The Thinking Woman’s Alpha Hero

There is something in romance that worships hyper-masculinity. It manifests itself in torrents of loving verbiage over the hero’s physical supremacy: he towers over all other men (except those who would be heroes in subsequent books), his muscles make the Governator in his Mr. Olympic days look like a high school nerd, and his sperm can puncture three layers of latex to impregnate a post-menopausal woman.

I roll my eyes a little at such freaks of nature, but not so much that I can see the inside of my cranium. Height, strength, and potency have been prized aspects for males of the species since time began, and I’m certainly not insensible to the allure of a physically imposing man. What I find far more unsatisfying is that height, strength, and potency are often taken as sufficient onto themselves to define alpha maleness.

Such heroes are everywhere to be found in romance, and they are spared my greatest wrath because one, they usually don’t interest me enough to read very far, and two, they are more often than not paired with heroines whose thoughtlessness and folly make these men’s imperiousness and immaturity look good in comparison. But that doesn’t mean their sheer quantity and generic-ness don’t exasperate me.

There aren’t enough real men in romance. Yes, you heard me right. Despite all the hot, all the testosterone, and all the claims to alpha-ness, there aren’t enough real men, but too many overgrown, my-way-or-the-high-way boys.

A pseudo-alpha says “Because I say so.” It’s his way or the high way. A real man does not presumes his authority, he earns it everyday and leads by example. Gandhi, anybody? (And don’t tell me Mahatma wasn’t hot in his homespun loincloth.)

A pseudo-alpha is always shown to have the upper hand over the heroine: if she’s strong, he’s stronger; if she kicks ass nine-to-five, he kicks ass left, right, and upside down 24/7. I sure wouldn’t mind seeing a kick-ass heroine paired with a academic librarian hero, a hot, erudite man who kicks ass only in the sense that he’s the best at connecting people with the knowledge they need, a secure man who’s not at all threatened by a strong woman or another strong man because he does not define his worth by how many bow before him in deference.

A pseudo-alpha is interested in power for its own sake. A real man understands that the flip side of authority is responsibility. When things go wrong, he doesn’t find justifications, or pass the bucket. Eisenhower, before the D-Day, had composed an “in-case-of-defeat” letter. He wrote:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troop, the air [force] and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.

Ike, dead but still sexy, just for these words alone.

My all-time favorite real-man hero is Ruck from Laura Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart. There have been other romances featuring a spectacularly high-born lady and a not-so-high-born man, and in most of them, the hero is shown to act in an over-familiar and commandeering way, quickly putting the heroine under his thumb to compensate for his lower birth and emphasize his hero-ness.

In For My Lady’s Heart, however, Ruck, a renowned knight in his own right, is ever respectful and courteous to Princess Melanthe. He observes every last detail of etiquette, whether it requires him to kneel before her or to lay out and serve her meal. And none of it diminishes him. None of it renders him any less a leader of men. Quite the reverse, his innate dignity, his quiet competence, his unassuming yet solid understanding of who he is make him, in this reader’s eyes, almost unbearably manly.

A true alpha takes care of people without patronizing them. He leads without shoving his decision down everyone’s throat. He is not necessarily humble, but he has an accurate understanding of his own pride, and doesn’t let his ego stand in the way of learning from his mistake.

And when he is in love, his lady is free to make up her own mind as to whether she loves him in return.

So, in other words, keep the hot, by all means. Have the hero be impossibly fit and impossibly handsome, but don’t stop there. And don’t stop with giving him a traumatic adolescence. Give him some depth and maturity. Give him some strength of character that he understands the difference between what’s easy and what’s right. Give him the sort of true manliness that would make him remain impossibly charismatic and attractive even when he gains a paunch and loses his hair thirty years into his happily ever after.

And give me a real alpha hero, instead of a pseudo-alpha.

9 thoughts on “The Thinking Woman’s Alpha Hero

  1. One of my biggest annoyances is with people who insist that in historicals, the men must be Lords because: who wants to read about a non-alpha? This always baffles me, because I figure that nobility is pretty much an accident of birth. You can have beta Lords as much as alpha Lords, after all.

    And you can definitely have alpha men who are NOT Lords, or particularly wealthy. (Think of Nicholas Higgins in North and South–imagine his role played by Richard Armitage, and you’d have one darned yummy man. But if we’re talking North and South, John Thornton is a to-die-for alpha who has no problems whatsoever thinking through solutions)

    I am, of course, biased because my WIP features a man who I think of as an alpha hero, even though other people have disagreed. Yes, he wears glasses. Yes, he’s a solicitor. He even has a good relationship with his parents, who were very, very poor and not like “oh, we’re lords who have lost our fortune” poor, either.

    He’s also a natural leader.

    Of course she gets to save his life. It would never even occur to him to be jealous or unhappy that she proved more capable than he under such circumstances. When she comes up with solutions that work, he doesn’t think himself any less manly for going along with her, even if he has to admit he’s wrong about it.

  2. Amen, Sherry! I love it when a man knows who he is so well that he doesn’t need to prove it… when he understands that strength is in knowing both his skills and his weaknesses, and in learning to use both responsibility to answer whatever call is thrust upon him, or to meet the challenge, etc.

  3. My favorite example of this is Justine Davis’ suspense category, One of These Nights. I heard her call it “The Absent Minded Professor meets La Femme Nikita,” and it fits! Heroine is a tough, sharp security expert, hero is a studious, genius inventor. I just loved the scene with the villain where the hero provides her a diversion so she can do her job, and then just lets her do it, without a thought about being “unmanly.”

  4. Could not have said it better. We need more real men, in fiction and in life.

    And I must say that Aragorn illustrates the ideal perfectly.

  5. I’m going to play devil’s advocate and say that I love them all. I love the stereotypical alpha male (of course done right in a storyline I enjoy), I love the thinking woman’s alpha hero. But aren’t they one in the same? I think women write about real men fictionized for our benefit. The way we’d want them to be (at least at the end of the story).

    I think we create our heroines just the same way. How many women are stuck in relationships that make no sense? How many of us have stayed with people too long for reasons in a book which would be called TSTL. Too many of us. But if you write about that so called ‘weak, wimpy woman’ you’re gutted. She’s TSTL they’ll say. We write about the heroines we want to be, those fictionalized woman of such strength, intelligence and beauty, the general species pales in comparison.

    I don’t see too many heros in books who aren’t thoughtful, intelligent, masculine, romantic (even in his own gruff way) and fathoms deep in love with the heroine at the end of the book. Whatever his frailties and faults are at the end either doesn’t matter or have been ARCed appropriately in the book. Not many romances leaving them too dark and brooding even if he begins that way.

    So I’m wondering who these pseudo alpha heros are? Who can give me a real fictionalized example of one in romance (and then you will, and of course, I won’t have read the book).

  6. cm,

    I thought Lisa Kleypas had kicked that door wide open with her non-lord heroes?

    Beverley,

    I also haven’t come across a whole lot of pseudo-alphas lately. For me, the reason is that I have to hear heaps and heaps of good things about a romance to pick it up nowadays.

    But when I do select stuff sort of randomly, like a couple of e-books that I’ve tried, I’ve basically gotten cavemen who know how to give orgasms. Does that make sense?

    Perhaps I ask too much of works whose main purpose is titillation.

    For pseudo-alphas that I’ve read myself, a couple of Susan Johnson heroes come to mind. I adored Susan Johnson back in my early twenties. I still think she wrote better erotic romances in her day than almost anything else on the market today. But some of her heroes, from Wicked and Love Storm, especially, were practically petulant teenagers whose sudden aboutface turning into responsible men at the end of the book gave me whiplash, even though I enjoyed the books tremendously cuz they were so hot. ::wink wink::

    So yes, I am able to enjoy a variety of heroes (and I don’t mind at all tortured heroes who turn into semi-betas in the bedroom, a la Zsadist from Lover Awakened). But I do so long for more Rucks and Aragorns, men who are not only thoughtful, intelligent, masculine, and romantic in their own way, but also true leaders, men whose moral authority you can sense from a mile off.

  7. You’ve been blogging up a storm lately, Sherry! Every time I come here there’s a new and exciting post. 🙂

    Regarding alpha heroes, I love them to bits, but I also don’t think that every hero should be an alpha.

    Or a beta. Or a gamma. Men come in a dizzying number of varieties, so why should romance heroes be confined to two or three types?

    I also don’t mind reading about an immature hero (provided he has some good qualities, too), especially if he grows into his maturity convincingly over the course of the book.

    Sometimes, just as I get tired of reading about hyper-masculine men with bulging muscles, I get tired of reading about paragons of virtue, too. Other times, those muscled heroes or mature leaders really hit the spot for me. I’m all about the variety, and want to see more of it.

  8. I think you hit a great point, Janine. Variety is the spice of life. Many heroes I’ve dearly loved are nobody’s idea of an leader (Nardi from Bliss, for example).

    I think, looking back in this post, that I was in some ways talking more about real life than romance, about the leaders I wished we had and the qualities I wish they possessed–be they men or women.

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