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.