WRITING THE ALPHA MALE FOR CONTEMPORARY FICTION
"I don't want to be the leader. I refuse to be the leader...I want a man lying over me, always over me...His will, his pleasure, his desire, his life, his work, his sexuality the touchstone, the command, my pivot...as a woman, oh, God, as a woman I want to be dominated...I am going to be pursued, fucked, possessed by the will of a male at his time, his bidding." -- Anais Nin
Ah, Mr. Alpha. He goes by many names; Dom, Master, Daddy, Sir, Giles (ahh, wait -- that one's just mine. Ahem). He's the leader of the pack; the one who wears the trousers; he eats lesser men for breakfast and girl-parts for lunch.
He's also a big, fuck-off cliché.
There's a reason why Mr. Alpha is so popular, so let's not knock him until we have tried (hung and quartered) him. He embodies a lot of endearing/sexy/somewhat disturbing implications about my own self esteem, and that makes him hard to resist. Besides, isn't good fiction all about wish-fulfilment and escapism?
The problem is this: I'm getting some serious déjà who? Every alpha story I read seems to be same guy, token differences, tweaked plot. So I googled "writing alpha males" and I got a bunch of blog articles from romance authors. It seems that nobody but the category romance gals wants to acknowledge the poor bastard -- yet, he turns up in all sorts of fiction. Now, if you want to write a category romance, great -- write that category character -- but what if you want something more?
Never fear! Dr. Firebrain is on hand to diagnose and prescribe (and that diploma is not mail order. I don't know what you mean. Want a cookie?).
So: want to write a three-dimensional, addictive alpha male? Read on. (Frankly, he's not going to be very forgiving if you don't).
DIAGNOSIS: HARLEQUIN SYNDROME
"And this...is your opinion of me! ...My faults, according to your calculation, are heavy indeed! These offences might have been overlooked, had your pride not been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that have long prevented my forming any serious design." Mr. Darcy, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
Stefano is a cunt. No, really -- he's a cunt. He's done despicable things in his life; as much as the heroine wants to jump his bones, she just can't bring herself to because he's such a big meanie. Maybe he cheated on her. Maybe he sold his brother down the river in a sordid business deal. Maybe he's a demonic soul-eater who has killed hundreds of innocent people in his quest for psychosexual crack. Here's the kicker -- Stefano seemingly shows no remorse.
But wait! No! Can it be? Stefano isn't really a cunt at all; it was all just a big misunderstanding on behalf of the ill-informed heroine. He didn't really cheat on her; a nasty rival female just set it up so she thought that he had. He didn't sell his brother down the river; the brother was a lapsed alcoholic who was bitter at being shut out. And yeah, well...maybe he did kill a lot of people as his bad-ass demon self -- but it's ok. He's repenting.
Stefano seemed like he had no remorse because he's such a stubborn git who didn't want to appear weak by admitting it. Isn't that cute, when you think about it? Just the kind of guy you want to set up home with...no?
1) Patrocillin Let's remove the misunderstanding part. It patronises both the character and the readers. If Stefano has faults, if he's made mistakes -- have him admit to them upfront, or after a little ribbing. Have him be the adult who's trying to deal with them. Don't be afraid to leave your alpha with some jagged edges, even in the event of a happy ending -- his dark side is one of the reasons that we love him.
2) Oxycuntin Let him actually be a cunt. They're fun to write, and women do tend to love them -- so long as they're not cunts to us (in fact, this bit makes us feel special). It's important to note that a cunt is not a guy who's done bad things but has a "reasonable explanation" -- a cunt is just not a very nice person. People fall in love with not very nice people all the time, but they don't admit it very often.
What? gasps the reader. You're telling me to deliberately write a character whom people are meant to like, as dislikeable? Yes and no. Firstly, never assume that somebody has to be likeable for people to like them; at times, we see a quality in a person that validates something within ourselves, and they garner our sympathy regardless. Secondly, you'll be surprised at what a man can get away with in fiction if he's pretty and clever -- lots of people have written cunts and just called them vampires, and that has served them very well so far. (Run for your iPads, bitches -- I'm on to you!) Thirdly: people who do bad things are fascinating, and there's a whole hotbed of readers who like to dissect them.
Have you noticed the emergence of the anti-hero in popular fiction? He's especially prevalent in fantasy. He's not a wholesome good boy, but he's not a villain either; his purpose usually ends up being for the greater good, whether that is intentional or not. He's a cunt, but he gets the job done. The Dexter series is a good example with the serial killer who only kills serial killers; he's a complex guy who needs careful handling from his writer, but done right? Ooh la la.
DIAGNOSIS: STALKER SYNDROME
"It makes me...anxious...to be away from you." Edward, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight
He loves me, he loves me no -- whoa. Is that him outside my bedroom window, again? He must really love me...
Dominic (see what I did there? See? Oh yeah) is a protective kind of guy. He just wants to keep me safe, you know? He feels this overpowering lust for me twenty-four hours a day, and I guess that means he can't bear to be parted from me in case I fall through a wormhole in time and space (or run off with a werewolf). That's why I wake up and he's watching me sleep, or he won't let me go out alone after dark (or in the light, come to think of it). If I find that I don't want him at first, he might get a bit rough and ready with me. This is partly because I'm so wonderful that he can't control himself (like my autistic cousin, Marty, but with eye contact), and partly because he just senses that I like to be fucked like I'm owned (despite this, he's preoccupied with the idea that he might break me. Jesus, boy -- consent is so 2009).
The fact that he hangs around like a bad smell couldn't suggest he might be a bit insecure that I might leave him...could it? He doesn't assert himself so aggressively because he's afraid of being weak, oh noes. And I am definitely not insecure, needing a man to want me so desperately that he's ready to force me into the naughty naughties. There's nothing creepy about either of these things, so stop looking at me like that.
(Also, Dominic, I'm on the toilet. This is not cool, ok? I told you -- not for number twos!).
As much as he worships me, Dominic needs to get a life. He needs hobbies and friends, and while I want to be his top priority because we still have an overpoweringfuckawesomelove, if he didn't have or want the other stuff...he'd be a bit pathetic. Yeah, I know he struggles to control himself around white-hot me, but talk about that too much and it's going to feel too easy. Maybe I am insecure, and that's ok...but let's not make it so obvious. Please?!).
Of course, he can still hold me down and screw me like he bought me at a slave auction, but he might want to check that I'm into that first...lest he do something embarrassing (like get arrested for sexual assault). An experimental neck bite or hair pull would suffice.
DIAGNOSIS: GASTON SYNDROME
"As a specimen, yes, I'm intimidating -- my, what a guy! Gaston!" -- Disney's Beauty and the Beast
Gabe is the ultimate male: tall, defined muscles, cock of epic horse proportions, piercing eyes (they're sometimes penetrating, of course), dirty smile. He'll have a token weakness such as his pet dog, or he'll be strangely and conveniently good with my four year-old. Occasionally, I orgasm if he bats his eyelashes a few times in quick succession.
He's just as glorious in bed; he favours missionary or doggy, where he can exert his horse erection to the point where it forces my cervix to disintegrate, and his cockhead eventually materialises in the Russian wilderness. This is appropriate because he has the intellect of an astronaut and the tenacity of a Soviet spy (fnar).
When he talks, it's about sex (read: me), work or himself. He's got a bedroom voice -- ragged and heavy with his lust -- and a boardroom voice, which is calm, deep and measured. I know when I've really got under his skin because he mixes the two up (either that or he forgot to take his bipolar meds).
Men want to be Gabe and women want to fuck him -- but he's mine, all miiiiine! He's an alpha, and alphas are best at everything; there's nothing he can't do (except, of course, control himself when it comes to me. Or admit that he's being stubborn). He's rich, and if he's not famous -- he's infamous in all the right circles.
You'd think that somebody this perfect might be a bit smug. A bit annoying, perhaps. Or maybe he's disgustingly modest. His sheer Godliness might even be a bit intimidating to a simple female like me. Not that this might ever get dull to read, oh no...
1) Moderatine -- give Gabe a fault somewhere, whether it's physical or psychological. Make it a valid fault, too; being shit at Monopoly does not count (be wary of all the usual clichés, like his guilt over his evil past, his inability to see his own loveliness or his weakness for the heroine. These may well be present but you need a sucka-punch combo with something else to make him stand out). Alphas tend to be physically strong and I wouldn't suggest that you write someone weedy, but he doesn't have to be six foot three with shoulders as wide as Australia.
You might even subvert a cliché; if he's a vampire, have him wear something other than a leather jacket; if he's a businessman, maybe he could wear something other than a suit (or make it a well described/nicely individual suit). Heck, how about an alpha who wears jeans and a band t-shirt? He's out there...
2) Oxycuntin -- being a cunt is usually the realistic product of being near-perfect. Thus, a healthy dose of ass-hattery is once again applicable -- if handled well.
3) Xanass -- so you can't bear to have your alpha any less than perfect? Hnnnghh...gnash...[fist shake]...oh, ok then. You're going to have to make the people around him stop fawning over his every move. Perfect people are not liked by all, even if they're genuinely nice; friends, family and even loved ones get jealous and annoyed. This is often done through a sibling with hardboiled resentment, or another brooding alpha male as competition. Try to avoid those tropes if you can. Here's the trick, though: get the reader to sympathise with the jealous person, instead of the alpha. Have them question, in little moments, who's really in the right here -- you're going for a deep shade of grey, rather than black or white. Poof! Now you've made Gabe seem human and a teensy bit vulnerable, but without having to disturb his masterful façade.
(Note: having the enemy hate Gabe does not count. He's supposed to hate him).
DIAGNOSIS: FRISKY SPERM SYNDROME
"Who do you love -- the child, or me?" Pregnant Dorelei to Imriel, Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Justice
Morgan's got a thing about getting me pregnant. He wants to pwn me, you see, and while marriage is necessary for the dramatic (but romantic) resolution of our story, the ultimate way to stamp your ownership over your woman/bitch/little girl/slave is to get her up the duff. Plant your seed. Put a bun in her oven. Clever evolutionary science-types have suggested that we like alphas because they're at the top, so they must have the best quality lurve gravy and thus will ensure the survival of the species. That actually makes sense (or at least, it did before metrosexuality happened. "My sperm? By Clinique.").
The thing that's been kind of bugging me about Morgan is that well...we've only known each other for three weeks. I know that our love is all-encompassing and uber-intense, but don't you have to know somebody a bit longer to guess whether they'll make a half decent parent? Sure, I love that he wants me so much that he wants all these natural, primal things (le swoon), but when I think about it...I kinda want to go travelling first before I get tied down with the sproggage, and it's going to take Vera Wang too long to make my perfect dress for a shotgun wedding (yes, I still care. No, it does not make me a bad person).
1) Microguynon -- maybe Morgan doesn't want kids. Plenty of alphas are too busy saving the world, having hotshot, workaholic careers or being rich Peter Pans to realistically want to be fathers, and meeting Mary Sue doesn't break their resolve. I know this isn't the height of wish fulfilment for a lot of women -- but there are women who don't want kids, and they are your readers too (the ones who do want them can still fantasise about changing his mind).
2) Approprion -- marriage and children, for most couples (even the perfect ones!) is usually a slow progression. Sure, accidents happen and some people want to do these things quicker than others, but there's a lot to be said for an alpha who wants to just enjoy his woman for a while first. Even if these things do happen sooner in your story, Morgan doesn't have to be so creepily obsessed by them. Let him not swoon over little girls with his love's eyes, or boys he can bring into the family business. Hell, let him be slightly terrified of them (and let Mary Sue be scared too) -- when he does come around, it'll make it all the more special.
DIAGNOSIS: ME, TARZAN -- YOU, LAME! SYNDROME
"If you stay, something bad will happen. I think I might hurt you. You don't want to get hurt, do you?" Patrick Bateman, Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho
Meet Cain: he's that slightly creepy older guy who lives in a mansion on the hill and has a love of classic literature. I discovered said house and said books when he tied me up in his library and left me there, naked and cold, for about, er...I think it was seventeen hours? Not that I was counting, or anything.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Cain doesn't like me very much, because he sure as hell acts like it. I like to be hurt a bit by my guy as much as the next woman -- lush little bruises to mark me as his property? Check. No phone call for a day to keep me on my toes? Bring it on. Domestic abuse disguised as a power game? I might be a fawning female but even I have standards, Cain. Standards! (And you can fuck off with your shitty two-ply toilet paper, because this is not a princess and the pea situation -- you're really just a tightwad, and that is not sexy.)
Cain tends to inhabit BDSM and nonhuman stories; it seems to be easier to get away with cunts-with-shoddy-excuses there (bad behaviour? It's ok -- I'm a vampire. Dangerous and disturbing fetish? Don't worry -- I'm at a munch). He occasionally pops up in the Incest category too -- as the aggressive Daddy who makes the little girl cry just so he can get off on wiping her tears away and making it all better. I'm not sure if he's aware that being an alpha is no excuse for treating a woman badly, or that he needs more than a genre to validate his bad taste in seventeenth century literature; fortunately, he's not scary enough to stop me telling him. Fnar.
1) Metafetishazol -- so Cain is the product of a deviant mind, and he's there to fulfil a more extreme fetish (if your chosen fetish is being left tied up for seventeen hours, I promise not to judge you. Much). That's fair enough. What he's going to do, though, is do it safely. He's only going to make you think you're in trouble; in other words, nothing he does is going to leave any lasting damage to your body or your mind. A lot of alpha/dom behaviour tends to be explained as being designed to make the woman better/stronger/get in touch with her submissive side, but what a lot of it is written as is just "all this shit will make you stronger." The existence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder tells us that this is not true.
Cain, the internet might not be as pretty as your first edition of Alice in Wonderland, but could you at least Google "tying a Japanese rope bondage knot" so I don't get stuck again...? And Daddy, your monster cock is amazing and so much bigger than my boyfriend's -- but going to the ER with vaginal tears was kind of embarrassing.
2) Oxycuntin + Patrocillin -- okay, so Cain likes hurting women and he's not that bothered if they like it. He kind of prefers it if they don't like it, actually. You can still make him your love interest (the psychology of this desire is interesting, but it's way too complex for this little essay), but don't think for a second that just being an alpha validates his behaviour -- he's still a cunt. Probably a misogynist too.
Part of the alpha's appeal is that he's just a bit scary. You know when Cain really gets my adrenaline pumping? When he's a fucking psychopath! Granted, you have to be a special kind of woman to want a bloodthirsty loose cannon in your bed, but we do exist. So make the most of this evil side. Flesh him out. Why is he like this? Why does he enjoy it? Don't patronise the reader with the usual "misunderstanding" bollocks -- this guy clearly has issues. Revel in them. Think Patrick Bateman, Humbert Humbert (perhaps not the nymphet bit), Angel before he went all wet blanket, Damon from the Vampire Diaries. Don't waste your time trying to redeem him or make him "ok" (if you write him right, your readers will redeem him for you) -- just enjoy him for what he is: un-pc, illegal, inappropriate, about to be sectioned...and kind of yummy.
So we've done the painful part: we've addressed the stereotypes that plague the poor alpha. Confused? In mourning? Slightly aroused? Don't panic.
There's no reason why you have to ignore every cliché when writing your alpha; he wouldn't be an alpha without certain characteristics. Certainly, be careful on how you mix those medications -- they don't all work at once.
To put things into perspective, here are some alphas that I think we should see more of in fiction -- most of them break one particular mould, rather than smashing them all with their iron fists of literary uberness. They might just give you some ideas, or remind you of some pretty cool alphas that you've read about before.
1) Mr. Three-Dom-Ensional
William is a strong, straight-talking alpha who doesn't take shit from anybody (which he manages to maintain with a somewhat elusive demeanour).But how did he get this way, and why does he behave the way that he does? Sure, maybe he was just born competitive -- but that doesn't give readers (or writers) much to chew on. So don't just think about how William is now; think about what has happened to him (it doesn't have to be a traumatic event), and what he plans for the future. Does he have goals that aren't to do with power, money and sex? Does he have hobbies that are unrelated to that holy trinity? It's common to read about the alpha who just "is" -- he never seems to question himself, but he can be an alpha and still do that. It's not the same as being insecure. It's about being self aware, and that's sexy.