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Alpha, Beta, and Reading Against Type

One of the things I enjoyed most about the essays of Michelle Sagara and Elizabeth Vail on the alpha and beta heroes in Romance was the range of comments and interpretations of both heroic types. How could the same type produce so many different, and often conflicting, ideas of what constitutes an alpha? What is that strange alchemy that produces such different interpretations of the same characters? Is it really that we all have such different definitions of the same types, or is it more that these are artificial categories we fill out with our own expectations and desires?

For genre fiction readers, character types are an important way in which the genre answers reader expectations. Conforming to them is a strength in that they create genre continuity (and therefore formalistic boundaries) and they manage reader expectation around what kind of experience a book will ostensibly deliver. However, character types can also be a weakness, keeping the genre narrowly confined to certain acceptable categories and courting staleness through over-replication.

Also, to what extent do types allow us to be more passive in our experience of certain books. For example, if I “know” what a Linda Howard alpha male hero is, then to what extent will I read any Howard book through the filter of those expectations? And how do those expectations shape my perception of other books that appear to be similar, at least on the surface?

It’s no secret that I’ve been feeling reading malaise with Romance lately, and while I know it’s more me than the genre, that malaise has become self-fulfilling, because I haven’t been open to finding that book that breaks pattern and surprises me. It’s not that the books aren’t out there, but there’s something about the combination of my expectations and the ease with which the genre can mirror those back through “typical” characters, tropes, and conflicts, that I failed to fight through it.

Until, that is, I read Anne Bishop’s Written in Red, the first book in her Others series that is not a Romance, but that has a definite relationship with romantic elements at its center. Almost everything about Written in Red and A Murder of Crows confounded my expectations and preconceived ideas about how cultural and racial difference is constructed in genre fiction, as well as what it means to be alpha or beta within a romantic paradigm, and in the process, made me question my own reading prejudices and preconceptions.

Archetypes are written and re-written in genre fiction to the point at which they become typical – at least in the eyes of readers. We have all sorts of ways of referring to the so-called alpha hero: alphahole, caretaking alpha, warrior alpha, protective alpha, abusive alpha, etc. Similarly, the beta hero is often associated with certain typical qualities: scholarly or bookish, less physically large or imposing, less assertive or aggressive, more emotionally open, etc.

In the abstract, it all seems so simple and so clear. Alpha heroes are aggressive, while betas are more collaborative. Alpha heroes are dark, brooding, and physically imposing, while betas tend to be slimmer, fairer, and less moody. But how many of these character types are uncomplicatedly rendered in actual books?

Anne Bishop’s Others series brought into relief for me the extent to which the clear distinction may be more fiction than fact. For those unfamiliar with (currently two-book) series, it features a young woman named Meg Corbyn, who escapes from a life in which she is ritualistically and involuntarily bled for prophecies purchased by the rich. As a cassandra sangue, she is technically human, but is also something else, something unique enough that she ends up imprisoned and exploited for her “gift.” And yet, her gift comes with dangerous side effects: she is in danger of losing her mind from one too many cuts and prophecies, and the euphoric response she has to speaking her prophecy can become a dangerous addiction (these are both addressed in the second book, A Murder of Crows). Although Meg has been isolated from the world, she knows enough from the images she has been taught to find her way out of the compound and eventually to Lakeside, a community of terra indigene. The community’s leader, Simon Wolfgard, is both enraged and intrigued by Meg, enraged by what he perceives as her weakness and intrigued by the fact that although clearly human, she does not “smell like prey,” which is what most humans potentially are to the terra indigene.

Intrigue wins out, and Simon hires Meg as the human liaison of Lakeside, which means she accepts deliveries and mail from human businesses and sorts and delivers it to the Lakeside residents, ranging from vampires to Elementals to the terra indigene who take on animal forms but are not animals. These different beings reside in a complex and complicated nexus of agreements and relationships, and find solidarity in their opposition to and power over humans, many of whom are represented as selfish, petty, immature, and intolerant.

When I started to read Bishop’s series, I was made aware of those critics who do not believe the books adequately represent cultural and racial diversity, especially in regard to Native Americans. But for me, what stood out about Written in Red, was first how it seemed to elude any sort of one-to-one racial or cultural analogy, and second, how, if I had to pick any analogy, it would have been the pre-American period of the early 18th century, especially in the areas where the Iroquois Confederacy leveraged their power against both the English and the French governments. Because despite the colonial and conversion minded settlers, and the greedy land interests and political double-talk from the Europeans and their colonial governments, there was also much more indigenous diversity and authority than a lot of people realize, especially previous to the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.

Looking at cultural and racial differences during that time requires a shift in paradigm, because neither category existed in the way it does today. The Lenape (Delaware), for example were pretty consistently at war with the Iroquois nations, significantly endangering their robust persistence. The complex societies populating what we now refer to as North America were different in language, cultural mythology, and customs, and even when the Europeans arrived, alliances were formed that capitalized on long-existing antagonisms between indigenous societies.

This, for me, is how the Lakeside community reads. The paradigms of race and culture as we use them now don’t really apply. For example, Police Lieutenant Crispin Montgomery is described as having dark skin, but we find that our casually; it is not something anyone specifically comments on in the books. When asked about where he was born, he says, “My father’s family immigrated to Thaisia from Afrikah a few generations ago and settled in Toland. Most of my mother’s family still live in the Storm Islands.” Moreover, Montgomery is one of the few humans Simon Wolfgard and his fellow community leaders trusts and actively works with to keep the peace between humans the Others.

The Thasia reference seems to echo the theory of the Bering Strait Land Bridge. However, if you push the analogies too far in any direction you run into a wall. Café owner Tess, for example, invokes the characteristics of Medusa, while Meg seems to represent both her Cassandra typology and shamanistic practice. Erebus Sanguinati, the head of the vampires, plays the part of the stereotypical gentleman vampire in a decidedly affected and intentional way. And Simon, while most comfortable in his wolf form, is neither human nor wolf. He “mimics” humans but is not human. And he has adopted some of the characteristics of wolves, but is not strictly wolf, either.

Similarly, the relationship between Simon and Meg does not develop in expectedly romantic ways. Although they are both drawn to each other and share a rapid and deep level of emotional intimacy, their attraction is never once defined by how each looks. Not once does Simon think of Meg as pretty, and the one physical characteristic he responds to most strongly is her dyed hair, which smells awful to him. Similarly, in human form Simon is a bookseller with wire-rimmed glasses, which suggests a beta character, even though his true identity as not-wolf-wolf plays with the whole notion of alpha. And despite his decisive leadership of Lakeside, Simon lets his father act as figurehead, and finds himself completely befuddled by his feelings for Meg, frequently taking missteps with her. As for Meg, partly because of her isolation, she has no primary experience with romantic feelings, even though she seems to have a pretty good understanding of sex and how her body has sexual sensations. So while she is innocent in some ways, she is also smart, strong, and courageous, leaving the only home she knows and learning to live in a world that presents myriad dangers to her well-being and her life.

Because of their unique situation, Simon and Meg mostly express their affection through playfulness, especially when Simon is in wolf form. He likes it when she cuddles and kisses his wolf body, and when he is in that form, he is not intimidating to Meg, even though that could be perceived to be a more stereotypically alpha form. At the beginning of Murder of Crows, he is sleeping with Meg as wolf, and when she accidentally pushes him off the bed, be turns human in order to communicate with Meg and then gets back into bed in human form. While Simon did not understand it at the time, that incident adds a level of anxiety in Meg that they spend the entire book trying to work through. And even then, Simon registers Meg’s fear in animal terms, saying, “. . . she acts and smells all bunny-weird about me being there in human form.” They continue to try for friendship, but in some ways the emotional intimacy of that connection is deeper and more dangerous than simple sexual attraction.

In fact, the books are very focused on interpretation, translation, and reading the signs. When Meg experiences a prophecy, it is in words and images that must be translated. When Meg adapts to Lakeside, she is constantly trying to read the living faces of those around her, because she has mostly been educated through pictures. When intentions are inferred without thoughtful examination, disaster can occur – literally. One of Montgomery’s challenges, as a human policeman who wants to work with the terra indigene, is reading between the lines and making himself understood to a community that is inclined to see humans as untrustworthy and dangerous.

And many things in the books simply defy easy explanation and translation. From the characters who only partially exemplify “types” to relationships like that between Simon and Meg, it is tempting to read everything through an existing paradigm, and yet simultaneously impossible. At once point in Murder of Crows, Simon and his grizzly bear friend Henry are trying to comprehend Meg:

“She’s not terra indigene, Simon,” Henry said gently. “She’s not one of us. She’s human.” “She’s not one of us, but she’s not one of them either,” he snapped. “She’s Meg.”

In some ways this is an incredibly comforting exchange, because Meg is being considered as an individual outside of a particular type, with all its preconceptions and judgments. For Meg, Simon is similarly unique in her experience, and thus the reader sees him that way through Meg’s eyes. These are two characters who must be “read” in a different way – both by the reader and by each other — if they are to work as a couple. And yet, the exchange also presents difficulties, because outside of a familiar paradigm, it can be difficult to read signs that can prevent disaster. And that is part of the complexity of the situation in Bishop’s series – if, for example, Meg’s prophecies are misread, death and community devastation is likely. It’s not simply a matter of a simple understanding; the inability to communicate, collaborate, and mutually comprehend one another can easily be fatal. And as for Meg and Simon, how can a wolf who fears becoming more human successfully mate with a female whose uniqueness also inclines her to madness and even death? What seems inevitable between them also seems impossible.

Although the Bishop books push the envelope in many ways, they are a provocative example of how much easier it often is to imagine a “type” in theory than in practice. And for me, the experience of the books actually refreshed my interest in Romance, because they disrupted the expectations I had grown comfortable with in my own genre reading. And once those expectations are disrupted, perhaps I will see certain types differently in books I might otherwise pass on or read through the filter of previous perceptions.

None of this resolves the tension between the reader’s expectations and what the text objectively delivers. However, it does make me wonder how much many of the books that stand out in the genre do so precisely because they can be read through so many different reader filters, and not because they present the same kind of character type to every reader. In other words, is there really such a thing as an alpha or beta hero, or do we, as readers, build these types from individual judgment and expectation?

Michelle Sagara contemplates the Alpha Male

Michelle Sagara contemplates the Alpha Male

Michelle Michiko Sagara is a Japanese-Canadian author of fantasy literature, active since the early 1990s. She has published as Michelle Sagara, as Michelle West and as Michelle Sagara West. She lives in Toronto and is employed part-time at Bakka.


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Kameron Hurley wrote an interesting post here:

“Someone once asked me why “alpha males” were so popular in so much romantic speculative fiction, and I hesitated to answer it. Not because I didn’t know, but because I knew I was going to have to have a discussion about teasing out the difference between finding pleasure in something you genuinely find pleasurable and taking pleasure in something you think you’re supposed to find pleasurable”

But her post, while smart, doesn’t really answer the question; I don’t think it actually addresses the question. I think it does answer the question of why we buy in to certain things in real life. But fiction is not, in the end, real life.

Romance is fantasy. It is wish-fulfillment. The core of the story is idealized romantic love. I can, without doubt, pick apart the realism of any romance I am given – but that’s actually not the point. I can pick apart the realism of pretty much any book I’m given. It took me a long time to understand that romance is fantasy, and only when I did could I read it on its own terms and be open to its tropes.

There are some romance tropes I dislike. There are some I adore. It’s a balance: the romance and relationship has to be emotional, and it has to fit the narrow, narrow wedge of my own emotional needs. It’s not, therefore, about the books, but about me, and about how much disbelief I can personally suspend.

I write fantasy. I write about dragons and magic and flying, winged people. I can obviously suspend disbelief when I write, because I do not actually think any of these things can exist in the real world. But when I write, I believe. To read a book, I have to be able to believe in the same way. Any book.

I don’t think the question that opens this can be answered without first defining what Alpha Male means within romance. Hurley’s contention that we’ve been conditioned as a society to prize certain types of behaviour is inarguable. But alpha male behaviour in romance – at least in modern romance – is not so much with the bullying. It’s not so much with the lack of consent on the part of the heroine, not really.

I think, superficially, people can point at the romance alpha male behaviour and question it. They can point out that this behaviour in Real Life would be considered abusive and harassing. They can point at the ways in which this behaviour would be both creepy and entirely unacceptable. And, yes. Divorced from the emotional consent of the reader, all of this would be true; divorced from the emotional consent of the heroine, all of this would also be true.

But the reason that people find this compelling is not, imho, because they’ve been conditioned to find pleasure in being bullied.

The alpha male in romance – the hero – is more than the sum of his problematic parts. The alpha male is not actually weak. It’s not that his social external status makes him strong; he is strong enough to live in his external status and earn it simply by being himself. He knows what he wants. He knows how to work. He knows how to take charge in difficult situations. He knows how to get things done. He does not require his a) mother or b) nanny or c) beta chorus to tell him that he’s strong or important – because he knows. His ego, such as it is, is secure. He’s not trying to impress. He’s simply impressive.

He is therefore not a person who is passively waiting for the heroine to make all of the emotional decisions. Or any of his life decisions except the one that’s at the core of the novel: his happiness, because in romance, his happiness is not tied to all of the other things that define his status. It is tied to love.

Whatever he sees in the heroine, he sees. He wants it. He does not care about her status harming his. He does not care how other people see her, because frankly, why the hell would he? He’s secure. He doesn’t want her because other people would, or do. He wants her, period. He is never, ever going to be the husband who tells his wife, “you better start working out, you need to lose some weight” because he’s self-conscious about how other people will judge him for having a chubby wife. He is never going to be concerned that her age is showing; he is never going to have an affair with a random, twenty-year old secretary, etc.

Readers give consent to the relationship not because the hero is an asshat, but because the hero is an idealized grown-up. His ego does not require bolstering: he could not care less what other people think of him. What he needs, undiluted, is the heroine.

Let me go one step further. He is not looking for love to define his life and give it meaning. He has a life. He has a life he’s in control of. Men who read romances looking for clues on how to approach women are taking the wrong things out of the reading if they’re focused on out-of-context behaviours. The alpha has confidence in himself. He is not looking at love as a way of bolstering a (non-existent) confidence. He has proven that he can, thank you very much, be strong without a relationship to define him. But…he is aware that something is missing.

If you’re male and reading romance to try to understand what women want, that’s what you should take out of these books: that you need to be confident, and to have a life of your own, interests of your own, direction and motivation of your own; that you can, in fact, take care of yourself and all of the details of life and living, before you look for your life-mate. You cannot expect that these things are donated simply by having a girlfriend/wife, etc. They’re not.

As I said: the alpha male is idealized. Because he is a fantasy. But it’s the confidence and the commitment and the lack of feminine (the heroine’s) responsibility for another person that makes the trope attractive. If the heroine suffers from lack of confidence, it doesn’t matter; he has confidence. If she’s uncertain, if she desires him but she’s afraid to commit to more, he’s certain. The decisions and the mess are not actually hers to clean up. He is never, ever, going to whine at her. Or be passive-aggressive. Passive-aggression is…not at all attractive. No one fantasizes about being involved with a passive-aggressive.

In real life, women are responsible for so much, emotionally. On hard days, on days when they just want to give up and crawl back into bed, one of the things they daydream of, outside of romance novels, is for someone else to pick up the slack for a day or a week or a month. It’s for someone else to get a grip, to take responsibility for their own lives, so that the woman herself can be responsible, for a tiny while, for just herself and her own needs. In fact, I’ll go one step further and say: on some days, when things are overwhelming, I want someone to take care of me.

And that kind of care happens when we’re three. Or five. Or sick as a dog. If it happens at all. It’s not realistic. It’s not a desire upon which to build a real life. And we don’t. But we can dream.

I don’t think it’s social conditioning about alpha males that causes the reading pleasure. I don’t think it’s the conditioning that makes romance alpha males work for readers. I think it’s the rest of real life. It’s having to raise children and be aware of their needs and their emotions constantly. It’s having to deal with failed relationships or walking away from those that are just draining because of incompatibility, etc. It’s having to be responsible, always, for other people. It’s having to make nice and to be someone else or be something other than we actually are for so much of day-to-day life.

The romance alpha male wants the heroine for herself. And he is totally, entirely, confident in that desire. He is confident enough that he navigates some of the heroine’s doubts and the insecurities that arise from just being female in the world.

The big thing about alpha males in a romance – the thing that is the fantasy – is that they take care of everything themselves. I mean everything. They’ve got so much going on – they’re rich, they’re high status, they’re (generally) gorgeous – that they don’t require someone external to prop them up in any way. They are not interested in women-as-armpiece. They are so certain of their status they don’t require an armpiece.

You can say: that’s unrealistic. There will be no argument from me. But that’s WHY it’s a fantasy. That’s what makes it an escape. It’s not a comfort because it’s same-old, same-old. It’s a comfort because it never was. Just like dragons never were. Or sorcery. Or magic swords. Or super-heroes.

It is comfort reading. It is emotionally involving, when done well. It is something that we can, while reading, believe in, and take strength from when we once again turn to face the real life we’ve built.

This is why I think alpha males are popular in romantic fiction, speculative or otherwise.

Romance and romance reading is enough of a feminine bastion, I hate to see a huge swathe of it dismissed this way. The dismissal is once again aimed at the heart of things that women love, by implication because those things are “here to comfort folks who’ve chosen to live and organize themselves in certain ways and say, “Yes, of course. It’s always been this way. It will only ever be this way”.

I don’t think that what we read for comfort says very much about the other books we also read; nor can we draw conclusions about how romance readers have chosen to live outside of the books they read for comfort. Readers are not monolithic. I know a lot of people who read romance, and they are not of a single mind or a single life – or even a single life-style. By all means make clear that you are not writing books that will offer comfort to some readers – but you can do that without implying that the reading of these for comfort means you have chosen to live a certain way to somehow enforce the status quo.

This is exactly why many women I know do not publicly admit they read romances: it’s this attitude.

If we are decrying the need for comfort at all, that’s a separate issue, beyond the remit of this column.

And full disclosure: I don’t write romance. I cannot figure it out while in the depths of an actual book. I have tried – I can’t do it; for me, it’s hard. There is nothing worse than a romantic attachment that feels shoe-horned in; it is awkward and no reader will believe it. I therefore do not have a dog in this race. I am not defending something I write.

But I feel the need to defend something that millions of people read for comfort. I want to point out that there is m/m romance, there is inter-racial romance, lesbian romance – that if the boundaries being stretched are not as far-flung and wide-reaching as cutting edge SF or F, they are nonetheless being stretched. And they are being stretched, in the end, from a place of comfort – and comfort requires trust.

-Michelle Sagara

Twitter: @msagara