Sarah e-mailed me this question yesterday as part of a discussion about alpha heroes:
What’s too alpha for you? And what hero crossed the line?
Alpha heroes are tricky beasts, and the term has come to be associated with a whole fuckton of baggage—it has, in fact, become shorthand in a lot of ways, though exactly WHAT that shorthand stands for greatly depends on where you draw your lines when it comes to acceptable hero behavior, and how you distinguish assertiveness from arrogance, and firmness from brutality. The vast majority of asshole heroes in Romancelandia do tend to be alpha heroes, though not all alpha heroes are by any means assholes; it’s just that some authors and many readers seem to conflate “shouty, angry and impatient” with alpha behavior.
I enjoy the antagonism and sparring between alpha types as much as anybody else. One of my all-time favorites is Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, for example; Dain and Jessica are both Type A personalities, and it is a true joy to watch them duke it out. The two of them are well-suited to each other; they’re equally strong, and best of all, they’re equally fun to watch.
But frankly, part of the enjoyment is seeing Jessica get the best of Dain despite his machinations. I’m not sure what it says about me, but it makes me deeply uncomfortable when a heroine loses or is the one in the wrong too frequently; a large part of it is related to the way people have dismissed women’s opinions and decisions as being inconsequential and/or wrong for such a very long time, though I can tolerate it as long as it’s treated with sensitivity. Laura Kinsale, for example, is the mistress of creating heroines who, for one damn reason or another, get things wrong and otherwise fuck their shit up, but who don’t trigger my ick response.
But a strong power imbalance can be an emotionally and aesthetically satisfying storytelling tool as well. My favorite example: Devon and Merry from The Windflower by Laura London. Devon puts Merry through hell, and while she grows stronger (literally and metaphorically) throughout the story, Devon is quite clearly in the position of power through much of the book. But again, of key importance is that Merry isn’t in the wrong, and that she doesn’t ever cave on that point. She maintains her innocence, despite all the adversity she’s put through, and when Devon finally realizes what he’s done to her, I feel strangely vindicated in my faith in Merry and even more strangely proud that she managed to hold on to her principles so strongly. Part of what bothered me immensely about Whitney, My Love, for example, is that Whitney breaks down and apologizes to Clayton when I didn’t think she had any particular cause to. Well, that, and the rape.
But back to alpha heroes, and what’s “too alpha.” One of my clearest lines of demarcation—and it’s really not a question of being alpha so much as exhibiting sociopathic tendencies—involves seducing the heroine out of revenge. Once a hero decides to get the heroine in bed (sometimes via blackmail, other times via good old-fashioned deception) to, say, punish her father because her father inadvertently caused the death of the hero’s second cousin’s pet gerbil, except no, we find out he’s actually in love with her despite himself and has been since page 23 when he kisses her punishingly for the first time and accuses her of being a slut—once the hero crosses that line, he’s just not redeemable. Sleeping with somebody out of revenge is, well, so very fucked up on so many levels, I can’t find him redeemable. Not that fucked-up scenarios can’t be hot, and if you get off on that kind of power play, more power to you. It just doesn’t float my boat, is what I’m trying to say here.
Another fairly firm line is rape, though given how much I’ve enjoyed books in which forced seduction—hell, even psychological and sexual torment—play a significant role in the hero and heroine’s early relationship, such as in Only With Your Love by Lisa Kleypas and To Have and to Hold by Patricia Gaffney, I can’t say that heroes who play fast and loose with consent immediately make it into my shit list. A large part of the believability of the hero’s redemption lies with a) how sorry he is for being a rat fucking bastard, b) whether he fully grasps that what he did was pretty damn awful, c) the severity of what he did and d) how frequently he repeats the offence.
A somewhat fuzzier line is the alpha hero who doesn’t trust the heroine for whatever reason and as a consequence is constantly on the heroine’s case because he thinks she’s a filthy liar (and sometimes, an even filthier whore—that is, until he tries to fuck her and his cock encounters her Magical Hymen of Steel That For Some Goddamn Reason is Mysteriously Located Three Inches Up Her Hoo Hoo). When handled wrongly, it can result in a numbing cycle of fighting and distrust; when handled correctly, it can be an excellent source of conflict and romantic tension.
So I want to hear your thoughts. The alpha hero is a topic that’s been hashed out and bashed around a million different times in a million different on-line romance communities, but I want to hear your thoughts about them—especially with regards to power imbalances. Do they bother you? What are your lines, in terms of alpha behavior crossing into asshole territory? What about the heroine being constantly wrong—does that get on your tits, too?