Non-Alphas Need Not Apply: Can only Alpha males get published in Romancelandia?

Recently I received an email from a writer friend who’s agented, but has not had any luck selling her first novel. She told me that her agent says that the problem is that her hero and heroine are too much like real life and that she needs to make them into the romance cliché, and for the male, that means he needs to be Alpha, baby.

Sigh.

I’ve read this friend’s novel and I loved the hero, he had a quiet strength, he was intelligent and he respected the heroine. Her agent loves the characters too, but apparently the editors she’s pitched it to don’t. The agent said she needed to revise the hero so that he is more arrogant, more aggressive, and more domineering.

As new writers, in order to get published with traditional publishers, are we doomed to stick to this stereotype? Is this why many have chosen to go with smaller, independent presses? Apparently the Big 6 demand this type of hero and so if you’re tired of it, you know whom to blame. It’s this all-pervasive monolithic stereotype that allows us to chuckle at this 2-minute regency romance because it’s so dang true.

I know there are many readers and reviewers who lament the pervasiveness of this type of male in Romancelandia. In a Google search on the subject, I’ve come across these various opinions:

Strong, confident Alphas have become monstrous and overbearing

In the old school romances of the 70s and 80s, Alphas were assholes who practiced forced seductions if not rape. Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan of Smart Bitches Trashy Books (SBTB) gave this hero the term alphole in her book Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels and that today this type has thankfully become the minority. But Jane at Dear Author discusses how even the stereotyped Alpha male has morphed of late from strong and confident to monstrous and overbearing. She goes on to lament:

We have this warped view of alpha men.   They are caricatures relying primarily on physical prowess to serve a romance shorthand for all those things that we view a hero should be.   But the unfortunate thing is that it straightjackets the heroes’ character such that they aren’t allowed to drink mixed drinks or sleep in pajamas without being viewed with immediate suspicion that perhaps they are, in fact, from the other end the Greek alphabet.

She ends her post with this valid question, which elicited some great comments about what readers want and their definition of an Alpha male:

Now, you readers might tell me that your books don’t have these uber alpha characters and if that is so, tell me the titles of those books. Or perhaps the alpha male means something else to  you or you really must have an alpha male for the book to interest you.   I want to know why because ultimately the question I have is whether the alpha male that we read about today is reflecting what readers want or whether its a literary exaggeration done unconsciously to evoke a certain reader response [emphasis mine].

The blog Heroes and Heartbreakers has an excellent post on when an Alpha becomes too Alpha, and uses the excellent Loretta Chase novel Lord of Scoundrels as a perfect illustration of the need to match that Alpha with a strong heroine:

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

What about the poor Beta male?

Heroines With Hearts blog wants to know what’s wrong with the Beta male:

I blame the romance industry (publishing) for their unbidden constancy of inflicting Alpha males upon readers of romance. What’s wrong with a Beta male?  To be honest, I always fancied Dandini rather than Prince Charming. The latter too vain in every way: Dandini the charmer of the two. Hee hee, and a man on his knees placing glass slipper on feet far more to my liking!

Are non Alpha males viable in Romance?

Sarah over at SBTB kicked off a great discussion a while back on what makes a real-life hero and asks if there are such in Romance novels. In the comments one reader referred to these as the Omega hero, and another referred to them as The Sandwich. I just HAD to know what the latter meant and it brought me to this great post by Sarah Rees Brennan where she breaks down Romance heroes into 3 types: The Angst Muffin (which would be most Alpha males), The Sandwich (reliable and dependable) and The Pastry (wide-ranging varieties that can initially be off-putting but are sweet inside). It’s a great read and she gives examples from books for each type.

My writer friend said that she couldn’t think of examples of romances featuring non-Alphas, but Sarah Rees Brennan’s post mentions a few for each. In my recent reading experience I can name an example for the other two, and oddly (or not so oddly, as I’m really coming to believe she’s one of the best in the genre) they are both Loretta Chase novels. In Lord Perfect, we get The Sandwich delightfully thrown into a situation that ruffles his world. And in Mr. Impossible we get a wonderfully strong and sweet Pastry who surprised me time and again with his non-Alpha responses to the heroine.  It’s been awhile since I’ve read some Julia Quinn, but I’m thinking some of the Bridgerton brothers weren’t Angst Muffins, or am I misremembering?

And there are those that are tired of the Alpha male

A writer on the absolutewrite.com forum posed this question:

The Hero’s are always tough guys that get what they want because they are either rich and sexy, a dangerous Vampire and sexy, or a medieval lord and sexy. I’m not talking about having a weak willed guy keeping his head down with a female dom, but when I wrote my next book I did it with the idea that this guy wouldn’t walk around with his chest puffed out all the time, though he could still handle himself when needed. But that seems to be the problem in my story. My critique partners are saying that any medieval lord had to be a dominant alpha in order to protect his lands, and I can understand this and have made a few changes to hopefully buff him up enough so that they’re satisfied, but does an alpha hero who knows how to handle himself have to be an arrogant jerk?

And it generated a lot of comments.

And Wendy Palmer doesn’t like them either. She likes:

Calm, competent men who actually get things done while Mr Arsehole Alpha is off ranting or brooding or obsessing about status or measuring the size of his mobile phone or whatever it is these Heathcliff types do. They also have the decency to converse politely with women they don’t find attractive and don’t intend to sleep with, which some real-life wannabe alphas don’t (it’s always fun trying to make small talk withthem in a social situation, I can tell you).

But she also says what she’d like to see are male characters that are well-rounded, instead of being pigeon-holed:

Of course, the most important thing … is that they are decent characters first, and fall into those categories [Alpha, Beta] second — and even then, generally only loosely — just like real people, none of whom are 100% alpha or beta or omega or whatever animal classification you want to try to force on them. One of my favourite characters ever is Lord Peter Wimsey; he’s nothing like the modern alpha male but nor could he really be called a beta with its unfair undertone of submission.

Which brings us to…

Give us real males

Erotica author Freya Duquesne had a great post on this subject in which she sums up with:

What I’d love to see in more nov­els is not Alpha Male or Beta Male, but real males. Real guys that stand out­side and beyond the Alpha Male/Beta Male cliches. Flawed, yes, but maybe not in the stereo­typ­i­cal ways. It would be nice to read about heroes that know how to com­mu­ni­cate, who do value women for more than just sex, who are socially con­scious and…humble. Who are will­ing to lis­ten and con­sider the ideas of other people, instead of act­ing brashly on their own.

In defense of the Alpha

Suzanne Brockmann was asked why she loved Alpha males, and I thought her response very enlightening. She says:

When I create my characters, I don’t think in terms of labels. I don’t say, okay, I’m going to sit down now and create an alpha male or a beta male. Instead of male or female, alpha or beta, I create a human being.

I’m a strong believer in the theory that environment and upbringing play an important part in establishing a person’s personality. It’s true, there are quite a few personality traits we as individuals are born with, but if a boy is born with a sensitive, beta-type personality but is raised in an abusive, be-tough-or-get-crushed type environment, chances are, he’s going to grow up to be more of an alpha male. He’s going to learn to fight, and he going to learn to hide his feelings — perhaps he’s even going to learn not to feel.

She then explains in a thoughtful way, what she loves about an Alpha male, and I think the lesson here is that what she loves in an Alpha is when it’s done right.

So what does all this mean?

There are examples of non Alpha males in Romance and there’s definitely an audience for them, but can you only push those boundaries once you become a well-respected author like Loretta Chase? As a new writer do we need to conform first and then break out? This is worrisome as my hero is not an Alpha male. I posted this question in a private forum with some of my critique partners, and they were worried too since their heroes weren’t Alphas either. One commenter said:

I like the romances that Mira books print. Those books (by authors like Debbie Macomber and Susan Wiggs) have strong, interesting characters without all the stereotypes. I really hate the arrogant male. He annoys me. I am not attracted to that type in RL, why would I spend 300 pages reading about a guy like that. I understand the frustration. It’s so two-faced.

Another said, “…they want stereotypes…they just want nice little bows on them so they don’t look like stereotypes, but still are.” She’s worried too because her hero isn’t an Alpha, but yet her crit partners loved her hero and told her not to change him.

What do you think? Can a new writer get published with a non-Alpha male? If we write about a non-Alpha male, are there other elements that need to be present in order to compensate? Do you like Alpha males? Do you have romances you can recommend that feature Made of Awesome heroes that aren’t Alphas?

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28 Comments

  1. This is an awesome post! I hate Alpha males and all the cliches that go along with them. One of the reasons I went with a small press was because I knew my main characters in Life on the Edge didn’t have enough stereotypical traits. One of my critique partners told me my heroine wasn’t messed up enough, lol. My hero is gentle and respectful of the heroine. He has flaws but arrogance and acting domineering aren’t part of his character. My heroine would’ve never been attracted to a guy like that. I’m so tired of all the romances with the brooding or jackass hero who then suddenly gets all soft because he’s found the right woman. It’s overplayed and overdone. Give me realistic characters any day!

    Reply
    • I know you just launched your book, how’s the reception been?

      Reply
      • The reception has been wonderful, which has made me so happy I went with the small press. The story I wanted out there is out there. I thought long and hard about querying agents, but I was afraid they would want to change my manuscript too much (I’ve heard too many horror stories from writers about that).

        I’ve had readers who told me they swooned over my hero, so I think he turned out well! :) And a few readers have mentioned how they could identify with my heroine because she was just a normal, down-to-earth girl. Hearing readers’ reactions about the characters has made me the happiest!

  2. Mary Roya

     /  February 8, 2012

    I beta males as well. But sometimes, you want them to grab you. If they are aways sweet & kind….they ask first. Can I have both?

    Reply
  3. I think you can have Alphas, and you can have a**hole Alphas. In the latter case, we continue reading in hopes of seeing them torn down by “the little woman.” Suzanne Brockmann certainly writes heroes who are Alpha in the field but at home they are partners and friends.
    I don’t particularly like loud overbearing males in real life and I don’t enjoy writing them. Men can get the job done without being jerks, and can lead without undue pressure. Maybe this comes from years of raising super intelligent dominant dogs. The most aggressive tend to be the least secure, and my best “Alphas” have managed to exert control with just a quiet look.
    Great subject, thanks for bringing this up.

    Reply
    • Maybe the problem is the perception from publishers about what makes a male Alpha? Because what the agent was suggesting was the stereotypical asshole alpha :(

      Reply
      • So either the publishers want something the readers don’t want, OR the writers are out of step with readers (perish the thought!) Given how insanely popular some books are over others, it does raise the question.

      • It sure does! I’m pretty sure I represent a minority view and so am really interested to find out from readers if this type of jerk Alpha is what they want. It probably also means I’ll need to seek a small press…

  4. Wow, Angela, this is an amazing post. I’ve given a lot of thought to your questions over the last two years while writing my novel.

    Personally, I kinda like alphas, but not in a stereotypical, jerk kind of way. I think it’s more about confidence, which is pretty hard to find in a RL guy these days (IMO). I think with the metrosexual movement, more social acceptance of gay men (which, let me be clear, is fantastic), and the men-and-women-are-equal movement, straight women are looking for testosterone in their fiction. Why? Because it’s not threatening–it’s fantasy.

    Women have to take on so many roles today, that temporarily giving over power and responsibility through fiction is a relief. It also explains why D/s fiction has taken off so much lately.

    Let’s face it: no straight woman wants to be the guy in a relationship. With an alpha, you don’t have to worry about that. It’s cliche, but there’s that line in “Feels Like the First Time” from Foreigner that goes, “I guess it’s just the woman in you that brings out the man in me.” RAWR.

    That said, I don’t think an alpha has to be a jerk. There are different, positive definitions/characteristics: confident, dependable, protective, chivalrous, quietly sexy …

    I SO want to cite examples from my book, but I don’t want to give anything away. Let’s just say that the idea of what is attractive (in an alpha) and what is “good for you” gets explored, and [censored for spoilers.] :)

    Reply
    • Great thoughts! I agree with you about lack of confidence in guys and I think combined with my own, explains my single state :) Am wondering though if strong and confident is an exclusive trait for an Alpha? To use the Sandwich and Pastry examples, those heroes are strong and confident too. From what it sounds like from my friend, though, her agent is telling her it’s the jerk alphas that publishers want… Sigh….

      Reply
  5. Great post! I don’t really read romance, and the prevalence of this stereotype is largely why. I just can’t stand it. If it’s not realistic, I won’t read it. And this stereotype is not realistic.

    Reply
  6. Wonderful post! I think the romantic interest in BTG is a sandwich, which makes me happy. I think the publishing industry tends to be too tied to what’s worked in the past and that’s why it’s difficult to sell non-alpha heros to traditional publishers. My advice is go with a smaller press, they’ll care more about you as a writer, be willing to take a chance, and as your readership grows you will get the attention you deserve. Then you can make the choice to go with the big guys when they make an offer, or stick with your first publisher.

    Reply
  7. I’m married to a beta with a hot bod. What’s with this type? I’m not interested in being married to an alpha male. We’d constantly be at war.

    Maybe this is why I prefer YA. That alpha boy isn’t essential for the book to be published. All types are desirable.

    Reply
  8. This is one of the reasons I went with self-publishing. I love my hero, I think he’s amazing and I completely wish I could meet him in real life. But he’s not an alpha guy. One of my readers told me he was worried that the heroine might wind up with him (which she did) because he (reader) thought he (hero) was a slacker. I don’t think he’s a slacker, but his winning characteristic for the heroine is that he is never, under any circumstances (ie, in the climactic moments), going to choose to hurt her. Not even to save her life. I find that completely insanely erotic. But I figured I was kind of alone in that position, and I knew for sure that I was alone in that position in publishing. It is, though, one of the reasons I’ve stopped reading most romance. I don’t want the guy that they’re pushing. I want….a different guy. Not submissive, at all, but real.

    Reply
    • That makes sense! This gives me an idea — some romance book lovers should do a website where they sort books by type of hero? Or maybe we can start a campaign to get people to tag books with a keyword on Amazon for the hero-type? So that it would make it easier for readers to find books. Heck, even if the tag was just Alpha hero and non-Alpha hero, your field would be narrowed down dramatically to sort through for reads. Have you seen the new website http://wonkomance.com ? They will be featuring books with offbeat characters… Though the latest post is a bit too wonky for me, LOL!

      Reply
      • I just checked it out and what a fun idea! Although I think you were probably talking about the cucumbers? And yeah, no. But in general, loads of great book suggestions over there. I’ve added it to my RSS feed!

        I like the tag idea. I originally tagged my book with physics, which is super appropriate, but then it showed up on a site with recommendations for books for science students, which is super not! I mean if the science students are over 18, maybe, but otherwise, not so much. I pulled that tag off quickly, lol. But it’s really tough to figure out the right tags.

      • Oops, on your tag! Just made me think though that maybe I should suggest the wonkomance tag to the wonkomance crew…

  9. First off, have to say that I really love reading your posts.

    In one of my books, I have both an alpha and a beta–people who have read the story love both of the men. And consistently, readers say they swoon for “Beta” because he’s a good guy who seems real.

    I’m thinking that eventually editors and publishers will get the message that romance readers like BOTH fantasy and reality. ;-)

    Reply
  10. What a fascinating discussion! I’ve not read much romance, but have to agree that all the male protagonists I’ve read so far appear to be Alpha Males. However, BUILD A MAN by Talli Roland (an awesome chick lit — that is classed as romance, right?) has the sweetest Beta Male ever, a slightly lumpy darling who is a whiz in the kitchen! Loved that!

    Reply
  11. If we think about authors who have been massively successful: LaVryle Spencer for one, Janet Dailey in her earlier books, for that matter Nora Roberts in most of her books–many of the heroes are competent and responsible and take charge but they are not chest thumping Alphas.
    Remember “The Hellion?” The hero starts out as a ne’er do well rich boy, who decides to finally make something of himself. Okay, this was a long time ago, but have tastes changed that much?

    Reply
  12. How timely–on the Today show this morning they mentioned an annual poll of what women think is romantic in a man, then they also asked their “panel of experts.” The answers were: sense of humor, ability to cook, and intelligence. Hmm

    Reply
  13. Actually, I should say that I hate the term ‘Alpha male’. It’s borrowed from animal behavior studies (baboons and chimps, not our closest primate relatives) by the sort of sloppy biological determinists who believe that today’s sex roles are carved in our genes.

    (Read history, and don’t confine yourself to the Euro-American upper class, and you may learn something.)

    It’s the same sloppy thinking that leads to statements like “no straight woman wants to be the guy in a relationship.” WTF? Undefined terms all over the place (what do you mean “the guy”) and how DARE you speak for me! Speak for what you like, but don’t generalize to a huge chunk of the population. This is what raises my blood pressure whenever I read big-name romance writers holding forth on the rules of the genre (when they’re not calling it ‘the industry’). They are full of noise about “what women REALLY want”, just like the a-hole Alphas they love to write.

    I don’t see the so-called Alphas as sexy, period. When someone interferes with my personal power, they’re a threat. Sexualizing this threat is dangerous, and I have spent too much effort over the years sweeping up the blood and broken glass that results from believing the romance-novel stereotypes. I hesitate to classify my own work as romance, because what I see in the mainstream, just reading novel blurbs, is that the formula isn’t just “Happily Ever After = Romance.” It’s “Rigid Sex Roles + Borderline Abuse = Romance.”

    Ask anyone doing domestic violence work: love shouldn’t hurt.

    Reply
  14. jessezrin

     /  February 23, 2012

    I love ‘beta’ type male in novels…It’s kinda frustrating to read ALPHAS after a while. The explosion of were-animal novels and vampires don’t help. I’d still rather go for my beautiful Armand (Anne Rice Vamp), earlier Argeneau family vamps (Lynsay Sands) than the strong/jerk-like vampires in newer vamp novels….

    I also finished reading Robin Kaye’s Domestic Gods series months ago. Her heroes (well 3 of them) cooked, cleaned (vacuum under sofa while lifting sofa with one hand….oohhh, the visual), were intelligent with a side of hunk…now those kinds of heroes I’d love to drool over…. lol

    Reply
  15. The romance industry isn’t the problem. The women who buy it are. Second thing. “Real male” is just some non-existent kind of alpha, some alpha that doesn’t exist.

    Alpha males were bred into existence by women to begin with — by women choosing the aggressive male over the passive one. Women have been cultivating men for thousands of years the way farmers cultivate plants for desirable traits. Men have done the same with women. But notice that the result of male sexual choices is to breed sheer hotness into existence, where as the result of female choice is the violent alpha male himself.

    Women bred patriarchy into existence. This is all your sexes fault. Except it. Make peace with it. Come to terms with it.

    Reply
  1. What’s an Alpha Anyway? Guest post by Rachelle Ayala « Angela Quarles
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