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Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops.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.