Jilly: Strong Women and Alpha Heroines

Alpha HeroinesHow strong do you like your heroines? Do you think there’s a difference between a strong heroine and an Alpha? If so, do you have a preference?

Last Sunday I wrote about my theory that Alpha Male heroes work best in sub-genres like paranormal romance, historicals, or romantic suspense, the idea being that extreme manifestations of dominant behavior are fun to read about in worlds where such behavior is not only expected, but necessary. In a setting that’s closer to real life, like contemporary romance, the reader’s tolerance for macho chest-beating is much, much lower.

In last week’s discussion, regular 8 Ladies visitor Rachel Beecroft said “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). Yes! Exactly what Rachel said, and we agreed we’d follow up today with a discussion of our favorite Alpha heroines.

I’ve been pondering mine all week, and chewing on another comment, made by Michaeline about Jessica and Dain in Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels: “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.”

That gave me a brain-worm, because while I could see where Micki was coming from, the more I thought about it, the more I wasn’t sure I agreed with her. Which means that my definition of Alpha isn’t the same as hers.

I took the obvious course of action and asked Mr. Google. He wasn’t particularly helpful, but he did offer a few limited dictionary definitions (‘the dominant male animal in a particular group or a man tending to assume a dominant or domineering position in social or professional situations’) along with page after page of Urban This and Lads’ That about how to achieve said dominant or domineering social position and have first pick of all the hot girls. Sigh.

In the end, I decided to write my own definition and offer it up for discussion. For me, there are three elements to Alpha-ship:

Dominance. The man or woman must be the most powerful character in their environment or sphere of influence. They must enforce this dominance, be strong enough to defend it, and willing to defeat any and all challengers.

Leadership. The Alpha character must set the rules of behavior in their environment or sphere of influence and must enforce those rules.

Protection. By assuming the position of dominant leader of the group, the Alpha also assumes the obligation of protecting the weaker members (which by definition is all other members) against all external threats.

Emphasizing the protective aspect may be where I differ from Micki, but I think it’s an important part of what distinguishes an alpha heroine from a strong one.

The brain worm is still wriggling, so I picked some authors from last week’s post about Alpha heroes and took a closer look at a heroine or two.

Loretta Chase

I’d say most of Loretta Chase’s heroines are Alpha, which is why I love them so much. What about Lydia Grenville from The Last Hellion? She’s clever, outspoken, fiercely independent, works as a journalist, and crusades against innocent girls being trafficked into prostitution. She dominates her world by sheer force of personality and protects the vulnerable with no help except an oversized dog and the noble but dispreputable hero. Or Marcelline from Silk is For Seduction, a talented and ambitious dressmaker who wants to be undisputed top dog among London’s premiere modistes, and who is leader, driver and protector of her family (her sisters and daughter). I’d even argue for Jessica from Lord of Scoundrels (sorry, Micki) – she comes to Paris to rescue her hapless younger brother, and even his servants have no doubt she’ll do it. Then she turns her sights on Dain, and finally his son.

Ilona Andrews

Magical urban fantasy is great territory for Alpha heroines. Kate Daniels (Kate Daniels series) has powerful secrets, scary fighting skills, and was brought up to help no-one and rely on nobody, but she sets about building, leading and protecting her own small community (a dog, a street urchin, a semi-outcast from the Shapeshifter pack). And there’s Nevada Baylor, heroine of the new Hidden Legacy series. After her father’s death, Nevada takes over the family’s private investigation firm. Her family is wonderful, more hilarious and dysfunctional than Stephanie Plum’s, she’s indebted to a large, powerful organization which makes her take on a case she can never win, but she leads and protects and fights for her family with everything she’s got, which turns out to be more than she realized.

Georgette Heyer

I’m voting for Deb Grantham, of Faro’s Daughter. She runs a gaming hell and undoubtedly rules the roost, juggling financial difficulties and wealthy admirers while trying to keep her hapless aunt and impetuous brother from ruin. Or The Grand Sophy, who adopts and reorganizes and rules her aunt’s entire household from the moment she arrives in London? Or Frederica?

I also found some excellent, strong heroines who don’t fit my Alpha criteria but still pack enough punch to make a lasting HEA for themselves with an Alpha hero. Mary Challoner, from my all-time fave Heyer Devil’s Cub, is a dominant personality but she is not a leader, nor will she become one. Many of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ heroines are powerful loners who find their place in the hero’s community (Kiss an Angel, Nobody’s Baby But Mine). Elizabeth Lowell’s Hope and Faith Donovan (Jade Island, Midnight in Ruby Bayou) are strong-minded women fighting to make themselves heard in a family of powerful, dominant men. I’d even say Lizzy Bennet is a determined, independent woman who finds her place at the side of Alpha Darcy.

As long as the hero and heroine are both strong enough to sustain a powerful struggle for a whole book or series, and community is an important element of the story, I don’t think the book has to be an Alphabattle to make it to my keeper shelf. I’m not sure. Maybe next week I’ll look at that shelf in more detail.

Do you agree with my definition of what makes an Alpha?

How Alpha are your favorite heroines?

17 thoughts on “Jilly: Strong Women and Alpha Heroines

  1. I completely agree with your definition, Jilly. I think protectiveness is important for both male and female Alphas. One thing I would add is not just the fact of dominance but almost an assumption on the part of the Alpha (whether male or female) that this is the natural order of things. They could be born to it or have fought their way up – it makes no odds, the point is that they are used to being in charge (it’s not something they think about). And that one of the key points of the Alphabattle (I so love that phrase) – another Alpha comes along and doesn’t want to play by their rules. All of those books you mention has that characteristic, whereas, as you say, Mary Challoner doesn’t, and nor does, Arabella, another example of a strong Heyer heroine who is not, I would say, an Alpha.

    One really interesting thing about this discussion is it does bring to mind how little time the romance community spend talking about heroines, as opposed to heroes.

    I’m going to see if I can think of some great Alphabattles that you haven’t mentioned (while I’m watching the children at the soft play centre!) – more later.

    • Oh, and I also wanted to say that I think the loner can be an Alpha – although they must be looking on some level for their ‘pack’ – and I think this is perhaps more common with female protagonists than male (in, say, historical romance) because of the relative lack of opportunities for women to be in charge. So, you could argue that a female Alpha would rather be alone than subjugated to the demands of someone else… I’m not sure about this, just a theory I’m testing out. Feel free to disagree. Definitely going to soft play now!

      • I (think) a character who’s naturally a loner would always be that way, though maybe you could have two loners find happiness together (??), but you could have a loner character who’s temperamentally an Alpha. Maybe he lost his community through Circumstances, or he’s rejecting the role because Circumstances, or he’s never had that role and doesn’t understand that’s where he’d be happiest.

        I’d say Loretta Chase does this with Dain and Ainswood. As Micki said, Dain has a gaggle of boys hanging on his every last exploit, though he doesn’t care whether they follow him or not. It’s been happening to him since school. He rejects the role because of his childhood and upbringing, but people follow him anyway. Similarly Ainswood came into his title because he lost his family, everyone he loved, through illness, and he never wants to open himself up to that loss again. So he makes himself into a lone wolf but it’s not his natural state.

        Actually, because of the pack-like nature of family, I’d say there are opportunities in historicals for a female to dominate, but they’d do it from a domestic power base (all those dragon Aunts and terrifying Mamas!). Somebody like Lady Aurelia in Unknown Ajax – her husband is an influential politician and officially head of the household, but there’s no doubt who’s in charge. That said, the idea of marriages being arranged for reasons other than love give so much more opportunity for an Alpha type woman to get trapped in the wrong marriage or have to avoid it or make some drastic alternative choice.

  2. (-: It’d be a boring old world if we all had the same definitions of things. A lot of what defines an alpha for me is what I’ve picked up from reading about chimpanzees and other primates. (Franz de Waal is the name that sticks in my mind, but I know there are others writing about this.) (-: It’s definitely an armchair view.

    So, I don’t think a character can be an alpha without the beta and the gamma. But, alphas can be male or female.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frans-de-waal/alpha-females-i-have-know_b_63400.html This article is by De Waal, and is quite interesting for this discussion. It’s not the strongest nor the nastiest, but the best-connected. So, I just finished re-reading Cotillion (thanks, Justine!), and Freddy’s mother, Lady Legerwood, is probably an alpha female. Our heroine, Kitty, has the makings of being an alpha female later on. She’s already creating her network and making her reputation.

    In Jennifer Crusie’s book Bet Me, Min isn’t an alpha, although she does get stuff done. I would have to say that Liza is the alpha of the bunch. She gets things moving again, and she’s very well connected to everyone and everything.

    Dain’s Jessica could possibly be considered an alpha female in her household. But she isn’t one in the wider society. She’s an outsider who builds her own community. (And thinking back, Jessica deferred to her Grandmother, who may have been an alpha. Grandmother was certainly a strong personality.)

    Alpha is just a type, though. A lot of people like stories where women come into their power. A lot of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ novels start with a weak heroine who learns to become strong (a few of them become alphas, although sometimes they are the alpha of a male community, not a mixed one).

    One more thought: it’s easier for a writer to not write alphas. Because as soon as you’ve got alphas, you’ve got a pack, and you’ve got subplots that could detract from the main plot. But when a strong outsider meets a strong outsider (comin’ through the rye), you can get lovely sparks. Perhaps Venetia (Georgette Heyer) would be a good example of this.

    (-: Just some rambles. I’m still putting together a grand unified theory of human pack behavior, LOL!

    • Interesting article, Michaeline, thank you for the link! The idea of the best-connected or at least strongly-supported heroine makes me think of Meg, the heroine of Anne Bishop’s Written in Red and subsequent books. She builds a mighty power base just by being herself.

      I think there’s plenty of room for a pack or community in a full-length romance novel, and for a series it’s a positive necessity. The subplots have to support the main plot though, not detract from it, while offering promises for the future.

      • That was an interesting article, Michaeline. I liked the part about age being important for women.

        I’ve just flicked through my past six months kindle purchases and could only find one woman who remotely fitted the bill – Olivia from Last Night’s Scandal (I absolutely adore that book). She isn’t an Alpha yet – too young and silly in the best possible way) – but she absolutely will be one day. But how interesting that I couldn’t find more Alpha heroines – because I love them, so it’s not that I’m not buying that sort of story when I come across it.

        One of my favourite series from the past year was C S Pacat’s Captive Prince series – it’s a m/m and I loved it because even though it was about master/slave (not normally my cup of tea), the fact that it was two absolutely alpha men made the dynamics different (and more interesting) than a male/female master/slave relationship (which I just find too uncomfortable). I mention this because I now realise that perhaps I loved it because of the death of Alpha heroines.

        Hands up anyone who is writing an Alpha heroine, apart from Jeanne below?

        • Hm. Rose is not, though both the main influences in her life (mother and aunt) most definitely are, and I think she has the potential to grow into it (near the end of the book, she says ‘I think there may be more of my mother in me than I realised’). Mary definitely has Alpha qualities – ask me again when I’ve finished the book 😉 . Now we’ve had this discussion, I’ll be paying more attention.

          I think definitely Michille’s heroine in Antigone Rising – establishing a home for single mothers, creating a community from the residents, and taking on the whole small-town political hierarchy to make it work.

        • Would you describe Ian as an Alpha? (Yes?) or Sasha? (Yes again?).

          I was going to describe my new heroine, Phoebe, as an Alpha until I read the article Michaeline pointed us to – she is an outsider coming into London society, with no powerbase (which proves to be a problem), so perhaps she is ‘just’ a strong woman. She is a fixer, basically. This has also made me think about Alphas more generally, and I now realise that my hero is an Alpha in one part of his life (he is a professional cricketer and a leader of men there – an absolute Alpha there) but not in the rest of his life (he is drowning in the debt of his estate and, thanks to his father, believes he is pretty useless and incapable of sorting it out) – he will be an Alpha in the fullness of time. Also, having never thought about it before Michaeline’s article, I do think age is a factor. My couple are young: 25 and 22, and so they aren’t there yet.

          I also love Jeanne’s description of her hero below – an Alpha stuck in a Beta’s role. Real food for thought here… thanks for this post, Jilly, I’ve found it interesting AND useful!

        • Ian yes, absolutely. Sasha, no, she’s super-dominant but she has no pack. She’s a loner by upbringing and conditioning. There *might* be something else, buried very deep, but it would take something powerful to break through her defences, and that’s a story for another day 😉 .

        • Absolutely nothing wrong with a strong young woman. She might be an alpha one day, but that’s not the biggest story of her life (yet).

          And I was thinking along the same lines, Rachel. I think animals mostly have one pack, and maybe (maybe!) a clique within the pack. But as modern humans, we have a variety of packs. Some people are alpha all the way, while others are alpha at work, but not at home (or vice versa). It must be exhausting to be an alpha . . . .

      • I agree with the idea that we can be alpha in one sphere of our lives but not another. In fiction terms I think maybe that’s how two alphas find a happy life together – each has an area of dominance or leadership, their mate values and respects that strength, and their life is balanced enough to give each of them their area of dominance, or they have to change to find that balance.

  3. With my usual self-absorption, I applied this to Belial and Dara. Belial is a lone wolf. I’d say the way Hell functions leaves him no alternative, but if he were more of a people person (demon person? demon demon?) he would have found a way around this, or at least have made some inroads. Which would, no doubt, have made Satan execute or exile him long ago.

    Which means he’s an Alpha stuck in a Beta role, And provides another reason for why he’d be happier on Earth, even if the lifetime is limited.

    Dara, on the other hand, is definitely an Alpha in that she’s really strong and she protects her pack. But because all the subplots are on Belial’s side of the table, her pack relationships aren’t well-developed. And I can’t really change that without making it more her book than his.

    All of which gives me really useful things to think about as I work on the next book. I knew I wanted the community to be stronger in this one, and this provides another reason why.

    • Yeah, I’ll bet a demon’s demon would be something else entirely 😉 Glad you’re getting some food for thought from this – me, too. I’m thinking about Alphabattles and which characters have community and your point about Belial and Dara is an interesting one. Hm. Might have to explore this more next week.

  4. Chiming in late here, but the thing I find interesting is that lots of the alpha heroines mentioned here aren’t necessarily of the kick-ass variety. I very often find this type of heroine to be tiresome —they’re like men with vaginas, all brute force in the name of agency.

    • I suspect brute force might be some people’s definition of alpha, but it’s not mine, and I agree it can be tiresome to read. My most super-forceful woman (Sasha) is powerful and dangerous but in my mind she’s definitely not alpha – she’s lone wolf.

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