Jilly: Alpha Males and Guilty Pleasures

Alpha Males & Guilty PleasuresHow alpha do you like your heroes? If your favorites are uber-dominant types, do they inhabit a sub-genre that expects or requires that behavior?

In my reading life I greatly enjoy alpha male asshattery. There are provisos: obviously the asshat in question must be a good guy deep down, he must have brains and a sense of humor, and he must be enlightened enough to respect and enjoy being challenged by a heroine who’s his equal and maybe even stronger.

Even with those provisos met, though, most of my favorite heroes indulge in the kind of high-handed, obnoxious behavior that I would find totally unacceptable in real life. It’s been on my mind this week, because I’m in the first draft of a new story and I’m gradually filling in all sorts of details about my hero. As I’m writing contemporary romance, it’s closer to home, and I’m finding it tricky to get the balance right. I found it a struggle with the previous book, too: after reading my opening scene from an early draft (a McDaniel College romance writing assignment), Jenny Crusie said she’d keep reading, but only in the hope that my hero, Ian, would get hit by a bus. She wasn’t the only one to offer that kind of feedback. I had to clip Ian’s wings a bit 😉

I love the humor and snark of contemporary romance, but my favorite heroes come from historicals, paranormals, urban fantasy and suspense – everything but contemporary, in fact, and I suppose it’s because the most extreme manifestations of the alpha trope work best in sub-genres where dominant behavior is not just condoned, but expected and/or necessary. Frex:

Historical: Mr. Darcy (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice). Good-looking, loaded, intelligent, aristocratic, and brought up by his family and polite society to be arrogant, selfish and snobbish.

Historical: Vidal (Georgette Heyer, Devil’s Cub). Handsome, loaded, aristocratic, spoiled, volatile and casually violent product of his times. Also self-aware, very funny, and utterly brilliant.

Historical: Dain (Loretta Chase, Lord of Scoundrels). Powerfully built, classically educated, sardonic, outrageous, damaged, politically incorrect even by the licentious standards of 19th-century Paris. When the heroine calls him ‘the greatest whoremonger in Christendom,’ she’s not kidding.

Urban Fantasy: Curran (Ilona Andrews, Kate Daniels series). The Beast Lord, a shape-shifting super-lion who’s supreme leader of all the shape-shifters in an alternative, magical Atlanta. By definition he’s dominant, all-powerful, politically cunning, violent by nature and necessity. He speaks first, eats first, and his word is law.

Urban Fantasy: Adam (Patricia Briggs Mercy Thompson series). A soldier-turned-Alpha werewolf. A passionate man’s man with old-fashioned values transformed into pack politician, strong leader and tireless protector in the kill-or-be-killed world of shape-shifter and vampire power games.

Romantic Suspense: Joe Faroe (Elizabeth Lowell, The Wrong Hostage). Jaded, tough, confident, ruthless undercover operative for St. Kilda Consulting, totally at home in the shadow world of drugs, kidnapping, dirty money and dirtier politics.

Romantic Suspense: Max Bhagat (Suzanne Brockmann, Troubleshooters series). Commander of the FBI’s elite counter-terrorism unit, a brilliant, driven leader who pushes himself and everyone who works for him to the limit and beyond, doesn’t believe in excuses and has no life except his job.

Romantic Adventure: Shane (Jenny Crusie, Agnes and the Hitman). Shane was brought up by a retired wise guy and now kills people for the government. Tall, dark and laconic, he’s not big on small talk but he does what needs to be done.

I’ve read that one reason 1970s romance plots were so rape-y was that it was the only publishable way for the heroine to discover and eventually enjoy her sexuality, and the only socially permissible way for women to read about it. Only bad girls were allowed to want and enjoy a sex life, and they eventually got punished for it.

For me, I think part of the fun of non-contemporary romantic sub-genres is that they offer a more acceptable way to enjoy throwback male heroes. Even if the only permission we need these days is from ourselves, it makes for a more comfortable guilty pleasure if the story is set in a context that justifies all that chest-beating.

That’s my theory, anyway. What do you think?


12 thoughts on “Jilly: Alpha Males and Guilty Pleasures

  1. (-: I like an alpha male, but only when a beta female puts him very firmly in his place, and gets him to rethink his attitude and lifestyle. Which I guess makes him a beta male after all . . . . Lord of Scoundrels seems to be in this category for me. He is only redeemed by Jess. who ties him down and makes him behave properly.

    I’m more attracted to the brainy type of hero. When I was younger, it included those wounded geniuses who just needed a good woman to take him in hand and set him straight. But these days, I prefer a bright boy who knows how to work with women. Ideally, he’d have a sister and a mother, and several good female friends in addition to his male buddies who are also Not Crude.

    • Jess changes Dain for the better, but she’s an unorthodox, alpha-esque type of woman herself. She’s an expert sharp-shooter, knowledgeable about boxing and gets turned on by her husband brawling semi-naked in the yard of an inn, and her view of Dain’s floozies is that she’d have had them too, if she’d been a man, and she’d have known how much to pay. She looks lady-like, but she really isn’t, so I think they’ll go on and behave improperly together.

      A brainy, bright boy who knows how to work with women is exactly what I like in real life, but I’m struggling to think of a fictional example. I’m game to try, though. Do you have any favorites?

      • Well, I’d argue that Jess is something else. She’s a loner, while being an alpha kind of implies that there’s a pack following you. She defers to her Grandmother. She doesn’t have a gaggle of girlfriends. But Dain? Definitely got a gaggle of boys hanging on his every exploit. He’s really quite Alpha, as I think of Alpha.

        As for Brainy Bright Boys, well, there’s Miles Vorkosigan. And to some extent, his father Aral. Aral is an Alpha who is fairly well adjusted (by the time our heroine meets him).

        Sherlock is a Brainy Bright Boy who doesn’t work well with anyone, male or female.

        Cal from Bet Me is a Brainy Bright Boy with a learning disability — and come to think of it, so are his buddies to a certain extent. He’s also Alpha.

        A Bollywood Affair features a traditional, asshat Alpha who is also brainy and talented. For some reason, Sam doesn’t hit either of my bookend triggers — he’s not too much of an asshole, yet, he’s not a whiny, helpless baby underneath it all.

        Oh, and there’s Peter Grant from the Rivers of London books. He’s really quite bright, but he’s young and inexperienced. He’s also NOT a romantic hero yet. But maybe he could learn to be one later in the series. He’s a young man, learning his trade and playing the field.

        I’m trying to think of a bright, brainy boy that you haven’t heard of, but am coming up empty. It definitely is a thing. A lot of these guys aren’t really Alphas, but they aren’t Betas either. Many of them aren’t part of the pack, but stand outside of their pack.

  2. I love, love, love Alpha males (actually, I love lots of Betas, too – so apparently I’m fairly undiscriminating). I think you’ve made the crucial point that they work best in an environment where their behaviour is not only socially acceptable but is often admirable. I’ve been reading lots of crazy Julie Garwood books recently, with very Alpha males – but they are leaders of their clan (or whatever) and they need to be like that to succeed. OTOH, I don’t like their contemporary equivalents, the billionaire romances because, too often I just think what a jerk (because I really wouldn’t excuse that behaviour in real life). Don’t get me wrong, I do still like contemporary Alphas (just reading some great Jill Shalvis) but they have to come with a sense of humour and a softer side to them.

    And speaking of Jess and Dain, the other BIG reason I love Alpha men is because it generally takes an Alpha woman to tame them (at least in the stories I like – I can’t be bothered with Alpha man being tamed by ‘little me’ heroine) – and I love an Alpha heroine (The Grand Sophy is a great Alpha heroine I think, what do you think?) at least as much, if not more, than an Alpha hero. Actually, that would be a good post – what books can you think of with terrific Alpha heroines?

    • Everything you just said, Rachel. I like contemporary Alphas, but I think they have to have more humour and give or they do come across as jerkish. Outside of a life-and-death romantic suspense situation, there’s less excuse for testosterone-fuelled behaviour in a contemporary setting.

      I love the Grand Sophy, and I think she’s a wonderful Alpha heroine. I love Charles, too, and the subtext of that book is stunning – from quite early on in the book they understand each other perfectly, and not a word of it is on the surface.

      You want to talk Alpha heroines? I have some ideas. How about next Sunday 😉 ???

  3. I agree that writers now probably put the alpha male in a context and subgenre where it makes sense and/or is attractive to contemporary female readers. I think that might be why I don’t read much in the way of historicals or fantasy/sci fi: I’m not generally drawn to alpha males. When it makes sense—especially as necessity—in the story, I’m fine, as exemplified in your examples, many of which I’ve read. And I like Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books, and just about every male in those books is alpha.

    Hilarious, what Jenny said about Ian in the first draft. At least she’d keep reading!

  4. Hmm. A lot to think about here. I’m wondering now if that’s how I wound up in the paranormal realm. It does give the author (and reader) permission to love alpha heroes whom they wouldn’t tolerate in real life.

    • That’s an interesting point, but I think there’s a lot of room in fantasy and sci-fi for everyone — Alpha heroes, Beta heroes (although, I can’t think of any off the top of my head), and the Lone Wolf. Ivan Vorpatril of the Vorkosigan series might count as a Beta (not the planet, the type, LOL) hero. He’s a perfect example of someone who pulls in his connections with his pack to save the day, and still be the main character.

  5. Pingback: Jilly: Strong Women and Alpha Heroines | Eight Ladies Writing

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