Personally, I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with discussions in the romance genre about the ‘Alpha’ hero. Part of it is my reluctance to pigeon-hole anyone, fictional or otherwise, and to slap a label on them – particularly when there’s only a choice of three labels: alpha, beta and gamma. I think there’s some confusion, also, about what the terms mean, particularly with ‘alpha’, and this was highlighted in the above discussion, with some interesting but conflicting views. I’m not sure that the wolf-pack or animal origin of the ‘alpha male’ term really translates effectively to humans and human emotions and interaction. I also worry – maybe unnecessarily, but it’s there – that if WE, readers and writers of the genre, confine our discussions of male characterization to these three types, then are we providing fodder for those who criticize the genre for cardboard-cutout characters? If we can’t articulate the depth and variety of characterization within the genre effectively, how can we ask others to comprehend it?
I love complex characters, and I read characters in books as complex people, not as stereotypes or even archetypes. Yes, I like characters – male and female – to have strength and power of some sort, whether that be physical, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual. Emotional strength and confidence – the ability to accept, respect and value oneself AND the other – is, to me, an essential ingredient in a committed relationship, so in order for me to have faith in the ‘HEA’, both the lead characters need to attain this somewhere along the way of the story.
I was musing on the whole ‘Alpha male’ thing last night while I was lying awake with a spasming back, and it occurred to me that perhaps the notion of leaders and leadership could be applied to many romance heroes, and that there are different types of strengths that are displayed by various characters. When I got up to get some painkillers, I also woke up the computer and jotted down some different types of heroes: Warrior, Commander, Strategist, Servant leader, Dynastic heir, Techno-genius, Entrepreneur, Scholar. Then I got thinking about some of the key positive characteristics of each broad type:
Warrior: physicality, and courage
Commander: leadership, courage, and responsibility
Strategist: intelligence, risk analysis, conviction
Servant Leader: commitment to duty, integrity, compassion for others (NB, this is a term from leadership theories which is not about servants in the employer/servant concept, but rather describes a style of leadership in which the concept of service to others is a prime motivating factor).
Dynastic heir: pride, self-confidence, commitment to family/cultural traditions (?)
Techno-genius: intelligence, ‘out-of-the-box’ or creative thinking, focused
Entrepreneur: imagination, audacity, confidence
Scholar: intelligence, broad knowledge, questioning
Now, I’m not pretending that that’s a complete picture, or that these are the only archetypal heroic figures. Tami Cowden came up with a different list of eight hero archetypes (and eight heroine archetypes) that go beyond the standard alpha, beta etc, but, while they work a bit better, they never quite did it for me entirely. There are also a range of other archetypal characters identified in literature, although not necessarily applicable to the romantic hero (or heroine).
When I thought about the heroes I’m writing, I could place them in the broad framework above, whereas I’ve never been able to label them as ‘alpha’, ‘beta’ or ‘gamma’ or anything else in that framework. Elliot is a mix of Commander and Servant Leader; Cole is a mix of Warrior and Scholar; Ronan is a Techno-genius Warrior. For Gil, I might have to add a ‘Lone Wolf’ type, although the mix of Strategist and Warrior probably works for him.
So, there’s some pain-killer-assisted ramblings about the nature of romance heroes. It’s very much initial thoughts, and comment, criticism, and additional ‘types’ are welcome. (Perhaps we need to add the Hedonist…)
Do we need to think beyond the traditional alpha, beta, gamma etc in our discussions of heroes? Do those traditional ‘labels’ help or hinder our understanding of the genre, and the perceptions of it? Does it matter, as readers, or writers, or academics?
(And why do we spend so much time discussing heroes, and not so much discussing heroines? Our ‘labels’ for them tend to be more negative – TSTL, Mary-Sues, ‘feisty’. About the only one that I can think of at the moment that isn’t negative is ‘kick-butt’.)