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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Alpha Male

The first time I heard about the alpha male was when I took anthropology in college. I never really thought much about them afterwards...until I became a romance writer. Then you're inundated with the term. Then there's beta male (more about him later this month from Terry) and even zeta male.

For the most part, my own particular perception of the characteristics of an alpha male come from the romance community. In fact, our own Colleen Gleason has written a great article, which you can read here.

So, since there was a lot of excellent information already out there, I just decided not to do my blog article after all. Done. Now I can go devour an entire package of Thin Mints.

Okay, I'm kidding.

No, I decided to google - get back to anthropology, biology and even a business perspective.
I found some VERY interesting article titles:

Alpha Males or Unintelligent, Big-mouthed Morons?
Balancing Life: Alpha Male, Super Stud

Those two titles summarizes a lot of what I found in my Internet research. That alphas are a bunch of jerks and the flipside, that if you're more alpha you're WAY more successful with women. So, let's talk about biology:

In straight up biology terms - the alpha male (and female) is the individual who everyone else follow and usually defer. Doesn't sound too bad - after all, when you're running away from some large, furry animal - a leader might be a good idea. When some raiding group of knights are storming the castle - a leader that everyone listens to and has the brawn to back it up might be a good idea.

What about the contemporary world? I looked to business - Kate Ludeman Ph.D and Eddie Erlandson M.D., authors of the Alpha Male Syndrome say alpha males fall into 4 categories:

- the warrior of old, mobilizes the troops and in the business world - sets the tone and infuses their surroundings with energy. Donald Trump would be an example. Their faults might be that they're not all together detail oriented and may put themselves in positions where they don't hear a lot of critical feedback.

- they inspire others, and see opportunities even when discouraged. Curious and think about the future, these would be people like Michael Dell. However, they may be prone to some problems with attention.

- analytical, see patterns and problems and are often thought of as brilliant thinkers. Boston Red Sox President Larry Lucchino is given as an example. A strategist may handle data better than people.

- this is the detail-oriented male, tireless who pushes plans forward. Dell's current CEP Kevin B. Rollins is credited as an example, but their fault - can you say micromanager?!

Confident, visionary, an idea man...those four categories don't sound half bad. In fact, 70% of senior executives have the alpha male characteristics.

So...where does the whole alpha male as jerks come from? Sure - the above are great characteristics, but there are also faults. Confident - over-confident and arrogant. Visionary - limited vision from others, domineering. Idea Man - always right. What we're often most attracted to can also be the same things that eventually turn us off from a person.

So how do we make the alpha male work in fiction? Are we writing jerks and allowing them to get away with it? Colleen Gleason's article I mentioned above does a particularly good job of discussing some disturbing trends in the alpha male writing.

There is a whole business movement on coaching the alpha male to work well with others. If our alpha is an alpha male in the beginning, middle and end - doesn't learn a single new thing, appreciate the feminine strengths of our heroine and be able to aim his vision not only forward, but around him - we've created a hero with zero character growth.

I love writing the alpha male. I like a man who's confident, thinks ahead, can start a fire, kill the bug (okay - scoop it up and take it outside). Looking back, almost every male I've written has some tough alpha spirit in him. But I think what I like about them is the big, strong man who also displays a softer side to those he loves.

Here's a question I ask myself every time I sit down to write my synopsis - does my hero deserve his happy ending?

So, let's talk alphas...

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At 10:47 AM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

I think you really hit on the right combination toward the end of the post -- we love alphas who are powerful, protective and sexy as heck. But we want them to also have a softer side -- maybe not one they show the world, but one they show to the important women in their lives.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Wow. Great post, Jill! And great link as well. Zeta male? I've never heard of that--something else to google!

It would have never occurred to me to question if my hero deserved his HEA. Ye gads, it gave me pause. And theoretically, can there be an Alpha, Beta mix, or are there simply gentle characteristics within the Alpha? Or a bit of bravado in a Beta's character?

At 12:24 PM, Blogger Colleen Gleason said...

Thank you so much for the shout-out, Jill. I had fun writing that article.

As for me, I've heard that one characteristic of an alpha male is that he's very possessive and/or jealous of his woman. The whole, "You're MINE!" thing--and Suzanne Brockmann's SEAL guys fall into this category, IIRC. (She handles it extremely well, IMO.)

Do you agree that this is part of the characteristic of an alpha male, in romance novels?

At 12:40 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

What we're often most attracted to can also be the same things that eventually turn us off from a person.

That's something to keep in mind. It's easy to give a character strengths but sometimes difficult to think of the right weakness. Viewing that same strength through a negative lens is a great idea.

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I like to write strong, confident males who have a strong sense of honor, but sometimes I wonder if my heroes are too much the "nice guy" to be truly alpha. I'd love to pull off a real alpha.

I'm dying to know what a zeta male is, too.

At 1:52 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

The one thing I always despised about Alpha Males is jealousy. A little bit, yeah, but really jealous males completely turn me off in life or in fiction. So for a long time I didn't write very alpha Alphas. That said though, I have to also say I've learned to like them, at least in fiction.

Sometimes I think we romance authors confuse maleness with alpha-ness. An easy thing to do in real life, too, since so many men attempt to look like the Alpha Male. But there, theoretically, can be only one Alpha in a pack, with maybe lots of wannabe Alphas.

But then, one more thought, there is that one thing about all people-- their strength is also their flaw, their weakness. When we find what are the male strengths of our heroes, then find how those are also the flaws or weaknesses they need to overcome, I think then we find something that is even better than the stereotype Alpha.

At 2:25 PM, Blogger Jill Monroe said...

To Colleen's question - I think alpha males are naturally a little more guarded and protective of their family and territory (things). Although I wouldn't put it past a few alphas to say something like, "Think you can find someone better...go."

A zeta male is the exact opposite of an alpha male. I don't really think it's a true term used in education - more of a slang term.

At 9:18 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

oh my gosh, just got done watching "The Quiet Man". Talk about your alpha males. And it's hard to believe him dragging her five miles home isn't a turn off at the end, except that it's obviously all she's wanted the entire movie--for him to act like the dominant male.

Anyway, it made me smile to watch it again after reading this post today.

At 9:29 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I looked up zeta male. 'pansy' was one of the descriptions

At 10:03 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Great post and a lot of food for thought. Loved the article Colleen. Am almost finished with The Rest Falls Away and I love it!

The question as to whether the hero deserves his HEA, now that is a real killer question. I never thought about it quite that way. However, I am deep in revisions of LOST IN LOVE and I realize my hero's core belief is that he does not deserve to be happy. He feels his angry words as a young man to his father and later to his brother make him completely unworthy of any happiness and he refuses to allow happiness into his life. Where is the line to be drawn between what he believes and what a reader will believe? The things he said were horrible and deliberately cruel. How do you write his anguish without making him the kind of person the reader will say "What a jerk. He doesn't deserve to be happy."

Gillian, THE QUIET MAN is one of my favorite movies of all time. And the thing to remember is that the line between being a jerk and being macho and the kind of man you want as head of your family is a product of culture and the times.

At 11:49 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Zeta male... Dude, you learn something every day.

At 8:03 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

doglady said: The things he said were horrible and deliberately cruel. How do you write his anguish without making him the kind of person the reader will say "What a jerk. He doesn't deserve to be happy."

You raise a great question, doglady. Motivation is everything. If readers understand his behavior, they will forgive him and want him to forgive himself and have his HEA. Or perhaps I should say MOST readers will. My experience is that no matter how well you motivate him, there will always be a few who think him an unredeemable jerk. If you're very lucky, they won't be reviewers!

At 9:43 AM, Blogger Tiffany Kenzie said...

What a great blog. I love the powerful Alpha. I love writing the man that is so sure of himself, he's arrogant about his command on the world around him.

And I love that they love their women fiercely and in such an alpha domineering way.

Zeta... interesting...

At 12:38 PM, Blogger Jane Lockwood said...

I hate alphas. My heroes are all glasses-wearing, sensitive, bursting-into-tears, piano-playing, smartass, short betas. (Or possibly zetas--that's a new one to me too.)

I like a man who's confident enough in his sexuality to do something "feminine"--my hero in Forbidden Shores does his laundry after a totally phallocentric, macho climb up the mast of a ship. Eloisa James has a hero who wears the heroine's dress. (Not all the time, and to make a point.)

Talking of which...Eloisa James gave a talk at NJ Romance Conference last year in which she said that her natural inclination is for wimpy heroes. However, research has shown that women want a mate who's a good provider (armed with a big stick for hunting down dinner) and able to breed good stock (with the other sort of big stick). So even if you have a wimpy hero, he has to prove himself with a heroic act--rescue, sacrifice, bashing people etc. Even if his glasses break or his sensitive knuckles are hurt or he throws up (as my hero did after his mast stunt).

Deserving of a happy ending? Hmm, sounds like Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest:
The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

I think everyone deserves the chance at a happy ending, which is something different. I'm all for a bit of moral complexity.

At 3:36 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

I LOVE alphas. My favorite kind of heroes. And, of course, they always have a soft side.

I don't like jerks and I'm not to fond of wimps I guess there's a limit to how much I can stand with either an alpha or beta.

Fun topic, Jill!


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