WITH CHARTS AND WITTY GRAPHICS
Warning: romantic fiction is complex and varied and the author will make sweeping generalizations out of sheer necessity.
Character stereotypes are the staple of any fiction: the bitter disillusioned detective, the young rebel rallying against a repressive regime, the desperate mother trying to save her children, and so on. The stereotypes exist because real world is infinitely more complex than fiction and by distilling characters to a readily recognizable type, the author allows individual reader to fill in the blanks according to their own life experience.
This article will seek to examine one such stereotype, a Byronic hero (from this point on referred to as Alphahole, because it’s trendy,) as an effective love interest type in romantic fiction, when presented as subset of damaged hero trope.
Definition of Terms
HEA – Happily Ever After. A short hand for happy ending, where the two people in love live happily ever after.
HFN – Happily for Now. A short hand for two people in love are happy for now, even though the future is not 100% certain. HFN is typically present in a series fiction when individual books within the series end on a happy note or with a hope of further development of the relationship but the series as a whole hasn’t ended.
Romantic Fiction – for the purposes of this article, Romantic Fiction is defined as encompassing the traditional romance (HEA) where the relationship is the central theme of the story, series romance (HEA or HFN,) and fiction with strong romantic elements where the relationship is a significant part of the story and HEA or HFN is achieved within the individual book or series overall.
Average Romance Reader – average romancer reader, like unicorns, exists mostly in theory. Romantic fiction is a truly diverse field and it offers something for everyone. Some people enjoy forced seduction, some abhor it. Some people prefer victim-heroines in need of saving and some prefer savior-heroines who rise to the challenge. When mentioning average romance reader, this article attempts to hit somewhere in the majority of romantic fiction readership.
Definition of Alphahole
Traditional Byronic hero comes to us courtesy of Lord Byron, who was quite emo and had a rather serious opinion of himself.
That man of loneliness and mystery,
Scarce seen to smile, and seldom heard to sigh— (I, VIII)
He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt: (I, XI)
There is a lovely Wikipedia article on the subject, if you are interested. The modern definition of alphahole has evolved, but it does retain some of its primary characteristics. Modern alphahole is generally aware he isn’t a good guy. He is, before all else, competent. He excels at his chosen profession, whether it is making billions, being a Duke, or running a ragtag crew of immortal werewolves trying to guard the world from horrible evil. By extension, alphahole is often rich, because he manages his money well. Alphahole delivers. If he invites you to dinner, you can bet your life that he has made a reservation; if your car breaks down, he will either fix it himself (points for additional competence) or make a mechanic appear nearly instantly out of thin air; if a monster is demolishing downtown, alphahole will run toward it; and if a sick child requires rare medicine that isn’t available at any pharmacy nearby, alphahole will find it. Alphahole has no chill and takes no crap.
Because of his superhuman competency, alphahole is often a leader, both admired and sometimes feared by those under his command. He expects to be obeyed. When he isn’t obeyed, he gets put out and forces compliance. He is arrogant and ruthless, sometimes cruel, seemingly unfeeling, and at the onset of the story, he often treats heroine with disdain and attempts to order her around. In most cases, the heroine reacts poorly to his attempts to control her, which puzzles, infuriates, and intrigues him.
“They were also invincibly arrogant, a characteristic fueled by the fact that they were, by and large, as talented as they thought themselves, a situation which engendered in less-favored mortals a certain reluctant respect. Not that Cynsters demanded respect – they simply took it as their due”
― Stephanie Laurens, Devil’s Bride
Alphahole usually has few emotional attachments, although he may be fiercely loyal to people under his command and caring with his family members, the fact that heroine typically learns only after she put in the requisite amount of work. More on that later. Alphahole also regards love as weakness or may believe himself undeserving or incapable of love. Like Lord Byron, alphahole does indulge in occasional angst.
“Love is a terrible weakness. It gives your enemies a perfect target, clouds your judgement, makes you reckless… and that’s on a good day.”
― Jeaniene Frost, Twice Tempted
“I’ve got nothing to offer you, Adrien.” These were not the opening remarks to a proposal.
It must be said that Alphaholeness is an emotional state and isn’t gender specific. Kate Minola, played by Shirley Henderson in a modern retelling of Taming of the Shrew by BBC, is a spectacular female alphahole and her love story with Petruchio (Rufus Sewell) is wonderfully satisfying. Because the majority of alpaholes in romantic fiction happen to be male, we will continue to refer to alphahole as “he” for the sake of convenience; however, a reversal of roles would be not only welcome, but highly anticipated by this author.
To effectively use alphahole as a hero, alphahole’s desire to control his environment and the heroine, his ruthlessness, and his utter lack of tact must present an insurmountable barrier to the relationship at the beginning of the book. This barrier is often made worse by the social gap. He is an immortal angel-like being, she is a human vampire hunter far beneath his notice (Angel’s Blood, Nalini Singh.) He is a notorious Marquis of Dain, off limits to any respectable woman and she is a perfectly proper daughter from a good family (Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase.) He is a billionaire and she is a lowly secretary. (Almost every Harlequin Presents ever.) He is deeply in the closet and is attracted to an openly gay man. (Adrien English series, Josh Lanyon.) A properly set up barrier will make the reader of romantic fiction rub her hands in anticipation and possibly even giggle in public and then have to deal with odd looks. The higher is the barrier, the greater is the emotional payoff.
It must be said that this particular set up isn’t unique to romantic fiction – as defined by this article – but is particular to all popular fiction at large, from the story of a lowly swineherd who wins a princess to the story of a lowly space smuggler who wins a princess. Or a lowly space slave, who – yet again – marries a queen and then turns to the Dark Side. Sadly, the latter two stories can no longer be classified as HEA or HFN.
The social gap is often used by critics of the genre who point out that women in the romantic fiction are often presented standing below alphaholes on social ladder. The argument is that it is demeaning to women. The criticism is fair; however, one is obligated to point out that in fiction traditionally advertised to men, such as Westerns and male PI mysteries, the hero is often below heroine on the social ladder. For example, Robert Parker’s Spencer is a self-educated, extensively well-read man who frequently quotes Frost. Spenser falls in love with Susan, who, although originally a guidance counselor, goes on to get her PhD from Harvard and in general displays the manners of a woman who would typically be out of Spencer’s league. In terms of classical noir, Spencer is a gumshoe detective and Susan is a classy dame. Similarly, the lone gunfighter often marries a rich rancher’s daughter.
This construct has less to do with preconceived gender roles and more to do with the story arc. A hero or heroine’s journey must be a climb or a descent, otherwise the story has no momentum. Since we are dealing with fiction that, by definition, requires a happy ending, that journey, at some point, must become a climb, which means the point of view character has to start on the bottom and work their way up. Sometimes that climb takes them upward on their social ladder.
Please note the liberal use of pink and hearts on the chart. This is in case someone gets confused and decides that we’re, in fact, having a serious discussion of the literary trope. Sadly, since we are discussing romantic fiction, which is marketed to women, we are required to use pink hearts and flowers, for the fear that someone might think romance is a serious genre.
Romances sales in 2013: $1.8 billion.
(This is usually the point when people not familiar with the genre say things like “Sex sells!” Sex does sell, just like action sells and there are books within the genre that sell primarily based on their sexual shock value. The key for the overall success of romantic fiction isn’t sex, however. Some romance books feature no or very mild sexual content. The sales are so big because people tend to read for emotional payoff. Romantic fiction understands emotion. Pure romance succeeds on the strength of character conflict alone. No other genre makes such demands on characterization. Dismissing it as mommy porn, bodice rippers, women’s genre – there is something wrong with women? – doesn’t diminish the impact of the genre. It simply indicates the critic’s unwillingness or inability to understand why it is successful.)
As you can see from above chart, alphahole’s controlling tendencies push him to the very edge of a-hole spectrum. Any more a-hole and we risk entering Shades of Gray territory. Please note that caretaker hero type falls closer to alphahole on the a-hole spectrum than to beta male. Caretaker hero is driven by an overwhelming urge to protect and take care of the heroine and in the name of keeping her safe, he might exhibit serious alphahole tendencies, as demonstrated by Edward in Twilight series.
Alphahole is not universally beloved by romance community. Far from it. However, an average romance reader may be willing to tolerate an alphahole, unless alphahole breaks some unspoken rules:
- He must never physically abuse heroine. Such abuse includes striking the heroine with intent to punish; depriving heroine of food, water, and shelter; and rape (all instances of sexual intercourse to which the heroine did not specifically agree to.) Sex with unconscious/inebriated beyond being responsive heroine counts as rape. She must be conscious and give consent.
- Self-defense: cases when the heroine was the aggressor and initiated a fight. For example, when the heroine cuts off hero’s head in Lothaire by Kresley Cole, it is understandable that hero may take steps to avoid reoccurrence of this unfortunate incident in the future.
- Violence in the line of duty: instances when violence was delivered as part of the job-related activities and the heroine is capable of defending herself. If an alphahole is an assassin and the heroine is a bodyguard, his initial attempt to kill her before the relationship is established is exempt from no violence rule; however, it is still subject to groveling clause. More on that later.
- Violence is inflicted in the binds on consensual sexual play to which both parties agreed prior to initiating sexual acts. In other words, if there is a safe word and the heroine is capable of saying it, the alphahole is probably in the clear.
- He must never kill or willingly injure children and defenseless pets. Typical Alphahole is not a psychopathic serial killer. A serial killer is a tough sell, and alphahole must exhibit redeeming qualities. This is an absolute must.
- At the conclusion of the romance, alphahole must recognize the heroine as his emotional equal. The majority of romantic fiction advocates for women’s rights, not against them, and while the heroine may not match alphahole in financial or physical arena, she must absolutely match him emotionally. Failure to acknowledge equality of the heroine will crush the HEA or HFN.
A note to exceptions: as already mentioned, romantic fiction is a varied field. There are some instances where physical abuse between hero and heroine is portrayed. The most notable of these is probably the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. The series centers on Claire, a British nurse who travels back through time to Scotland of 1743, and Jamie, a Scottish laird with whom she falls in love. (It must be pointed out that Jamie doesn’t meet the criteria for an alphahole hero.) At a certain point, Jamie whips Claire with a strap. This is done because Claire disobeyed him, endangered herself, and placed him into position where he would lose respect of his men unless he demonstrated his control by punishing her in the manner common to the times. It must be said that Jamie’s emotional state is very clear at the time of the act – it is the very last thing he wants to do, he derives no personal satisfaction from it, and he does it out of desperation. The reactions to this scene among romantic fiction readership were strong and extremely varied.
Some people choose to include the fourth rule, which dictates that alphahole must never be emotionally abusive to the heroine. Unfortunately, due to the very nature of this hero type, he must initially treat the heroine with a certain amount of derision and disrespect. The degree to which readers will tolerate this behavior varies from story to story. For example, readers of Motorcycle Club subgenre in general have a greater tolerance for emotional abuse than readers of regency romances. Which isn’t to say that a cut direct delivered at just the right time is any less damaging than a member of a motorcycle gang threatening to sell the heroine to another biker for some perceived disrespect. Even so, titles like Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley demonstrate that even in the environment skewed toward giving maximum power to men, a heroine still can have agency.
When does this disdain and attempt at control become abuse? It becomes abuse when an individual reader is uncomfortable with it. The field of romantic fiction is vibrant and tends to push the envelope quite often. However, it also tends to police itself through the use of reader reviews. For example, the recent attempt at writing a romance between one of the US Presidents and his slave was met with a nearly universal condemnation. A slave cannot give her consent and therefore anything the hero does, no matter how sweet and gentle or seemingly welcome, is rape. Romance community, as a whole, rejected it.
Because of the subjective nature of fiction, each individual book must be evaluated on its own merits. Some books follow the above criteria, some do not. The unspoken rules listed above are general guidelines that are known to make alphaholes more attractive to the majority of romantic fiction readers.
Does the emotional disdain set women up to be more accepting of abuse? The glib answer to this is “no more than watching James Bond films trains men to sexually harass their boss’ secretary or shoot his rivals.” The more serious answer is that an average romance reader is capable of distinguishing between reality and fiction just as most people find the warning of “cape doesn’t enable the wearer to fly” unnecessarily when they are buying a Superman costume. To truly understand the impact of this trope, one must read to the very end of the book.
Anatomy of the Alphahole
To conquer an alphahole, one must first understand the alphahole. In real life a pair of well adjusted, conscientious parents can sometimes produce a monstrously sociopathic child, because real life doesn’t come with any explanations. But we expect our fiction to be logical. In fiction, normal people don’t become alphaholes. To make alphahole palatable to the reader, romantic fiction often gives them a reason for their infuriating behavior. Discovering this reason is like getting a key to the alphahole’s heart. (Were you expecting the actual anatomy? Yes, figurative speaking does sometimes disappoint.) Most aphaholes become so due to one of two reasons: trauma or inability to relate.
Trauma. Alphahole usually falls into category of Damaged Hero. To be frank, most heroes fall into this category, simply because life is hard and then it kills you. But alphahole has typically undergone a serious trauma that has given him a drive to succeed and forced him to armor himself against the world. Such traumas can take many forms. Childhood abuse or neglect is a common device. For example, the already mentioned Sebastian from Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase was hated by his father for looking too much like his Italian mother and having “grossly overlarge nose” and “ill-proportioned limbs.” Bones of Jeanine Frost’s Grave series is forced to work as a prostitute until he is shipped off to an Australian penal colony. Failure to protect a loved one is another common motive. PTSD, watching your parents being slaughtered as a child and then slowly going blind as adult (Dark Lover, J.R. Ward), growing up in abject poverty watching one’s siblings starve, losing your wife in childbirth, all those traumas can hammer an otherwise sensitive man into an alphahole shape.
Traumatized, aggressive, scarily competent, has no chill, thinks love is a weakness… Who else do we know like that?
Inability to relate. This subset of alphaholes is unable to form normal human attachments due to the unique nature of their upbringing or some character trait that makes them radically different from a typical human. Simon Wolfgard of Anne Bishop’s Others series is the perfect example of this alphahole. He is Other, one of the old powers that rule the world and prey on humans. To him, human means weak, stupid, and, often, food. His initial conversation with human Meg consist of orders, declarative statements, and prohibitions. Frequently she has no idea why he is upset and he isn’t great at communication, because he simply never had to interact with a human with such frequency.
Another good example is Piers from When Beauty Tamed the Beast by Eloisa James. Piers is an exceptional surgeon, a genius, and that genius sets him apart from most of his peers, who can’t match his intellect and do not understand the driving force behind what to them is an unusual pursuit for a man of his station. He is uninterested in society, hampered by chronic pain, and chooses to sequester himself far away from ballrooms and polite society. It must be said that Piers is less of an alphahole and more of a crankyhole hero, and his crankiness is oddly endearing. (A delightful book overall.) As has already been stated, the extent of alphaholeness is in the eye of the beholder.
Mechanics of the Story
We now established that a typical alphahole, controlling, rude, and frightening creature that he is, is also a damaged one, unable or unwilling to relate to the rest of humanity because of trauma or unique circumstances of his background. It follows that, as a proper damaged hero, he must star in a story of healing and redemption. That is the crux of the alphahole trope. By refusing his control, by challenging him, the heroine shakes the very foundation of the stone fort which the alphahole has built around himself. The balance of his world is shifted. He may become unhinged. He may think he hates the heroine, but the more they spar, the more he becomes drawn to her, until the attraction is irresistible. He begins to have feelings. Alphaholes fear that kind of feelings the way most of us fear tigers.
By now, if the story arc is done properly, the alphahole is riding the roller coaster of emotion downward, plunging toward falling head over heels in love. In this agitated state, alphahole may do rash things in a subconscious attempt to sabotage the budding relationship. Usually this is the point where the Incident occurs, something so damaging or unfair to the heroine that the average romance reader becomes infuriated on her behalf and wishes for cosmic mental powers with which they could reach through the book and wallop the alphahole upside the head. For more on this, please see Mr. Darcy’s packing off his BFF and whisking him off to London, therefore ruining the romance between his BFF and Elizabeth’s sister.
The alphahole soon realizes the fact that the heroine is his sun, his moon, and starry sky and without her he dwells in darkness and attempts to rectify the situation, therefore beginning the second part of the story arc known as the Grovel. During the Grovel, the hero – for he is now moved from the alphahole stage to the alpha male – is doing everything in his power to apologize. He may resort to public displays of humility or doing outrageous things to improve the heroine’s position, known sometimes as the Big Gesture. He most certainly will beg or stop just a hair short of begging. He directs all of his drive and his superhuman competence toward proving himself worthy of the heroine’s affections.
Any average heroine would be instantly swayed by the sheer intensity of his efforts. However, for romance to be satisfying, this process cannot be one sided. The stronger is the alphahole as a character, the more interesting the heroine has to be. She must be fiercely independent to truly resist the alphahole, yet at the same time also compassionate enough to recognize the issues in his past. A character like that usually emerges out of the crucible of adversity. She must have her own flaws and problems, and even though she is usually determined to overcome them on her own, the alphahole must offer something to her in return for his redemption. Love is the essential part of that something, but love alone isn’t enough. Cutting out your own heart and sending it to the object of your affection is very dramatic and makes average romance reader go “awww” because average romance reader is surprisingly bloodthirsty. But alphahole soon realizes that a true romance requires more than a severed heart. Especially if you are a powerful vampire and will grow it back. (Lothaire, Kresley Cole.)
“It only takes one person to love, but it takes two to make a relationship work.”
― Jeaniene Frost, Twice Tempted
This kind of heroine is made of sterner stuff. It must be said that the amount of groveling in this case is directly proportional to the severity of the incident.
We do apologize for the appalling lack of pastel pink in the above graph. We got tired of wrestling with MS Word’s predetermined styles and this was the best we could do.
To truly win the heroine’s forgiveness, the alphahole must not only grovel, he must demonstrate his willingness to act like a human being – to be able to participate in the relationship as an equal and active partner. He must make a statement, not only in words but through his behavior and actions, indicating that he has met his match, in both senses of that word. He must make a place in his life for the heroine, structuring his world around her. He must allow himself vulnerability.
For an interesting treatment of this plot line, this author highly recommends reading Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase. It would be a crime to ruin the surprise of this masterful historical, but guns are involved.
Following the above-outlined plot clearly indicates the transfer of power. At first, all of the power seems to rest with the alphahole. He is the aggressor, and the incident is the ultimate expression of his power. Darcy is forceful. He had the will to force his best friend to abandon the woman who clearly fascinated him, while also denying his emotional interest in Elizabeth. Edward Lewis (Pretty Woman) is rich. He offered to put Vivian into an apartment so she could become his kept woman, avoiding the issue of his growing emotional attachment. The Beast is physically frightening, and so he terrifies Belle.
However, when this ultimate expression of power has its intended result and pushes the heroine away, the alphahole realizes that his hard-won solitude brings him nothing but misery. He had someone wonderful in his life and he hurt her/him. He caused an injury. He feels guilt. He wants to make things right. At this moment, the perceived power of the alphahole is transferred to the heroine. Her emotional wellbeing becomes central to the alphahole existence. It is his redemption. He is redeemed not because he wants the heroine, saves her brother, offers to marry her, or defends her from the wraiths from outer space, but because he develops the ability to put someone else’s feelings above his own. He is redeemed because he has shown that he is not a selfish asshole. A powerfully executed redemption will have the alphahole sacrifice himself. (Angel’s Blood, Nalini Singh.)
It can be argued that this transformation is not truly altruistic. After all, most alphaholes still hope that the heroine will take them back, so they are getting love in return. Some are willing to make only small changes; others throw themselves into redemption expecting nothing in return. Each individual book will vary in its execution of this trope.
If the alphahole redeems himself, heroine grants him forgiveness, which once again redistributes the power. Now both parties are truly equal, achieving the ultimate requirement for this particular HEA. Not all romances featuring alphahole follow this dynamic, but it is by far the most effective construct that wrings maximum emotional impact out of this character type.
Doesn’t this make the plot predictable? Yes and no. This plot construct and this particular hero type had given us many hours of enjoyment in many incarnations, even outside romantic fiction genre, from most obvious, such as Beauty and the Beast, to the subtler, like the story of Han Solo and Princess Leia. It is a plot of countless romantic novels and many films, popping up in unexpected places. Romantic genre is the kind of fiction where knowing the outcome of the relationship isn’t the goal. It is the journey that makes the average romance reader’s day with all of its magic and mayhem.
And there you have it. We hope you enjoyed this foray into analysis of the alphahole hero type as a subset of damaged hero. It must be said that alphahole is only one of the hero types present in romantic fiction. It has something for everyone: alpha women, beta men, gamma men, nice guys, antiheroes, princes, damaged geniuses, competent soldiers, strong and silent types, victims in need of rescuing types, friends becoming lovers, enemies becoming lovers, people in arranged marriage falling in love, men who love women, men who love men, women who love women, women who love aliens from outer space, men and women for whom happiness means more than one partner… The variety is endless. We hope you will find something you will enjoy in this wonderful genre and we provided the list of works mentioned in this article for your convenience.
Kristen Ashley’s Motorcycle Man
Anne Bishop’s Others series
Lord’s Byron’s Corsair.
Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels
Kresley Cole’s Lothaire
Jeaniene Frost’s Twice Tempted
Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series
Eloisa James’ When Beauty Tamed the Beast
Josh Lanyon’s A Dangerous Thing
Stephanie Laurens’ Devil’s Bride
Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series
Nalini Singh’s Angel’s Blood
J.R. Ward’s Dark Lover
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Love you, bye.