Writing an Alpha Hero in the Age of the Dickhead

I have a problem with the Alpha hero and it just got a lot worse.

You may not have noticed this, but there are a lot of powerful creeps out there–Weinstein, Rose, Moore, Franken (break my heart, you bastard)–and a lot of people pointing out that “good-old-boy” does not mean “molests women and children” (and men, just ask Terry Crews).  So of course  now is when I wander into Alpha hero territory, and I’m trying to figure out how to do this because “Alpha hero” often means “Dickhead,” especially the ones from seventies who did a lot of “Whoops, sorry, I though you were a whore and that’s why I raped you” stuff.   Sarah Wendell, quoted here, says of Alpha heroes, “Not only are they super powerful, controlling, authoritative — and also often shirtless — they take care of everything.”   I can go with that definition, it’s the “let me force myself upon you because your body is something I deserve” that makes me want to kill them all.   Yeah, if you touched her without a go-ahead, you’re a Dickhead.

And now I’ve written myself into a situation where I have to write  a Dickhead an Alpha hero.

Spoilers about Nita follow, but if you read this blog, you’re already spoiled, so what the hell.  

Act One is Nita and Nick meeting and trying to get their respective jobs done in opposition to each other, and Act Two is working together and becoming partners, Nita getting spookier and Nick becoming more human.  In Act Three, though, Nick becomes so human he regresses back to what  he was when he was alive: a rich, arrogant, powerful, dangerous young man with no boundaries.  This is a recipe for Dickhead, so I already had a problem keeping Nick sympathetic in this act.  Then Trump bragged about grabbing small, furry body parts, and Moore started asking mothers if he could date their junior high daughers, and Franken decided that preying on sleeping colleagues would be funny and took a picture (“It’s a JOKE.”  No, Al, it’s disgusting and you’re a creep) and all of a sudden, the Alpha hero is walking a very thin line.

That line has always been there, of course.  Some of my favorite heroes have crossed it; I’m thinking Devil’s Cub where the hero assumes the heroine is a loose woman trying to trap him into marriage and tries to rape her and she shoots him, which makes him realize, as he bleeds out, that he assumed wrong.  It’s not enough that he apologizes on the point of death, but it’s something.  (He lives and adores her for the rest of his long life.  Still a potential rapist, though.  Dickhead.)  I used to see that line crossed all the time when I read unpublished manuscripts.  I think it was a combination of the writers wanting the heroine to have great sex without seeming like a slut (something my heroines never worry about, sluts all of them) and wanting to get to the good stuff fast.  I remember one manuscript where the hero got on an elevator, met the heroine for the first time, and groped her.  The writer of that one was not amused when I pointed out that he could be arrested for that and the heroine should have slapped the shit out of him.  Another paranormal had a vampire hero casting some kind of spell on the heroine and then having great sex with her so when she woke up, she didn’t remember any of it.  I said, “That’s RAPE,” and the writer was offended.  Well, so was I.  (Yeah, not a fan of the seventies romance novel, but YMMD.)

So the whole “do not put hands on someone else’s body unless that person has indicated great interest in having hands applied” seems antithetical to an Alpha hero, and I’m going to have to deal with that.  No, Nita will have to deal with that.  Which she will.  Nita also embraces her anger in Act Three, so that should be fun.  (It’s already fun, actually, I have part of Act Three written, including a scene that ends with Nita saying, “I’m going to go kick a Higher Power in the nether region.”  I am enjoying this book.)  But the truth is, she shouldn’t have to.  He should know to keep his hands to himself, and if he doesn’t, he’s a Dickhead.  So I have a Dickhead Hero in the third act.  

BUT–and I think this will be the key–he also has to be smart.  Skilled.  Competence porn in the flesh.  And a smart guy does not grope, or at least learns really fast not to grope.  That’s one of the things that just floors me about all these weasels in the news: How could they possibly have thought that this stuff was okay?  I know they knew they could get away with it, but how could intelligent men have thought, “If I behave this way, I will not be damaging my reputation and destroying professional relationships.”  How could they be so fucking STUPID?  

I do not want a stupid hero.  So Nick is going to have to be a fast learner, which he is.  And Nita is going to have to kick his ass all the way through the third act, which she will.  It’ll be Burn the Patriarchy to the Ground Day for the whole act.  That’ll be fun.







139 thoughts on “Writing an Alpha Hero in the Age of the Dickhead

  1. I just caught the tail end of a QI ep with Sandy Toksvig where they mention the debunked Alpha wolf theory. So I had to go looking into it. I love that this researcher realised that captivity changes the behaviour sufficiently and has spent much time and effort since then debunking the theory. http://www.davemech.org/news.html

    As for Alpha heroes, they can be powerful without needing to be overpowering or disempowering of others. Nick was a young, powerful dick from a patriarchal society so it stands to reason he’d revert to type when memory fails.

    Maybe it’s Lord of the Flies, we revert to savage archetype when isolated from trappings that only work with etiquette of self control?

    I wonder if I’d be a good person in a fraught and distressing situation. Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning says that those men who survived the concentration camp were “not the best of us” – paraphrased.

    Ok. My bedtime. Time zone appropriate salutations to all.

  2. Found the ref after I hit submit, don’tcha know.

    “We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles –whatever one may cover too call them– we know: the best of us did not return.”
    Viktor E Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning. 2008 edition. Rider books.

  3. I’ve always assumed that men like that don’t see women/most other people as their equals; we’re not fully human to them. This is how I experienced, for example, my uncle when I was in my teens and twenties, telling me that what would make me happy was getting married and having children. He was convinced the only point of educating women was so they could bring up their children better. He regretted helping me to buy a flat; he said if he hadn’t done so I’d have found a man, since otherwise I’d have been homeless.

    If I tried to explain what actually made me happy, he’d just contradict me. So he was generous and fond of me, but couldn’t see that I might know myself better than he did. Perhaps there’s some mileage in the ‘positive’ (if infuriating) aspects of the alpha male?

    1. I think that’s a product of an earlier era. Contrary to Weinstein, that era did not condone sexual harassment, but it did define women as lesser, and I think that idea pervades today. The nephew of a friend of mine once told me his plans for after high school, which included getting a good job, a truck, and a nice car to take the wife places. The wife seemed like it was part of the list with the job, truck, and car. Things you obtain to show you have reached adulthood. And then there’s the whole “scoring” bit, convincing somebody to sleep with you as putting points on a board, winning, the Alpha thing again. It’s seeing women as part of the overall game of being a man. Your uncle was upset because he took you out of the game, not realizing it wasn’t a game you wanted to play. It wasn’t your game anyway, it was his fellow man’s, and the only place you had in that game was as a wife, so when you wouldn’t play that role, you lost his game. His failing wasn’t just not seeing you, it was not seeing that the game is only reality for some people.

      I’ve always thought that the huge anger so many men have for women is because we refuse to play by the rules of their game. They think we’re cheating, hiding cards, refusing to give them their turns, when we’re really saying,”That’s a dumb game, not gonna play it.”

        1. That’s a phenomenal essay.

          And I really like the take-away: You didn’t know what you were doing was wrong? Fine, then you’re too dumb to hold a position of power.

      1. Thanks for explaining the anger part. I kept thinking that, surely, not THAT many men could have had bad Mother’s.

  4. I see Alpha as a combination of competence and willingness to act. An Alpha doesn’t hesitate to step in and solve a problem because a) they can see a solution and b) they aren’t going to wait around for someone else to do it. So far so good and a great deal of what I find attractive in men.

    The problem with the archetype is that it is frequently conflated with a view of other people as problems to solve. So you have “Alphas” who will manipulate and force others to their will because they “know what is best.” This is an aspect of evil–seeing others as items to be used rather than as having as much dignity and autonomy as yourself. This isn’t a given for an Alpha (as I understand the term above) and I kind of hate that it is. I have no trouble imagining an Alpha who can see another and provide advice and services and resources without having to step over the will/ego/initiative of another. This type make excellent partners because they don’t diminish or override, but rather enhance and extend. And I really hope I start seeing more of this type in story because heaven knows our current crop of entertainers and politicians aren’t fit.

    1. I think the competence and willingness to act is also a component of the beta hero, the guy who doesn’t need to be the boss to fix things.

      I like the observation of seeing other people as problems to solve. I think in Alpha male heroes that extends to people as things to conquer and obtain, establish mastery over, and that’s where I hit the wall. The problem with the Alpha as I see it is that mastery bit. The Alpha doesn’t form partnerships, and in good love stories, the romance ends as a partnership. The minute the Alpha sees the other half of the relationship as an equal, he’s not the Alpha in the relationship. He’d been defined out of the archetype.

      1. It sounds like we might need new ways to frame heros? Alpha and beta are misnomers and outdated research, as seen above. I think shorthand is a hazard, and stepping out and around it will make all these stories stronger.

        1. I aggree with Lee. I never really thought of Alpha and Beta out of a wolfpack until I started reading romance.

        2. I agree. I love a great strong hero, but I prefer to try and make mine more nuanced and hopefully the story a little more interesting. There are a few great masters of the alpha male hero (Anne Stuart comes to mind) and she, for me, pulls it off, but I think if you want your hero to be both believable, larger than life and someone the reader also falls for, then we writers need to paint outside the box. That’s what works, and also walk within your own moral code while also thinking of the young girls who might read your book.

          Like Jenny says, I’ve also had some disagreements when reading unpublished manuscripts to edit for other writers about some of the things that they have their hero (not to mention the stuff the heroine says and forgives about the man) do.

          But the ‘outside the box’ is what makes Jenny’s characters shine. The men are strong, and so are the women and it’s a bit of a twister game to get into the right places. But I do also like having a character on that dangerous line and redeeming them, both through their own actions and growing moral code, as well as the humanising effect falling in love with me…erm, the heroine, creates.

          At the heart of a romance is fantasy. It’s not real life, but it should be a life we’d all like to escape into, for a little while. But with our fantasy we create, we owe it to our readers to step up and be strong, and make our heroes as three D as we can, and if we push them into the dark side, also make sure they can be redeemed and also they don’t do the wrong sort of vile thing.

          I do think a strong, alpha man (perhaps not in the alpha way we’ve been discussing as alpha) can mean strong, even arrogant, but a man strong enough in his own skin to take on and end up partnering with a woman who is just as strong in whatever way the writer makes that happen.

          I may have lost my own plot here. Carry on.

          1. I find it so very hard to stick to the point during these discussions! There are so many different kinds of men, and so many different kinds of women, and the intersections are crazy-amazing. (Or not.) For every point I make, I can think of a couple (fictional or real-life) who have done the opposite and somehow carried it off (or not).

            The terms Alpha and Beta have become so diffuse it’s really hard to use them as meaningful terms of discussion. What is it that is attractive about forceful sex? I guess I like it when a love scene shows that they are consenting to each other, but not consenting to the timing or social pressures or some sort of false construct of ideals and pride. That sounds dangerously close to The Stupid Misunderstanding, but I guess I’m talking about something else — false values, such as prizing a stodgy job over throwing caution to the winds and trusting that the universe will provide something of equal or better value if one just rolls with it.

            (And yeah, I know in real life, tossing away a good job for a rowdy weekend in Vegas is a real gamble — it might work out like a romance novel, or it might wind up in the unemployment line with a partner who turns out to be an unstable jerk.)

            LOL, see? So easy to go off on tangents with this discussion.

  5. Can a strong male lead be strong (and smart and capable) without being an asshole? I’m going to say yes, although sometimes strong people step on other people’s toes inadvertently (see: I know better, above). But none of that has to be done by having them force themselves on women in any way.

    That being said, yes, it is hard these days to write the male romantic lead without thinking. “But he kisses her without asking…” Oy.

    1. Oh, I think so. There’s nothing in strong, smart, and capable that says “jerk.” It’s the “I am the master of all I survey,” the Ozymandias hero. There’s nothing wrong with power, I’m even good with arrogance, as long as there’s a willingness to cooperate, a respect for other people. I like a cocky hero who thinks he’s got it taped and then meets the heroine and gets cut off at the knees, but then I like a strong heroine who has no time for cocky men until the hero shows her he’s strong, smart, and capable, and she falls.

      I like flawed characters, I think good characters are always flawed, but you have to pick the flaws carefully. I don’t like selfish, stupid, narcissistic characters who use their power to hurt others for their own satisfaction. I don’t even like that kind of character as an antagonist; they’re not interesting.

      1. I think of the alpha hero as being like a leader. So he could be Obama. A figurehead, good example, brings out the best in people sort out of guy. But it sounds like you want this man to have some characteristics to demonstrate that he’s out of time, which is different. So his attitude to women could be that he ought to try to look after them. He gets the brush off and learns. There are a lot of assumptions a time traveller from the past would make about current society. It’s not that he’s a dickhead but that he’s been raised differently and needs to acclimatise.

        1. I think you can be a leader without being an Alpha. I don’t think Obama is an alpha male. Trump is an alpha male, he’s just really, really bad at it. John Kelly is probably a better example of a successful Alpha male, but I’ve had it with him, too.

      2. Christian Grey is awful. He’s entirely the cardboard cutout elephant in the room bully/stalker alpha man in suave clothing.

        Darcy you want to smack but somehow you end up falling for him, anyway, because the man really didn’t know what to do when blindsided by Lizzy.

        I know, I know, they’re not at all the same characters/situations, but if you switched them, you know (once Darcy got that stick out and loosened up a little, so to speak) he’d play it all different. He’d muck it up outside the bedroom/play room, but in there, it would be right.

        Lizzy would write Grey off in minutes and he’d become a minor character.

        I guess I’m trying to say one is good writing and characterisation, and the other is not.

        A narcissistic hero is a man that wandered out of his psychological horror novel and into the wrong pages. And anyone who has grown up with those type of people…well, you don’t need to meet them in the pages of a book or on a screen. Give me something else, please.

        But yes. Flawed right in a multi-layered character is great reading. Even when they irritate you, they stay with you. Love them, loathe them. Both those options are better than meh. Tepid in a reading experience is the kiss of death.

        I do get the pain, though, with navigating these new social waters in writing these books. With each new thing that happens, you look at your manuscript and wonder if you’ve done something wrong and are sending the wrong message out there.

        I don’t think you do at all, but it pleases me you think about it and also question it. That means something complex and wonderful will happen. And it’s okay for the reader to not like the hero at times. As long as it’s for the right reasons. And as long as you make them fall in love with him. Easy peasy.

        1. oh, after my rather too long essays, I thought I’d mention if anyone hasn’t heard of it, the podcast http://guiltyfeminist.com/ is excellent. It’s funny, poignant, and they do really come up with some stuff to think about.

          I’d love to hear one about feminism and romance novels.

  6. I know that you’ll figure it out.
    Pre-JC I read a couple romances out of desperation (once I was trying to hide out at a house-party filled with super critical women etc., and that was the only book available; and once I was really sick but working in the bush (covering for someone–her truck and her book) and it was the only thing that didn’t involve a lot of brain power. I avoided all romance novels like the plague after almost vomiting after reading scenes where the men pretty much forced themselves on women, but hey, they were good in bed, so she liked it AND changed themselves for the men. (Gah. Gagging as I write this, and it’s been years!)
    Anyhoo, I was cruising my library for some books to take to work, and came across Faking It, which was stamped as General Fiction. I loved it. Then I went to the library in the northern town where I was working and searched out more JC. They stamped your books as Romance. I almost cried. But I had some faith and signed them out anyway, and I am now an addict of (well-written) romance.
    So if anyone can do it, you can.

  7. This is akin to an argument I struggle with – if it’s ok for them, in that time or place, does that make it OK? (my view, of course it bloody doesn’t – but then we run up against cultural imperialism). So, for maybe a less controversial example – an older family member thinks it’s ridiculous that kids carseats are compulsory until kids are 7. In her day, the kids slid along the vinyl-covered back seat, baby tucked in the front passenger seat footwell, no problems. That was normal. But could any moderately intelligent person turn and look at the back seat and think ‘hmm, if we crash, those kids are going to fly right through the front windscreen…maybe a seatbelt would be a good idea.’ My dad did. We were the only kids at school in boosters, it was embarrassing.

    I know it’s a different argument to intentionally hurting or degrading someone and not thinking twice – and it’s not an excuse – but if the world is set up to tell you your actions are right, how many people are going to say ‘hang on a minute here’. If my older relative had lost a child in a crash, would we judge her now for poor choices made then? Maybe yes, maybe no…it gets even difficult when the analogy is extended to other examples.

    I think my great-nana’s generation asked of the one before ‘and they didn’t let women vote because…?’ and my generation asks ‘you really thought being gay was a crime? Wtf?’. I wonder what my kids generation will look back on mine and wonder at our stupidity for. It will probably be ‘why the hell didn’t you take care of the planet, it’s the only place we have to live’.

    If people have it pointed out to them, they can change (like Nick). My dad for instance, ‘we really though being gay was a crime. What the hell was I thinking?’ Or not ‘car seats until 7? nanny-state’. Should we judge actions based on our time, place, and sense of right?

    1. There’s a whole spectrum of things there, but it comes down to, “Were they ignorant or cruel?” It’s dumb not to put seat belts on, and it took education to get us there. But if you touch somebody and she doesn’t like it, cries, pulls back, says no, and you keep going, you’re cruel.

      I think the same about homophobia. I come from a conservative little town, and I said something once about how awful it must have been to be gay there, and my mother, not the most open-minded person, was offended because there were gay couples living peacefully in town. They weren’t out, but everybody knew the two bachelors or the two old maids were partners and left them alone because they were neighbors. That doesn’t mean the town wasn’t ignorant or that that was an ideal situation, but you weren’t cruel to people. So much of what we’re talking about today is just cruel. These guys know they’re stepping over a line and they don’t care. Al Franken’s getting a picture taken with a constituent and he reaches down and grabs her ass; there’s no way he doesn’t know that’s out of bounds, that’s why he does it.

      I can forgive ignorance, especially when people are willing to learn. I cannot forgive that smug cruelty that fuels so much sexual harassment.

      1. They know today, but maybe Nick didn’t. Because what if they don’t pull away, or cry, or say no, because society has taught her that’s her place, and her correct response is to give in to it?

        1. In this case, I don’t think that was true (I think Renaissance women knew they had to marry who they were told to, but I don’t think they ever thought they had to let men paw them in general). Certainly there are societies like that, though.

          1. Which renaissance women? I think serving women were expected to shut up and accept.

            I’m not sure whether the idea that women who got raped were somehow responsible for it back then but I do think noblewomen were always supposed to have family or maids with them and that was about sexual protection.

        2. Oh, this comment sparked a thought: Nick has forgotten how to eat. Nita had to educate him in the ways of yolk and buttered toast. Maybe he’s forgotten how to have physical relations, as well, and needs careful instruction?

          1. It’s not that he’s forgotten how to eat, it’s that he’s getting familiar with food and the idea of enjoying it.
            So he knows how to have to sex, he’s just forgotten what it feels like, and if you don’t have that impetus, sex is frankly pretty ridiculous.

  8. I think that we can all be assholes sometimes, so some of it in an Alpha hero is forgivable (especially if he is acting out of an emotional place). I also see them as usually needing a lot of control over their lives which can read as insecure.

    And in a fair amount of modern romances, the heroine slaps it out of him by the end. All good.

    But in real life? Yes, I believe that we live in a rape culture, so it is important for our fiction to reflect a higher standard for us.

    I really like Georgette Heyer’s more dastardly heros. The one from Behold, Here’s Poison always struck me as snaky and smart without being an alpha-hole. I have been avoiding spoilers for the most part, so I don’t know where Nick is at entirely, but I could imagine a devilish hero to be more con-man than bruiser. Elizabeth Hoyt has a nice one too in Duke of Sin. But then I love a redeemable villain…

    1. Randall is rude, but the people he’s rude to ask for it, and he never hurts anyone. In fact, he works harder than anybody in the book to protect everything in there by trying to keep the killer from being caught. He’s probably the only really intelligent character in the whole book–the heroine is kind of a wet kleenex–and he’s definitely the most thoughtful. I don’t see him as dastardly at all, although I’ll give you amoral.

      1. He’s moral. His moral goal is to protect the family at all costs. He even protects his uncle in law from exposure and his aunt from the knowledge that her husband is cheating.

        I am going to dispute one thing you said. Vidal does not assume Mary is a cheap woman trying to trick him into marriage- Mary acts the part of one and claims to be one to give him a disgust of her sister and hopefully save her sister’s virtue. He makes a mistake but Mary does too.

        And then she shoots him. I love Heyer heroines because a lot of the time, they rescue themselves.

          1. She does say no, and fairly clearly. But that’s after she pretends to be her sister only coarser.

            I loved the fact that she was so innocent, she thought pretending to be coarse would disgust him.

  9. On a scale of 1-10, how mandatory is it that Nick be *that* kind of asshole? Because if the book has to wander into that territory, I can imagine a lot of books being thrown into the wall in the next few years.

    1. As Kay said, he’s going back the 1500’s, so there are going to be some cultural assumptions that grate. But he’s not going to rape or take pleasure in cruelty. He’ll be arrogant and thoughtless, but he’ll adapt pretty quickly, plus there are plot events that have a big impact. It’s the Master of the Universe bit, you just sit down there and let me handle this, little lady, that I’m trying to figure out how to handle. Although that in itself might be fun. There is that trope of the hero who assumes one thing and gets his ass handed to him and learns from it.

  10. In the times the Borgias lived in, his background and upbringing all means he won’t conform to modern values, you can’t change history and Nita will want to smack him at first, but he is very smart and he will want to be with Nita so he will learn very fast. You can’t make someone change, but sometimes they are willing to change.

    1. That’s what I’m planning on. Also there’s other stuff going on that helps in a really fast evolution.

      I keep thinking brains will take care of a lot of it. “This isn’t working, so I’m going to stop doing that.” Of course the problem is real life with these jerks is that it was working for them. Until suddenly it wasn’t.

      1. Brains, basic decency, manners, love, family

        I know you’re not doing his back story, but from what I remember his mother was an incredible woman, that helps too.

        Power is important to, he doesn’t have power over her, She’s a cop from a powerful family with supportive siblings

        1. Yes, absolutely on his mother.
          Power . . . he can travel between worlds and smite and he’s lethal with a sword and his hands, so he’s still got the edge. Nita won’t kill people, she has lines she draws. He doesn’t.

        2. That was my memory too. His mother was a powerful and an artist – at a time when women were not artists. If you want a non dickhead, think of this. His mother was a mistress and the mother of a bastard in a society where women got blamed for that. Nick would have watched her being shamed and abused for her relationship with the Pope. He may be alpha (for lack of a better word) yet still be fighting how the world treated his mama.

          I know it’s a stereotype but Italian men used to be known for how they valued their mothers. Look at Sinatra who I believed divided the world into women he slept with and women he admired. My guess is its harder to find a bigger dickhead than Sinatra at his worst.

          1. A mistress of the Pope doesn’t get shamed. Pope Alexander VI had several mistresses, acknowledged all of his many children and everybody treated his mistresses with respect, or else.

          2. Well, his mother was so far out of the mainstream that having a bastard wouldn’t have had much effect. She was conwoman who was half black (Moorish), so at that point, seducing a cardinal to get her father out of trouble wasn’t much of a stretch.

          3. His mistresses were mainly married to other noblemen. The mothers of his famous children were ladies and married well.

            He has several children where their mothers are unknown. So like many royalty, I think noble born mistress have almost an official title and the rest of the women are treated well only in passing.

            He does seem to have been good to his children.

  11. I can see Nick going into Machiavelli territory, but powerful women were (best I recall) respected so I don’t think he’s going to go all Weinstein, not with HER.

    1. He woudn’t go Weinstein, but he would go Master of the Universe and try to overrun her wishes. He’s not a rapist, definitely.

      1. Trouble is he wouldn’t be a rapist because it’s not rape. Not for most of history.

        Because we don’t own our own bodies. We belong to someone – a father, a husband, a brother, the church, the temple and the crime of rape is seen as one man despoiling the possession of another man. We can like Heloise be fully on board with sleeping with a man and the man can still be found guilty of rape because our opinion doesn’t count. We can scream our bloody heads off and not have a legal leg to stand on because our father/brother/husband told his liege lord we’d be happy to sleep with him. Abelard is guilty of rape; unknown liege lord is not because one had permission and the other did not.

        I’m sure Nick’s not an asshole or a dickhead but we are talking about historical periods where it doesn’t even occur to men that unmarried women with a sexual history could say no. I’m not sure how much it occurred to the women that they had a legitimate right to say no. Especially if they had a sexual history. Heck if you’ve ever seen Where the Boys Are, she doesn’t think she has the right to say no and that’s 1960.

        Nick thinking that Nita might say no – might have the right to say no -may be far more disorienting to him on a gut level than just no.

  12. I like the concept of the alpha as problem solver-that is power used for good and hopefully for the benefit of the heroine and not to “fix” her.
    The protective alpha still works for me especially since I read a fair number of paranormals and it’s a common characteristic in that genre. The “I will protect you at all costs” alpha male gives the female lead a way to push back and assert herself.

    The 70s alphahole is gone for good, I hope. But a powerful male using those powers for good and for her is still a compelling trope and one I’d hate to lose completely.

    She’d still better win though.

    1. I think Lee’s right, that we need a better way to frame heroes. The Alpha male is a product of patriarchy, and I’m with Pooh: Burn it down. I keep reading Book Bub blurbs and the number of the stories that are framed as Alpha males protecting poor little women in danger makes me ill. I suppose it’s a good trope for a lot of people, but I like the idea of the hero who will protect the heroine he respects, but make sure she needs the help first, and very few Alpha heroes in fiction or film will do that. You have to find a hero who doesn’t define himself as a rescuer, who doesn’t need to be the guy in charge who saves the day as an identity. I’m not a Mel Gibson fan, but was it the second Lethal Weapon where he leans against the wall and watches Rene Russo take out several bad guys, and all he ever says is something like “That’s my girl” to somebody next to him. He respects her enough NOT to fight for her. Same with Fiona on Burn Notice; she’s more dangerous than Michael any day and he knows it; he does not see his identity as her protector. Or Shaw or Root on Person of Interest. Okay, those are all cops or agents or people with training, but I get so tired of the “get out of the way and let me handle this” hero, especially since the heroine has to be an idiot so often to give him something to do.

      Bob and I talked about this a lot on Agnes, because obviously Shane was a killer and Agnes was a cook. But it was important that Shane defeated his bad guy and Agnes took out hers, no hero coming in to save her. He gets to the kitchen in time to call the emergency squad, but Agnes takes out her Big Bad. It has to be the same for Nita, Nick has to step back and let her save herself; if he doesn’t, he doesn’t trust or respect her as an equal, and without that respect and sense of equality, the partnership is never going to last.

      Maybe that’s what I don’t like about it in romance, even though it’s a huge trope: What happens when she insists on doing things herself? At what point does she wake up in the middle of the night and smother him with a pillow because it’s the only way she can stop him from running her life?

      1. I’m probably not framing this correctly but I was thinking more in terms of Patricia Briggs or Ilona Andrews paranormals where the protectiveness means he has her back. He loves and respects her power and she does the same. If he’s powerful there has to be some level of equality/respect or it doesn’t work. I agree it’s tricky. I know it when I read it-I can’t imagine how difficult it is to actually write it!

        1. I think it’s that “respects her power” thing that’s important, but I think it’s also important that he respect people in general, which a lot of Alphas don’t because they’re the strongest guy in the room.

    2. Thinking Elliott from Leverage or John from Person of Interest. They’ll rescue you if you need it, but respect you enough to just be back up while you make your move (Carter) or show you moves to protect yourself (Sophie & Parker)

      1. Yes, exactly. They’re not guys who will rush in to control a situation because they need to control it. Their identities do not suffer damage because somebody else saves the day. That kind of cool detachment is infinitely more indicative of intelligence and strength than the guy who has to charge into the fight.

        The Carter example is a really good one. She’s alone, trying to take out a huge network of corrupt cops, and he offers (twice I think) to help, and she says, no, but she’ll call if she needs it. And he respects that. And when she needs help, she yells, and he’s there. THAT’s a great hero.

  13. Ah, finally a Crusie moment where my history nerd gets to play. 🙂
    Nick is a literal Renaissance Man. He’s smart, he has no boundaries and he sees other people as puzzles to be solved to his advantage. “To his advantage” are the key words here. As an earlier commenter pointed out, he’s operating in the world of the Borgias, aka the folks who taught Machiavelli everything he wrote. In a world where the women are a) Italian, b) loud (I’m half Italian, these are my people we’re talking about), and c) come equipped with stilettos, poison rings and the will to use them–to say nothing of parents, brothers, husbands and assorted relatives with swords and pikes less than three-generations removed from the reigning pope–only a raging idiot would display the mannerisms of a Trump, Weinstein, et al. It would be immediately fatal.
    Oh, Ur-Nick would figure out ways to satisfy all of his appetites without regard to the consequences *to his victims*. But he’d be supremely conscious of the need to minimize the consequences *to him*. He’d also have had enough experience with strong women and other threats to recognize the danger Nita poses.
    His first step in solving the puzzle she presents would be to take whatever steps were needed to neutralize the threat(s). If that meant being polite and seemingly respectful of her and Button, that’s how he’d act. He might have nothing but contempt for them in his heart and mind, and he wouldn’t hesitate to throw them under the proverbial bus. But he wouldn’t necessarily let them know, which would make him all the more dangerous.
    His biggest flaw would be his arrogance–thinking the snake was dead when he hadn’t cut off its head, for example.
    Hope that helps.

    1. THAT’S IT.
      That’s the piece I was missing. He’d manipulate. Hell, his grandfather and mother are both on the con and his father was one of the craftiest popes ever. He’d charm and lie and push boundaries and assume he was always right, but he’d be smart enough to respect a smart woman the way he’d respect a smart man. Plus he had a great deal of respect and affection for his mother, who would probably have kicked his ass if he’d been stupid about girls.
      Why didn’t I see that? THANK YOU.
      Oh, and I love the idea of the woman as puzzle. Must cogitate.

    2. One other thing I’ve been thinking as we go through this thread: those Alphaholes did do “what worked” — ie: sex that made them feel powerful. They weren’t interested in repeat performances with any of these women per se; they knew they’d have a chance with someone else — more exciting because she’d be a new “puzzle” as Jean Marie says. Something new that they can break, if they are that sadistic.

      It seems to me that in the romance trope, the hero wants to do it again and again with the same woman — the challenge or puzzle is not in the seduction but in some other area of the relationship. The seduction is simply step one in the puzzle, and can result in Game Over, All Lives Lost if he’s not a good game-player.

      The bad guys who we’ve seen in the news are simply playing a very short game; they can win, but then they need to find a new game. (It’s also interesting to reflect how this power game looks like from the Alpha Golddigger aspect, too. I spent some time in my early twenties looking at men as bullet points in my sexual CV instead of someone I wanted to be my whole relationship career, so to speak. I was never pushy about it, though, and no meant no for both them and me.)

    3. Absolutely about cutting off the head. It’s like James Bond walking away from a bad guy without making sure he’s dead. It’s like, YOU BLOOMING IDIOT.

      1. Oh, hell, Barry Allen just did that on The Flash part of Crisis on Earth X. Biggest bastard in the multiverse and Barry lets him go. WTF, Barry?

  14. Given Nick’s particular story, i think you can skirt the issue a little bit with taste. I think part of the alpha archetype is knowing what you want and not settling for anything else. So if he’s only interested in sex with women who enthusiastically want him, because that’s a crucial component in great sex, and he’s smart enough to tell the difference between who wants to have sex with him and who doesn’t, that will get you around a lot of rapey landmines while still letting him be a classic alpha in other areas.

    I’m realizing that from the way you describe Nick, I think of him less as an alpha and more as an assertive anti hero.

    1. That’s where this discussion is taking me, too. He’s not an Alpha at all. He’s annoying and arrogant, but he’s not controlling.

  15. Also, even RL Renaissance Men were potentially trainable. There are several well-known condottieri who learned respect for women and others, most notably Federico da Montefeltro. His great misfortune was not the loss of his eye but the loss of his wife Battista Sforza. She died in childbirth with their seventh child.

  16. But … there are so many different varieties of Dickhead. Are you trying to make a point about dickheads in general, such that you need your hero to be a horrible self-centered rapist to show that it’s Wrong To Do? Or to make initial dickhead moves on Nita so she can lambaste him in the white heat of anger?

    If there’s no point to making him a dickhead, other than to show that he evolved into something better in the present, then I think that as a reader I would kind of feel like he was turning into some kind of puppet, and I would more or less stop liking him or enjoying the story that would unfold from there.

    I’m hoping there’s some part of him that always had, in some form or another, the qualities that Nita found herself attracted to when he turns into the person she likes in present day.

    1. I think I’d fallen into the trap that Lee pointed out: Alpha or Beta? If he was a Master-of-the-Universe kind of guy, then he had to be an Alpha, and I loathe the Alpha hero. But it’s not a binary choice. Nick can make mistakes because he’s assuming he’s living in one universe instead of another, but he has to be somebody who would never rape, would never torment for pleasure or to feel powerful. He’ll have to learn to treat Nita as an equal and not as a puzzle, as Jean said, but he won’t have to learn not to rape or harass because he’ll know that’s not only not smart but not right.

      This discussion has been HUGELY helpful.

      1. So now I’m thinking, what does Nita have over him? What can she do that he can’t? What does she know that he doesn’t? That’s where she can show how powerful she is and go from being a pawn to an valued ally.

        1. It isn’t so much what she has over him as how she can go toe-to-toe. She knows more about Earth and humans than he does just as he knows more about Hell and demons. She’s as implacable as he is, as driven as he is, as smart as he is. And all of that escalates throughout the book because they both grow in power.

          I don’t think it’s about power, I think it’s about how he processes other human beings. Still cogitating on this, but if automatically sees himself as in charge, that’s going to be a problem.

      2. If it helps – as the bastard son of a pope, he was probably already used to being told that certain high born women were off limits. And his father may have been planning to put him into the clergy- excellent political move for his fixer- so Nick may already have experience treating women with a certain respect. (If you can’t marry them and you want to sleep with them, it may take more charm than force to pull it off.) I also don’t remember off the top of my head your dates, but if it’s after Abelard that would certainly keep Nick well behaved.

  17. “Nick becomes so human he regresses back to what he was when he was alive: a rich, arrogant, powerful, dangerous young man with no boundaries.”

    There are ways to portray this personality without getting into nonconsensual thorny patches, though. Think of asshole Nate in the early seasons of Leverage. Think of Dillinger from PoI’s RAM episode. Think of Logan Pierce. Think of young pre-Island Oliver Queen, who didn’t rape anyone but was still a cheating scumbag of a boyfriend who thought he could get anything or anyone he wanted.

    Also, consider how the warped versions of Mr. Darcy that have proliferated throughout the romance genre indicate that readers did still found him attractive before the revelations of how he treats his employees, before he proved his worth. Readers still liked the Mr. Darcy that mouthed off to Elizabeth, the surface appearance of the Alpha Rich Arrogant Hero.

    Sexist entitlement can be expressed in a way that doesn’t entail physical transgressions. Consider this video, which follows a similar trajectory of the young rich lead guy overstepping in the back half, but doesn’t have rapey feel to it.

    Nick’s entitlement can come from knowing his own competence. Rather than sexually objectifying women, he may simply find them inferior, just as he would find most other men inferior. Greer or Elias or Simmons don’t need rape threats to be competent Alpha assholes that are fun to hate. It can be little things like condescending pet names, interrupting to talk over women, dismissals of their ideas (remembers Sophie’s hilarious notepad in The Office Job), playing cavalier games with their lives because they’re all just ants or pawns. Arrogant and dangerous doesn’t have to be gendered or sexualized. Just ask Root and Shaw.

    1. I loved Logan Pierce. I’d watch the new PoI with his group if they did it.

      These are all good examples. Except I loved Elias, even if he was a sociopathic son of a bitch. He was respectful of people even when he was murdering them. That soft voice and sweet smile. “I’ll just watch.” Elias wouldn’t rape, it would be beneath him, and he wouldn’t let anybody he employed do it, either. Hmmmm.

      1. Yes, the means by which villains were established as The Worst in PoI was if they threatened children, not if they sexually threatened women. Elias put a baby in a freezer truck, and kidnapped Carter’s kid. Simmons tried to go after Fusco’s kid, and kidnapped Gen. Dominic went after the kids who stole his drug money, but also then freed their mother from prison to buy their expendable loyalty. Greer/Samaritan manipulated Claire, and were going to start a eugenics program.

        So Nick could be an overt jerk, the arrogant boss who treats everyone as an inferior expendable underling, or he could be a subtle jerk, the one who manipulates everyone to do his bidding for shits and giggles, because it’s just so easy.
        Logan Pierce kind of fell into both, being a dismissive asshole to the elites he thought were beneath him (which is what made him endearing), but also manipulating them to distract from him true goal of leaving the company on his terms, not his contracts’. But he also ended up dismissing Reese’s concerns, which is what frustrated Reese enough to temporarily abandon Logan. It all stemmed from Logan being confident in his own intelligence (arrogance) enough to to think he knew better than anyone else.

        1. One of the many things I loved about Logan is that he really was playing chess while everybody else (except Finch and Reese) was playing checkers, and he was having a wonderful time. He was also doing the right thing most of the time, protecting the smaller programmers, etc. But I think the thing I loved the most was that he never whined, he never tried to put the blame on anybody else, and he always thanked people for helping him. He was arrogant, but he wasn’t a spoiled brat. I was really happy to see him have his own PoI team at the end. And I loved it that he put that tracker in the million dollar watch he gave to Reese that Finch smashed. You’d think he could have just taken the tracker out . . .

          1. It’s Finch, he’s so rich he doesn’t worry about the cost of material things in times of danger and he is very very paranoid as being so has kept him alive so far. He has a suspicion he acts at once, rather then leave it till he has tools and possibly expose himself further.

            I love Logan Pierce, one of my favourite POI, he was what he was, so the world couldn’t crush him and he had me at “I knew you were interesting”

          2. Maybe in Finch’s mind, if there’s one tracker you find, there are two you don’t find.

            Just smash it and be sure.

      2. Yes, he would. He wouldn’t take any pleasure in it but if he thought it was necessary, I can see Elias letting loose his guys.

  18. This reminds me of a review I read for Silver Silence recently: http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/reviews/silver-silence-nalini-singh/

    It made me really look forward to the book in large part because of this:

    “I loved, loved that we get an alpha hero who is not a giant, demanding douche-bag. So often alphas are portrayed as being able to muscle their way into any situation, take what they want, and not have to suffer repercussions for it. Valentin shows that being an alpha doesn’t being demanding or directive. He’s warm and loving with his clan, especially the children. He enforces rules, but never in a domineering way. He’s clearly in charge, but its because he’s the best suited to handle the position, to delegate, to strategize, to treat his people with kindness. He didn’t get the job by swinging the biggest dick.”

    I’ve read the book now, and that’s accurate. This guy does climb up an apartment building repeatedly so he can knock on a woman’s door, but he doesn’t ever try to force his way into her apartment. He just knocks, and then flirts with her when she answers. He only enters that apartment when she collapses from being poisoned and needs medical assistance, because she never invited him inside. When he’s at the hospital, he’s very conscious of how annoyed she’ll be that he saw her when she was so vulnerable, and he makes certain he doesn’t see her while she’s recovering in her hospital room until she wants to speak to him.

    This discussion me think a new way of framing and labeling romance heroes would be really helpful. Personally, I usually just think of them as “asshole” or “not an asshole.” If they land in the latter group, how much I like them depends on that character’s individual personality traits and actions. If they land in the former group…well, that’s self-explanatory.

    1. At this point, I think “asshole” and “not an asshole” are preferable to “Alpha” and “Beta.”
      Also a good yardstick for electing politicians and promoting businesspeople.

  19. I know we’ll go on talking about this, but I just wanted to thank everybody so far for the great discussion. It has been HUGELY helpful.

  20. Yes, reading this discussion is amazing because it’s going places.

    A little defense of Vidal in Devil’s Cub — We are in Mary’s head through the story, and she has set up the situation to look as if she has joined her sister in tricking Vidal. So, we expect him to be angry and vengeful. Yet, he gave her a basin to vomit in when she was sick on the boat and left her alone. So, at least he’s practical and not out of control. In fact, he runs his establishment as if it’s a movable castle, in which, along with other servants, willing damsels have regularly played their parts. Based on her behavior, he assumes that Mary will be willing. Most of all, Mary is prepared; she took his gun back when she was in the carriage. She is one of the calmest, most self reliant heroines I know, and this scene shows her personality. So, I think the situation is not Alpha male in the way he is being defined in this post. (Also, I suspect that Heyer carefully made him younger than many of her rakish heroes in hopes that he would appear more spoiled than evil.)

    On the other hand, I can’t defend Vidal’s father. Heyer was trying to redeem the villain of The Black Moth when she wrote These Old Shades. I enjoy These Old Shades, but Justin Alastair, the Duke of Avon, is a pretty cold character.

    1. Except when it comes to Leonie. He fights tooth and nail for Leonie and adores her to the end.
      I think that’s the whole point of the Alpha; when he falls, he falls for good. I still don’t like him, but I admire his consistency in his real love for his wife.

      I like Devil’s Cub because Mary puts him through hell, and he goes to get and keep her. But he was definitely up to no good when he started for her in that bedroom, and she had told him the truth over and over again, he just didn’t want to believe her. Asshat.

      One of the nice things about both of those books is that the H&H show up in later books as middle-aged or elderly couples and they’re still devoted to each other.

      1. Laura Florand has a book with a hero who is scared of his own physical strength within the context of relationships where other people are vulnerable to him, because his dad was abusive. He doesn’t trust himself not to become his dad. its not until he starts framing the problem not as his dad was too strong, but that his dad used his strength against people he was supposed to be protecting. I think that’s what it comes down to with the alpha archetype: what do they use their strength (mental, physical, societal, etc.) to protect. If it’s themselves, they’re an asshole. If it’s the people we want them to protect, they’re an alpha hero. If they think they know best to the point their “protection” is unintentionally hurting people, they need a rewrite, or a reader more forgiving than I.

        1. *not until he re frames the problem that he starts coming to peace with his own strength.

          This is what happens when I comment after midnight

        2. This is Dom, right? I really like that book. As I recall, how he grew up did give him some anger problems in adolescence, but even then, she made it clear those fights were always with people who were bigger and meaner than him. He never hurt people who couldn’t defend themselves or who were even close to weaker than him. And then he got himself into therapy to make sure he never ended up like his father and to help him deal with all the baggage. Smart man.

          Completely agree that how a character uses power is the difference between an asshole and “alpha.” I suspect the term has such negative connotations because of so many early books that just featured assholes people called alphas. Which is why I don’t think the term itself is really all that useful anymore.

          1. I don’t even think the origin of the term applies any more. Wasn’t it the alpha wolf, and that’s been debunked?
            I think the Alpha Male is just Fifties Guy in disguise. But I freely admit I can’t stand the alpha male archetype, so ignore me.

      2. There were other comments about Devil’s Cub that came to my email but which I can’t find here, correcting and enlarging what’s been written.

        I just want to add that Vidal had pegged Mary as prim and critical when he had met her in Sophy’s company. He was surprised that Mary would take part in a ruse but, since she was pretty and obviously intelligent, he was willing to have an affair with her in her sister’s place.

        A little thing: the shooting scene takes place in a dining room. The next scene is a bedroom scene where Vidal is convalescing and Mary is in charge.

      1. that is a landmark on my way to grandmother’s house – the first time my partner saw it they nearly went off the road, a perfect combination of disbelief and hilarity

  21. It seems to me, that somewhere along the way, the romance genre – and maybe society in general – confused the powerful man with a competent leader. A rich man, for example, is powerful because he can buy silence, he can buy cooperation, he can buy favors – but that power doesn’t make him an alpha; it just makes him powerful. I see an alpha hero as someone who personally powerful because he is strong and competent. He may have the external trappings of power but he would still be strong without them. And if he views other people as pawns or objects, then he has moved into powerful dickhead territory – he is not an alpha.

    That is, of course, a personal definition, but I don’t see why we can’t differentiate between powerful dickheads and real alpha heroes.

    1. Yes, but that definition could apply to the quiet, cooperative beta, too. There’s nothing that says a beta isn’t powerful, he just doesn’t swing it around, so to speak. Quiet power, which is devastating.

      1. What is an alpha hero? My understanding is that he is generally regarded as a take charge kinda guy. But a take charge guy doesn’t have to be cold, uncaring, or cruel. He can respect the rights of others. He can be warm and supportive. He can lead by example, he can lead because others recognize his competence, not because they fear the consequences of not obeying him. The point I’m trying to make, in my usual wandering way, is that we can define what an alpha hero is. There is no rule book that says he has to be a dickhead (even if some people seem to think so). We can define an alpha hero as a take charge guy who respects other people and a powerful dickhead as one who uses other people as pawns. We can choose our definition.

        I’m so glad you started this discussion. It has really clarified my thinking, both as a writer and in real life.

        1. That’s what I’m wondering too. How exactly do you define Alpha? Because there’s a guy in my life who I would have described as an alpha male – he’s incredibly competent, people tend to recognise his authority even when it’s not official – but he’s definitely not a dickhead.

          He respects the people around him, the idea of laying an unwelcome hand on any woman is unthinkable to him, and he’ll move heaven and earth to look after the people he cares about and to do what he feels is right. He doesn’t engage in power plays or macho display, because he’s so comfortable in himself and his abilities that he’s got nothing to prove to anyone (which is enormously attractive). I guess, thinking about it, that that’s the positive side of arrogance – no one and nothing is going to threaten his sense of self, not physical challengers or engaging in “unmanly” activities (like the time one of his coworkers was horrified that he ironed his own shirts instead of getting his little wife to do it)

          The flip side is that he often forgets to ask. Once he thinks he knows what you need, he’ll act on that, often without checking that that’s what you really want him to do.

          So, I’m wondering if I’ve missed the mark on what the definition of Alpha behaviour is?

          1. I think the real problem is that we don’t HAVE a definition of an alpha male hero.
            That is, I could easily go along with your example as a great hero, we can design a definition that’s definitely heroic, but what’s the actual alpha hero in romance novels doing right now? Obviously there are different ones, but what does everybody acknowledge as an alpha?

            I think in the seventies he was a rapist, that’s pretty clear from all those rape romances, but that’s pretty much out nows. I’m wondering how much Weinstein, et. al. are going to shift that dynamic even further.

        2. There are a lot of definitions out there if you google, but the leadership and power aspects tend to be in most if not all of them. So the alpha is a billionaire, a Navy SEAL, a CEO, a cop, a secret agent, a firefighter, etc; the guy who comes in and makes sure that the world works according to his rules. But the leadership thing doesn’t really work. Reese from PoI seems like an Alpha male; Finch is definitely not, but Finch leads that group, indisputably. When he steps down and dismantles the group, they keep working without him, but Reese never stops trying to get him back to work. They need Finch as the guy in charge even though he refuses to be an Alpha. Eliot on Leverage is probably an Alpha male, but he follows Nate (god knows what Nate is). The implication of physical strength is much more indicative of an Alpha, I think, than actual power, and that’s because of the sexual aspect of the Alpha as a dominant male. And hello, sexual harassment.

          The Reese and Zoe thing was interesting because of that. They were both tough and powerful in different ways but they had the same world view. The first time Zoe kisses him, it’s to distract others while she puts a paper clip in his hands so he can get out of handcuffs. The first actual move in their relationship is Zoe’s at the end of that episode when she turns as she walks off and says, ‘You have my number.” When Zoe sits in the bar with Shaw and Carter, Reese waits outside for them to finish drinking. His big move at the hotel is to show her the key card for the penthouse suite. There’s no “claiming her as his mate” which I see over and over and over again in those BookBub blurbs with the abs on the cover. It’s more, “If you wanna, I wanna.”

          I think at least the cliche of the Alpha hero does as much damage to men and male characters as the cliche of the beautiful blonde heroine whose only flaw is that her breasts are too big had done to women and female characters. But it might also just come down to personal preference: I don’t like those guys, so any book that has “billionaire” in the title or explains that he’s the only thing that’s going to keep her alive is an automatic pass for me.

          1. John Reese is the most wonderful portrayal of a beta male on TV. Always supporting, including all those numbers where he let them take the lead, playing the caring big brother.
            And so he’s shown as a big contrast to the traditional James Bond Alpha Male (whose role was then gender-swapped onto Shaw). We also saw the Alpha Male spy version in RAM, in Dillinger, who belittled and betrayed Finch for the money, and had no qualms charming the numbers he saved into bed.

            But yeah, James Bond. He has a license to kill, and that’s supposed to be a mark of how cool he is. For Reese, that license to kill is a burden, a necessary evil in his service to his country or to his team. (“I don’t like killing, I’m just very good at it.”) But James Bond giving those snarky post-death one-liners is a “classic” trope. James Bond is a womanizer, and lauded for it as an alpha. But in another more deconstruction type show, the beta male spy acknowledges that sleeping for the job is not glamorous, but no different from sex work.
            This is why the Daniel Craig version of Bond has come the closest to not being an alpha hero. We see how he is subservient to the systems around him more than any previous incarnation, which promoted the image of everything James does being what he wants to do on his own, his job seen as hedonism.

  22. So, I was thinking about this last night. I couldn’t quite put my finger on how I felt about alphas last night. I am used to them. I don’t mind them all that much.

    And then I realized that I am MUCH more critical of female characters. I will put a book down because I don’t like her. I hardly ever have that happen because of the male lead.

    Partly I think this is because we tend to spend more time inside the female lead’s head, but for the rest I worry that my grandmother is popping out and excusing all the men. I am rather horrified…

    1. I think a lot of romance fiction (not most, just a lot) is about redeeming horrible men. He’s an asshat, but he fell in love and now he’s a good guy. It’s not my kind of trope, but it’s popular. So we get used to the hero-as-jerk and call him the Alpha Hero.

      And then there’s the theory that the protagonist is the placeholder so we’re not just reading about the heroine, we’re becoming her. That’ll make me a lot more critical.

      1. The protagonist is a placeholder but also the protagonist is female, and in the patriarchy a woman is always subject to more criticism simply for existing. Remember the way Hillary was pilloried for pretty much everything, even as men campaigning with and against her were ignored or even congratulated? We bring a lot of that criticism to bear on our protagonists, even as potentially sympathetic readers and sisters in arms.

        1. Too true. Also the reason romance novels, the most popular of the genres, are so reviled. If romance was a male genre, it’d be treated with awe and wonder just for the sheer sales force.

    1. Great post, and exactly the same thing I was feeling as I was starting to get to Act Three Nick.

      Can you talk more about the pressure in the industry? The industry has pretty much forgotten I’m here, and Jen never pressures, so I have no idea what’s going on. Are editors actually saying, “Write alpha heroes?” or are writers feeling pressure because that’s where reader demand is? I can already tell it’s prevalent because of BookBub, which are books that the publishers feel will sell a lot and possibly drive readers to other books on the list; BookBub is full of abs and heroes protecting heroines.

      1. Because I’m strictly non-traditional publishing, I can only talk about what I’ve heard second and third-hand from other writers–stories of authors proposing a book about X and being told, “Your next book needs to be a Alpha Duke/Billionaire/Navy Seal/Wolf” or we don’t want it.

        As I mentioned in my post, my perception is that this trend really ramped up following the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey, but it’s been going on forever. I have a copy of The Sheik, by E.M. Hull, copyright 1919, on my bookshelf. I read it for the first time when I was in the eighth grade and thought it the most romantic thing I’d ever heard of (which, at that point, was basically nothing). Now I think that story constitutes grounds for justifiable homicide.

        1. I’ll give The Sheik a pass because of 1919,but the idea that publishers are insisting on he billionaire Navy SEAL in 2017 is depressing.

          For the record, I cannot imagine Jennifer Enderlin ever saying that. Ever.

          1. Because it’s an insult to your hero.

            Billionaire Navy Seal isn’t a real person. He’s the equivalent of Girlfriend 7.0 or Cherry 2000 – a fantasy that hits all the buttons without actually requiring emotional involvement.

            Someone may be able to write a solid billionaire hero – but a billionaire, a Navy Seal, no doubt the long lost heir to the Throne of Zenda all rolled into one? That’s a fantasy and not a man.

          2. I read The Sheik as a teenager at the same time that I started reading Georgette Heyer romances. The Sheik was titillating, but I also read The Scarlet Pimpernel around the same time and quickly realized that I didn’t like heroines who had to be beaten into submission (sometimes physically, always emotionally).

          1. I’ve only ever seen clips from it–Rudolph Valentino wiggling his eyebrows and looking dashing while clings to his arm and gazes up at him adoringly.

            There was a slash between “billionaire” and “Navy Seal,” so it didn’t have to be both, just one or the other.

          2. Interesting movie. They put in a scene where the Sheik comes to a wife bazaar to pick out a new wife and the English girl sneaks in because a. she’s English and b. she’s rich so she can go anywhere she likes. In the movie, not the book, that’s where he notices her.

            But this is rape as romance. But it’s also racist because once she finds out he has one white parent, she finds the ordeal less troubling and once he offers to marry her all is forgiven. (At least that’s my memory.”

            The one that creeps me out is from 1967 and is called Waterhole #3. If I could go back in time, I’d take a flamethrower to that movie set – because that one’s a comedy. James Coburn, James Whitmore, Carroll O’Connor, Claude Akins & Maggie Blye. You’d need brain bleach to get through that one.

        2. I think it is reactionary to the late 90’s, early 00’s hero too. Contemporary romance from that period has a lot of angst in it for me. A lot of both protagonists being unsure about a relationship because xyz. At least with an alpha hero, you know he is in all the way. No guessing. He really wants his leading lady. And I think that readers are responding to that as well. The format is different and interesting for a while.

        3. I also read The Sheik as a teenager. Got a very old copy from a used bookstore and didn’t know what I was getting into with it. By then I had read a lot of Nora Roberts if not much other romance, so I had a yardstick, and The Sheik did not work for me even then. For some reason I read the whole thing even though the rape happened pretty early. It moved fast, I’ll give that, and I think that might be why I kept going. But at the end, I was basically left with the impression that it was a really racist, sexist book that equated love with Stockholm Syndrome.

        4. “The Sheik” is officially the worst book I’ve ever read.

          fwiw maybe I don’t read broadly enough, but it seems to me that “fifty shades” is meant to be erotica (I haven’t read it), not “romance” in the way I think of romance (i.e. in which two likable people fall in love and possibly get it on).

          I personally don’t find most erotica at all interesting, because it seems a) its purpose for being is to convey sex scenes, and b) one or more of the protagonists are positively REQUIRED to be assholes. If it isn’t a requirement, why so common?

          1. As a book it’s terrible. (Not the worst book I’ve ever read but then I read a lot of romance in the late 1980s).

            As a historical artifact, it’s pretty interesting. It was a best selling novel and an incredibly popular movie. They called the male equivalent of flappers, sheiks or Valentinos it was so popular. The basic story line is picked up and copied in romance when women start writing about non Western men, including the rape and the submission because there-are-worse-men-out-there-and-at-least-this-guy-is-good-looking-and-half-European. It’s not just the 1980s – I seem to remember a couple from the 1940s and vaguely I think The Bitter Tea of General Yen follows a similar plot.

            Except The Sheik is popular in the US during one of our most segregated eras. The 1920s are incredibly racist and yet this is a best selling book and movie. Heck, the nativists hate Valentino because he’s Italian so not really white by their standards. I read it and I want to know what middle aged white women got wild about.

  23. Just read this! Sort of relevant…(Go Pooh)

    But now a researcher from the University of Nevada may have found an answer to the question of why even women who identify as feminists will participate in a practice that is undeniably grounded in sexism.

    Rachael Robnett surveyed 355 people in the US and UK about their attitudes towards marital name changing and found that a name is not just a name. It’s an indication of the man’s power, status and masculinity.

    “When a woman chooses not to take her husband’s surname after marriage, people perceive her husband as being higher in traits related to femininity and lower in traits related to masculinity. He is also perceived as having less power in the relationship,” writes Robnett.

    In a culture where one of the worst things a man can be is feminine, this research may explain why some men feel so strongly about their wife taking their name.

    We’re not just taking about a few letters in the alphabet. No sir, it’s nothing short of a test of his manliness.

    I’ve met such men. They tell me that they’d never marry a woman who would refuse to take their name. These men tell me that a woman refusing to take their name would be an insult or evidence that she did not really love him – or love him enough.

    What these men overlook is that their gain in social power – or at least the perception of power – is their bride’s loss. Despite this, women still make this choice because maintaining men’s perceived masculinity and status is so normalised that it’s taken for granted.

    I’d read enough gender studies literature to be determined to maintain my own name when I got married, but giving my children my husband’s name, and essentially maintaining that patriarchal tradition, was a blind spot for me. It didn’t even occur to me until years later when the ink was well and truly dried on the birth certificates that my decision was motivated by internalised misogyny.

    1. Yep. I wouldn’t have taken my husband’s last name, but I didn’t have to, it was the same as my maiden name. To his credit, he wouldn’t have cared. I’ve seen any number of professional women achieve great success under their ex-husband’s last name, leaving their birth names in the dust (see Faith Hill and Nora Roberts, for example). But my daughter kept her name, and their kids have her name, too, for reasons the two of them agreed on together, and my son-in-law is nobody’s pushover. I think there are reasons to change your name–like you really hate the last name you were born with–but in general, it’s the patriarchy refusing a matrilinear custom.

      I have a throwaway line in Nita where she mentions that the women in her family don’t marry that I knew I was going to have to do something with, and this puts that in a new light.

      1. I had a friend look at me like I’d sprouted a 3rd head when I suggested that she didn’t have to change her name when she got married, I certainly wasn’t. Now, 20 years later, she still has her name and their kids are hyphenated and I took my husband’s name. He asked me if I would, and I realized that, to him, my taking his name wasn’t his showing ownership of me but me showing that I chose him. Once I realized that, there was no way I could say no.

        I do realize that most men don’t see it that way though.

        1. Yeah, when my parents got married, it did matter to my dad that his name was in there somewhere, so my mom hyphenated. And yeah, I do think some of that was growing up in a tradition laced with sexism, but I also think some of it can be the idea of giving your wife not just yourself, but your whole family. And for my parents that’s definitely true. If my dad couldn’t make my dad’s family reunion for some reason, my mom would 100% go without him.

          To his credit, my dad was pretty chill about my mom writing a song while they were engaged about how ambivalent she felt about the idea of marriage (she was in a local rock band) and he even played the boring white-bread husband in the very 80s music video.

          1. My dad died and my mum remarried. Even though I was an adult with children of my own (I have my own name, kids have my partner’s), I was hurt when mum changed her name to her new husband’s. It felt (selfishly) like she was denying us. She wasn’t, I was just being a precious snowflake, but the names we choose definitely have perceived power.

        2. I was happy to change my name. I was going from something most people can’t spell or pronounce to something that was easy for people to spell and pronounce.

          I announced my decision to my then fiance. He had no say in it but I think he was glad I was switching.

  24. My husband told his parents of course I would keep my name—before we ever discussed it and frankly before I had considered it. So that was that.

    The kids got both names and a firm promise that they get to choose what they do when they get married and have kids without pressure from us.

  25. “At once each of the ninety-seven men and boys was aware of that presence and unconsciously showed it by putting on extra “steam.” With swinging step the big figure crossed the packing room. The gray-white face held straight ahead, but the keen blue eyes paused upon each worker and each task. And every “hand” in those two great factories knew how all-seeing that glance was—critical, but just; exacting, but encouraging. All-seeing, in this instance, did not mean merely fault-seeing.”

    Second Generation by David Graham Phillips.

    I have just started reading this novel so I don’t know what happens yet, but I read that description and I knew that he was describing what a business leader should actually be. And this from a book written in 1905.

  26. For the first 10 years we were married, I used my own name instead of my husband’s very boring and common last name. Also my name, my identity. Then I tacked his on when we moved to a very religiously conservative community. For the last 10 or 20 years I don’t sweat it anymore but I still use both names – unhyphenated. But 47 years ago it was a big deal to everyone except my dad, who thought it was cool I kept his name.

    And I still remember when my BIL asked me if we intended to have children and I said no and he asked will the family name be lost and I said “well, one of the other 5 million or so people in the US with the same last name will have to carry it on”. And now he has three children and, unfortunately, two definitely will not have offspring (special needs children) and the other one is wondering if given the family genetics if he should have children.

  27. My BIL’s parents were giving my sister a hard time about not taking his/their name when they got married and one of us (either I or my sister) said, Look. You have three sons. My father has no sons. If you think it’s important that a couple should have the same last name why doesn’t he take our name? That way our family name will be preserved.

    Last time I heard them ask about last names.

  28. I think we have to remember we write fiction, and we can portray our alpha-male any way we want him. Yes, he can be a Dickhead, but only because he forgot flowers for your anniversary!

    1. For our first anniversary, I told my husband just to get me some flowers. He got me 24 gladiola bulbs. He says it seemed like a good idea to him since I like to garden and they would LAST. He has spent decades regretting it.

  29. This is really interesting, and I’ve kept thinking about it on and off the last couple of days. I think one of the reasons I don’t have an automatic aversion to the word alpha is because I usually only apply it to characters in the context of urban fantasy and paranormal romance worlds that have shape-shifters. With other romances, I don’t really use it (see above with asshole vs. not an asshole). In paranormal stories I read, alpha isn’t just a personality type, it’s a job title. If a character displays the worst behavior discussed here (harassment, sexual assault, general cruelty), they are considered unfit for the job. If somehow they already have the job, everyone thinks they’re bad at it, and they usually don’t keep it for long. In fact, they may be killed in a satisfying way. I actually started a fantasy series years ago that a friend told me about, but didn’t get past the first book because the alpha of the pack the protagonist belonged to was so awful and the situation so unhealthy that I couldn’t get into the story. I may not even have finished the book, since I can’t remember anything else about it now. For all I know the character got out of that situation, but I’ll never find out because I hated what I read so much. Most of the fantasy writers I’ve encountered and stuck with have developed worlds where being a good and effective alpha explicitly means you can’t be a dickhead, for which I am grateful. It probably helps that pretty much all the paranormal books I read also feature female characters who don’t take crap from anyone, and there are female alphas in some of those worlds, so I don’t just associate the term with men.

  30. A technical question

    How do I save this entire blog post? All the Argh Ink blog discussions are good and this one on Alpha males is particularly great.

    Currently I’m wondering what other terms we have that are similar to Alpha. Is a type A personality used not only to mean driven but to excuse the means used and abusive behaviors exhibited along the way? For example, a man who spends his life focussing on making billions of dollars might be expected to have shed family, friends, and lesser business connections along the way and acquiring, of course, a trophy wife.

    1. You can bookmark it to view again online (most pages persist as long as the domain is live, but no guarantees), or you can print to PDF and save it to your hard drive.


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