Sarra Manning, UK author of many books for teens, including: the Diary of a Crush series, Guitar Girl, the Fashionistas series, Let's Get Lost, and Nobody's Girl.
Toxic boys – a field study and user's guideI write books for girls about girls. It's what I do and I've been doing it for, ooh, aeons. I like to think that all of my heroines are different, from everygirls like Brie in Pretty Things, Laura in Fashionistas and the star of my latest book, Bea from Nobody's Girl. Then there's gobby Fashionista Candy, misguided Molly, star of stage, screen and Guitar Girl and Isabel of Let's Get Lost, probably one of the meanest girls to ever appear in print (though it wasn't entirely her fault – she was going through stuff.)
by Sarra Manning
by Sarra Manning
Sure, my heroines all go on an emotional journey and learn important life lessons but they remain true to their own individual quirky characters. I hope that that the way I fall in love with each and every one of my heroines is apparent to my readers and that I'm creating believable, relate-able but aspirational female characters. Because after fifteen or so novels, it's hard for me to admit that when it comes to writing the XY chromosomally challenged I'm a one trick pony. Be they geeky boys, smirky boys, footie boys, art boys or snake-hipped boys with dreamy eyes and soft smiles; if they're locking lips with one of my heroines, they're toxic. I'm addicted to writing about toxic boys in the same that way that I can never have enough shoes or fancy stationery.
The toxic boy isn't all bad. He isn't exactly evil either. He's not immune to the charms of puppies and kittens and he's very likely to stand aside to let oldsters on the bus first. He'd never, ever physically hurt a girl but he doesn't mind causing them maximum heartache with the mind games and machinations that are the weapons in his arsenal.
Whether he's fictional or real, when you're in the company of a toxic boy, you always get a sick feeling of excitement in the pit of your stomach. Like, when you know you're doing something that could get you grounded but the thrill of doing it outweighs any punishment you're going to get. Even though you know that the toxic boy will break your heart into pieces just for the sheer hell of it, while he's at your side and giving you sultry looks and soul-deep kisses you stop listening to the voice of reason inside your head. And when you’re not with toxic boy, you feel just plain sick ‘cause he hasn't rung or the last time you saw him he was acting all weird with you. In the end, you become addicted to the toxic boy thrill. To the will he/won't he call angst. To the never knowing what stunt he's going to pull next. And you could go into romance rehab but you just don't want to. It's so much more fun than going out with a well-meaning good intentioned boy that your mother would approve of.
From James Dean and Jordan Catalano in My So Called Life to Mr Darcy and Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, I have worshipped at the shrine of the toxic boy for so long, it's little wonder that my books are littered with their ilk. How do I know my leading men are toxic? After much scientific survey and examining of raw data, I have come up with a handy list.
By these signs you shall know him
- They smirk. They occasionally sneer, even allow a cruel smile to play along their lips, but mostly they smirk.
- They can all arch one eyebrow because a toxic boy without an arched eyebrow is like a day without sunshine, Marc without Jacobs, Baileys without ice.
- They all have a radar which enables them to appear just as one of my heroines is doing something embarrassing like having a hissy fit at her mother (Edie from Diary Of A Crush,) being drunk and standing on top of a table in a club (Hadley in Fashionistas) while in my grown-up book, Unsticky, Vaughn caught Grace doing something so embarrassing, I blush as I try to recall the details.
- They prey on my heroines' weaknesses and sneakily use them to their own advantage. I'm thinking about the way Dean muscled his way into The Hormones in Guitar Girl because he played on the girls' insecurities about their lack of musicianship.
- They make my poor girls wait. Like, they know they're a crush object, and they're crushing on my girls equally hard, but instead of doing something about it, they blow hot and cold. One minute, they're kissing my heroines into the middle of next week (toxic boys always seem to be really good kissers - it's all part of their diabolical masterplan), the next they're blanking them when they see them in HMV. Dylan in Diary Of A Crush, I'm talking about you.
I felt deeply ashamed of my literary output. I am a card-carrying feminist. I read Speculum Of The Other Woman at University (and understood about half of it) I pride myself on writing books with strong female characters who aren't perfect, but they're not pushovers either. Even the seemingly dippiest of my heroines like Brie in Pretty Things or Hadley from Fashionistas possess a steely inner core.
But then I realised, with the help of my Tweeters, that my heroines weren't transformed by their toxic boy love into sappy, giggling girls. As Ali, Flo, Kay and countless others reminded me bending a toxic boy to their will, was a challenge my heroines were happy to take on. "They had to figure the toxic boys out, it made loving them interesting," was one comment. "Underneath their toxicity was a vulnerability that made them worth it. They were all gorgeous walking bags of issues."
Of course, as is the way of these things, by the end of each of my books, my hero and heroine have resolved their issues, learnt some important lessons about love and life and get a sort-of happy ending. And that was the part that my readers really objected to because in fiction, the toxic boy just needs the love of a good woman or needs to be slapped down by a toxic girl who can beat him at his own game. In real life, it doesn't quite work like that.
My friend, Abby McDonald, author of The Popularity Rules and Life Swap, took me to task because, 'You gave us with the promise that bad boys were actually deep and brooding underneath + that we would "die from their kisses!"' As if that was a bad thing. While Miss Believer claimed, "You're the reason I am now living with a scruffy haired musician arty type who never tidies up & leaves guitar strings everywhere. It was so romantic in the books!"
I think Rowan summed it up when she said, "This is where all my men misconceptions arise from; those happily ever afters."
But if I've perpetrated the myth of the toxic boy who can be redeemed by love it's because I too overdosed on the happily ever afters as I devoured my mother's Georgette Heyer novels in my formative years.
Ultimately the toxic boy is a beautiful illusion when he's safely contained in the pages of a book. It's when he's a real live boy who doesn't call, doesn't write, doesn't Tweet, then saunters back into your arms when you've finally given up all hope, that he's really dangerous.
Box off: TOXIC BOYS I HAVE LOVED
Sebastian from Lorna Hill's Sadlers Wells' books
I loved these books when I was a kid because they contained the three things I loved the most; horses, ballet and great descriptions of food. But they also introduced me to another enduring love; that of the toxic boy in the slim, tall form of Sebastian Scott with his shock of black hair, blue eyes and, this is very important, long, expressive fingers because he played the piano and grew up to be a composer and a conductor. (An orchestra conductor not a bus conductor.) He was also frequently described as sardonic, and I'm pretty sure he's been the template for every boy I've ever loved or written about since.
Jordan Catalano from My So-Called Life
The slacker king of the toxic boys. Jordan was quite happy to snog Angela's face off in the boiler room but holding her hand while they walked through the school? Quite another thing. Plus he was really good at acting like he couldn't care less and was always talking about his car, his crappy band and how going out with Angela would do his head in. Hmmm, smells like toxic boy to me.
Mr Darcy from Pride And Prejudice
The archetypal toxic boy or, to be more accurate, toxic man in possession of a good fortune. "He expressed no regret for what he had done which satisfied her; his style was not penitent, but haughty. It was all pride and insolence."
Mr Big from Sex And The City
Proof that toxic boys don't necessarily grow up and grow out of it. Rarely seen without a smirk on his face, Mr Big took the art of evasion to scary places where it was never meant to go but he did it so charmingly that we much preferred him to nice guy Aidan.
Maxim de Winter from Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
For starters, he's called Maxim. Toxic boys should always have exotic names and not names like Kevin, Wayne or Barry. And secondly, he proposes to the second Mrs de Winter by saying harshly, "I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool."