in common with the heroes we like to see in our romances? We can look a little bit further back in our literary history to the Byronic hero, a character named after George Gordon, Lord Byron, a handsome, promiscuous nineteenth century poet with a scandalous history.
Lord Byron, a handsome, promiscuous nineteenth century poet with a scandalous history
He was the creator of Don Juan, and his heroes were “[l]one, wild, and strange,” each with a past remarkably similar to Byron’s own. Though Byronic heroes can be found in stories since the dawn of time, Byron’s writing exemplified the complicated, romantic hero. Byron himself was known as a world-class lover—aloof, artistic, and as one woman described him, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” These heroes still carry his name not only because of his writing but also because of his reputation.
We’ve been eating up these men since humans have been telling stories, and the reasons are clear. When we read, we place ourselves in the shoes of the heroine, imagining that we can relieve a hero of his arrogance and bring out the hidden parts of his personality. We love to fantasize about a man, masculine in the extreme, rescuing us from imminent peril—and risking everything for the sake of our love.
It’s simple wish fulfillment, isn’t it?
Fantastical Careers Allow Readers to Escape Reality
Real life is far more mundane than our favorite romance novels, and it often doesn’t involve dirty princes, cocky billionaires, or NFL players. But our lives do have one thing in common with these stories. Each one of us has our flaws, some of them pretty huge. Perhaps it’s not just that we imagine being saved by a romantic hero—but we hope someone can save us from our own flaws, too.
What’s the thing that redeems each of us from our own Byronic shortcomings? Perhaps it’s love. We may not date or marry true Byronic heroes—and maybe we wouldn’t want to—but we all want someone who can overlook the worst things about us. I think of my husband—he doesn’t match the same qualities of a romance character, but neither do I. But, sappily enough, we’ve both been changed by love. Time and time again, we save each other from the dangers that lie in our pasts, our failures, and our daily mistakes.
Perhaps, on a smaller scale, loving someone—anyone—is like falling for our very own mysterious, flawed hero. We relate to a heroine with her own everyday frustrations, and we swoon after the hero who falls for her.
Perhaps, on a smaller scale, loving someone—anyone—is like falling for our very own mysterious, flawed hero.
The romance novels we love provide a happy ending and a future for the main characters, no matter what. Their flaws don’t seem to matter so much anymore because they have each other and the happy ending they both needed.
In the bad boy hero, we see the man we can save with our love.
In the heroine, we see ourselves, worthy of an all-consuming desire that, in turn, will save us too.
He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt…
-George Gordon, Lord Byron, “The Corsair”
Books Mentioned in This Article
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