Alpha heroes are among the most popular in romance and some of the most misunderstood. They’re accused of bad behaviour by some and drooled over by others. They’re what many editors look for (depending on your target audience) and they can be a challenge to write.
So who is the alpha? The label comes from the animal kingdom, where the alpha male is the leader of the pack. He’s the dominant male, the one other males aspire to be, the one who protects his extended family, leading them and if necessary, fighting to the death to save them. An alpha is above all successful. As the leader of a wolf pack he keeps his companions alive and safe and ensures his bloodline continues.
In human form the alpha will be competent in his chosen field of endeavour. He will stand apart from the throng as more capable, more successful. Whether he’s making money, leading armies, saving the planet or pursuing intellectual endeavours, he’ll be outstanding.
To lead and succeed in this way our hero will usually be resourceful, commanding, capable, respected or possibly feared by rivals, a leader, a courageous man who shines in a crisis. He will be intelligent, able to perceive threats and to counter them, whether in a boardroom manoeuvre or while facing down an aggressor. He is often a loner (which doesn’t mean he can’t have meaningful relationships). He isn’t overly concerned by what others think of him.
Arrogant, did I hear you say? Proud? Quite possibly. The alpha hero knows his own worth and works hard at ensuring he wins the battles that are important to him. However, here I’d sound a word of caution. Remember we’re talking about alpha heroes. We’re discussing men who are worthy of our heroines, whom we’d trust with that heroine for the rest of their lives.
Your hero must be heroic. He must be redeemable. Yes, he can do things he later regrets, just as your heroine can, but there must always be a good reason for his behaviour. If you find yourself writing a bully who bosses the heroine around for the fun of it, ask yourself if you’re really writing an alpha hero or a wanna-be, the guy who has acquired power through wealth or family or just sheer physical size and enjoys bending people to his will. Bully is not synonymous with alpha hero. Our guy is the natural leader, the one respected not because he demands it but because others see in him qualities that make him stand out.
That brings us to one of my favourite aspects of the alpha – his code of conduct. The alpha hero is honourable. He has integrity and stands by what he believes in. Sometimes his code of honour doesn’t fit with those around him. He might dare to do things others wouldn’t, he might not share some of their taboos, but he holds true to his beliefs. There are unwritten laws he will not break.
Related to this is his protective instinct. Our alpha hero is passionately protective of those he cares for, or even those he feels unwillingly responsible for. That doesn’t mean he has to smother the women in his life so they never make a decision for themselves, though what a great starting point that would be for a story. He can be self-sacrificing if need be. He will go to enormous lengths to protect or save.
Why does he do this? Partly because he’s the one who can. He has the power or courage or nous to step in and do the job. Partly too because he cares. Yes, your alpha hero may seem separate from the rest, he may be a little aloof, he may not appear to like the heroine, but he is capable of caring. Another thing that sets him aside from the bully boy. Remember the alpha hero has a heart, even if he doesn’t want anyone to realise that.
When the alpha meets the one, right woman for him, he is capable of falling deeply, devastatingly, completely in love. He may not want it to happen. He may resist, seeing it as a weakness. He may rail against it, but he can and does love. Behind the outer strength is a soft heart for the right woman. Being in love the alpha is territorial. He will not brook others trying to poach his woman. In such circumstances his actions will be ruthlessly effective rather than politely hesitant. Remember, this is a man of action. He doesn’t just think about solutions to problems, he acts to resolve them.
The alpha hero is strong, often physically, always mentally. Another key ingredient is his attractiveness, his sexual allure. This hero is masculine, virile, charismatic, sensual. Even if he’s scarred or reclusive, he still has that special something to which a heroine will respond. Did I mention that he’s a passionate lover?
Above all, the alpha hero is capable of providing the heroine with what she needs. He will stand by her when she needs him, he will be a loving, loyal partner. And if the road to happiness is a little rocky to begin with, all the better. After all, we want our romances with a little spice, don’t we?
For me the secret of writing an alpha hero is remembering that there is no one single alpha ‘type’. The characteristics I’ve listed above create a general framework but there is never-ending scope for variation. Personally I’m drawn to protector heroes but I’ve discovered a weakness for the seducer and the tortured hero too. Your alpha might be at the centre of society like Mr Darcy or he could be an outcast like Belle’s Beast. He might be a reluctant hero (one of my favourites, the apparently ordinary man who in fact is an extraordinary hero) or a crusader. He might be frighteningly intelligent like Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond or he might play on his apparent lack of intelligence with truly canny intent like Loretta Chase’s delicious Rupert Carsington.
Whoever your alpha hero is, he knows what he wants and how to get it. For romance readers watching the alpha hero turn his considerable powers to the task of winning that one special woman is perfect entertainment. As Stephanie Laurens pointed out at a Romance Writers of Australia conference, there’s nothing sexier or more riveting than a hero who is totally focussed on the heroine.
Why is the alpha hero so popular? He’s the ultra successful male. Other men aspire to his qualities. Women are drawn to him. He may not be easy to know but he’s definitely worth the effort. For the heroine he’s a challenge or even a threat. He’s also a prize, the perfect partner. He’s the one with the strength to accept her as she is, his ideal match. He’s the embodiment of our fantasies, the rake, the bad boy, the rescuer, the man worth trusting with our hearts.
First published in Hearts Talk (magazine of Romance Writers of Australia)