The Alpha-Myth

In a certain corner of Romancelandia, the alpha male stalks as the uber-hero. He’s first of all, tough. His physical prowess is undisputed, and if you cross him, he will flatten you. He solves a lot of problems with violence, which earns him the respect of all who behold him. Only underhanded cunning can bring him low, but such is his determination and resilience, that he will triumph over even brilliant cheaters, and crush them beneath his size 13 black biker boots.

These guys have never really worked for me, unless they are also written with human depth–humor, tender sentiments, unexpected hobbies, foibles, and other traits we expect real men to have.  I encounter the alpha male most often when I’m judging contests, and I’ve been assigned the romantic suspense entries. All too often, half-way through the book I’m wondering: Is the only difference between the hero and the villain that the hero is a more effective killer who takes lives on behalf of the “right” flag? And we’re supposed to fall in love with that? Really?

So when I came across a TED talk by Frans de Waal, the primatologist who popularized the term “alpha male,” I gave it a watch. According to de Waal, we think–or have been taught to think–of an alpha male as the guy who wins the fight for reproductive rights in the chimpanzee troop, because the ability to fight hard and be big and strong must surely be the traits nature favors for perpetuation of the species. This mythology would have us believe that nature itself wants the biggest bruiser to get the most representation in the gene pool, and nature is never wrong.

Except, that’s not how any of this works. Turns out, the alpha male has two jobs that take up most of his time. The first is to serve as an impartial judge of disputes. Without reference to whether the unhappy parties are his family members or unrelated to him, he adopts a disinterested perspective to settle differences. This flies in the face of genetic priorities, but the evidence is incontrovertible. The alpha male must be a fair judge.

His second big job is consolation. He is the great giver of pats on the back and hugs, whether the aggrieved are the losing parties in his courtroom or a family dealing with the loss of an infant at the paws of a rapacious cheetah. He’s Mr. There-There, I share your loss. I’m sorry for your troubles. He’s clergy, in other words.

Maintaining his alpha status is much more about justice and compassion than about violence or dominance. If an alpha male is well liked, he can be deposed as the top dawg and still enjoy plenty of reproductive privileges, suggesting–again–that nature values

charm, compassion, and fairness more than a violent temper.  Moreover, our closest primate kin–the bonobos–are matriarchal, and their communities thrive by solving almost all problems with copulation rather than aggression. You surely don’t see many mainstream tales based on that scientific fact, do you?

I suspect the inaccuracy of the alpha male myth doesn’t come as much of a surprise to romance readers. We have little patience for thugs and bullies, and certainly don’t fall in love with them. What I do wonder is why the science was so widely mis-characterized in the first place, and why any man worth a meet would have accepted the myth at face value, much less let it come to represent a persona to be mistakenly admired or emulated.

Who’s your ideal hero? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift card.

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35 comments on “The Alpha-Myth

  1. 1
    Linda says:

    I would typically respond my husband is my hero because of the many, many ways he completes and complicates my life. But, today I deviate. My sons are my heroes. While they gave me a run for my money growing up, grow up this indeed do! They grew up to be responsible men, husbands and fathers. They are dedicated to their wives and children. In fact, my youngest son’s career could have been further along except he and his wife made the decision to focus on their children. Tim turned down promotions that would have had him doing shift work for Virginia’s power company. Instead he focused on the time spent with his 2 children. I admire these young men who belong to me. By the lives they lead, the contributions to society they make and the steadfastness they exhibit to family, they are my heroes.

  2. 2
    Make Kay says:

    While I occasionally enjoy reading about Alpha heroes, usually I find them to be Alphaholes. And I always think, if I met a man like that in real life, I wold run the other way really fast.
    I’ve never understood the romancelandia fascination with alphaholes.

    M<y ideal hero is one who LISTENS to others. The whole big misunderstanding trope drives me ape.

  3. 3
    Teenie Marie says:

    I like Heros who don’t take themselves too seriously. If they are intelligent and have a sense of humor BOOM, they are my hero.

    The Alpha-Male persona doesn’t usually appeal to me, other than those who are converted to *Nice Guys* by the end of the book. I think that’s the trick for me–if you can be anything in this world, be nice and I’ll be rooting for you!

  4. 4
    Carol Wagner says:

    On the rare occasion that I read an alpha male hero, I usually chalk it up to the author’s choosing to take a shortcut, creating a black and white (or in this case, black and blue) character is simpler than the introspection and thought that goes into creating a more complex hero. It isn’t a plot I took it early enjoy. My only concern with that is that unlike nature’s response to a true alpha – serving his community as judge and clergy – the alpha/thug hero in literature can foster the attitude that bigger and more brutal is successful. Not something to be reinforced.

  5. 5
    Celeste P Meehan says:

    You’re asking me to pick just one? Not possible. How about a family of them? The Windham men are my favorite, most ideal, fictional heroes. They are flawed but fabulous, strong, courageous, fiercely loyal, protective, romantic, sexy, thoughtful, considerate, wonderful… I could go on and on! As for real-life heroes, the women and men who stand up for the oppressed, who lay down their lives to protect us, who serve others in so many ways – they are my heroes, and they are always in my thoughts and prayers.

  6. 6
    Kate Sparks says:

    I think a lot of it is die to the ‘sound bite’ society we have become since the 60’s. News reports got shorter, newspapers are having a tough time, USA Today is in every paper, add in the immediate need for instant responses, Twitter… No one wants in depth, unless they are writing a thesis.

  7. 7
    Teresa Smigelski says:

    I have to say that you follow your words up with action. In all of your stories the men (and women) are loving, intelligent and humorous. Pretty much sums up what I think heroes should look like. I tell my kids to look for someone who makes them laugh because that covers a lot of flaws.

  8. 8
    catslady says:

    What I like in my reading is not what I’d want in my real life. I can stand some fantasy. But on the other hand, if the hero is always perfect, I don’t care for that either. I like some angst, a little bit of this and that, not the same pat hero. I often go for the “bad boy” and really wonder if that’s what keeps life interesting and if I’d be bored with a “good guy” or being totally compatible is a good thing? It’s complicated isn’t it lol.

  9. 9
    Mary T says:

    Alpha heroes are okay as long as they have some redeeming qualities. But I enjoy Beta heroes as well. A good author, like yourself, can make the most of either.

  10. 10
    Sharon F says:

    I would have to say my sons are my alpha heroes. My late husband was a good role model to our kids on how to treat others, but our boys have definitely stepped it up a notch with their kids. Not only did they put themselves through college, but now hold down good paying jobs, with one being in law enforcement, and showing their kids that hard work, respecting others, and love of our country is the right way to live.

  11. 11
    alisha woods says:

    I do like the alpha male, but with a dash of beta male

  12. 12
    Julee Johnson-Tate says:

    Fascinating stuff—I also get irritated at the here only to kick ass and screw heroes. I started reading romance again after almost ten years with the Lisa Kleypas, Julia Quinn and Stephenie Laurens books. The, yeah I can kick your ass, but I would rather outsmart you, then take a nap with this baby or that puppy in my arms. Or with this delectable heroine that I won over with my consideration and wit. Thanks for contributing to the many great three-dimensional heroes and heroines! You’re certainly an inspiration to my writing.

  13. 13
    Dot Salvagin says:

    My ideal hero takes no guff and will fight for justice(Alpha) but also can listen to, respect and love his woman as well as his children and all women (Beta). So combo for me.

  14. 14
    Heather Harden says:

    I like the flawed anti-hero. One who maybe doesn’t want to do the right thing, at least in the beginning, but does it anyway. He’s much more interesting. I abhor the hero who is verbally abusive and unkind to the heroine but just before THE END is all I love you and was cranky because I lusted after you but thought I couldn’t have you.

  15. 15
    Diane Sallans says:

    I like a hero who is compassionate, intelligent, has a sense of humor and is kind to children & animals (usually excellent judges of character). I want the m to be hard working and willing to listen and continue learning. Those traits are not exclusive to male heroes, I look for them in female characters too.

  16. 16
    Mary Staples says:

    My ideal hero is the man or woman that stands up for those that are bullied. A man that respects and loves women and children, not one that would do them harm. A hero is someone that helps others, sometimes at their own peril.

  17. 17

    Curran, from the Kate Daniel’s series. He was the leader of his people but gave it up for Kate. He still found a way to be the alpha just in a way that allowed him to have Kate too.

  18. 18
    Kathy in FL says:

    My real life hero is my Dad. My HEA hero is Worth Kettering.

  19. 19
    Marilyn Kavanaugh says:

    Alpha males tend to be bullies, which is fine when they are bullying on your behalf but difficult to live with when the bullying is turned on you. I prefer romantic heroes who can admit their errors, can apologize sincerely, are protective, responsible, intelligent,!humorous, are physically attractive but not to the point of male beauty, and are empathetic.

  20. 20
    Marianne says:

    Love this post and all the comments!

    My husband and I are doing a crash course in becoming “alphas” as we pick up a puppy in a couple of days. She is probably more intelligent than either one of us, but as an infant needs direction and discipline from us. Difficult, as at this point, she’s little and dang cute.

    I enjoy good-looking, talented, decisive, witty heroes in stories. However, I read HEA romance precisely because there usually isn’t a body count or it occurs off-stage, left.

  21. 21

    I have several favorites….Daniel Banks has to be Number One. Non-aggressive, but problem solving. Strong but not dominant. Sexy but not pushy about it. Handsome, but who cares? It is the look in his eyes, not their shape and color. Icing on the cake.

  22. 22
    Lynn B says:

    My ideal hero is someone who is very intelligent, kind and thoughtful and morally strong. He has to be strong and care about the welfare of others. He also has to think of and treat women as equals. My close college friends and I married men like these and all of us have been married for decades. In my reading heroes I like the same traits as well as having kick ass qualities.( I like a little fantasy.) Actually I like my heroines the same way. I do not expect book heroes to bring their lovers and wives breakfast in bed but my real life hero of almost 40 years does that for me every morning. There have to be some differences between our every day heroes and our book heroes as we read to take ourselves out of our every day lives. I am reading more present day romantic suspense stories rather than historical romances as they are more likely to counteract my negative feelings about our present day political situation. Having to hear daily about a certain morally corrupt, lying, ignorant, arrogant, weak, money hungry, unfaithful, erratic, mentally incompetent, bullying politician is rather depressing.

  23. 23
    Molly R. Moody says:

    My favorite fictional hero is Valentine Windham.

    My favorite real life hero is my SIL.

  24. 24
    Linda Byrd says:

    When I look at the real heroes in my life (my Dad and my husband who are both deceased) apparently the strong, silent type appeals to me. He must be very good at what he does but never brags about it. He must be kind and thoughtful toward others, not just me. And he is respectful of others. And loving but not showy about it – no overt PDAs.

  25. 25
    Sarah Ruiz says:

    My fictional hero is Darcy because he is flawed but (reluctantly) hears Elizabeth’s critique and makes changes. A hero who listens and cares about his impact as well as his intent.

    My real life hero is my youngest. They are non-binary and in elementary school and Brave. Looking back, when I was young I had none of the self-awareness or courage that this kid has, it is astounding. I couldn’t be prouder.

  26. 26
    Monique D says:

    That alpha male is one I can totally go for. Still, I’m a bit surprised at what you say about the romance community, because those guys are considered beta males and most of the time, not hero material. Too many romance heroes fall in the brawny-bully category, as far as I’m concerned.

  27. 27
    Tamara Whyte says:

    I have found I really enjoy beta heroes who support the women in their lives and are emotionally well adjusted. Sometimes, wounded heroes, but not when they are jerks.

  28. 28
    Sharon Mayer says:

    Not trying to kiss up to you but awhile ago I began to wonder why do I enjoy Grace’s books so much. It’s because your heroes are just right for me. They’re not over the top alpha males which are annoying. They are honorable and good.

  29. 29
    Cathleen Savery says:

    My heroes are the firefighters of the world.

  30. 30
    Christina BarrySimmons says:

    My ideal hero is the one with a sense of humor like Alaric Wilde or Chase Reynaud.

  31. 31
    Karen H near Tampa says:

    My ideal hero is strong enough to protect those weaker than himself, smart enough to know when someone knows more than he does, beta enough to know he doesn’t deserve everything from everybody just because he happens to be male and/or rich, and self-aware enough to adjust his bad behavior when he’s called on it or realizes it himself. Plus he can laugh at himself and make me laugh, too.

  32. 32
    Glenda says:

    I rather dislike reading the typical bullying “Alpha” heroes who tend toward the Alphahole that is not any type man I want to have anything to do with. When people ask do you prefer Alpha or Beta, I’m more likely to say Beta because these men are more like the true alphas in the animal kingdom you describe, Grace. I want to read (and am lucky to have) a true hero: a man who is strong, caring, understanding, and willing to put other’s first rather than thinking about his needs before all others. This hero uses his brain as often, if not more than, his brawn.

    Merry Christmas, Grace!

  33. 33
    Charlotte Litton says:

    Devil Cynster is my Alpha hero.

    In real life all first responders are heros.

  34. 34
    bn100 says:

    my dad’s my hero

  35. 35

    […] On the blog this week, I’m discussing the secret lives of alpha males, who spend very little time knocking heads, as it turns out. I’m also giving away a $50 Amazon gift card. Give it a read right here. […]