The Bad Boy: Girls Really DO Like Them Best

The “bad boy” has a long-standing place in YA literature. He’s mysterious, alluring, dangerous, sexy—and it’s deliciously thrilling to experience the vicarious thrill of a heroine falling for him, whether it’s a good idea or not.


*Photo credit

But I’ve always thought that, in real life, women wouldn’t find the “bad boy” image quite as appealing. It turns out I’m wrong.

A new study from the University of British Columbia suggests that women find happy guys less sexually attractive than either moody or arrogant men. From the press release:

In a series of studies, more than 1,000 adult participants rated the sexual attractiveness of hundreds of images of the opposite sex engaged in universal displays of happiness (broad smiles), pride (raised heads, puffed-up chests) and shame (lowered heads, averted eyes).

The study found that women were least attracted to smiling, happy men, preferring those who looked proud and powerful or moody and ashamed. In contrast, male participants were most sexually attracted to women who looked happy, and least attracted to women who appeared proud and confident.

I’ve wrestled with creation of two different “bad boy” characters in my writing. In one case, I wanted him to be a smooth-talker who wins the girl, but is a jerk underneath; in the other, I wanted the guy to seem street-smart and untrustworthy, but be gradually revealed as a sweetheart. I want to create characters who are romantic—maybe even a little dangerous—but also real. I DON’T want to glamorize a stereotype, when real life bad boys aren’t necessary good relationship material…but reading about them can be fun.

What do you think? Do you write about the bad boy character? Is “bad boy” a veneer or a true-to-the-core description of your character?

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  1. Kenda says

    Interesting study! Personally I'd prefer a man who is happy with life, but the idea would make for a more dramatic YA story, I'm sure :-)

    I enjoy dropping in on your blog, and want you to know that I passed a couple of blog awards your way today!

  2. PW.Creighton says

    I think it's more about the character that doesn't necessarily need someone. The standard 'Bad-Boy' protagonist is usually a character that does not appear to care about what others think so long as he accomplished his goals. While the relationship element is strong for the female protagonist that falls for him, he is not nearly as invested (on the surface).

  3. K.D. says

    I like overconfident more than bad any day, but I also like when "bad boy" is just the image that the Main Female Character has of the Main Male Character until proven wrong. So, I guess the study makes sense.

  4. Jami Gold says

    Wow! Fascinating study! And uh… *raises hand* Guilty as charged. I just went through my picture collection (photos I collect – male and female – for character inspiration) and *very* few were smiling (male or female).

    To me, I prefer non-smiling pictures because they seem to show more depth that I can use for character development (as all my characters are tortured souls, of course :) ). Pictures of someone smiling often hit me as flat, or maybe that they're hiding their true feelings behind the smile.

    I don't know what that says about me as a person (if anything), as I'm a huge smiler in person and am genuinely happy – certainly not hiding behind a mask. :) But I thought it was interesting to see what my own collection consisted of.

  5. Erin Brambilla says

    I like it best when the Bad Boy image is just the veneer. On the inside he's good. Of course, I think that's what most of us want–someone who is a little bit thrilling, but isn't actually a jerk. No one wants the girl to end up with the jerk :). Though one of my favorite YA romances has a very good guy as the love interest. And he made me swoon.

  6. Jill Kemerer says

    I am so glad you referenced that article–I love info like this!! And I can see how it would be true.

    We, as women, tend to be on guard against overly-friendly men and trust the stand-offish ones more. Where men feel more comfortable with women who they believe won't ridicule or cut them down in public.

    Or maybe that's just the way I think? I don't know, but I love this conversation!

  7. Cheryl Reif says

    This is such an awesome discussion!

    Kenda: I prefer a happy guy, too :). Thanks for the awards!

    PW: I like your perspective–it makes me think that, for the 'Bad Boy' protag, there's often a conflict between maintaining his tough, devil-may-care image and opening up to a relationship he thinks he doesn't want.

    K.D.: You've hit on another interesting perspective–that the stereotypical image is also due to the viewer's interpretation. I love stories where the main female character dislikes the main male character at the start–and learns to love him by the end.

  8. Cheryl Reif says

    Jami: You made me laugh, but I know what you mean. Leo Tolstoy said, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Maybe that applies to individual characters as well!

    Erin: Okay, now I want to know what book had a really nice guy as the protagonist. I'm trying to think of one and having trouble.

    In one of my favorite books, Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series, the main character falls for the mysterious Jace rather than her nice-guy best friend. And I love the romance angle for just the reason you gave, Erin–Jace seems to be a jerk, but is actually a great guy.

    Hi Jill: I'm loving this discussion, too! You've made another intriguing observation–that women distrust men who are too friendly. I think we wonder what they want :).

    I like the way Jennifer Crusie handles the balance between "nice guy" and intriguing "bad guy". She alternates the narrative between her male and female protagonists, so that even though the guy may look like a jerk from the woman's perspective, the reader gets to see the more vulnerable side he's keeping hidden.