JC Emery is not just a writer of some steamy, kick-ass romances, like
in the Men in Badges series,
, the first in a series about bikers, Bayonet Scars.
She’s also one of the most honest and forthright people I know; she means what she says and she says what she means and makes no apologies. So we got to talking last week about bad boys in romance fiction, how they have always been so popular and why they remain so, and how troubling we, as writers and women and feminists, often find the depiction of truly bad boys, the kind that will assault the heroine to prove his love to her. (Think Rhett Butler telling Scarlet O’Hara he will “crush [her] skull like a walnut.” That’s not hot. That’s sick. If anyone says that to you and considers it foreplay, run.)
With incidences of domestic/relationship violence on the rise, particularly among young people, it’s worth considering how much romance fiction insists on the potential for violence as a sexy attribute in a mate. Recently scholars and book fans alike have written with fear and disgust about Twilight‘s Edward Cullen as a charming sociopath. (See Journal of Communication Inquiry 2011 35: 157 and Debra Merskin’s article “A Boyfriend to Die For: Edward Cullen as Compensated Psychopath in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight” for a stellar example). And while I agree that there can be a great gulf between what we desire in our fantasies and what we want in our real lives, I still want to tell me daughter when she’s in the throes of her first crush (I’m not counting Niall Horan from One Direction), “I don’t care how much the boy sparkles- if you tell me he’s been climbing into your room and watching you sleep for months, I am calling the cops.”
Now JC’s hero in Ride is a little rough around the edges, a bad boy by many definitions of the term, but he’s not dangerous to the woman he loves. Check him out:
“IT’S NOT FUNNY,” she whines through a scowl, but the smile on her face is bright.
“Oh yes it is,” I say, with a grin. “What kind of mafia princess doesn’t learn how to shoot a gun?”
“The passive kind,” she grumbles, looking at my .38 she’s holding with both hands. I force myself to keep grinning, avoiding the impending anxiety that’s creeping up. When I first handed the gun over to her, I was nervous as fuck. I mean, I’d never given a chick I was fucking my piece before. But Cub doesn’t know how to shoot, and with everything going on, she has to learn. I don’t give a fuck how difficult she’s being about it. Hell, even if Junior wasn’t on his way here, I’d still teach her how to shoot. Yesterday, I gave up being pissed that her fucktard of a father didn’t teach her sooner.
It’s been days since I’ve spent more than ten minutes without Cub by my side. I’m getting way too comfortable falling asleep with her curled into my side, and waking up with her half on top of me. The longer it takes for something fucked to happen, the more on edge I get. Despite spending pretty much every minute with Cub and her pussy, which I swear is made out of unicorns or some shit, I can feel the tension in my bones. She walks around acting like she doesn’t really care what’s going on or the sacrifices the club is making to keep her tight little ass safe. I’m trying not to let her piss me off, but damn it, she’s working my last nerve. It doesn’t help that I haven’t had a drink or any bud since before Church the other day.
“You’re doing it again,” she says, handing the gun back to me. Her smiles falls, giving way to a grimace. I click the safety lock and shove it in the back of my waist.
“Doing what?” I ask, trying to keep the strain out of my voice.
“That thing with your neck. You keep tensing your jaw, and it makes the veins in your neck pop out. It’s creepy.”
“I’m on edge,” I say and blow out a deep breath.
He’s no saint, that’s clear (though he does go to church). He’s tough, profane, and capable of violence, but that’s never going to be turned on the heroine, Cub. Despite her current inability to handle a .38, she’s an equal partner in this relationship, and that’s one of the aspects of JC’s offbeat romances that make them so delightful.
I’ll give her the final word on bad boys and what’s “too” bad to bear:
I don’t necessarily think there’s a definitive line in the sand to be drawn over what behaviors are acceptable in fiction and which ones are not. As a loud-mouth feminist and unapologetic biker fan, I find myself torn. I know all too well the way it works with lifestyle bikers (as opposed to weekend riders). And this is in no way a criticism of the lifestyle of all bikers, because as a group, they are as varied as any culture is. Some motorcycle clubs are about community service, some are about freedom, but there is a subculture within the greater biker community called outlaw bikers. The outlaw biker culture is vastly different from what we know most people to be. It is often de-humanizing to women, with few women being respected enough to be treated as a person. Women are often passed around, dismissed, and even beaten-up on. So I find myself both intrigued and disgusted by this world. How can a feminist like these kinds of guys?
Most women I know are drawn to alpha males, and while men in fiction may get away with murder (and then some), their real life counterparts have to toe a much finer line. The guys in my Men with Badges series are all inherently good. They may make the wrong choices along the way, but it’s with the best of intentions. Here’s how I think I make the bad boys work in relation to that. It’s like the flip side of the coin. The men in the Bayonet Scars series (Ride, No. 1, due out 10/28) are not who western society traditionally considers to be good guys. They drink, do drugs, have a ton of sex, curse… they can be mean and violent, and they don’t apologize for it. But like you’ve seen in a lot of romance novels where their behaviors are forgiven or justified, I try very hard not to do that.
I don’t write weak women. They don’t forgive poor behavior necessarily, they just sometimes either don’t care or they may choose not to make an issue of it. Other female characters may raise hell over something. It depends on who’s in what situation. None of my women feel helpless without a man around (I wouldn’t even know how to write that), and none of them ever feel like they’ll die without the company of their true love. (Forgive the gagging sounds). They are as complex and messed up as the men they fall in love with. I think that’s the only way a romance like this can work. Good girls who fall in love with bad boys always get hurt, because bad boys don’t magically become good guys over night. The women in the Bayonet Scars series actively choose to stay. And none of them are without faults and poor behaviors of their own. They see the men they love with clear eyes (eventually) and they make the choice to love this disturbed man. I don’t feel sorry for them for choosing to stay if he’s a bastard. Being raped and held captive? Yes, I feel for the woman who ensures that. The woman who knows going in of her free will that she’s hooking up with a horn dog? Not so much. Eyes wide open, ladies. He is who he is; don’t expect him to change into something he’s not. Deal with it or move on. In that regard, I think having strong-willed proactive women on the page who make their own rules and give the men an option to hop on board or leave them alone, is important to giving readers a couple they can root for. My ladies are always the ones who set the rules of the relationship. She might fight like hell for terms and conditions she’s comfortable with, but she will walk if her guy doesn’t measure up. It’s just about giving the man traits she can live with, and giving her expectations he can abide by. And that will differ from couple to couple.
Some of the men in the series come to us already trying to make a change in their life, others come to us fighting hard to stop change. I’m not a huge fan of story lines where a woman comes along and suddenly this awful man turns over a new leaf for her. Waking up next to her in bed and he realizes he’s been a total scumbag his entire life? I don’t think so. I think, for the most part, people are fairly stagnant at their core. A rapist is a rapist. If he’s going to violently force himself on a woman, I don’t see him one day realizing what he’s done is awful and unforgivable. It’s the same reason I can’t believe Michael Vick now realizes that dog fighting is wrong. Prison doesn’t change who you are at the core. It either makes you toe the line so you don’t return, or it tears you down, making you meaner and more volatile.
Knowing the dirty details of the world my characters live in, I have to straddle the line between romance and realism. And maybe I have a disturbed way of looking at romance, but I think there is something very romantic about the deeply flawed individual trying to be better, whether they ever succeed or not. Giving a character someone they feel is worth trying for is key. But in order to understand what trying and being good look like in the biker world, we have to understand the parameters which we’re working within.
One thing that makes writing an outlaw biker romance difficult is that romances typically make the love story between the characters the most important aspect of both character’s worlds. Not only is that implausible in the outlaw biker culture, it disregards the core belief system of these clubs. These clubs, outlaw or not, only truly function when they treat one another as individuals and their club as the most important thing in their everyday life. Whoever you family is, whatever your job is, wherever you’re from, all becomes history and the club becomes your first priority. Outlaw or not, there’s great honor in standing beside someone and knowing you’d take a bullet for him/her and he/she’d take one for you. Not many cultures promote or allow for this kind of loyalty, whereas in outlaw biker culture, it’s mandatory. An outlaw biker protecting his brother (fellow patched club member) over a woman he just met IS being loyal in his world. Ideally, he could save them both. But making the choice to protect his club– whether that be an individual member or the entire unit– shouldn’t be seen as being anything less than loyal.
What makes romance work within the bounds of club life is that, unlike other criminal organizations, bikers are prone to inviting the women in their lives (Old Ladies) into a certain amount of club business. The women who are well-regarded within these organizations receive unparalleled respect and protection from patched members. A woman who achieves this status level within a club is considered family. If somebody picks a fight with a member’s Old Lady, he’s picking a fight with the entire club. It doesn’t matter if you like the guy’s wife/girlfriend or not. It also doesn’t matter if she was wrong. What matters is that you protect your own. Always.
Because of her station within the club, she may be treated very well or very poorly. Just like patched members, women in this lifestyle have to play by a certain set of rules. If she understands her place within the organization and is supportive of the club, she has a much better chance of having a positive experience. However, a woman who goes against the club is subject to similar penalties as that of a member. An in-house betrayal is a serious problem and is dealt with in-house. If her heartthrob bad boy uses her as a punching bag, it’s up to the club to rectify that, if they’re the kind of club that even would rectify an issue like that. And this is where the fiction comes in– I’m not going to glorify a man who beats his woman. I’m not going to glorify a rapist. I’m not going to try to convince anyone that the messed up stuff my characters do is excusable. I’m not in the business of justifying behaviors, I’m just telling a story.
I try to find the balance between what’s realistic and the story I want to tell by conceding certain things. Following the same thoughts as above, if a man cheats on every woman he’s ever been with, then surely he’s going to cheat on our heroine. I’m sorry if romance readers don’t like that, but I don’t see a way around it. So instead of writing a guy who’s cheated, I’m more inclined to write a guy who may be a murderer, a drug dealer, a pimp, but he’s always been faithful when he’s in a relationship. Or, if I must, I may hint at extracurricular activities, but never put it on the page. The part of romance that has always appealed to me is the lowest of the lows. How do these characters relate to one another, how do they interact, even when the absolute worst possible things are going on around them? If my bad-ass alpha male outlaw biker is in a screaming match with his girl, he may say the worst things imaginable to her, but he’s might not storm out and cheat on her. Or if he cheats on her, he may not yell at her. I don’t know that we can say that’s being “good” to her or not, but it’s the concession I make.
[Warning: possible Breaking Bad spoiler]
Being good to people means different things in different situations. In some worlds and situations it means saying please and thank you. In others, it means killing your stalker. And in some worlds, it means showing someone you love them by setting them free. I think what we saw during the Breaking Bad series finale was the ultimate act of redemption. For those who haven’t seen Breaking Bad, you might want to stop now. Though, I’ll try to avoid giving too much away. Walter White is a fifty year-old high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal, in-operable lung cancer. Already stretched to his financial limit by his disabled teenage son, and pregnant stay-at-home wife, Walt reaches his breaking point. At his lowest low, he makes choices which change who he is and the rest of his life with such magnitude that nobody in his path is unaffected by the consequences of his actions.
But what happens in the final episode brings us full circle to who he was in the first episode. Walt’s character doesn’t necessarily change throughout the series, but rather expands. We see him do all of these horrific things over the course of five seasons, and then at the very end, we see him try to right those wrongs. But again, keeping in mind the world he lives in, righting his wrongs is not done with an apology and a handshake. Walt doesn’t have the luxury of adhering to the social laws of mainstream society. But he does manage, in the most realistic way possible, to redeem himself. A man who I had given up on a few episodes prior, had me sniffling and cheering him on in the final moments. To me, that says that almost any character is redeemable.
Just like in outlaw biker circles, there are different rules that must be followed, not only out of respect for those around you, but to simply stay alive. It’s important that readers/viewers not expect an outlaw who lives beyond the bounds of what we consider decency to adhere to the mainstream systems of laws and beliefs. There are some behaviors which I think are universally unforgivable such as any kind of sexual assault. Murder, depending on the world and situation may even be acceptable. But the one characteristic I require of all my male leads is that they be loyal. Where their loyalty lies may be troubling for some. But I strive to always write characters and scenarios that feel genuine, regardless of how sometimes awful we may consider them to be.
You’ve met two of her characters briefly now. Go check them out. Ride
just received its 99th review on Amazon, so you’ll want come climb on and go for a spin. Find it on Amazon
, and Goodreads