Whether you’re a romance writer or reader, sooner or later the topic of alpha males is going to rear its ugly head. In a chiseled-featured, six-pack-abbed sort of way.

One friend of mine, an avid romance reader, says, “Please don’t equate alpha male with romantic hero or I will barf all over your screen. They are a trope. A tedious trope.” Another friend, a very successful romance author, says, “I’m not saying every guy has to be an alpha hero, but beta heroes have a harder time gaining a following from readers.”

No readers vs. barf. Not an easy choice. But is it a choice I have to make?

These are two very smart women, so how could their views be so widely divergent? It turns out divergent views abound on this topic, so I’m gonna say it all comes down to the lack of consensus about what makes an “alpha male.”

Author Jami Alden told Romance University that she follows “a pretty standard definition.” An alpha hero, she says, is a “natural leader.” Smart, but not a know-it-all. A problem-solver. A guy who “cares deeply,” but is not emotional. Who may be focused to the point of coming off as brusque or insensitive. And while he doesn’t have to have six-pack abs, he should be “imposing, tall, strong, athletically fit, and generally hotter and sexier than the average guy.”

So Jack Reacher, but not Tom Cruise.

Alden’s definition may be pretty standard when it comes to romance novels, but if you do some hasty and ridiculously incomplete research on the Internet, you could easily conclude that, in real life, every man on the planet simultaneously is and is not an alpha male.

But, you don’t have to do that hasty and ridiculously incomplete research, as I have done it for you.

In The Feminine Woman, a blog aimed at helping women find men who adore them, Renee Wade says an alpha male has “a strong masculine energy and is not afraid to be dominant.” Some men, she says, will be “dominant assholes,” but that’s “not necessarily a bad thing…some women still like this type of man, and it works for them, which is great!”

Which sounds a little disturbing. On the other hand, Wade does open the door to the possibility of nuance: “Just because a man is an alpha male doesn’t mean he can’t have a well-developed feminine energy, too. Remember that! It’s simply because he’s more multi-dimensional.”

Ah, complexity: Thy name is reality.

In my own hasty and incomplete research, I happened upon a guy named Roosh, who, I gather, traveled the world in a quest to get laid in every country. He claims to have done all right because he realized not only that alpha males aren’t universally popular, but also that altering his alphatude to fit his surroundings got him lucky more often. In Brazil, for example, he needed to amplify the alpha. In Poland, he beefed up his beta.

Being beta, he says, didn’t mean “being supplicant” or “holding anyone’s purse while they went to the bathroom,” but more or less “not being an asshole.” Or needy. Or too persistent. Or overy generous with gifts and flowers. “I led the interaction,” he says, “but considered their needs (by) asking them where they wanted to go or what food they wanted to eat. I did my best to increase their happiness.”

This echoes something shared by misogyny fighter David Futrelle, who cites scientists in his Manboobz blog to argue that the human alpha male is a false construct because it comes to us via botched research on wolves. Botched, because wolves don’t really run in packs where one alpha male hogs all the females; instead, they settle down in families headed by breeding couples. Males attract the foxiest wolf babes “not by being sexy badasses, but simply by siring and taking responsibility for pups. Alphas become alphas by acting like betas.”

This is starting to sound familiar. A panel of romance authors I saw a couple years back that included Isabel Sharpe and Helen Brenna concluded that alpha male characters should have some “beta” characteristics “to make them seem more real.”

Author and Facebook C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg got more specific, telling The Atlantic Wire that a dude who has a beta quality or two, like a propensity for doing the laundry, is gonna be glad when the lights go down. “Studies show this,” she says. “Husbands who do more housework have more sex with their wives.”

So what’s the takeaway? I mean, other than that, if you’re a man, you should really think about doing more laundry? I say my original two sources were both right. Of course your romance-novel hero has to have something kick-ass in his personality (if not in his pecs), but he can’t be a knuckle-dragging brute. Then again, who fantasizes about riding off on a white steed with a needy, purse-holding supplicant?

Clay, the hero of Palm Springs Heat, and Holt, the hero of Malibu Bride, are both alphas, but they’re also very different from each other. Which shouldn’t surprise anyone. They are, after all, going after different women—and it’s each heroine’s definition that ultimately determines who’ll be the alpha—read: number one—man in her life.


Malibu Bride will be available as an ebook and paperback at the end of May.

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