alphaRecently I had a discussion with some friends on Twitter about “alpha heroes.” Now, you may remember that I have an intense dislike of the “Alphahole,” but there are heroes who are alpha without being jerks.

But let me back up a minute. This conversation began because in a post on Heroes and Heartbreakers, which is a blog that is often a great deal of fun, author Jackie Ashenden wrote a post about what she says are the six types of alpha heroes. I encourage you to go read her definitions to see what you think, but my thought when I read them was “are those guys really all alphas??” Because I’m not so sure they are.

For example, she talks about playboys as alphas. Well, let me tell you, I’ve known some of these guys in real life, and they weren’t the least bit alpha. In fact, lack of alphaness is almost definitional for the true playboy, who’s not going to waste his time on a woman who doesn’t want him when he can move along to an easier target. From television’s current crop, let’s take Rick Castle (in his pre-Caskett days). Playboy? Absolutely. Alpha? Absolutely not.

At the beginning of the post, Ashenden says

I love an alpha hero. Yeah, I know, loving an alpha isn’t so fashionable these days. We want a guy who’s more sensitive, who’s not so in your face or controlling, who’s laid back, who’s a bit more true-to-life even.

But, actually, I think the vast majority of heroes in today’s romances are alpha. In fact, since I don’t always like alpha heroes (they trigger some bad memories for me), it’s often difficult for me to understand the uber-popular books of the moment.

Ashenden also lists the “wounded alpha” as a type, but the way she describes it doesn’t seem particularly alpha to me. When a strong man has a tragic event happen—either physical or emotional—and he basically curls up into a ball and wants everyone to leave him alone, that’s not alpha. He may or may not have been alpha in his previous incarnation, but during the period of the book, he’s not an alpha. The entirety of the narrative may be focused on getting him to the point where he can once again be alpha, but I would argue that he’s not an alpha hero.

But I don’t want to spend all this space on what an alpha is not. I am more concerned with what an alpha hero is.

Let me start with my house. If you could speak with my dogs, they’d tell you that I am alpha. I give the orders. I decide what they can and cannot do. They do not disobey me…unlike my husband, who’s a total pushover. That’s not to say they don’t go behind my back and shred 18 rolls of toilet paper if I happen to leave the pack lying on the kitchen table without putting it away, because they do, but if I say “down,” they go down.

This works because I know what I want and I am in a position to get it.

To me, an alpha hero has two essential characteristics:

  1. He knows what he wants
  2. He has the self-confidence to believe he can get it.

Those are, as far as I can see, the two characteristics that are absolutely necessary for a hero to be alpha. Either of those characteristics, taken to extremes, can turn the guy from a hero into an asshole or an abuser, but without either one of them he becomes either beta or unheroic.

And then there is a third characteristic (and my thanks go to Olivia Waite for helping me work through this in my mind), which is more amorphous and harder to define: leadership ability. I think this is an important characteristic, but it’s usually merely assumed in the narrative of the romance. That is, in a military romantic suspense, we might see the hero being a leader. It might also occur in the motorcycle club romances—I don’t read those because they tend to be too alpha-hole for me, so I don’t know—but in a more general sense, we rarely actually get to see the hero being a leader.

Let’s take one of the most popular alpha heroes, the billionaire, as an example. (As an aside, damn, there are a crap-ton of young, attractive billionaires in Romanceland. But that’s another post.) Anyway, we see those guys spending money, attending social functions, riding horses, driving fast cars, engaging in one-on-one competitions in business…but rarely do we see them leading whatever business it is that has brought them their billions of dollars. We assume that they are leaders—after all, how else did they get their big bucks?—but we don’t actually see it. (And, frankly, again, this is fiction. In real life, the super-wealthy don’t have to be leaders. They frequently inherit their money and pay other people to manage it so that it continues to make more money for them. But that’s not a romantic notion.)

In Romantic Suspense, we assume that the law enforcement hero is alpha unless something in the narrative convinces us otherwise, but frequently they’re never shown as leaders because we don’t get to see them working with others. Of course, a moment of logical thought reminds us that this is fiction, not fact. In real life, most members of law enforcement work in teams. And law enforcement is like a corporation in which the vast majority of romance heroes would be considered “middle management.” In order to get around that, we usually see the “maverick” or the “loner” LEO, but that means we don’t get to see his leadership capabilities.

In turn, this results in one of the more problematic areas of romance in general and romantic suspense in particular: when the alpha has to be shown as a leader and the only person he’s in regular contact with is the heroine, he pretty much has to lead her. And that particular dynamic is uncomfortable for me as a reader.

When we were having our Twitter conversation about alphas, someone said (and I am sorry I don’t remember who) that she thought many readers use “alpha” as code for “what I find hot.” That is, any hero, regardless of his characteristics, becomes an alpha hero in the mind of the reader who finds him attractive. I think that to a certain extent that’s true, but I also think it’s a shame. Because the classification of types is useful in that it gives us a common vocabulary, which is necessary to any kind of genre analysis.