True confession: I don’t love alpha heroes.
Sometimes I do, don’t get me wrong. Like so many before me, I fell in love with romance in guise of one Sebastian Ballister, Marquess of Dain, from Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. In my head, Dain looks like Gaston from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, only unlike that cad, he’s really very smart, which only makes him sexier. Beyond his brains, Dain is arrogant, selfish, and rakish. He behaves utterly irrationally more than infrequently — like the mewling man-child with very serious mommy and daddy issues that he is. I don’t really know how or why the eminently reasonable Jessica Trent put up with him, but such is love.
In addition to a number of other Chase alphas, I have found space in my heart for William Doyle from The Forbidden Rose, Brayden Carmichael from On Dublin Street, Edward de Raaf from The Raven Prince, John Moray from The Winter Sea, and Sir Percy Blakeney from The Scarlet Pimpernel. Several of these are alphas in disguise and I’m certain that there are others I could add to the list, probably some of whom are obvious cases.
But just as in real life, I’d take Henry Tilney over Fitzwilliam Darcy, in romance, I really do love a good beta hero. Alex Moore from Anyone But You, Theo Mirkwood from A Lady Awakened, Mark Turner from Unclaimed, and Peeta Mellark from The Hunger Games are just a few who come to mind.
I like heroes who are nerds. I like heroes who challenge traditional masculinity. I like heroes who struggle. I like heroes who are imperfect. I like heroes who are funny. I like heroes who are more than a little vulnerable. I like heroes who would help you vacuum the floor (unlike Shy Cage from Own the Wind, whose manliness is evidently endangered by housework).
Now these traits aren’t necessarily incommensurate with alpha-ness. I’m certain we could come up with alphas who do these things, but also exert the amalgamation of leadership, suppressed emotion, physical strength, and willingness to resort to violence/threats of violence to achieve their goals (i.e., how I would define the alpha).
I get that we don’t necessarily read to realize our fantasies, whatever those might be. I get also that even when we are reading to realize our fantasies, it’s a safe exploration of things that we often would never want in real life. But whereas we do celebrate diversity in heroines (behold, the awesome-looking Heroine Week), heroes often seem to come in three flavors: alpha, ultra alpha, and alpha-lite. The betas, and the nerds, and the “where does this guy go?” are notable because they don’t fit the pattern.
At the end of the day, we’re willing to forgive alphas quite a lot. Some of them engage in some pretty obsessive behavior vis-a-vis the heroines. Some engage in forcible seduction. Some disgard mistresses like paper napkins for the heroine. Some kill. Some lie. Some are thieves and gamblers and grave-robbers. But they seem to find fans more quickly than heroes who equivocate or show weakness.
When I fell in love with romance, part of what I was responding to seemed to be the argument that we all deserve love. (And also hot sex. Let’s not forget the hot sex.) Also that anyone can be redeemed and that love is an important part of that process. As I read more in the genre, however, I become less and less certain this is true or at least realized. Narrowness in romance, whether in hero preference or in the lack of racial diversity in mainstream romance, blunts the most powerful and subversive potential in the genre.
I’m currently working on drafting two projects, a sequel to Brave in Heart and a sequel to The Easy Part, as well as editing The Easy Part. The Brave in Heart sequel features a definite alpha, really the most alpha hero I’ve ever written. The Easy Part hero is an alpha with layers. The Easy Part sequel hero is a beta. So there’s diversity in my writing just as in my reading. But I wonder very much about whether anyone else will love my weird heroes like I do.