Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Appeal of the Alpha Hero

Posted by: Eleri Stone
There’ve been a few posts lately trying to unpack the appeal of the alpha hero, like this one here and this one here. The underlying assumption seems to be that the reason alpha heroes are so popular is because they fulfill some kind of deeply imbedded female fantasy.

As a fan of the alpha male character type, I think they’re coming at it from the wrong angle. There is an element of fantasy in all romance, but I disagree that fantasy is the foundation for the appeal of the alpha male. I think the pairing of a powerful man with a less powerful woman works for the same reason all tropes work—inherent conflict + emotional resonance.

The conflict comes from the power imbalance between the two main characters. He’s rich/strong/powerful. She’s poor/weak/vulnerable. Drop that combination into any situation or setting from boardroom to werewolf pack and you’re going to have conflict.

The emotional resonance part is a little bit trickier. A lot of people say that the reason these stories resonate with so many women is because all women want a powerful man—(because brainwashing or fantasy or whatever). But I say the emotional resonance comes more from the familiarity of the setup rather than the fantasy of it. After all, women have a lot of experience with power imbalances between the sexes. We live in a world where the cards are often stacked against us. We’ve seen this game before and have strong and sometimes complicated feelings about it. The powerful man-less powerful woman setup echoes that experience and it strikes a powerful chord. Kind of like the instant emotional response you get from a child in jeopardy story. It’s not that you like seeing children in jeopardy; it’s that it’s going to get a reaction out of you. You’re going to be invested in seeing how it plays out.

With the alpha male, you have all that built in, instantly relatable drama. And washboard abs.

The fantasy part of the romance comes later as the leads negotiate the power imbalance. Does the hero become aware of his advantage and adjust his behavior? Does he cede some of his power to the heroine or does he find a way to continue to exercise his power in a way that preserves her dignity and agency? Does the heroine discover she has more leverage than she originally believed? Does she demand equal footing or does she find a safe harbor from the world in the hero’s strength? They’re all great fantasies. Just pick your flavor. By the end of the story, the hero and heroine should be equal partners in the relationship…in whatever way they agree works for them. If you walk away at the end still thinking that the hero is an asshole, that’s a failure of storytelling. Or at least a failure of the romance part of it.

Eleri Stone is a RITA-nominated author of paranormal and fantasy romance. Born in New Jersey, she now lives in Iowa with her husband and their three children. All of her stories have some element of speculative fiction in them and they all end with a happily-ever-after. www.eleristone.com


  1. I think this is a very smart analysis, Eleri! I know one of my themes is power, so I totally agree - what's fascinating is power imbalance and the struggle/negotiation to alter it. :-)

  2. I love that about your stories. Rogue and Gwynn would actually be a great example:)


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