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?

Jilly: RWA Retrospective

Have you made a major step change recently, in your writing, or your work, or any other part of your life, big or small?

Shortly after this post is published, I’ll be packing my bags ready to fly to Orlando for my fifth RWA National conference. I’m really looking forward to it, but I’m also expecting it to be my last, at least for a little while.

Partly it’s the expense. I think the conference itself is excellent value at $500 for three full days of quality workshops, keynotes, pitch sessions, awards and so on. Likewise, hotel costs of just over $100 per night for a shared room is reasonable. The problem is that when I add on a transatlantic airfare, plus an extra night or two for recovery time, plus meals, transfers and other incidentals, I’m looking at a fairly significant investment, and I feel as though I’m now at the point where I could make better use of that kind of money.

If you’d told me four years ago that by July 2017 I’d still be unpublished and unagented, I don’t think I’d have believed you. The biggest lesson I’ve learned Continue reading

Jilly: Dunbar’s Number for Writers and Readers

How many authors are on your mental auto-buy checklist? How many are on your keeper shelf? And how long have those authors been at the heart of your reading universe?

I’ve been noodling around with these questions for some time—a couple of years, probably—ever since I first read about Dunbar’s Number. If you’re not familiar with the concept, Wikipedia describes it as a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. Or, to put it crudely: there’s a limit to the number of people your brain has space for.

Dunbar’s Number has been around since the 1990s, but I came across it when I started writing fiction with an eye to publication and realized that meant I’d have to get to grips with social media. If you’d like to know more about the idea in the context of online relationships, click here for a Youtube link to anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s 15-minute Tedx talk: Can The Internet Buy You More Friends?

If you’d prefer the short version, it goes something like this: we humans maintain social relationships at various levels of intimacy, and the number of people we have the capacity to manage at each level is more or less predictable.

  • We have a very inner core of intimate friends and relations, people we would turn to in times of deep emotional stress. Typically there are about five of them.
  • We have a group of best friends, people we know well, confide in, trust, spend time with. That group would likely be about fifteen people, including the inner five.
  • The next closest layer, good friends, would be about fifty people (including the first fifteen);

Continue reading

Justine: Flexing Your Writing Muscles

manlifting-weightsIn many ways, writing is like working out. The more you do it, the easier it is, and the more stamina you have. On the flip side, when you stop working out, it’s a bitch to get back into it again.

One of my New Years Resolutions was to get moving for 30 minutes a day. Aside from not writing, I’ve also been neglecting myself, and I decided, after reading this stunning NY Times article about how much of your LIFE you can lose by being inactive, that I needed to Continue reading

Jilly: 2017 In A Word

PublishHappy New Year! Here’s wishing you all a happy, healthy and fulfilling 2017 😀

If you had to choose one single word to epitomize your approach to the coming twelve months, what would it be?

A watchword is more flexible than a goal or a resolution. More like a theme, defined as an idea that recurs and pervades.

I last played this game in 2014, when I chose MORE (click here to read that post and the comments, where you’ll find some interesting choices). I already had a specific, measurable writing goal for the year—to finish my contemporary romance WIP—but I knew I was letting my inner editor hold me back. I kept under-cooking the conflict, emotion, action, tension, everything…so I chose an intangible, aspirational word to remind me to go for it.

This year I want my watchword to be a call to action, so Continue reading

Jilly: Observations of a Contest Judge

Observations of a Contest JudgeI finally finished my last round of contest judging for this year. Not before time 🙂

I try to give all entries two or three reads and offer honest, constructive, actionable feedback. It’s time-consuming but from a purely selfish perspective it’s worth the effort. I learn something valuable every time. Last year I read a couple of outstanding entries. I posted about that recently (Storyteller v Smooth Writer).

This year I’ve read a lot of competent writing, grammatically correct, properly punctuated, with interesting characters and an intriguing premise. I don’t think I’ve read a single story that would tempt me to keep reading by the end of the pages, let alone a book that I’d shell out money for.

Continue reading

Jilly: How Much Would You Pay For a Book?

Is there a maximum price you’re prepared to pay for a novel?

Is it different for an e-book or a dead tree version?

Would you pay the same for a newbie as you would for a much-loved auto-buy author?

Before the digital revolution I considered it perfectly normal to pay $7.99 or even $11.99 for a book, but I realized recently that I don’t feel that way any more.

I think there are a number of reasons: Continue reading