The alpha male stereotype in romance fiction
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes…or do they?
In romance novels, it seems we’ve become obsessed with the alpha male. Big, strong, powerful, in control, take charge…on the surface these aren’t unattractive qualities, but lately I’ve been wanting something more…
Maybe I’m in the minority, but I’d trade some muscle for a bit of personality. And I’m not referring to the sort of super-sized alpha male personality that seems to have embedded itself in the romance genre: controlling, possessive, sexually overactive (there’s only so many rakes out there that can be reformed). I’m talking about a man with substance. Emotional IQ. Sensitivity. Intelligence.
Oh, wait. That doesn’t sell, does it?
Apparently not. Just take a look at the world of published romance novels. Pictures of hairless, ripped chests (and often it’s just chests, we don’t even need to see their faces) abound the covers of this genre. From a purely aesthetic viewpoint, I’m not saying this is unpleasant…just, well…YAWN. When you start to see it over and over again, you get the feeling there’s not going to be anything new between the pages.
Time to drop the alpha male caricature and write about some REAL men
Now I’m not against some alpha qualities. Not at all. A hero needs to display a certain strength, but this strength doesn’t always need to manifest itself in muscles and a controlling personality, or sexual prowess. OK, some sexual prowess is always nice, but I digress.
This is a call for real men in the world of romance. Some light and some shade. So what makes a real hero?
- Alpha and Beta qualities: or if not Beta, just not over-the-top Alpha qualities. Maybe some Omega. You get the point. In the real world, people generally aren’t caricatures. They are complex, multi-faceted and often complicated.
- Strength can come from emotional sensitivity. I recently wrote a scene in which a male lead cried. Not bawled his eyes out in a fit of sobbing, but tears did fill his eyes and he had to walk away to collect himself. I didn’t plan on it, but when the time came to write the scene, his situation called for it. And you know what, I love him all the more for it. Only a real man can pull that off.
- There’s a fine line between protectiveness and obsessed. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Christian Gray). I think most women like the idea of a man wanting to protect them but when it moves into jealous rage territory? Frightening. Wait! you say. What about novels like Fifty Shades? Oh that’s right, the hero was tortured…
- Stop using tortured as an excuse and man up! For a hero to be interesting, they need to be on a journey and usually this involves some degree of emotional transformation. It’s just curious that so often the emotional wounds a hero is recovering from become an excuse for bad behaviour. Just saying.
- Obtainable. I’m well aware romance is fiction. I may lose myself to the fairy tale of chick-lit, rom com movies and romance, but I understand it’s not real. So why am I calling for more real men in my romance fiction? Because I want to believe that this man exists. If I believe, on some level anyway, that this fictional character is possible, it will make it that much easier for me to fall in love with him. Advice is regularly given about making the heroine realistic and relatable, but how did we get to the point that our heroes are super-sized alpha males that only exist in the realm of fantasy?
Don’t give up on real men in romance and chick-lit
The list above is by no means exhaustive. And fortunately there’s some great authors out there brave enough to write men who go beyond the stereotypes. Best-selling romance author Julia Quinn (Marcus Holroyd in Just Like Heaven), or chick-lit author Jennifer Weiner (The Next Best Thing). Australian author, Zoe Foster, wrote a gentlemanly and engaging male lead in The Younger Man.
For other writers trying to make a name for ourselves, the alpha male still seems to be the safe bet.
I don’t know about you, though. I’m not giving up on my real man just yet. He’s worth holding on to.
What qualities do you think make a real hero? Who are some authors you’ve read who create real heroes?