Deirdre Thornton: Alpha Males

This is a guest column by Deirdre Thornton

Alpha Males are one serious commonality that's shared between Fantasy and Romance.

Ooh, what a sweeping statement there. Step back from it for a moment and think about it. Where am I wrong with that statement?

Fantasy almost has a requirement for alpha. Think Conan and all of his ilk, the strong male who "knows" what's wrong, who makes decisions for everyone in the party, who overrides everyone else's choices and makes everyone follow their lead.

Describe that to a Romance fan, and that describes an awful lot of the romantic heroes too. Romantic heroes are supposed to be hard, mean, moody and in charge.

The reasons for the existence of these alpha characters are different. In older fantasy the perceived audience for Fantasy was young males and therefore these males were seen as role-models, aspirational characters for young men to want to be. This reached its zenith (or nadir) in John Norman's Gor series. A series where the women were slaves, and the men were in charge and knew it.

In Romance a lot of the males are alphas, and a lot of women seem to like that. Like a man who will take control. There have been a few theorists who have suggested that this is because women have a more commanding role in society and want someone else to take control occasionally. I know very few women who would like this on a full-time basis (though I do know a few, some long-term some short term).

But then again. You really need at least one alpha character to make things interesting. Two can generate a lot of conflict, one will steer the story. It's a commonly used plot device in genre fiction, and they're used less by more mainstream fiction. You're more likely to come across non-alpha characters and non-alpha males in generic fiction. Would a non-alpha actually get involved in some of the things necessary to get a fantasy or romance novel going? Yes, in some instances, but it's easier to use alphas.

It's funny to see the sterotypes that exist in fiction, some good authors are playing with it, some great authors are bending it, but many authors are just folllowing it blindly. You can see the same ideas, the same characters with very little change just turning up over and over again, with the wonderful variety of humanity it's surprising that we don't have more variety of characters. We seem to be obsessed with creating boxes, maybe some of those alpha males need to be different. Be a little less certain a little less demanding.

But would it work?

It might in Fantasy but I doubt it would in Romance. A lot of romance readers have certain expectatons of the genre. They are very resitant to change (which is possibly why Luna - a fantasy line, and Silhouette Bombshell, a thriller line with a little less romance than usual, bombed); and romance sells, it's one of the biggest selling genres in the US. It is a formula that works and I doubt that there will be much change in it until the readers decide that they want a change.

Posted by Drew Shiel at January 2, 2007 8:43 PM

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