Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Chink in his Armor: A Word on Alpha Heroes

by Nick Conrad

Disclaimer: Though same-sex and ménage à trois romances are a growing part of the romance market, this article only pertains to the heroes in heterosexual, two-person romances. The reason for this is that the dynamics are different in male/male or three-person relationships. And, of course, advice about heroes is usually not relevant to lesbian romances at all.

It's tough being the hero of a romance novel. Sure, the attention from the ladies for being a well-over-six-foot-tall wall of muscle is flattering, but it sets a hard standard to live up to. After all, one can't forget the alpha hero’s most important measurement—success. Our heroes punch in at a variety of jobs—CEO, construction worker, doctor, warrior, highlander, lawyer, cop, cowboy, personal trainer, and then some. Many of them hold executive positions, ranging from heading a law firm to commanding an army. But the hero doesn't need to be rich or powerful to succeed at his ultimate goal. The true measure of success lies in his ability to be irresistible—to the heroine, of course, but also to the reader. Sure, a reader’s vision of the perfect man can be quite personal, and no book or character can appeal to every reader. But many authors beg to know—what makes an alpha hero? And how does an author keep him reined in enough to avoid becoming another A-word altogether?

Confidence is the sexiest form of power

An alpha hero is someone who, regardless of his profession or position in life, is a doer, a go-get-it kind of guy. He takes charge of situations, and his mere presence commands respect from women and men alike. But this commanding presence has to come from within. Casting the hero as the head warrior of an undefeatable legion is worthless if his character is an indecisive navel-gazer who won’t pursue what he wants or stand up for what he thinks is right. The bricklayer—or the accountant—who is confident, quick-thinking and driven tends to have greater appeal than someone who doesn’t really live up to his projected image. And when a truly confident hero (that is, not an overconfident jerk) makes mistakes, he will own up to them. Confidence isn’t about denial of one’s own faults. It’s about the ability to maneuver past those faults and make right.

The Alpha meets his match, and when to forgive bad behavior

Once the hero falls in love with the heroine, she is his ultimate weakness. She's the proverbial chink in his armor. Once he realizes he loves this person, the stakes change. Suddenly, even if he is still physically or hierarchically in control, he’s no longer in control of his heart. And that is a dangerous thing. If nothing else, it’s a major adjustment for a man who is not used to being powerless in any way. Nine times out of ten, if an alpha hero has managed to love before, it ended very badly and he’s terrified of that happening again. He might wrestle with his emotions at first, but most likely his response will be to become very protective of the heroine (because he can’t lose her). And this, of course, will probably allow for more sparring as the heroine resists her hero’s stifling behavior. But regardless of the turn of events, the hero needs to eventually realize when he’s overreacting. More importantly, no matter how large and in charge the man is, he had better learn to listen to the heroine. True love means you know when to compromise, even if it doesn’t come easily. That goes for the heroine, too. She may love her hardheaded man, but if he’s consistently ignoring her, that’s not hardheaded—that’s just uncommunicative. And people do not read romances because they’re looking to curl up with a story about a nice dysfunctional couple.

What a good alpha hero is not is an unforgivable jerk, or so over-the-top in his behavior that he becomes a parody of himself. It is good to strike a balance, to allow the hero to let down his guard and show that he's capable of tenderness, sensitivity and emotions other than anger, arousal, and “male satisfaction.” (“Male” satisfaction? Please. If there’s that much testosterone seeping into his brain, he should see a doctor.) And when he does mess up, he needs to clean up the mess. As hard as it might be, the hero had better suck it up and apologize. Even if he’s too proud to admit to it at first, it takes a bigger man to be able to say “I’m sorry” than to pretend he can do no wrong.

Alphas are people, too

Like any other character, the hero reaches his fullest potential for development through his interactions with other characters, especially the heroine. Though the power struggle between the hero and heroine can add great flavor to the story, what kind of fun is it if the hero always wins? Even if he is a thousand-year-old vampire or an alien warlord, the hero is allowed to be a little bit human. Alphas aren’t supposed to be perfect. (It would make for a rather flat, boring character with little opportunity for development.) If anything, a few flaws are what can make a hero admirable. In addition to being allowed to make mistakes (as long as he owns up to them, as we have discussed), he can have fears and inhibitions. He can have a physical disability—there's no weakness whatsoever in that, it's just another character trait with its own possibilities. The most self-aware, assertive, independent alpha man out there could be blind or in a wheelchair. And listen, tough guy, it's okay to cry.

In short, the hero doesn't have to be a brick wall. A true alpha hero is such because of what he does, not what he is. It’s a classic case of “Show, don’t tell”—let the alpha man’s actions speak for themselves.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, this mild-mannered editor has a planet to save.


Amy said...

Oops. Don't you mean "she is the proverbial chink in his armor?" Sorry - I couldn't resist. Of course it could be armory if she's been bashing around his entire armory for a while. It's not often that the writer gets to correct the editor. LOL
Great blog!

Nick Conrad said...

Thanks for the correction! Nobody's perfect, even editors. ;)

We're so glad you enjoy the blog.

B.L. Foxxe's Blog said...

Great points that you've addressed here, sir. I'd noticed a few problems with past characters, and now I know why I felt stuck in glue. Ick! lol. Thanks for taking the time to put articles like these for others to check out.