Monday, February 07, 2005

The Care and Writing of Alpha Males

Anybody who has ever read anything of mine knows I love Alpha Males. There's nothing like a guy with a wolfish gleam in his eyes and a confident grin to make me melt -- or maybe it's the broad shoulders and abs to die for.

Either way, he knows what's best, and he's supremely confident in himself and his abilities. He's protective, he's intelligent, and sometimes he can be more than a little ruthless in the pursuit of his goals.

The one thing he is NOT is politically correct. He can make any self-respecting feminist grind her teeth even as she gives serious thought to tripping him and beating him to the floor.

In other words, he can be a bear to write, because hot as he is, he's easy to get wrong. And no character can make you slam a book against a wall quicker than an alpha male gone bad. There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance, protectiveness and condescension. And woe betide the writer who gets it wrong, because readers and reviewers alike will rake her over the coals for creating a sexist pig hero.

The best clue about how to do alphas right is look at the way they were done wrong in the bad old days of bodice rippers, back in the 1970s and 80s.

Now, I will readily admit I was hooked on bodice rippers. I loved every politically incorrect word, including those OH-so-bad forcible seductions that sometimes edged into outright violence. In retrospect, I'm not sure what I was thinking.

Except that some of those guys were seriously HOT.

I've been thinking about those books lately -- about why they seemed to work then when now they make my skin crawl. I remember one hero in a book I must have read five or six times who outright beat the heroine. He threw her down the stairs, broke her ribs and locked her in a dungeon to starve when she was pregnant with his baby. In the end, of course, he realizes He Done Her Wrong, but only after the villain cut off one of his testicles and he gets beaten to a pulp and shot three or four times. The heroine, of course, saves him. At the moment, I can't imagine why. Personally, I think she should have done the shooting.

Why did I READ that thing? And who in their right mind could imagine it qualified as a romance?

Part of the reason those old heroes were such ring-tailed bastards is they were actually the book's villains. The focus of the novel had to be almost entirely on the romance, so to have any conflict at all, the hero had to supply it. (If we have a romance where the hero is a Nice Man who behaves like a total gentleman -- and there is no other major external conflict -- you'd have something like a 400-page Hallmark Card. Not only would it bore the snot out of you, it would be so sweet, it would give you cavities.)

Then you add in a lingering attitude that Good Girls Didn't, and you had a recipe for rape as a courting technique. If he took her by force, she could remain saintly and long-suffering while discretely enjoying the sex. Never mind that in real life, nobody has a good time in rape except the rapist -- and HIS real objective is violence, power and abuse, not sex.

So what does this tell us about writing an alpha hero NOW?

First off, a modern alpha male romance hero has to be a hero before he's anything else. Yes, he can also be a ruthless stone killer who can snap a man's neck with his bare hands -- but he's still got to have a heroic core. He needs a set of bedrock values he won't violate, period. He doesn't abuse those smaller and weaker than he is, especially women and kids. His sense of honor does not permit it.

That was not true of the bodice ripper alphas. They were more than happy to abuse the heroine, sometimes simply to revenge themselves on some relative or family member of hers.

Now, I'm not saying a modern alpha can't have some serious dark spots in his character. Everybody loves a rogue, a bad boy -- or even a plain ol' badass. For one thing, they're sexy. But you have to set them up right.

If we're setting up a really nasty alpha -- the stone killer I mentioned -- we need to establish some positive characteristics up front, along with all the lethal skills. We need to see his loyalty to his friends and comrades at arms. We need to show him dealing with somebody he cares about, so the reader can be reasonably confident This Guy Is Not A Creep. Maybe we can start out with a scene showing him with the buddies from his unit, joking and carrying on. Maybe one of them teases him about his cat. Maybe he's got pictures of his brother's kid in his locker, next to his box of ammo.

I remember years ago, there was an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie in which he played a Russian agent. He had his watch set to go off to remind him to feed his parakeet. He loved that bird. You need to give your stone killer the equivalent, because it will humanize him.

Robots are not sexy.

But the single most important characteristic we must give him is respect for the heroine. It may start out slowly and grudgingly -- he may think she's a ditz at first. But over time, he must learn that she's smart and capable, and that she can take care of herself. Even though he'd much rather protect her himself.

Prime examples of this are Eve and Roarke from J.D. Robb's IN DEATH series. Both Eve and Roarke are alphas (if there is a more kickass romance heroine on the planet than Eve Dallas, I have yet to meet her). In fact, one of the reasons Roarke falls so hard for Eve from the first is because she's so smart and so capable.

Which stands to reason. Think about it: if you're brilliant, capable, and strong, are you really going to want a clinging dishrag for a lover? I don't think so. You may bang somebody like that, but you're not going to fall in love with her.

So if you're going to create an alpha hero, he needs an alpha heroine -- or at least a heroine who will fight him toe to toe when she thinks he's in the wrong. For one thing, those kinds of characters are more interesting. Good conflict comes from strong people disagreeing. And you won't have a good romance without good conflict.

I also think the reverse is true, which is something you may want to consider if you're writing a kickass heroine. If you pair an alpha heroine with a beta hero, you're going to have a very hard time getting the romance to work. I'm not sure the readers will go for it, either. They're going to feel that the heroine will walk all over the hero, and they're going to give the relationship about six months before it falls apart.

So ideally, your hero and heroine need to be equals. I'm not talking about physical equals, but equals in the sense that both play a role in solving the external conflict. They have to work together (at least as soon as they quit fighting long enough).

Which means you should never have one or the other character stand back during the final fight to the death with the villain. You used to see this all the time in movies: the heroine stands around wringing her hands while her hero fights for his life. Don't DO that. Have her grow a spine. Hit the bad guy with a lamp. Do SOMETHING, even if it fails.

And for CRYING out loud, NEVER have an alpha stand by while the heroine fights the villain. I've seen people do this, and it's just a bad idea. Forget feminism -- any self respecting alpha is NOT going to stand there while the woman he loves is in danger. Not happening. You do that to him, you've turned him into a piece of cardboard and the readers will not respect him.

If necessary, use multiple bad guys to keep both parties busy.

Now for the good part: Sex.

Sex is a big part of what alphas are all about, particularly in erotic romance. But it's in the bedroom that you really have to be most careful with your alpha.

Unless she's a werewolf or a vampire or something, he's probably going to be stronger than his heroine. And he's got to be very aware of that. He needs to be careful of his strength, and deeply concerned that he's not forcing something on her she doesn't want.

We need to establish up front that the attraction between them goes both ways -- AND HE KNOWS IT. Particularly if you're doing a captor/captive romance where consent can get a little gray. You must establish that whatever sex games they're playing, he's not a rapist and has no interest in become one.

If she says no, he stops. Period. None of this, "But you really want it." Uh uh. That's the oldest rapist line in the book, and readers know it. Nothing will creep them out faster. If your hero uses that line, HE IS NO LONGER A HERO. It's the third rail of romance, ladies.

So there must be a moment in the sexual encounter where he gives her a choice -- and she chooses to have sex with him. It needs to be really clear to the hero, the heroine and the reader.

One trick I've used is have him stop. Have him say, "I'm not hearing yes, so I'm out the door." At that point, the heroine, who REALLY wants him, says, "All right, dammit!" And we're off.

A good alpha must also, obviously, be really good in bed. His focus is not on his own pleasure: it's on hers, on making sure she's aroused and ready before he gets down to the good stuff.

In romance the heroine, like the customer, always comes first. And our hero, leader of men or not, definitely follows her lead.

Also -- and I see this all the time -- do not make your alpha a jackrabbit. Two thrusts and he's done? Please. No woman is that quick on the trigger. She's going to be lying there plotting to kill him from sheer frustration. He may be holding on to control by his fingernails, but he's got to keep going for her.

Otherwise, what kind of hero is he?

Well, that's all I can think of at the moment. If there's anything else you'd like me to discuss on this topic, feel free to drop by my website for my e-mail addy. Plus there's lots of yummy eyecandy there too.


Morgan Hawke said...

Damn fine article!
- and I agree 100%~!

Morgan Hawke

Sam said...

I never met an alpha male I liked.
(In real life)
In fiction it's another story. Give me a choice between Hans Solo and Luke Skywalker and it's no contest. (Sorry Luke, you're a nice guy and you swing a mean light sabre, but I just know you'd want the lights off in the spaceship...)
But Hans has that big, cocky grin. (And no doubt most women would take the grin right off that last phrase.)
But you're right - because Alpha males are so unromantic in real life (I mean it seriously) they are incredibly hard to portray in fiction and get it right. And your point about the heroine is right on target. Nothing worse than a doormat heroine and an alpha male together in the same book.
I'll admit - I've slammed more than one book shut on an alpha male who came off as too realistic. Does that sound odd? You put it very well here...and you also manage to make your alphas hot!

D. said...

I hated bodice rippers -- not so much because of the forcible stuff, but because the single-minded obstinacy of the heroes seemed -- still does -- more dumb than powerful. And oh so conservative. That's what strikes me as funny in many modern AMs -- despite the kinky sex, the male hotness, the relative youth -- most of them are more conservative and old-fashioned in their social attitudes than a Republican Grandfather from Midwest. They might look like GQ models and use pink furry handcuffs in bedroom, but out of bedroom... a girl wants to yell, hello, twenty first century here! (grin)

I think it might be exactly what you are talking about -- in order to seem heroic, he must have an unwavering set of values -- yet this very factor strips him of mental flexibility. Most AMs are set in their ways stone-hard, add them always being sure they are always right, and you have a rigid mindset, which, IMHO, is not a particularly flattering character feature.

Then we have what too many AMs turn into -- a big brute with a heart of gold, straightforward like a rail. Due to the hard-set values and the typical macho behaviour, an AM becomes predictable.

Daria, who, on the other hand, is often accused of having "mean and crafty" heroes, LOL

Michelle said...

Angela! Awesome article hon! Rock on! And you got that right about the two thrust trigger...had a good laugh on that one!
Fantastic stuff!

Lynn said...

Great article! You know, I'm sure I read romances in the 80s, but I just don't remember the bodice rippers. Might have to dig back through my old books just to see if I can find one. *g*

I love writing a good Alpha. They're fun. My first, and Alpha before I even knew what an Alpha was, is all the things you mentioned with a little arrogance thrown in. By-product of his job. But still, he had strong morals and ethics, and a total marshmallow once you got past that hard exterior.

That said, I spent half the time writing that book wanting to jump him myself, and the other half dying to kick him in the shins.

Sasha White said...

Great Job! Thanks for the insight Angela!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Angela! My first time dropping in on your blog, and you touched on one of my favorite topics. I love Alpha males, and that's all I'll write. How he can be strong, dominating, but the right woman can drive him to his knees. Excellent article!


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Scott said...

Hey, I was searching blogs, and came onto yours, and I like it. I kinda landed here on accident while searching for something esle, but nice blog.. I got you bookmarked.

Mari Miniatt said...

What you describe as an Alpha are the same qualities I would give to a good Anti-Hero, except the Anti-hero can get away with not having good looks.

You are right, they have to have some set of values (even if the reader doesn't not agree with them) and something soft about them.

Favorite example from a movie "The Patriot" In a deleted scene; Tavington (the evil British officer) is seen picking a flower and admiring it. Just before he walks into a building a tortures some one.

Amy Pouse said...

Really good points you have here!

Happily I can say that the alpha I am writing about already meets the criteria, but it was neat to see exactly why I want him to meet the criteria in the first place.

It is true the older stories were atrocious when it came to the males treatment of their female counterparts. I remember one where he actually started out by raping her. Only after that did he get to interact a bit and decide that he liked her. Lame.

Angela Knight said...

I haven't read this blog in a while, so thank you for returning it to my attention. Glad to hear you agree with me, and that your hero qualifies as a hero. Best of luck with your book!