Alpha, Alphaholes and Assholes in Romance

After reading The Sheik, I think it’s time to talk about the Alpha and the Alphahole — a.k.a. alpha-douche, the dukebag, the sexy douchecanoe… the alpha male hero bordering on asshole. As I started writing this post, it got longer and longer and longer, so I’m splitting it up. This post attempts to define terms.

Alpha is a love interest (hero or heroine) who is in charge of their world situation, a character characterized by extreme competence. Except, as the romance novel plot requires, the alpha finds they have lost control of one crucial element: their heart.

Asshole is a love interest who takes the power dynamic common to the Alpha too far: a character who is domineering and irredeemable.

Alphahole is that squishy place in between Alpha and Asshole, where the redeemability of the character depends on the tolerance and opinion of the reader. Some readers may put down a book whose Alphahole clearly begins in Asshole territory after chapter one, other readers may be willing to wait until chapter ten or thirty to see if the author will write a satisfactory Grovel. Carlie St. George, writing on The Book Smugglers blog about the alphahole trope in books and television, says:

Of course, tastes vary. You may find one hero appealing, and I may find him a garbage fire of a human being, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much…

If tastes vary, and each reader will have a different threshold for labeling an Alpha as Alphahole or Asshole, how can we define the term? After The Book Smuggler’s post caused some outcry in Romancelandia for failing to discuss any actual popular romances, it inspired the most commonly referenced discussion of the Alphahole, in a long post from Ilona Andrews a few days later.

Andrews idenitfies the Alphahole as a modern descendant of the Byronic hero, and quotes Lord Byron’s poem “Corsair”:

He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.

Getting into her own words, Andrews describes the Alphahole thus:

Because of his superhuman competency, alphahole is often a leader, both admired and sometimes feared by those under his command. He expects to be obeyed. When he isn’t obeyed, he gets put out and forces compliance. He is arrogant and ruthless, sometimes cruel, seemingly unfeeling, and at the onset of the story, he often treats heroine with disdain and attempts to order her around.

Andrews also lays out several “unspoken rules” which can make an alphahole irredeemable. (I’ve abridged her quotes here – you should definitely read her article.)

He must never physically abuse heroine.

Exemptions:

  1. Self-defense: cases when the heroine was the aggressor and initiated a fight.
  2. Violence in the line of duty: instances when violence was delivered as part of the job-related activities and the heroine is capable of defending herself.
  3. Violence is inflicted in the binds on consensual sexual play to which both parties agreed prior to initiating sexual acts.

He must never kill or willingly injure children and defenseless pets.

At the conclusion of the romance, alphahole must recognize the heroine as his emotional equal. Failure to acknowledge equality of the heroine will crush the HEA or HFN.

Let’s compare Andrews’ Alphahole definition with Haley Kral of All About Romance, writing in August 2014,

I’ve noticed that the trend has shifted away from the standard Alpha, which is normally a beefcake with a heart of gold, to what I like to call the Alpha-Douche. This guy is possessive, volatile, jealous, and borders on stalking the lead female.

Writing for USA Today’s Happily Ever After column in March 2015, author Laura K. Curtis sets out a definite of the Alpha,

1) He knows what he wants.
2) He has the self-confidence to believe he can achieve his goals.
3) He is a leader.

If he lacks any of those three qualities, he’s not alpha. If he takes what he wants without consideration, or leads only by force, he’s not an alpha but an “alphahole.”

As we continue to circle around the concept of Alphahole, here’s a description from fantasy romance author Cara McKinnon, writing on her blog in August 2017.

[Alphaholes] are the characters who are supposed to make us swoon and want to be taken care of, but who are, in truth, terrible caretakers. They see their women as possessions, not people, and you can’t truly care for a person you consider an object to own.

Here’s some more pithy comparisons, from a long discussion at Smexy Books.

An asshole’s motivation is always about HIM.

An alpha hero wants to protect his lover but knows trying to control her will often cause her to leave him. An alpha hole hero wants to make the heroine completely dependent on him.

An alpha knows what he wants and goes after it but he knows the limits. Alpha holes have no limits.

… an alpha hero is a take charge man, someone who knows exactly what he wants … such a hero crosses the line into alphahole territory when he can’t compromise and pushes his own agenda without regard to how it affects others, especially his heroine.

There is a fine line between Alpha and I wanna kick you in the balls Alpha.

Clear as mud, right? In many ways, it seems that an Alphahole is like pornography: you’ll know it when you see it. But after reading a great many posts and opinions on the character trope, what coalesces in my mind is this:

The Alpha is a confident and mature character.

The Alphahole has less internal confidence and more infantile qualities. The Alphahole has a strong overlap with the Wounded Hero and indeed might be a different name for that trope, or a specific manifestation of such.

Andrews writes that readers expect an internal logic to the story: the Alphahole must have some past trauma which has caused the Alphahole behavior. And in that hidden flaw or vulnerability, perhaps we discover the popularity of the character in the genre: it gives the Alphahole a very obvious character arc as they much grow to overcome that flaw and modify their behavior. Andrews notes that after the Grovel, the alpha-hole transitions to alpha male: in her view “alpha-hole” is a stage through which the hero passes in his character arc. And I think she’s on to something…

 

References and further reading:

Header image from “Longmire Does Romance Novels”, which will make you laugh.

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