I have something to say (finally). Some may read this and totally disagree. Others may be left with, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.” Just bear with me.
Before we get started, I want to clear up a few things.
I’m going to summarize a few blog posts I’ve read recently. This is what I gathered from them in bits and pieces, so they’re filtered through my opinion. I’ve provided the links so you can read them yourselves. If I got it wrong, it’s all on me.
I understand that romance novels aren’t documentaries, and that readers don’t want them to be. It’s life without the boring bits, and there has to be conflict to keep the characters apart.
I know that sometimes romance is all about total escape – glamor, hot sex with a stranger, dom/sub play, casual sex, revisiting our younger selves and choosing different paths, or getting to be someone we’d never be in our everyday lives. Personally? I love those stories.
This isn’t about one genre over another, one trope over another, or one writer over another. It’s about characters.
A few weeks ago, I was discussing characters with a group of writers, and we got on the topic of alpha males. One writer discussed Alicia Rasley’s lessons on how alphas are leaders and how that quality will affect all their decisions and actions. He’ll make good use of any power he’s given. Any control he seeks will be for the good of others, not just himself.
I liked that description, and I’ve been thinking about that ever since – in lots of different ways.
Because I’m a nerd, I started by looking at definitions on dictionary.com.
First, there’s the contemporary definition of alpha male: a domineering man; the dominant member in a group of males, esp. animals.
And I’ll spare you the definition “rabbit hole” of each term. When you look at them each individually, you get something like this:
The contemporary alpha male is the group member who is in charge and affects the actions of the others, but he does it as he sees fit, with absolute power, and is harsh, cruel, and severe.
Now, let’s look at the definition of “alpha”: being the most dominant, powerful, or assertive person in a particular group.
Again, going through each term, you get this:
An alpha is the person who has the right to direct others, is in charge, and makes decisions. They are capable of accomplishing something and they are energetic, positive, self-assured, and competitive.
Why does this matter?
I think it’s this simple: Would you hang around with the first guy? Would you date him? And since authority is generally given by others, I’m not sure many people would willingly follow him. Unless he surrounds himself with weak people, and then … is he really so powerful?
And in the second definition, females can be alphas.
Recently Elle Kennedy and several authors have discussed strong female characters and the readers who hate them. One of the conclusions they seem to reach is that women want to see the best of us on the page. No Type-A, harried, workaholic, drama queens need apply.
We want to see our best traits matched with the hero’s best traits. A hero who’s the best of the guys we’ve read, seen on the screen, dated, or even married. Or we may want to be the one to tame the bad-boy, suffer through his “big, black moment,” and keep him for ourselves.
And there’s another great post about “Trinity Syndrome” — how movies take female characters who are strong in the beginning only to weaken them by giving them nothing to do or, worse, defining them only in relation to the hero.
On the Dear Author blog, Robin Reader posted Romance is not a Feminist Genre – and That’s Okay. She addresses a lot of issues of feminist theory, but one theme stuck with me. Romance fiction gives women a “space” to think about and discuss the issues (romantic and otherwise) affecting their lives and encourages women to take more control of their lives, be picky about the men they choose, and use good sense.
Last, a recent post on Good Housekeeping outlines lessons readers can learn from romance novels: authenticity, perseverance, following your instincts, being proactive in your life, taking control, saving yourself … Sound familiar? Because I think it sounds like an alpha character. A female alpha.
Most of us are some version of a female alpha. We take control of our lives and get things done. We deal with issues and encourage, inspire, and lead others. And it’s on a multitude of levels in a variety of public spheres: business, home, community, school… Sometimes it’s in the background, quietly moving chess pieces like a master; and sometimes it’s leading the charge. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we’re unlikeable. Regardless, we’re smart, capable, and have good sense.
If we want to see our best traits on the page, these are some of our best traits.
Here’s my suggestion: Alphas pick alphas, whether its for friendship, business, or romance. Why wouldn’t they? They share common experiences, similar educations, and their own opinions. Why would a confident leader of either gender choose a weaker person with no similar life experiences (for whatever purpose)?
But, Harriet,” you say, “you can’t control who you’re attracted to.” And no, you can’t. However, you do choose with whom you share details of your life.
In To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This, Mandy Len Catron duplicates a social experiment designed to create interpersonal closeness. The increased vulnerability and intimacy developed their trust, made them more self-aware, and helped them learn more about each other. Her conclusion is that “love is more pliable” than we may think it is. Perhaps love isn’t “something that happens to us” but something we choose to do.
No one shares details of their life with someone who may use it against them to gain power. And I don’t think contemporary alpha males would share anything that would make them appear weak.
So, with a contemporary alpha male, we’re left with a relationship based on physical attraction, but not intimacy; danger and adrenaline, but not trust; two people who aren’t equal, and generally have nothing to hold them together after the external conflict is resolved.
Will the HEA stick? Do we care? (Scott Eagan has a great post on this, by the way.)
If we didn’t, the happily-ever-after wouldn’t matter in the genre.
The fun in reading (and writing) an alpha/alpha relationship is watching the intimacy develop as these people learn to compromise and form a partnership as they’re forced into uncomfortable situations. As they work together, they bring out the best in each other and, because both of them are confident, they aren’t afraid to learn and change. They drop their public masks and risk vulnerability. They choose each other.
The external conflict brings them together, but doesn’t define them. One can sweep the other off their feet, one can protect the other. The heroine doesn’t have to be perfect, and the hero doesn’t always have to do the feet-sweeping. And they each get to remain strong, or perhaps grow stronger.
While the setting may be glamorous, the time-frame condensed, and the stakes higher – while it isn’t our “boring” life – the story is ultimately about two people.
I think it’s the stories that create true intimacy and a believable partnership between the characters are the ones that stick with us long after we’ve read the last page. They’re the ones we tell our friends about, the ones go back and read until the pages are soft and the covers are creased.
They’re the ones where our best self gets the guy of our dreams.
If you’ve hung in this long, I’d love to know what you think.