Oct 13 2011 10:30am

Loretta Chase’s Dain Does it Right: How Alpha is Too Alpha?

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta ChaseIn 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.

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Megan Frampton
1. MFrampton
Elizabeth, I think that many authors have this problem when writing their heroines. I am a huge fan of Anne Stuart's, for example, but some of the valid complaints about her is that her heroines are too weak. Though, if she consistently wrote heroines tough enough to stand up to her MEGAAlpha males, her heroines would be way too testosterone-y, I think. I like vulnerability, but I don't like doormatness. Sometimes that line is blurry!
2. dick
Your contrast/comparison is right on the money, but I can't agree that the hero and heroine of Lord of Scoundrels are evenly matched. Being a mistress of manipulation, or perhaps a monster mother worthy of Philip Wylie's A Generation of Vipers, the heroine outweighs the hero by at least a ton.
Heather Waters
3. HeatherWaters
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.

Well said. I don't always like Alphas, but I think it's the ones that walk all over the heroines. When the heroine can give as good as she gets and they're equals, I'm totally on board.
4. wsl0612
Confession time: I'm probably alone here but I couldn't fully appreciate Karen M Moning's Dreamfever series for this reason. I just felt like Mac was too much of a wuss with Barrons and their relationship too unequal.
6. Louise321
Just reread The Lord of Scoundrels and I so enjoyed Dain and Jessica all over again. I love the way she goes back to her grandmother and describes her symptoms and is taken aback to find out that she was correct about her symptoms and she is in lust with Lord Beazlebub! I love the way she threatens to kiss his son and does so on his dirty neck and how Dain tells him the only way to get rid of the vermin in his hair is to either scrub them away or eat a plate of turnips. They are so well matched in their dominating strengths.
7. Rose In RoseBear
I think Linda Howard's early heroes were the most potentially despicable men in romance. In particular, the dubious "hero" of All That Glitters, the Greek tycoon, was just vile --- he never got punished for his jerk behavior, and he never got better. The heroine was something of a wuss --- she would stand up to him for all of fifteen minutes, and then go all crumbly. Feh.

I can hang in with guys who start off as despicable but then have a glimmering of being something more, or when the heroines are interesting. Linda Howard's The Cutting Edge features one of her emotionally impervious heroes, but the heroine, Tessa, brings out another aspect of the azzhole hero Brett. Tessa is a resilient cookie, until the hero torques her to the breaking point. But it's all good, because she doesn't break. Same thing with Linda Howard's Shades Of Twilight. Webb is something of a jerk, even as a kid, but Roanna is so adorable you can hang in there until we get into his head.

It's been a while since I re-read Wolf And The Dove, or Devil's Embrace, but I did recently pick up Chandra (aka Warrior's Song) and Fire Song again. I still can't stand Graelam, even though he's much more palatable in the later books. Again, it's the heroines that kept me reading the books. And Graelam did get his comeuppance, eventually.
8. torifl
Wonderful article and so true. I can take an Alpha hero if the female is somewhat Alpha too. My biggest pet peeve in romances (beyond the forced seduction) is the attitude, "I know what's best for you." Grrrr.

Catherine Coulter's Devil's Embrace and the sequel Devil's Daughter both feature heavy handed Alpha heros who complertely skeeved me out. I would have shanked them had I been the heroine. The worst part? The heroine falls in love with them. WHAT??

Savage Surrender by Natasha Peters is another book where the hero needed a brain overhaul and castration.
E. Henning
9. ehenning
I agree that a hero or heroine can be made more palatable by an equal partner. However, even a strong partner doesn't negate caveman behavior. I think the partner is a parallel discussion of equality in romance as opposed to how the character in question, Alpha male in the case of this post, is perceived.

To take your earlier exmple, if a dude has the temerity to throw a woman over his shoulder and carry her somewhere for her greater good/because he knows best/for her protection/etc (as opposed to because she has a broken leg and needs a hand to get out of a burning building), it is disrespectful. If he kisses her when she tells him no, it is disrespectful (and assault). If he keeps things from her because he doesn't want her to worry, it is disrespectful. If he flies into jealous rages/r makes his claim to her known so other men won't look at her, it is disrespectful. No amount of a woman standing up for herself changes the fact that the man, the character in question, is behaving badly.

I have a really low tolerance for poorly done men who display their alpha status by dominating, or attempting to dominate, the woman. Especially because it seems that a lot of the time, the strong heroine calls him on it, but he doesn't really change. It's just like oh *chuckle* there goes X being all possessive, good thing Y is going to give him a firm talking too. . . again. The woman may call him on it, but he doesn't change his behavior. (Which is another sign of lack of respect, in my opinion. There's a character being possessive by nature but realizing that it's ultimately his problem, and then there's flaring up with a jalousy time and again because she, presumably, can not be trusted to be faithful and/or take care of herself.)

I don't know, I love strong characters, but the trope is tired and rarely done well. No amount of a strong counter-weight as a partner negates boorish behavior.
10. Rosie N.
I think I'm in the minority in not enjoying Lord of Scoundrels. I didn't see Dain's redemption or appeal, no matter how strong the heroine's character was, and her character didn't stand out all that much to me either. It was kind of a deal breaker for me that *spoiler* Dain was repulsed by the sight of his son and left him to life's hardships (and still left him even after seeing how tough his son had it until Jessica strong-armed him into taking care of his own son). It was yuck.
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