Spend just a few minutes browsing through Goodreads reviews of paranormal romance books and you’ll discover a polarizing debate taking place. But the issue at hand isn’t vampires vs. werewolves, urban vs. traditional fantasy, or Twilight vs. True Blood — although I’m certain you could find those battles being fervently waged in other forums)
Rather, it’s the trope of dangerous heroes — and whether, essentially, they are good or bad.
What is a “dangerous hero”?
“Dangerous heroes,” also known as “bad boy heroes,” are suitors in romance novels who have a bit of an edge to them — the opposite of a wholesome, Hallmark-worthy romantic hero. To put it euphemistically, they tend to behave very badly.
To put it less euphemistically, they’re often violent, controlling, temperamental, unpredictable, and even outright abusive. They’ve usually been through some kind of trauma that “justifies” this behavior: a rough childhood, the death of someone close to them, the betrayal of a friend, the infidelity of a previous partner. Bonus points if they feel responsible for this trauma, whether for a good reason (i.e. they actually caused it) or not.
Sometimes dangerous heroes evolve into more stable and respectful men over the course of the story. But most of the time they don’t. Even if the former is the case, the behavior has already been normalized over the course of the narrative, so readers have become desensitized to it.
Obviously, this isn’t a healthy depiction of romance or behavior as a whole, and I personally don’t feel comfortable reading romance books that engage with this trope at all. Which doesn’t mean I’m uncomfortable with the main couple clashing! I love spirited arguments, opposites attracting, and enemies-to-lovers arcs. But I draw the line at abuse. And according to the Goodreads debates, many other readers seem to agree with me.
That said, the “dangerous hero” trope is so prevalent that it’s difficult to claim it’s a fringe fetish. This trope is present in every single subgenre of romance from historical to contemporary, and is especially popular in the world of self-published ebooks. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a mass-producing romance ebook author who hasn’t at least dabbled in “spicy bad boys” (yikes) or “dom daddies” (double yikes).
Clearly, plenty of fans have an appetite for this trope — and it’s perhaps most pervasive in paranormal romance, or PNR. I will spend the rest of this article dissecting what separates a dangerous hero in PNR from the rest of the pack, and unpacking the possible reasons why readers are so enthralled.
Who are the “bad boys” of PNR?
First, let’s meet some of the most notorious offenders of this trope in paranormal romance. Some of these I’ve read myself, but even I had no idea how deep this conspiracy went until I discovered the (hopefully tongue-in-cheekily named) Dangerous Heroes Addict Support Group. Here are just a few examples of the “bad boys” that the group and I have encountered in PNR:
- Wrath II (his actual name), the vampire protagonist of J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger series
- Kaleb Krychek, a “Dual Cardinal” with psychic powers in the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh
- V’lane AND Jericho Barrons (that’s right — it’s a bad-boy love triangle) in the fae-based Bloodfever series by Karen Marie Moning
- Lothaire, a half-mad and highly volatile vampire who falls for a young woman in Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series
- Maddox, who’s possessed by an ancient demon of violence (you can’t make this stuff up) in Lords of the Underworld by Gena Showalter
Most of these “heroes” have distinct features in common. They are all distinguished for their special talents, even among their kind; for example, Kaleb is the most powerful Psy in known existence, as he has both telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Maddox embodies the most violent creature in all realms of heaven and earth. Wrath II is the only purebred vampire left in his world, and leader of the Black Dagger Brotherhood.
Indeed, these heroes also tend to hold high-level positions of power and privilege, just like the “bad boys” of non-paranormal romances (think Christian Grey). And if they’re not already in power, they’re after it — for instance, Lothaire is a half-prince cast out of his kingdom who has sworn a) revenge and b) to reclaim the throne. But in order to do so, he needs the help of a low-class mortal woman.
Which leads into the final critical component and shared feature of all these books: the heroine. She is, almost without exception, human; perhaps she’s been possessed by a malevolent force or is being “indoctrinated” into supernatural society before making a full transition, but she pretty much always starts off weak, innocent, and mortal. (That’s Twilight’s influence for you.)
Again, our heroes are supremely powerful in both the traditional AND paranormal sense — arguably the most powerful entities in their respective universes. Even a relationship with your average vampire or lady-demon would already be seriously imbalanced. So when these “bad boys” (understatement of the century) end up seducing humans, their relationships inevitably take on an incredibly unhealthy dynamic.
Problematic, no? Especially when these guys exacerbate the disparity by treating their ladies so terribly — sometimes literally torturing them. Truth be told, your average “dangerous” PNR relationship is about as appropriate and morally acceptable as a CEO with a child bride.
But nonetheless, actual human readers eat this stuff up, as evidenced by the flourishing fanbase and Amazon best sellers list. Let’s look at a few possible reasons behind the supernatural bad boy obsession.
Why readers love them: 3 theories
If reading fiction is a form of escapism, then fantasy is an even more heightened version, and paranormal romance is basically escapism on crack. Many romance readers who are bored, frustrated, or simply wish to forget about their regular lives (and possibly lackluster love lives) needn’t look any further than PNR shelves for the perfect title.
So how does this tie into the dangerous hero phenomenon? Well, nothing is more implausible than a functional and satisfying relationship between a dangerous immortal god and a mortal woman — and the more implausible something seems, the better a distraction it is. All mental energy that would normally go toward quotidian concerns is redirected into “WTF?! How is this possible? What’s going on? Oh my god, here comes another crazy thing!” (This is pretty much the plot of Lothaire.) And sometimes, that’s all people want out of a book.
On a more specific note, the more powerful the hero, the more exciting the relationship is for the heroine… even if it’s also very unhealthy. And since all these human heroines are potential self-inserts for readers, it’s easy for “dangerous hero addicts” to step into their shoes and get swept up in the story. Of course, since they’re just reading about it and not experiencing it, they get the best of both worlds: all the titillation and none of the abuse. (I’m pretty sure this is why dangerous heroes are so much more prominent in books than TV and film — because the more “real” the problem is, the more upsetting it becomes for the consumer.)
2. Societal brainwashing
It’s also possible that readers don’t realize quite how problematic these stories are when they immerse themselves in them. Obviously, the more abusive male behavior one reads about, the more one becomes numb to that behavior — but it’s something that we see constantly in real life as well.
#MeToo has exposed some of the biggest figures in Western politics and entertainment as abusers. And while a few have been persecuted or prosecuted for their actions, many have slipped quietly back under the radar after a scandalous headline or two, with people making excuses (“Oh, he could be a lot worse”) before forgetting about the issue entirely.
Again, it’s similar to the visceral violence of TV/film: out of sight, out of mind. Unless people personally witness something inappropriate (or, you know, illegal), they don’t really have to consider the implications of it. This same mindset contributes to the normalization and glorification of such behaviors in fiction.
I realize that this “brainwashing” may be less of a contributing cause than the desire for escapism — and indeed, I hope it is. I want to believe that readers are smart enough not to just consume these romances without any critical thought. So what’s the happy medium between thinking too much and too little? Probably thinking that…
3. It’s all in good fun
Some readers may not be seeking to escape or succumbing to unfortunate normalization — rather, they’re reading these books simply because they like them, cruel suitors and all. The fourth wall is alive and strong in fiction. At the end of the day, all this stuff is made up — and the presence of sorcery and the supernatural in the PNR subgenre emphasizes that further.
Occam’s razor posits that the simplest answer is usually the right one. Consequently, I’m inclined to think that this is the most compelling argument for why readers seem to love “bad boy” heroes so much, especially in PNR.
So what’s the big deal, if this is the case? As we’ve seen time and time again, just because something is problematic doesn’t mean it’s impossible to enjoy. If the thing in question is fictional, shouldn’t we just leave it alone?
Depends on how you look at it
Though I’m sure you can tell my opinion by now, I didn’t write this post to universally decry dangerous heroes/bad boys in PNR, but to examine them. Far be it from me to dictate taste, especially since (as a lover of most romance tropes) I certainly have my own guilty pleasures. But I do urge other readers to think about the pros and cons of this particular trope.
- It’s exhilarating to read about forbidden love, and “dangerous supernatural hero/human heroine” is perhaps the most forbidden of all.
- The hero sometimes experiences a growth arc over the course of the narrative and isn’t nearly as much of a “bad boy” by the end. Likewise, the human heroine is sometimes transformed into a supernatural creature, which lessens the power imbalance.
- Occurrence in paranormal romance is somewhat preferable to other subgenres, because the accompanying supernatural elements help demonstrate how unrealistic the situation is as a whole. That said…
- Impressionable young readers may get inaccurate ideas about what constitutes a healthy relationship, potentially causing a genuine threat in future relationships.
- It’s a huge negative trigger for readers who have actually been in abusive relationships, and insulting/offensive to imply such a relationship desirable in any way, even in these alternate worlds.
- For the rest of us, knowing it’s fictional doesn’t necessarily make it less uncomfortable.
I realize that paranormal romance books won’t stop having these kinds of relationships in them, and other subgenres of romance aren’t likely to shy away, either — not least because they sell. But a girl can dream, and it’s my dream that romance authors will someday get abreast of more interesting (and ideally more balanced) relationship dynamics.
Until then, I suppose readers have made their beds and are happy to lie in them. But still, maybe don’t get in bed with a violence demon. I feel like that’s just common sense.