Justine: Making Your “Alpha Male” More Like Nature’s Alpha Males

We all know what sort of man an alpha male is…strong, usually buff, definitely tough, and the one who gives orders, not takes them. He typically gets what he wants when he wants it, and if he’s threatened, he’ll go up against that threat, even if it means getting physical.

The trope of the alpha male is alive and well in many romances these days. But is that what nature intended when she created alpha males?

Enter Frans de Waal, a primatologist and ethologist from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who has studied the behavior of alpha males in chimp societies. He recently gave a TED talk at TEDMED in Palm Springs, and what he’s found is that these alpha males display less bravado and machoism and more compassion and peacekeeping.

The term “alpha male” and “alpha female” were originally coined in the 1950’s by scientists studying wolves. “Alpha” denotes the highest-ranking male/female in a group. In every primate group, there is only ONE alpha male and female. The alpha is determined not necessarily by who is the biggest or the strongest, but by who can make everyone happiest.

See, primates, and chimps in particular, form what de Waal calls “coalitions,” or groups within the group. It is these groups that select candidates per se for the alpha, and are the ones who support the alpha once chosen. In one sample group that de Waal studied, the alpha wasn’t the oldest/biggest chimp, but rather a young one who did a good job at keeping everyone happy (and who had the support of the oldest chimp — a former alpha).

De Waal says that there are two primary things chimps must display convincingly in order to be deemed alpha. The first is strength (this isn’t unexpected — the alpha has to be able to protect his group). The second is more surprising — it’s generosity and compassion. Chimps vying for the alpha spot will exhibit very uncharacteristic behavior: sharing food, tickling babies (most males have no interaction with baby chimps), and currying favor with females, for example.

Obviously, the major benefit to being the alpha is the ability to have sex with the female chimps. But there are trade-offs. Alphas also have two major sets of responsibilities. Firstly, they have to maintain control and keep the peace. This means, in addition to defending their own position, breaking up fights between other chimps. Surprisingly, the alphas are remarkably good at not taking sides (i.e., picking mom/their mate over another group member). In fact, they will often support the underdog.

The other responsibility alphas have is to be the consoler-in-chief. Alphas do a lot of consoling, according to de Waal. He cites an example of a male chimp that had gotten into a fight…the alpha consoled the chimp by hugging him.

A good alpha will also earn — and keep — the respect of his group. de Waal told the story of an alpha who had gotten sick and lost his place at the top of the ladder…but that didn’t mean he was forgotten. Many members of his group would provide him with food and other comforts, such as bedding material, literally tucking it up behind him like a nurse (or a mother) would tuck a pillow behind your head. This demonstrates how characteristics deemed less “alpha” can actually go a long way in generating respect, even when they’re out of the top spot.

So…how does this relate to the alpha males we write in our stories? I think it leaves room for our guy to show a soft side, to demonstrate compassion, to stop fights rather than always start them, to solve problems with their brains and not their fists, and to tickle babies every now and then.

What do you think? Do any of these “natural” characteristics of alphas resonate with you? What do you look for in an alpha male? Or do you shun the trope entirely?

Justine: My Decision to Go Indie

jackrusselIn my long-ago, faraway dreams (reality check: when I started writing in earnest 5 years ago), I had always intended to be traditionally published. In fact, if you looked at my goal wall displayed prominently in my office, the goal right smack in the middle (after writing a good book and before being a bestselling author) was “traditional publication” with logos of some of the big publishing houses. I was always so certain of it…publication, that is, even knowing much of that decision was out of my hands.

Over time, I became a lot less certain. Things started happening…fellow Eight Lady Jeanne won the Golden Heart (which used to be carte blanche in terms of getting an agent/editor), but no one picked her up (she has since decided to go indie. Yay Jeanne!). Last September, I went on a writer’s cruise and the editor expounded on the genres that she couldn’t buy…historicals being one of them. I was unnerved by that, but didn’t let it deter me. Continue reading

Justine: Protecting Your Work Before You Copyright It

79097750 - autorship word cloud concept. vector illustrationThis past Friday, I attended a free webinar by the folks who do Masterclass (I had previously taken James Patterson’s class on writing and Aaron Sorkin’s class on screenwriting). The topic of the webinar was protecting your intellectual property before you copyright it, and it was presented in large part by folks who work for the Writer’s Guild of America West (WGAW…there is a sister organization, Writer’s Guild of America East. They do the same thing, but the organizations do not share information with each other).

I had always thought the Writer’s Guild was for screenwriters only, but it turns out any artist – as long as they can put their idea/story/script/play/lyrics on paper – can have their intellectual property protected. This topic is relevant to me right now because Continue reading

Justine: The Necessity of Do-Overs

resertI’ve been having a particularly nasty time with a chapter in my book. It’s an early chapter, the first in my heroine’s POV, and I’ve spent way too many hours editing and tweaking it. I’m struggling to get all the info I need to in order to lay the groundwork for the rest of the story without it being 6,000 words long.

There’s a lot of stuff I have to pack into it. Much of it revolves around my heroine’s misbelief…both revealing what it is as well as starting to tear it apart. This involves backstory reveals and confrontations – both character confrontations, as well as emotional ones within my character. Basically, truth versus perception, which upsets my character’s misbelief. (For more on misbelief, check out this post.)

After much consternation and gnashing teeth, I decided it’s time for a do-over. No more tweaking. Time to just rewrite it. And it turns out there may be science to back up my decision. Continue reading

Justine: A Text Lesson in Hooking Your Readers

My critique partner, Jenn Windrow, now teaches a class called “How to Be a Hooker,” which shows writers how to write an exciting hook for your book…basically the first 50-150 words. Catch your reader in those first few words, and they will hopefully keep reading. The idea is to lead with a hook. Something that gets the reader thinking, asks a question, or presents a challenge that the reader wants to figure out.

Back in the fall, I entered a contest for the first 50 words put on by the Ruby Slipper Sisterhood and Jenn helped me polish my entry. Below is our text conversation where I gave her intros and she gave me feedback, and I think it’s very insightful. At the end of this post, you can read the final version. Continue reading

Justine: Writing in a Vacuum Sucks

59612318 - woman with vacuum cleaner isolated on whiteI’m very fortunate to have two fantastic critique partners, Jenn and Lisa, that I meet with once a week. Every Tuesday, we hit the Red Robin in Scottsdale, AZ for lunch (because it’s close to Lisa’s office) and we talk about writing, swap critiqued pages, discuss story problems, or vent about our husbands and kids.

Jenn, Lisa, and I have all have a somewhat similar writing background. We’ve done multiple Immersions with Margie Lawson, so we all look for the same sort of rhetorical devices in our writing based on the lessons we’ve learned from Margie. We’ve also all taken similar plotting classes and while we none of us write in the same genre, we know each other’s stories well and we have a pretty good understanding of our respective writing styles so as not to suggest fixes that change each other’s stories into our own.

As good as that all is – and it’s really good – I think every writer needs Continue reading

Justine: Cold-Starting the Writing Process

A few weeks ago, fellow Eight Lady Jeanne shared with us a video of Diana Gabaldon’s cold start process…in other words, how she turns on her writing mojo when she’s stuck. Turns out, in this example, she used a Sotheby’s catalog to simulate her creativity.

Diana’s cold start process is vastly different from Jeanne’s, which gave her to think it would be interesting (and perhaps helpful) if all the Eight Ladies shared how we get going when the words just won’t come. So, starting today, for the next week, we’ll share the processes we use when we need to get writing. (No writer’s block for us!) Continue reading