Bad boys are always the most fun to read about, whether they're from classic tales or more currently crafted novels. The allure of a brooding, tall, and darkly handsome protagonist has captured readers' hearts and authors' imaginations across the ages. Really, wasn't Romeo an obsessively-in-love teenaged hooligan who ran with a gang of his peers, and who was willing to defy convention and parental constraints to be with his one true love? Shakespeare used an archetype that the current bad boys in our modern day romances are modeled after, and created a prime example of a complex and troubled hero unable and unwilling to go on for one more second without the woman he loves.
There are countless classic characters who have influenced the qualities we present in our modern bad boys. We have Heathcliff the Brooding, Rhett Butler the Suave, and I think I could even make a case for The Cat in the Hat. He's impulsive, unpredictable. He wreaks havoc, does his own thing, and ignores sage advice; but in the end he is contrite and humbled and goes out of his way to fix all the damage he caused. What can I say? Our love of bad boys starts young. More importantly, though, our love is lasting and, really, the expectations and archetypes remain the same. Whether written today or centuries ago, a successful bad boy must possess certain qualities that give him an obvious swagger and often falls into one of many favorite types.
1. The Nonconformist
Let's start with my all-time favorite literary bad boy: Holden Caulfield from JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Holden embodies that lost and unwanted vibe so many of our bad boys have in modern day romance. He's adrift and not sure of his place in the world. He's also a character dealing with loss and how that has affected his young soul. It is the rocky road to self-discovery that plays so well into building a bad boy storyline. Plus Holden is tall, hip, defiant and very much a nonconformist... classic bad boy fare in modern or classic literature. He's also failing school, drinking underage, smoking, conflicted about sex and sexuality and basically hating on everything in his life at the moment. All of that screams angst and I totally believe you can't have a good bad boy without a hefty dose of angst.
2. The Alpha
On the other end of the bad boy spectrum we can go even farther back in classic literature to Achilles from Homer's Iliad and see the characteristics we find in today's super-alpha bad boys. Achilles is the ultimate warrior. Massive and built like a god, he is nothing more than a solider, a man created to fight. He is callous and uncaring, singularly focused on the win and his pride--but he does have that single weak spot. That one tiny vulnerability that can be exploited and cost him everything. Sure, for Achilles it's a physical weakness but our modern day bad boys often have that same vulnerability in the form of the woman they love. Often our military bad boys or, more recently, our bad boy professional and underground fighters are often depicted with the indestructible characteristics and same hidden tender spots that this classic bad boy first showed us.
3. The Unattainable
For the aloof and seemingly unattainable bad boy I'm going with Sherlock Holmes from various works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I love Sherlock. I love his wit and his undeniable charm. I love how smart and single-focused he is portrayed. His character has an obsession and a drive for answers that makes him intense, complicated and very sexy. I adore that he's in law enforcement, yet defies rules and convention--a common trope found in our modern day policemen bad boys. He also has a rock solid relationship with his bestie (Watson), which I think is another story-arc we tend to see today. As alluring as Sherlock is, he is also written as seriously isolated, a loner with no time or inclination for anything other than the job. Love and a relationship with a good woman is the farthest thing from Sherlock's mind. Those are strong characteristics also found in today's aloof and distant bad boys, and doesn't it just make the reader long so much more for the girl to get the guy she seemingly can't have?
4. The Lothario
We can't talk bad boys without talking about the lothario. Of course to be a good bad boy you should be out there in the world getting as much loving from as many different ladies as possible. My personal favorite classic character that embodies our good-time bad boy is Ian Fleming's James Bond. Bond is depicted as having it all--the looks, the charisma, the cool and dangerous job, and he never beds the same unbelievably beautiful girl twice. I, myself, have used this as a way to define my bad boys' personalities and attitudes towards the opposite sex. However I, of course, give them the one special girl who makes it more than just sex. But still, we want our bad boys to be good in bed, and I think Bond gives us that. Bond also doesn't become an unrepentant womanizer until after his wife was killed off in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and he's lost his one true love, the only woman he would ever marry. That is another twist we often see in our modern day bad boy lovers: the idea that they've lost someone once and no one else will ever compare until the perfect girl comes along to heal that broken heart... swoon!
5. The Misunderstood
One of the most interesting bad boys is the one that is tragically misunderstood like Ponyboy Curtis from S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. I think a bad boy who is one purely because he happens to live on the wrong side of town or because of the hand fate has dealt him makes for an interesting storyline we often use today. Ponyboy really isn't very bad at all when we get right down to the core of who he is. Sure he looks like a classic example: He fights, runs with a tough crowd, talks rough and ends up in circumstances that are violent and have a terrible outcome for him. But he also loves to read, is loyal to a fault, wants to be educated and wholeheartedly appreciates the small things in life, like a beautiful sunset. He also, ultimately, proves that deep in his heart he is full of compassion and heroism regardless of his hard lot in life. I think Ponyboy gives us the archetype of our bad boy being about so much more than where he comes from and having so much more depth than what we see on the surface. That's a common theme our modern day bad boys have as well. Once the reader and the love interest start peeling back those layers that make up our bad boy's armor, what we find underneath is oh-so-easy to fall in love with.
6. The Anti-Hero
Let's talk about a real BAD boy--the antihero, the man who does terrible things, but still manages to be dangerously seductive and alarmingly compelling. For the character-type we know we should stay away from but are still drawn to despite the danger, I'm going to go with Hannibal Lecter from Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs. Now, I'm not saying we swoon over men who are off the rails and evil like Lecter-- though I do think the modern reader is willing to accept a bad boy skating the edge of lawlessness and appearing irredeemable. However, we do expect our bad boys to be absolutely compelling, which is something Harris captures with Lecter. The overt sophistication and culture that Hannibal uses as a weapon are things we see in some of our current anti-heros. He's suave and mysterious, over-the-top intelligent, and blatantly dangerous, yet the heroine can't stay away even if she feels like she is a pawn in his game. Lecter holds all the cards and he knows it. Today's bad boys know the rules, and everyone else just better play along. I also think we see a lot of the way that Lecter is in our modern bad boys: that he's only human, only approachable and engaging with Clarice, with that one single person he becomes obsessed with. No one else matters except that one special girl. Not that we want to be Hannibal's special lady, but you get the idea...
Ultimately, whether we're talking about any of these, from the lothario to the woefully aloof, we tap into the same fantasy. Every romantic wants to believe that it simply takes that one girl, that one perfect love to make the bad boy want to reform, to make them want to refine their wild and unruly ways. The idea that the right person can bring about such change, can inspire such growth and greatness is why the bad boy in all his gritty and rebellious grandeur is still so prominent in the stories we tell today, especially in romance and New Adult. It's the idyllic notion that love can conquer all, that love can be the balm that soothes all those rough edges that make the boy bad in the first place. This notion tugs at readers' hearts and makes them long for a bad boy of their own.
If you ask me, bad boys aren't just the most fun to read about... they're also the most fun to write.
Jay Crownover is the author of the new book NASH: A Marked Men Novel.
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