While reading paranormal romances, I’ve come to notice that the vast majority of heroes in paranormals are alphas—but not just alphas. The alpha males in paranormals seem more alpha. Alpha-ier? Possessed of above-average alpha-ness? Due to the worldbuilding, narrative constructs, and tropes of the subgenre, paranormal heroes can get away with behavior that would not be permitted with contemporary or historical romance heroes—or at least, not to the same extent.
1. Literalism. One of the most obvious ways in which the Alpha Male is allowed to stretch his heavily muscled, tattooed wings in paranormal romances is with the literal label of Alpha. Leadership positions for paranormal heroes don’t often keep them in boardrooms or on race car tracks or in the British Peerage. The Alphas of wolfpacks or the leaders of vampire clans get the best of both worlds: positions of power and social respect that are also very physical and hands-on. So you can have your Man In Charge Cake and eat it with the Hard Working Sweat-Of-His-Brow Type, too.
2. Biological Imperative. I’ve often joked that lycanthropy in paranormal romance heroes is like the male equivalent of the horrid PMS cliché: it often gives heroes a biological free pass for attitudes and behaviors that would be harder to stomach coming from a fully-human hero. Extreme cases of possessiveness, predilections to violence, and overtly controlling behaviour can be easily swept under the “His Inner Wolf Made Him Do It” rug. Thus, such dominating behaviour can be more easily accepted as exciting rather than frightening because it’s an expression of his biological animal bond rather than a wilful choice on his part to be a Misogynist Dick.
3. Higher Stakes. And I don’t just mean for taller vampires (ba-dum-bum!). The central conflicts of paranormal romances aren’t normally concerned with the more “realistic” dramas of Secret Babies, Romantic Misunderstandings, and Matchmaking Your Daughter with a Suitable Non-Syphilitic Rake. No, paranormal conflicts tend to be bigger. End-of-the-world bigger. Enslavement-of-all-mankind bigger. And bigger problems require bigger heroes (tee hee). Such conflicts call for alpha males capable of tremendous strength, stamina, and self-sacrifice, to perform powerful feats of heroism. You’re not going to find a lot of vampire romances where the central problem is solved by the centuries-old clan leader tenderly teaching the heroine’s dyslexic child to read.
4. The Lesser of Two Evils. The hero with a wicked streak has a strong appeal—and in paranormal romances, wickedness is graded on a curve. Think of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He’s a delicious romantic hero, and yet, he’s tortured, murdered, and eaten hundreds of people in his lifetime and during his tenure on the show. Why is it that viewers can relate to him and enjoy his adventures, despite his horrible actions? It’s because in the greater scheme of things, one bleach-blond vampire is small beans compared to demonic half-robot abominations, immortal mayors-turned-giant-snakes, and The First Evil. In this way, the Alpha Male heroes of paranormals can be acknowledged predators like werewolves and vampires, but are still heroic despite the occasional disturbingly-human-looking skeleton in their closet.
5. More Angst. We all love heroes with a tortured past, and a hero with a centuries-long lifespan is going to have a whole lot more past (and the potential torturedness to go with it) than your average wrong-side-of-the-tracks high school sweetheart. It’s simple mathematics. Tie that in with the Higher Stakes of the subgenre and you have an endless potential for fascinatingly dark, conflicted heroes.
In many ways, this is the subgenre’s greatest asset. In other ways, it can be a hindrance. If you’re a fan of soft-spoken, submissive Betas or more low-key stories in paranormal romance, they can be pretty thin on the ground, although they do exist (Lannes from Marjorie M. Liu’s The Wild Road is a splendid example). Agree? Disagree? Discuss in the comments below!
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.