If you have been writing mostly horror but are interested in branching out into urban fantasy or paranormal romance, there are some genre conventions to keep in mind. You can get a basic introduction to many of these reader/editor expectations in my post On Urban Fantasy.
But I didn’t cover one important character type, a trope who mostly doesn’t exist in horror but is hugely important in romance and all its flavors: the Alpha Male.
He’s a sweet talkin’ stud
Who can melt a girl’s heart with his pout
He’s the kind of lover
that the ladies dream about
He’s got plenty of cash
He’s got plenty of friends
He drives women wild
Then he drives off in a Mercedes-Benz
He’s got a long wick
with a flame at both ends
But don’t let him go
Just give him a chance to grow
Take it easy, take it slow
And don’t let him go ….
–From “Don’t Let Him Go” by REO Speedwagon
The Alpha Male of the romance novel does not exist in the real world. But, because of publishers’ desires to put out books that appeal to the huge romance readership, urban fantasy writers must be aware of him (and his brothers, the Beta Male, and the Omega Male). While precise definitions vary, here are some characteristics of the three to keep in mind:
|Alpha Male||Beta Male||Omega Male|
|At the castle, he would be…||The handsome prince of the realm or the fiercely brave captain of the king’s guard.||A steadfast tower guard or a hardworking cook.||A lazy stablehand.|
|At the dance club…||He wears the latest understated masculine fashions. His $500 shirt will be torn from his chiseled chest when he rescues a beautiful woman who’s being mugged in the alley.||He wears a nice shirt and khakis and some Old Spice. He speed-dials 911 or runs back to the club to get the bouncer when he sees the lady in trouble.||He wears a mustard-stained tee shirt and jeans he’s been wearing for three weeks straight. He watches the mugging from a safe distance, hoping to see something exciting.|
|During the zombie apocalypse, he…||Comes up with a daring plan and leads the survivors to the safety of an idyllic tropical island with a shotgun in one hand and a baby in the other.||Is scared and barely survives, but when the Alpha Male shows up with a plan, he picks up a gun and helps where he can.||Tries to cop a feel on a newly-zombified stripper and is eaten. The zombie stripper finds his brains unsatisfying.|
|At his father’s funeral, he…||Is a pillar of strength for his mother and sisters; he made the funeral arrangements himself and he gives a moving memorial speech. Later, he hunts down his father’s murderer.||Tries to be stoic, but he goes through a lot of Kleenex. He’s depressed at the wake, and still can’t believe anyone would want to hurt his dad. He hopes the cops will find the killer soon.||Either shows up drunk or blows the funeral off entirely and stays home drinking and feeling sorry for himself. He does not call his mother until he needs to borrow money.|
|If his girlfriend was feeling sad, he would…||Whisk her away for a romantic weekend in Paris.||Give her a hug and ask her if she wants to go to a movie.||Not notice because he’s too busy watching cartoons.|
|His pick-up line would be…||Something so swooningly romantic that any woman would faint before his masculine glory.||“Hi, my name is Joe.”||“*Burp* Hey baby, do you swallow?”|
|His flaw is…||He can be arrogant and impatient. He’s often promiscuous. He courts danger; it’s hard on those who care about him.||He’s too eager to please and is a bit boring. He needs to go to the gym more. He’s too shy/uncertain/oppressed to go after his heart’s desires. His sin? He’s a normal human being.||His flaws are many, and his awareness of them almost nonexistent.|
|He can be redeemed by…||The love of a good woman.||Learning to be Alpha.||Probably not redeemable, but soap would help.|
The Alpha Male is as mythic as a dragon, and he’s loaded with pernicious gender and class stereotyping along with negative portrayals of introverts, etc. The problem is that the Alpha Male represents a myth that a lot of people present as being a reality. It’s as if our society still believed, Medieval-style, in unicorns, and the result? The streets are full of jackasses with horns strapped to their foreheads.
On a more practical note, if romances don’t appeal to you and you find yourself recoiling at the thought of writing a traditional romantic sub-plot (as opposed to a realistic relationship sub-plot), it really does help to think of the Alpha Male as another kind of protagonistic monster you must include in the story along with your dragons, vampires, werewolves, selkies, etc.
Successful fantasy fiction (be it traditional fantasy or supernatural horror) depends on engaging the reader’s imagination but it also depends on suspending the reader’s sense of disbelief. The best way to “sell” a reader on otherworldly elements is to ground your characters and setting in the real world as much as possible. If the story otherwise seems like it could really happen, the reader will accept that there’s a werewolf running the coffee shop.
Gender/class baggage aside, a problem inherent in the Alpha Male is that while romance readers accept and expect him, he can totally destroy the suspension of disbelief in people who mainly read horror, science fiction, and fantasy. One crucial technique for contemporary fantasy authors is to portray realistic interpersonal relationships; the moment you’ve got an Alpha Male, though, you’re dealing in a stock character and fantasy relationships that you can’t hide behind the expectedly-antique cultural sensibilities of a distant-past fantasy setting. That makes for a challenging balancing act.
If all else fails, you can partially distract skeptical readers with good world building.
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