A friend of mine was recently telling me about a book review, in which the reviewer was perfectly honest and said that the book wasn’t working for them because of their own admitted personal preferences. (Side note: reviewers, that is awesome; your opinion, your bias, is what people turn to you for, so put it out there!)
This reviewer said the book was pretty darn good. The catch was that they prefer overbearing, growly, protective alphas. That, in turn, got me thinking about my own writing. If you’ve read Boardroom Omega or even The Fox Returns, you’ll know that “growly alpha” isn’t exactly the kind of character we’re encountering there. Looking at some of my upcoming books, I can tell you that pattern holds true: the next two novels sitting on my desk both feature omegaverse, but neither of the alpha characters fit that growly, overprotective, overbearing prototype.
I’ll bare my own preferences here: I hate that stuff. I can certainly understand (and appreciate) why some people like it, and this isn’t to knock them for liking it. Preference is preference, YMMV, your kink is not my kink, etc.
What I do have is an issue with how those characters are often portrayed as the ideal—and why many, many people are conditioned to believe that kind of behavior is indicative of “twu wuv.”
The Idea of the Alpha Male
Let’s start by examining the ideals the prototypical “alpha male” upholds. In most stories, the alpha is possessive and protective.
Protection is not a problem. In fact, I too like the idea of a “knight gallant” who sweeps in and takes care of their love interest. They’re charming, dashing, and they swoop in to protect and rescue at every turn. You know they’re going to defend their lover, whether it’s a battle of words or a fistfight. Sometimes, they may even have to protect their lovers from themselves.
This character is often the strong, silent type—brooding and not overly emotional. This in and of itself isn’t a problem; the alpha male is often independent, yet he has a charisma that draws everyone to him.
The Alpha Male Becomes Toxic
The problem comes in where the line blurs. If we ask the alpha male to protect their lover from themselves, how do they go about doing it? Very often, they set hard rules. They may even hurt the love interest. And they might not communicate what is going on, often not beyond “this is for your own good.”
Now, this can be a great set-up for a toxic or dark relationship. But many, many books play it straight. They romanticize this kind of behavior, where “alpha knows best.” The omega (read: feminine) character is simply too stupid or out of control, and without the alpha male to dominate them, they are going to hurt themselves, get themselves in trouble, and so on.
This kind of argument comes straight out of patriarchal masculinity. Women (or “omegas”) are to be subservient. Women are silly, fickle, and incapable of rational thought. They’re no better than children, so they need the firm hand of their father, husband, or brother (alphas) to keep them in line and steer them in the right direction.
As I noted, this is a great set up for a dark romance, because it strips the omega character of all agency. Even if they are smart and sensible, the alpha character discounts their thoughts and feelings, dismissing them at every turn. The omega must submit.
In real life, this often sets the basis for highly toxic or abusive relationships. Unless negotiated properly (a la BDSM), this sort of domineering man robs his partner of all agency and independence, forcing them to be solely dependent upon him—for everything. And when you give someone that kind of power, they are going to abuse it. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, that sort of thing.
The Soft Alpha Male
I will say that it is fine to like the traditional, domineering alpha male in fiction. I have two issues: one, too many romance authors simply sell it as a romantic ideal (versus exploring the dark side of it), and second, that I am incredibly uncomfortable reading it because all I can think is that poor character is being abused and needs to get out now!
Again: your kink is not my kink, YMMV, etc., etc. Just because you read it in fiction doesn’t mean you condone it in real life. Fiction is a fantastical escape, a safe space to live our fantasies and kinks, and if that’s what you like, that’s what you like.
Since fiction is also a place to live out our fantasies, though, I prefer to explore the existence of a different kind of “alpha male.” It seems to me that the traditional overprotective, domineering alpha character cuts too close to real life most of the time. And sure, some people want that; they want to be swept off their feet and told not to worry about a thing. They want an “alpha” who will protect them.
In my opinion, that doesn’t have to come with the disrespect that the overprotective, domineering alpha type character usually drags along with him.
Instead, I wonder if we can see “protectiveness” come out in a new way. Can we see an alpha male who is still, in some ways, dominant, but softer in other ways? Can he emote more? In my thinking, a man who isn’t afraid to show and share his emotions is probably a lot braver than one who bottles it all up, given the enormous social pressure on men to fit into that “strong, silent type” mold.
Can an alpha show his devotion in ways beyond getting into a fist fight over his omega love? Can he do more than just growl and stomp on the omega character’s boundaries in the name of “protecting” them?
I think the answer is yes—and there are more ways than one to skin a cat, so to speak.
In Boardroom Omega, Jake is definitely what the mainstream proponents of “alpha male” machoism would call a beta. (They’d have other words for him as well, but I’m going to leave those to the imagination.)
Jake is very soft as far as alphas go. He likes being pushed around by Perce, the omega character. In fact, role reversal was one of the things I was playing with in this book. As an omega, Perce is pretty non-traditional, in that he likes to be in charge. Perce is the boss—in the boardroom, in the bedroom, and everywhere else.
Jake is totally into that. Yet Jake is still an alpha in many senses of the word. He knows what he likes, and he knows what he doesn’t like. He isn’t afraid to speak his mind. His easy-going, laidback nature might say to some that he’s a pushover, but it can actually be a marker of confidence. Jake doesn’t feel the need to assert his dominance, because he is so self-assured.
And why wouldn’t he be? Jake’s very well-liked; he seems to have this charm, a magnetism that draws people in. He’s funny. He’s actually pretty outgoing. And let’s not forget he’s in charge of a start-up that changes the face of the world economy. Jake is successful.
So, really, as much as Jake is willing to let Perce take the driver’s seat, there’s no reason for him to insist on being the one in charge. He can—and will—take charge when he needs to.
Jake does have moments where he showcases that he’s not just a pushover, though. As Perce notes, Jake does have a spine. He does take control at points, and he’s always on point when the two of them are verbally sparring. Jake is, in some ways, having fun.
He’s also in tune with his own emotions, and he offers Perce more of what he needs in that sense. Jake doesn’t need to “protect” Perce—from himself or any other. What he does need to do is offer support and guidance as Perce confronts some fairly heavy emotional issues that he’s been setting aside.
So, Jake is not a “traditional” alpha, but he’s still fulfilling many of the roles of the alpha.
The Wise Alpha
In the next Omega on Top book, I continue to explore this idea of a non-traditional sort of alpha. Here, I had even more room to play, because Winston is a member of a culture outside of the Western patriarchal tradition. Winston can thus embody a different kind of logic—and, by and large, he does.
Winston does not exert control the way we typically see alpha men in romances do. Instead, he acts more as a guide. He is calm and level-headed; yet he’s also profoundly emotional.
Winston is an alpha in the sense that he is someone you turn to for guidance. In a sense, he fulfills the archetype of the “wise father.” He’s a sage character. And yes, that has some paternalistic trappings. But Winston rarely uses the power accorded to him by this positioning for ill. Instead, he is a steadfast friend and lover who supports the omegas in his life. Occasionally, he recognizes what they need before they do; he’ll often put it to a question then, allowing the omega to decide exactly what they need or want.
In this way, Winston avoids one of the biggest issues with the “alpha male” trope: the utter disrespect of agency and boundaries.
The Strong, Silent Type
Finally, in Flight of the Omega, Jack returns us close to the “ideal” alpha male. He’s a diamond in the rough, and there are points where he does get protective of JP. He does get into fisticuffs at points, and he’s willing to fight to keep JP safe.
But Jack is still not a stereotypical alpha male, even when he’s contending with an omega who does, in fact, loose his mind and nearly hurts himself. Jack is patient and kind. He seeks emotional understanding and, when he’s wrong, he asks for forgiveness.
Jack is rarely perfect, of course; in coming back to that more traditional “shithead” kind of alpha, he does overstep and he does get out of line. But the depth of his caring for JP, his emotional connection, and his willingness to seek forgiveness all allow us to feel that Jack is maybe a little bit softer than toxic masculine ideals might otherwise allow.
A Different Kind of Masculinity
In looking at the different ways one can be an “alpha” character, what I’m doing is exploring different masculinities. There are many, many ways to be feminine—and to be a woman. So it follows that there are just as many ways to be masculine—and to be a man.
Yet we’re almost always given the stereotype of the toxic alpha male. He’s overbearing, overprotective. He knows everything before his lover, and as much as he charms them, underneath, there’s always a hint that he’s an abusive dickhead.
Exploring other masculinities reminds us that there is no one “right” way to be a man (or masculine or an alpha, for that matter). And it reminds us that there are perhaps other, healthier ways to express the better qualities of masculinity, especially within the confines of our romantic relationships.