Alpha Characters and the Power Dynamic

When you write in romance, particularly paranormal romance with it’s endless possibilities for the supernatural, you hear a lot about the “alpha” hero. The alpha hero can be defined in a lot of ways, but at the heart of all definitions is power. Alpha is, of course, the first letter of the Greek alphabet. Alpha. First. The heart of the “alpha” is that character’s needs/wants/desires come first.

I’m not making judgement calls about whether this is good or bad. I’m not offering social commentary. I’m approaching this as a writer. Alphas are popular. They’re fun to write. They’re very dynamic characters. They make for interesting plot development, and they’re undeniably attractive to the majority of readers.

That said, how do you create an interesting and sympathetic alpha hero without that character devolving into a stereotype or, quite simply, an asshole? Sadly, many times writers don’t. I’ve read too many books that leave the heroine swooning and me scratching my head. But here are three power dynamics (and make no mistake, ALL relationships have power dynamics) that are interesting, intelligent, and respectful of both parties.

Male Alpha/Female Alpha

Oh hi, red-hot, passionate break-up/make-up couple! Yes, having two alphas in a relationship leads to conflict, but at the same time, there is also a level of mutual respect and understanding. This is what makes this relationship work. Is it dynamic? Oh yes. Is there drama? Oh yes. Can it get tiring if the couple never comes to some kind of middle ground? Oh. Yes. Be careful trying to write this kind of relationship. Just like in real life, it’s tricky and can be messy. Expect this couple to fight a lot, but also have a pretty passionate connection. All the drama and the growth tends to be right out there for the reader and the other characters to react to. Fun? Yes, but don’t take it too far. It’s easy to fall into stereotype-land with this couple.

Fictional example: Cat and Bones, Night Huntress series by Jeanine Frost

Male Alpha/Female…other?

I hesitate to give this dynamic a name because while it involves a clear alpha male, the female character is usually an alpha in her own right, but in an entirely different discipline. This dynamic is common in romance and fantasy when you have a warrior of some kind and a female character who is a seer or scholar. It involves complementary strengths instead of competing strengths and can be more difficult to write because power perception can be so subjective. (Is physical or mental strength more valued within the setting? Does this shift? Is there a public/private dynamic to the relationship?) This dynamic can also be misunderstood by other characters within the story, which makes it a great source of internal and external drama. Drama within the relationship usually involves some sort of struggle for the characters to accept that they are stronger/more complete with each other than without, after which, the relationship is usually very stable.

Fictional example: Harry/Hermione/Ron, Harry Potter series by JK Rowling (What? This applies to a lot more than just romantic relationships.)

Vanity example: Gio/Beatrice in my books, The Elemental Mysteries

Female Alpha/Male Beta

What? You thought all great romantic heroes were alphas? Pfft. I’ve read a couple of novels lately where the writer turned this common trope on its head very successfully. The trick within this power dynamic is for the heroine and hero to retain respect for each other while battling a world that too often equates female power with aggression and male support as weakness. There is usually a clear public/private dynamic to this relationship that helps the couple retain intimacy and respect in a hostile setting. There is also usually a very healthy humor and acknowledgement of the reversal of traditional roles. I’ve never written this dynamic, but I’m kicking around a few ideas because I’d love the challenge.

Fictional example: Yasmeen/Archimedes, Iron Seas #2, Heart of Steel by Meljean Brook (if you haven’t read this steampunk series, you’re missing out)

Bonus example: Zoe and Wash, Firefly universe (no joke, one of my favorite fictional relationships ever)

Are there endless variations on these three power dynamics? Yes, of course there are. Relationships, fictional or otherwise, are as unique as the individuals involved. These are only three of the most common that I’ve read or written. They all have strength and weaknesses, and they all create their own challenges for the writer and the reader.

So tell me, what’s your favorite dynamic to read? To write? Do you give one of these dynamics more respect than another? Why?

Thanks for reading,

Elizabeth

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