Jun 19 2014 12:55pm

Caught in a Bad Romance: When Is a Bad Boy Too Bad?

Mercy: White Collared, Part 1 by Shelly BellToday we welcome author Shelly Bell to Heroes and Heartbreakers to talk about a topic we all like discussing: bad boys. Shelly's White Collared serial is an erotica thriller, one which requires the lawyer heroine to go undercover at a BDSM club where the prime suspect in a murder just happens to be her client—and a very sexy Dom. Thanks, Shelly!

When you think of a hero from a romance novel, what qualities spring to mind? Personally, I love a dirty-talking, emotionally tortured bad boy, who—to the detriment of himself—will selflessly move heaven and earth for the heroine. Whether he’s a cowboy, billionaire, biker, or rock star, the bad boy hero has got walls around his heart that only the love of the female lead can infiltrate. Until recently, romance readers could trust the hero would die before he’d allow any harm to come to heroine, but since the emergence of dark romance, that notion has dramatically changed.

While the term “dark romance” is not currently a category defined on Amazon or used by traditional publishers, that hasn’t stopped the sub-genre from not only thriving, but arguably becoming one of the hottest and fastest growing sub-genres in romance e-books. These stories spin conventional romance on its head and often place the villain in the role of the hero. Readers’ expectations of romance are ripped away as the heroine is not only physically hurt, but oftentimes harmed and her life placed at risk by the hero.

Harm is different than hurt, a distinction made clear within the realm of the BDSM community. In my erotic thriller serial, White Collared, the heroine, Kate Martin, goes undercover as her client Jaxon’s submissive to prove he’s not guilty in the murder of his wife. The power exchange between Kate and Jaxon is one based on consent. Although Jaxon does cause Kate physical pain, she has safe words which would halt the scene, meaning she still retains some semblance of power. As long as Jaxon follows the parameters of their negotiated relationship, no harm will come to her. This is not the case in dark romance in which the heroine may not expressly give consent nor have any power in her situation.

Captive in the Dark by C.J. RobertsAfter seeing hundreds of rave reviews for C.J. Roberts’s Captive in the Dark, I decided to read it, even if it made me uncomfortable. The book warns it contains very disturbing situations, dubious consent, strong language, and graphic violence, but nothing prepared me for the gripping tale of Olivia, an eighteen-year old girl who falls for Caleb, her sadistic kidnapper. Part of the reason this book works, other than the sheer brilliance of the author’s prose, is the way she conveys Olivia’s consent. It isn’t dubious at all, but implied, as the reader feels as Olivia feels, thinks as Olivia thinks, to the point we no longer see Caleb as the villain, but our salvation. Morally and legally, we know Caleb’s actions are not those of a hero. Yet, in a manner similar to those of an anti-hero, Caleb eventually risks everything to save Olivia from dangerous monsters far worse than himself, and we forgive him for the harm he’s inflicted on the heroine.

The villain morphing into a reluctant hero is a theme found in several successful dark romances. In Bella Aurora’s Raw, Twitch is no hero (and the author warns it’s not a love story), but that didn’t stop the thousands of women from falling in love with the man or the book. Twitch is Alexa’s stalker, and they meet after he saves her from an attempted rape. He admits he’s not a good man, and as both the reader and Alexa learn from his actions, he’s not. But when Twitch transitions from villain to hero, saving Alexa to the detriment of himself, there are very few readers who will finish the book dry-eyed.

Push by Claire WallisAnti-heroes such as Dexter have found success in both literature and in television, but could a serial killer ever play the role as hero in a dark romance? Before the recent release of Push by Claire Wallis, I wouldn’t have believed it possible, but after reading reviews of this New Adult book, I had to change my position. Push asks the question, “How far would you go to prove your love?” It’s a chilling tale of a young woman who has gone her entire life without love, so when she gets the chance, she’s willing to hold onto it even if it kills her. I would never classify the book as a romance, but readers think otherwise, and since it literally ends on a cliffhanger, I’m reserving judgment until I read the sequel.

They say the villain is the hero of his own story and maybe that’s part of the allure of dark romance. The belief that even the very worst of men can change through the power of love and that they too deserve a happy ending. But I wonder, if a hero can commit acts of kidnapping, torture, rape, and attempted murder against the heroine, where will we draw the line? How bad is too bad to be a romance hero?

Learn more or order a copy of Mercy (White Collared, Part 1) by Shelly Bell, out now:

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A sucker for a happy ending, Shelly Bell writes sensual romance often with a bit of kink and action-filled erotic thrillers with high-emotional stakes for her alpha heroes and kick-ass heroines. She began writing upon the insistence of her husband who dragged her to the store and bought her a laptop. When she's not working her day job, taking care of her family, or writing, you'll find her reading the latest smutty romance.

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1. Ridley
If Captive in the Dark is romance, I'm disgusted.

That book's dark erotica if it's anything. Romance's HEA would mean that kidnapping, rape and abuse can be justified as heroic, and I don't want to live in a world where that's true.
2. Kadiya
I think that's actually a really good question. When I think of dark heroes and very dubious ones, I think Anne Stuart. At least one of her books, I am highly in doubt that he even becomes a hero, ever. Traditionally, kidnapping, rape, and even attempted murder have not stopped a man from being the hero in a romance (as Harlequin Presents consistently proves). Torture, at least for me, is a different animal because I am not sure in what your definition of it is. The Nature of Cruelty, for example, certainly includes emotional torture on some level, but that is also par for the course for a lot of romance. Do you mean the deliberate and systematic physical, mental, and emotional breaking down of another person? I think I could not be on board with that if the hero directed it at the heroine.

I also think that the age group this is directed at makes a difference for me. A lot of these books tend to be in the NA, and some in the YA genres. We can debate what age groups are meant to be reading those, but I think it is far more problematic in NA/YA territory than it is in say, "traditional, for adults" territory. At a time when we are trying to remind young women that they have agency and that abuse is a dangerous thing, we also glamorize abuse to them with some of these "heroes". Captive in the Dark (I have not read it) certainly seems to fall into that. It might be a good book to use as a lead in to a discussion of Stockholm Syndrome.

A lot of these dark romances I think fall into a form of wish fulfillment, not unlike traditional fairy tales. The good girl (sometimes "good" as in sexually innocent and sometimes just particularly sweet and gentle) can tame the bad boy and make him good. It's a nice idea, but um... in real life, it doesn't really happen that way. It also is a way to "experience" badness in a controlled way or explore more taboo desires without the fear of it affecting us. It's a sanitized form of the scary world around us.

Ultimately, for me personally, I have to feel that the hero/villain has some moral or ethical code that is inviolate to him. I don't have to necessarily agree with his code, but it does have to exist. He can't be all over the map. He also can't hurt the heroine, know he is hurting her, confess to her he did it and did it on purpose and then say he is coming back for another round of hurting her. (Yes, I read a book where he did that. No, it was not a recent book or an NA/YA book.)
3. Mag
If you enjoy a dark read that is not BDSM, I recommend HEAT by R.Lee Smith. It has 2 sets of main characters: A criminal alien who comes to earth to kill humans in order to harvest them to make drugs and an alien cop who is trying to capture him. Each kidnaps a woman to help him. Their stories parallel each other, one a terribly dark - I hesitate to use the word- "romance", the other, more traditional romance. The story line of the criminal and his captive is like watching a house burn...horrible but you can't take your eyes from it. You just got to stay to see what's left. He is evil. I mean murderously, unrepentantly jaw-droppingly evil. And yet, in the skilled hand of the author, I'm actually rooting for this monster! And I'm rooting for the cop too! The story is plot driven and it is long but does not drag. (10894 kindle pages). I stayed up until 3am days on end even though I had to get up for work at 5:30am. When I finished it, I started it over again immediately. It's a great book.
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