Friday, August 2, 2013

Old School Alpha Heroes Get Even Hotter. Thank You, World.

I want to talk about heroes for a minute. Oh, who am I kidding, I want to talk about heroes ALL the time. 

In my early romance reading days, I think I only read books with alpha heroes. I was kind of convinced that every hero was basically the same dude. He was:
  • Hot
  • Smart
  • Rich/successful
  • Of a privileged class
  • Sort of a bad boy (or at least had been in his unruly youth, but now the bad-ness lurks tantalizingly just under his skin; he's a saint in a leather jacket) - some of his "badness" is the spicy whiff of him just not giving a crap
  • Uber confident - this man has life by the bollocks.
  • Has a superhero complex - he has a biological imperative to protect his lovely lady with his money, prestige and powerful personality, and if necessary, his fists. 
  • Suffering some sort of internal anguish that causes him pain, a situation that is alleviated by of the heroine in his life
These, as we know, are some of the features of the classic romantic hero archetype from the mad, bad and dangerous-to-know Mr. Rochester to our main man F.W. Darcy. This incarnation of the romantic hero is sometimes called the Byronic hero archetype, and is thought to have caught on with the ladies after he published his narrative poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (More on this and Byron and the poem below).

In addition to all these qualities, the Old School alphas were also, alas:
  • Arrogant
  • Bossy
  • Moody and 
  • Terrible at communicating their feelings in a logical and sensible manner, preferring instead to indulge in fits of gross misunderstanding and scowly-ness.
Many of the 1980s and 90s romantic alpha heroes on whom I nursed continued this tradition. Think Clayton Westmoreland the Duke of Claymore from Whitney, My Love, or actually, any of Judith McNaught's heroes. The heroes in Susan Elizabeth Phillips' books who are always these alpha dog jocks and men with incredible success in the bed/boardroom. Every single one of the Scots/highland hero stories where our hero has such a surfeit of testosterone that he manages to make a skirt look as manly as a sweaty jockstrap.

And cheesy squeezy as all this was, I loved it. Listen, I KNEW those alpha dudes were fantasy and totally impossible characterizations of any actual man, even when I was 16, I KNEW.<Shakes head and makes Garfield eyes>. But by the Wings of Pegasus, I loved those arrogant douches.

But why did I love them? Sensing, as I did, that these men were totally unrealistic portrayals of Real Men, cringing as I often would at the rape-y sex scenes and heavy-handedness with which the heroine was often treated - why on earth were these men so attractive to me?

Weeeeelll....I guess one big reason was that as a young sapling, those guys made me feel like someone else, someone big, brawny and capable, would make everything ok in my tiny little world. In my little fantasy universe, unlike in my real un-fantastic life, I didn't have to take charge of anything. I could just hang out and wait to get my ass saved by some mighty highlander with piercing eyes who could see through to my very soul who was possessed of thighs of steel. I didn't know precisely why steely thighs were useful in a man (I was 16, and those were more innocent times), but there was no doubt in my mind that it was a plus. In return, I would be able to remove the tortured pain that he felt with my cheeriness and indefatigable niceness.

But, I have matured, dear Skeptics. I am happy to report that I am kind of over it with douchey heroes. Maybe because now I'm awesome enough to figure out my own cr@p and don't necessarily need a brawny dude to manage stuff, although it would be nice if one would deal with the laundry from time to time. 

Now. I am definitely not saying I like BETA beta heroes. At least not the way they are sometimes written in contemporary romances (you almost NEVER see a beta in historical romances so I don't have a whole lot to reference). 

What do I mean by the traditional beta?

The main characteristic I see exist in the beta hero is that he's passive and let's things happen to him instead of reaching out and controlling his own destiny. This is sometimes, but not always, because he is in a position of low power - he's poor, he's in a lower social strata, he has experienced certain things that have left him with poor self-esteem. 

I don't have a ton of examples, but I guess Mr. Bingley would be a beta in my mind. Would you read a whole book about Bingley? Meh. Mr. Knightly was also kinda passive but I guess that book wasn't so much about the romance between Emma and Knightly, it was more about Emma's own personal growth.

Anyway, over the past hmmmm 10 years or so, I have had a sort of come-to-Jesus event with the New, Improved Alpha who's been showing up all over Romancelandia. I call him the Modified Alpha. And he's the Man.

Alpha hero 2.0: The Modified Alpha
This new generation of heroes have many of the same positive characteristics as the traditional alphas (they're still tall, dark and tortured) but they seem to have shed many of their awful characteristics (moodiness and arrogance), and have become simply swoon-worthy. In a way they are even less realistic than the old school alphas - I mean, those guys had faults, at least. These ones are just decent, communicative (relatively) and sensitive guys who are ALSO awesomely hot, sexual athletes who respect women. 

I mean, what's not to like?

Anyway. The whole point of my ramblings is to say that there's a sea change happening in our dreamtastic fantasy men, Ladies, and I like it. I like it a lot.

What do you guys think? Do you desperately pine for the return of the broody swashbuckler who could pick you up with one hand and crush your problems to fine dust with his square jaw and meat hook hands while he ravishes you on his powerful steed? Or are you in favor of this new trend towards nicer guys with amazing pecs and ability to communicate their feelings AND fights fires for a living?

Do tell! 

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage
I gotta be honest. I tried reading the poem and it was terrible. The hero is just a whiny little brat the whole time, but the interesting thing was how Byron introduced the idea that the hero was something quite different than those strapping Greek boys with their brawn and brutishness, or even those gallant knights who saved fainting damsels every Sunday and Tuesday. Byron's hero had some inner pain that followed him no matter where he journeyed. He may have reached the pinnacle of society in terms of money and prestige, but he would still be burdened by a torment impossible to convert into happiness until he found his true angel. 

Harold doesn't actually find an angel - if I understood the poem correctly, he ends with some ramblings about nature and the sublime, but to be fair Byron was probably high when he wrote this. And it really didn't end well for Byron himself. He left England after a series of scandals and bankruptcy and then after engaging some political intrigues against the Ottomans, he died ignominiously of fever in Greece. Anyway.


  1. Gimme an Old school alpha!! I like these new guys (they're good to be friends with, marry, even) but I must admit I liked those swarthy macho men. not because they were "saving me" or whatever. But because they were just fun to fantasize about.


  2. I LOVED those douchey heros. Loved.

  3. I liked nice guys. I married a nice guy and have always dated nice guys. I never really understood the fascinations with a-holes.

    I always thought it was kind of sick the way those heroes treated women. I think maybe that's why it took me so long to "re discover" romance again. I was scared to try again because I figured it was just going to be more arrogant jerks. But I am also glad to see this new 2.0 trend