I have a serious weakness for werewolf stories. I like shifters in general, but I love wolf-shifter stories. As I’ve mentioned, one of my all-time favorites is Bitten by Kelley Armstrong (Plume; reprint edition, 2010) and the prequels and sequels to that story reconfirmed what amazing things werewolf romantic fiction can do in terms of recasting and exploring humanity, instinct and rage, and what “dominant male” means.

 

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In Bitten, the pack Alpha, Jeremy, isn’t the hero of the story; it’s his enforcer, Clay, despite not being the highest-ranked male in the novel. And even though Clay is obedient to Jeremy (at times unwillingly) not once do I doubt his strength, cunning or dominance over the other wolves. Clay isn’t the top dog, so to speak, but he has plenty of Alpha dominance and then some.

The more I read shifter stories or fiction with a power hierarchy as part of the world-building, the more I look at other male characters and try to figure where they fit in a larger power structure of heroic archetypes. It makes me question and re-evaluate what is an Alpha male, and what names do you give characters who don’t fit that type? Beta? Gamma? Rogue? How many archetypes are there anyway?

For example, when I was reading Kate Noble’s The Summer of You (Berkley, 2010), I started scribbling notes about whether the hero was an alpha male (not really) and what makes a hero alpha, or beta, or any other archetypical category. I just found my notes stuffed into my copy of the book, and I’m not sure, judging from my insane handwriting, what conclusion I drew at the time.

Byrne Worth is a war hero. He keeps to himself, he thinks for himself, and he’s not interested in anyone else’s opinion—except perhaps Lady Jane Cummings, whom he’s interested in. He isn’t interested at all in exerting his influence over anyone else around him, and he used to be a spy, which means he snuck around a lot. It’s not like he was a commander. He was an infiltrator. Byrne’s not a pushover by any means, and he doesn’t accept being bossed around, but he’s not what I think of when I think “Alpha Hero,” especially in the current depictions of alpha hero. He doesn’t storm the castle—he sneaks in the back and dismantles it without anyone noticing, then sneaks away before being seen. Maybe he’s a Covert Alpha.

Just as every role in romance changes, the definition of alpha changes, too. In Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance (Simon & Schuster, 2009), Candy Tan, co-founder of Smart Bitches, and I described the “Alphole” hero. It used to be that romance was populated with alphas who were really assholes—autocratic chest-pounders with a tendency toward rape or at the least forced seduction. Alphole heroes still show up every now and again, usually as someone who is too assertive without any humility or honor—they’re not really dominant. They’re really just assholes. Alphole heroes are among my least favorite.

But now, readers are more likely to read about Alpha males with strong moral integrity, a hidden tenderness or the ability to be lethal while consistently choosing not to be—those make for some delicious heroes. Alpha heroes could be anything. They could be the alpha of a wolf pack, a literal alpha. They could be commanders or military officers or police chiefs. They could be lords or, depending on the mythology or theology of the romance in question, The Lord. (Heh—God, the Ultimate Alpha Male, particularly in the Old Testament.)

There are so many more examples of dominant males in romance fiction now, and what the idea of “Alpha” means. What Alpha characteristics do you like, and which books feature an Alpha hero you adore rereading about?

 

Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.