The Romance Genre on the Web

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Heroes – Alphas? Or Leaders? Or what?

Filed under: Discussion questions — Bron at 7:06 pm on Wednesday, April 25, 2007

There was a great, lively discussion last week in response to Sarah Frantz’s post, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know; or, Just a Jerk? on Romancing the Blog.

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’.)

9 Comments

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Comment by Grace

April 25, 2007 @ 10:43 pm

Very interesting topic, Bron. I realize that my hero is probably unsalable when viewed in this framework. LOL Thanks muchly.

My heroine is the alpha–bossy, commanding, but also very feminine and kind. She has a lot of growing to do. Alpha has more to do with a “type” than the leader of the pack in the romance generalizations, doesn’t it? I mean, most alpha heroes I’ve read are loners. Isn’t that the opposite of being the alpha? Or in a wolf pack, is it only the alpha female who is a leader?

Geez, I guess I know nothing. Unsurprising.

On to my hero. He is 25. He is not the CEO of a fortune 500 company, nor the heir to old money. He is not an entrepreneur. He is interning for a friend of the heroine, and that’s how they meet. She’s three years older and very established. This is a big deal for her, and she has to grow in order to consider this person seriously. She has to learn to have faith in his future instead of the tangible present. I think this is an interesting romantic topic–because it’s real. My theme for my books is “Romance you can believe in.” What makes a woman decide to take a risk like this? How many women have met their S.O. in college or the like and put them through medical school, graduate school, etc., with the belief in his future and in HIM as an individual as their motivation?

Life is a process. Love is a process, not a HEA. It doesn’t work that way, as we who have been in long-term relationships realize. It takes work and adaptation as partners and life circumstances change over the years. I have days I want a divorce just because I’m tired of taking care of my mother in law. How’s that for shallow? I didn’t sign up for her–I married DH, not her. We grow, we mature, and so does our relationship. Hopefully. What’s all this alpha/beta/gamma stuff?

Sure, that lone-wolf guy is sexy. But when I made my list of desirable/required traits in a mate, “sexy” was not on the list. “Respectful,” “likes children,” and “funny” were on the list. His cute butt is what got me interested, but it wasn’t what kept me on the line. I don’t think I’d like a daily life with an alpha. Too much work.

There’s my two bits.

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Comment by Jennie Adams

April 29, 2007 @ 2:39 pm

I can’t define an alpha hero. I know what I like. Strength of character, a moral core that I can understand and/or that matches my way of looking at the world. But beyond that? I often ask myself whether the heroes in my books are alpha? I truly don’t know the answer. I just write what appeals to me.

It’s interesting that we don’t talk about our heroines as much. As a reader, I want to identify with the heroine I’m reading. I want to be able to have sympathy or empathy for her. I want her to possess the same traits I like in a hero. Strength of character and a world outlook that I can identify with. At the end of the book I want to be happy that she’s gained his love and commitment.

I think labels are useful to help authors understand what editors want, and to articulate what they’re trying to achieve, but I’m yet to be convinced of their necessity beyond that. Or maybe I just don’t like the idea of being ‘boxed’. Grin.

Jennie

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Comment by Valerie Parv

April 29, 2007 @ 5:07 pm

Interesting discussion, Bronwyn. My take is that romance heroes are not the guys we want to live with or marry, but the kind we like to fantasise about. In real life, they’d be too macho or too dominating to tolerate. But in fiction, it’s fun for the mother of three or the company CEO – sometimes the reader is both – to imagine being in the hands of a take-charge man who sweeps her off her feet. In reality, he’d probably have to wait a month for an appointment LOL. Heroines are harder to categorise, mainly because ‘they is us’. That’s probably why we reject the too-perfect heroine, knowing we ourselves are far from perfect. We don’t mind if she’s a bit thinner, more athletic, braver (um…think I’m talking about myself here), as long as she’s flawed enough to be a comfy fit when we step into her shoes.

Valerie

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Comment by Laura Vivanco

April 30, 2007 @ 5:14 am

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 [...] 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?

I think you’re right that labelling characters in this way probably does make the genre seem rather simplistic to non-romance readers, because they can then assume that there are only a very limited number of types of heroes and that that is part of the ‘formula’:

1) pick hero of type (a) alpha, (b) beta or (c) gamma
2) pick heroine of type (a) feisty, (b) bluestocking/librarian/governess/teacher, (c) wallflower/in need of makeover/never been found beautiful by anyone or (d) kick-ass
3) stir well to create conflict
4) mix in spice to taste
5) Serve with a declaration of love drizzled on top

Of course, it’s far more complicated than that, but yes, I think that the labels will do nothing to dispel that perception.

At Teach Me Tonight I’ve been thinking through the continuum of high to low mimetic, which Eric first mentioned when he quoted Northrop Frye. I think that helps me get a feel for the overall tone of the story. My personal preference seems to be for the low mimetic.

My take is that romance heroes are not the guys we want to live with or marry, but the kind we like to fantasise about.

I’ve definitely heard other people say this too, but I don’t think it’s the case for all readers. There are some readers who say that they’re married to ‘alphas’ and they like reading about them, for example. And I’m definitely not into fantasising about the heroes. I just don’t think of them that way. I don’t subscribe to the placeholder heroine idea either. I can accept that other people may read that way, but I don’t.

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Comment by Grace

April 30, 2007 @ 9:10 am

I want to like the same things in the hero that I would like in a man I wanted to date. If he’s so alpha I can’t imagine wanting more from him than hot sex, then I’m not believing him in a romance. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to read about the sex. But I’m not going to put up with a HEA with a man who has no “mating” instincts beyond those behind his zipper.

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Comment by Grace

April 30, 2007 @ 9:11 am

It also occurs to me that different romance readers have different fantasies. That’s why there are so many romance “lines,” for example. So there is room for all, readers and heroes!

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Comment by Bron

May 3, 2007 @ 12:31 pm

Grace wrote:
I realize that my hero is probably unsalable when viewed in this framework. LOL Thanks muchly.

Grace, your hero sounds great to me! My suggested ‘types’ were only my draft thinking, and I was thinking more about personalities than actual occupation. The ‘warrior’ types, for example, wouldn’t necessarily be always a military man – but there’s a physicality in some heroes that goes beyond just physical strength. They do things with their hands, they’re active, when they face a problem they turn to physical activity (not just sex!) while they’re nutting it through. Two of Nora Roberts heroes in the Chesapeake Bay series – I’m lousy at remembering names, and don’t have the books handy, but I’m thinking of the racing driver and the boat builder – both fall into this style of hero in my mind. (Of course, my mind is a muddled, overwhelmed mess at the moment, so that might not mean much :-) )

I like your theme of ‘Romance you can believe in’ – it’s what I tend to write and read, too. But as you also say, there is a lot of diversity and many ‘lines’, so room for many different tastes and styles!

Jennie wrote:
I can’t define an alpha hero. I know what I like. Strength of character, a moral core that I can understand

Jennie, I suspect that the physical strength and confidence of the ‘Alpha’ hero is perhaps a shorthand/symbol meant to convey strength of character. I’m not always sure it works, although particularly in category romance there’s a lot to pack in in a shorter word count. Valerie commented about the fantasy of the heroine (and us) being ‘swept off our feet’ and having someone else take responsibility; and I can relate to that, although it’s not what I want to read all the time (because when I close the book, I’ve still got all that stuff to face, and I’d like inspiration to deal with it, not just escape it :-) )

Laura, I loved your ‘recipe’ for a novel! Unfortunately, though, many outside the genre would think it’s as simple as that, and of course it isn’t. Which is what set me off wondering if we need to expand our ways of describing the elements of the genre. There’s probably a research paper (or fifteen!) in analysis of hero-types and heroine-types in contemporary romance. (I’ll just add that to my To-Do list… but if someone else gets to it before me, go for it!!)

My personal preferences are for the more ‘real’ heroes, too, and I don’t tend to fantasise about them. They need to be right for the heroine, and interesting and likeable, but they don’t have to be my dream man (because he’s my DH, and I don’t want to read about him off with some other woman ;-) )

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