In romance, the dominating and powerful Alpha Male Hero is as beloved to readers as the misogynist and abusive Cave Man Hero is despised. The Alpha Male is overprotective, take-charge, and possessive. The Cave Man hero is, well, also overprotective, take-charge, and possessive.
There’s a surprisingly thin line between the Alpha Male and the Cave Man, since they possess, at heart, the same general qualities. So what makes the possessiveness of an Alpha Male endearing and romantic, but the possessiveness of a Cave Man intimidating and controlling? Why do readers love the Alpha Male who throws the heroine over his shoulder while carrying her from a burning building, but will throw a book at the wall when the Cave Man does the same thing? Where does the line start? What is the ultimate difference between them?
The answer: The heroine.
Think of the characters of a romance novel as the opponents in a prize fight. When you have two fighters who, despite a seeming disparity in size and strength, are equally matched, you have one hell of a fight ahead of you. The crowd roars, the excitement crackles in the air, and all the spectators are interested and invested in watching the intimate give-and-take of the opponents—no one’s sure who’ll come out on top.
Now imagine the fight is between a heavyweight champion and some skinny dude who barely tops 90 pounds soaking wet. No one wants to watch a fight like that—it’s too overmatched. No one wants to see a weakling get his butt handed to him, and no one roots for the hulking meathead willing to mop the floor with an opponent one-third his size.
It’s the same in romance. Honestly, it all comes down to power balance. Readers can fall in love with brooding Highlanders, reckless pirates, ruthless businessmen, and lustful werewolves—provided they come with a strong heroine, and by strong, I don’t’t necessarily mean physically. Since most Alpha Male heroes tend to be physically more powerful, the best romance authors compensate by matching them up with heroines who are stronger intellectually, who use words and wit and cunning. Either way, when paired with a strong-willed heroine who is capable of defending and maintaining herself, the hero’s forceful personality and aggression come across as challenges rather than threats.
One of the absolute best examples of this is Loretta Chase’s timeless Lord of Scoundrels. Before he meets the heroine, the Marquis of Dain is about as repulsive as a man, much less a romantic hero, can get. He’s callous, he’s cruel, he objectifies women, and he has no qualms with throwing his pregnant mistress out on the street.
When he meets the heroine Jessica Trent, there’s a wonderful scene where he tries to seduce her in public, slowly removing her glove and murmuring in Italian, using physical force and his dominating presence. But, to his horror, he realizes the canny Jessica has made him look like a devoted, adoring suitor instead, causing near-irreparable damage to his Take No Prisoners reputation. At first he’s disgusted—outraged!—at being outmatched by a mere woman, but the more he pushes, the more Jessica pushes back. And it’s because Jessica pushes back that the readers come to appreciate and care for Dain.
If an Alpha Male hero is paired with a passive, shallow, or weak-willed heroine, however, his flaws are only magnified. For a specific and literal example of how ugly a romance can become with unequally matched protagonists, I recently read a romance by Bonnie Vanak where a Big Bad Hero lusts after the Perfect Virgin Heroine. His solution? He drugs her, strips her, and hogties her to a bed in a brothel in order to force her to marry him. In this case, the heroine literally has no power to refuse him and the hero has all the power in the world to do whatever he wants.
Far from seeming dangerous and erotic, the hero’s actions become despicable and exploitative, and the deeply uncomfortable love scene afterward comes across as sexual coercion if not outright rape. In this scene, the heroine responds with a passive decision to lie back and enjoy herself instead of an active decision to fight or defy or confront the hero directly. This isn’t a Clash of the Titans—it’s a punching bag taking a fist. And throughout this novel I never wanted anything so much as to dip the hero in honey and fling him naked into a room full of starving bears.
There’s nothing wrong with the idea of the Alpha Male in itself. I think we all think and dream of men who are confident, protective, and determined, but a strong hero requires an equally strong heroine. It’s not rocket science, just physics.
Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.