Against Alpha Heroes

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.

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7 thoughts on “Against Alpha Heroes

  1. Reading this over, I’m realizing that it sounds a bit defensive or passive aggressive, which wasn’t my intent at all. I started writing it last week before Brave in Heart released and before I saw that some people didn’t respond well to Theo (a definite beta). If he doesn’t work for readers, surely the fault is with my writing and not trends in the genre. I meant for this post to be a general, not a specific, statement and to contextualize my current writing projects.

    Cheers!

  2. Even though I’ve done it before, I really dislike the trend of labelling a hero an alpha or a beta. We’re talking about characters here, not a wolf pack. (And my personal bugaboo, the caretaker alpha. “Oh, I’m supposed to do as you say without question because you have my best interests at heart? Well, OK, then, I’ll just pop into the kitchen and make you a sammich!”)
    I think that that labeling heroes this way really limits how we can discuss and define our characters. There’s more to a hero’s character than if he’s just an alpha or a beta (or at least, there should be).
    For example, I don’t think that Dain is an alpha or a beta–he’s just a very well drawn character. And I think the reason why he and Jessica work so well together is that he wants to be managed, and she wants someone to manage. (I know many couples like this in real life, so this paring makes perfect sense to me.)
    Of course, the current hero I’m working on would probaby be defined as an alpha, but I personally think he’s kind of weird. :)

    • Oh yes, the alpha/beta distinction is incredibly reductive. (The use of nature as aspirational model for human behavior is also like the opposite of the pathetic fallacy, which is sort of funny.) It is, however, a schema that seems particularly…operative, maybe? Readers do use it to understand texts even doing so reifies a fictional construct — a simulacra. Which is precisely what I did in this bit of hyperbole here. ; )

      Obviously this isn’t an argument “against” the alpha. Of course I’m going to respond to a well-written character, even if he’s also a big, strong leader who’s going to do what it takes to get his way. But I sometimes feel like heroes are allowed less latitude than heroines, which is really what I wanted to get at.

      Heroines don’t have it easy, for sure. “Unlikeable” heroines (whatever that even means) are controversial and you’ll always see someone complaining that they’re floozies or bitches or selfish or too quirky or whatever. But I can think of way more mainstream romances with atypical heroines than atypical heroes.

      It’s like that Luce Irigaray essay “The Sex Which is Not One”: I’m really feeling the monolithic straightjacket of masculinity lately in romance.

      • Simulacra or simulacrum? It should be simulacrum, right? That’s singular. Did Frederic Jameson make an error in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism? Because if so, that’s awesome.

  3. Pingback: Happy 100th Post! | Emma Barry

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