Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Problem of the Alpha Romantic Hero

Repost from Votaries.

A number of romance novels (from G-rated to R-rated, from Heyer to erotica) utilize the series
approach: five daughters in a family looking for husbands. Or five sons in a family or club looking for wives. Julia Quinn tackles both daughters and sons in her Bridgerton series. And she does a fine job, mostly because she avoids the problem of the alpha, alpha, alpha male.

A number of romance writers who employ this approach end the series by marrying off the  MOST alpha, MOST mysterious, MOST dark and dangerous, MOST masculine, MOST domineering male of the bunch. The idea is that finally the readers will learn about that glowering, monotone guy in the corner.

And truthfully, the writers usually manage to create a kind of suspense about this final male character. Unfortunately, inevitably, the last book suffers.

The problem with the MOST alpha, MOST mysterious, etc. etc. is the same problem that haunts the omniscient bad guy and, for that matter, the same problem that lurks behind the in-your-face-heroine. In order to be so very dark and dangerous and alpha and disturbed, the final male character is the kind of guy that should send up red flags to any reasonably sane woman (as in, "Are you crazy?! You'll be calling Dr. Laura in a year weeping about how you didn't see the problems coming and then she'll call you names on the radio.").

To a degree, the writers seem to know this, so they give Mr. Alpha Squared Plus a bride-to-be who is the MOST beautiful, the MOST fragile, the MOST desperate, the MOST needy, the MOST . . .

You get the picture.

Real Victorian criminals--not nearly as glamorous
as HBO shows suggest.
The problem being, two unhappy needy people do not a strong marriage make. Think Princess Charles and Princess Diana: two people who imagined the other person would satisfy all their longings since childhood. End result: Charles goes back to his mother-mistress; Diana disintegrates mentally in front of the world's cameras. The world breaths a sigh of relief when she dies and Charles gets his mother-figure full-time.

But some of them did have panache.
The one romance/erotica book where I have seen Mr. Alpha Squared work is In Total Surrender by Anne Mallory. The main male character is basically a ruler of the London underworld, a kind of 19th century mafia lord who opposes greedy aristocrats and loan-sharks. He is about as alpha, dark, and dangerous as a hero gets (in the opening chapter, he takes out several potential assassins while saving the heroine). The storytelling is clever--less violent, more edgy dialog. And the heroine is ultra clever--she's smart, first of all: she wants the hero's help to keep her family from ruin, so she comes armed to their meeting with a decent business plan (business-wise, she's just as wily as he is). More importantly, however, instead of sweeping into his office full of angst and glamor and "my tragic tragic past that I can't possibly tell you about!" she . . .

. . . brings him cookies (biscuits, that is: this is England).

And he's stymied. Enthralled. But confused. Which is great because she doesn't behave at all like the women in these Mr. Alpha novels are supposed to behave.

In general, it's easier just to make heroes and heroines normal (though not always as much fun).