Rob and Mike watch Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) at The Projection Booth. “The first big American studio film — and last big American studio film – directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, The Black Cat is, uh, ‘inspired’ by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story and stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in a taut game of life and death.”
Posted August 7, 2008
It kind of goes without saying that the Romance genre is full of tropes and archetypes (though just to be clear: the happy ending is not archetype, but architecture). Some come in plot form: the rags-to-riches story, for instance, a modern take on the Cinderella mythos. Sometimes they pertain to character: the driven career woman forced to reassess her priorities, or the survivor of a bad marriage learning to trust again. Occasionally character archetypes can read less like original patterns than faded photocopies, and stock characters become exhausted pastiches. One character archetype that’s occasionally misrepresented and often misunderstood – though never out of favour – is the character of the alpha male.
What is the alpha male? In Romance terms, he’s the quintessential tough-guy hero. He’s the man with command presence, the one who gets things done. He has abundant physical and mental strength, and tends to use both in his everyday life. Gorgeous isn’t the same thing as attractive, and though he may not be the first, he is definitely the second. Alpha heroes are cops and firefighters, cutthroat businessmen and land-owning dukes. Men respect them and women want them. They are the top of the food chain – and they know it.
Which, frankly, should be thoroughly unappealing. We know that power corrupts, and we’ve all seen the damage that results when cops and businessmen go bad (though these days maybe not so much with the dukes). But in the Romance genre, the strength and drive of the alpha male is always, always coupled with something the real world often lacks: a bone-deep sense of responsibility. The alpha male knows himself accountable, and considers himself in service, to the world… and especially to those in his immediate vicinity.
Hey, look at that: the brutish thug just got more appealing. Competence itself is attractive: competence wielded by someone on behalf of those who need it is doubly so. But that isn’t the whole, or even the main, reason the alpha male is so popular in the genre. There’s also the primal fascination of the power fantasy he represents. And no, I don’t mean that kind of fantasy. It’s not about sex; it’s about power. Specifically the kind of power that love can have, even over a spirit as indomitable as the alpha male’s. Because that straight-ahead tough guy, defender of the downtrodden and all-round swashbuckler, is incomplete without his heroine – and he knows that too.
Think about that, the scope of it. The human male is the most dangerous animal on earth. He is capable of the kind of destruction that makes mere earthquakes and tsunami seem like they’re not even trying. The alpha male is a particularly vigorous example of his species. But his goal is to protect, not destroy. And in the right hands, he will bend. He will change.
He doesn’t undergo a complete personality change, of course. But when an alpha hero meets his heroine, the original immovable object recognizes the pull of the irresistable force. And he likes it enough that he chooses to bend. Think taming a tiger is tough? I’ve said this before, and it’s still true: the central fantasy of the modern romance is not that women want to be dominated, but that men are capable of change.
To fully experience the alpha male hero, my number one recommendation has to be Linda Howard. Her heroes epitomize the alpha male, though I’d suggest trying her earlier novels first. Dream Man, for instance (she’s a psychic; he’s a detective; there’s a serial killer), or After The Night (woman rises out of poverty, and meets her hometown hero again as an adult. But more complicated). Her McKenzie’s Mountain reinvented the alpha hero for the category audience, and the follow up, McKenzie’s Mission was also a winner. Also good was Loving Evangeline if you can find a copy — but for the love of all you hold dear, avoid the made-for-TV film. Not only is it truly terrible, but its resemblance to Howard’s story ends with the characters’ names.
Chris Szego is attracted to competence, and occasionally envious.