I’ve got so much to share with you all that it’s hard to know where to begin! My house looks and sounds like a construction zone – one man is hard at work with a jackhammer digging a hole in the tiled floor of my living room. Two engineers are wandering in and out of the rain, measuring, leveling, beeping, and God knows what else. And a plumber stands at the ready, waiting to get at a leaky pipe. If the column seems a bit scattered, that’s my excuse!
I’ve talked many times about romances set in the Highlands of Scotland, most recently in Issue #54 of this column. The landscape was harshly beautiful, the lads braw, and the lasses lovely. Characters from Scots romance are very strongly tied to the land, and there is a mythical and mystical quality about the people, the romance, and the setting.
There is also a mythical quality about the characters and setting in a western romance. There is that untamed quality, the strength, the heroism, and the lone-ness. While I do not read many western romances, I know that some of what draws me to the Highlands draws people to the western.
Scots and western heroes are as rugged, dangerous, and untamed as are their lands. Surely this is a great part of their appeal. And while the western hero is more often depicted as a loner, many Scots romances feature heroes in command. With command comes isolation. While the Scots hero is tied to his clan, he is responsible for their well being. Whether laird or warrior, he is isolated by his power and his duty.
Ruth Langan writes for Harlequin Historicals (she wrote a fine trilogy set in medieval Scotland – you can find the titles on our Scots/Irish List about the MacAlpin sisters). She writes western romances and has written several medieval romances set in Scotland. (Though Ruth has no Scottish historicals planned at this time, she has just completed a 3 book series of Irish warriors, set in the era of Elizabeth I of England. Look for The O’Neil Saga in 1999). I asked her to talk about the Scots hero and the western hero. In response, she said:
“Ask any writer or reader of romance to name the kind of hero she wants, and the reply is almost always the same. A rugged, untamed man. A man pure of heart, strong of will, but possessing that extra element of danger.”This is why the tall, silent Westerner and the untamed Scots Highlander are so often the heroes of our historicals. These two rugged types share certain virtues.
“The Highlanders were considered a race of war-like giants. Bigger, stronger, more cunning than the more civilized, better-armed English soldier who often attacked the Highlanders’ fortresses, they were rumored to know no fear. In truth, it wasn’t a lack of fear that drove the Highlander. It was the certain knowledge that, unless he fought back, his life would be forfeited. If desperate times call for desperate measures, then the Highlanders were the most desperate of all. Their freedom, their very way of life, was at stake. It was the fact that their country had been besieged for generations that made them so warlike, so fearless, so determined to survive at any cost.
“Many of those who explored and opened up the great American West were, in fact, descendants of those Scots warriors. When Scotland was finally overrun by the English, many of the Highland warriors escaped to begin life in the New World.
“The American West, that last great frontier, touched the hearts of men willing to risk all for the sake of the unknown. Think of the drama. Wagon trains loaded with people who depended upon the muscle and marksmanship of the man hired to protect their lives with his own. A man armed with wit and cunning, pitting himself against the forces of cholera, war-like Indian nations, the unpredictable weather, and an inhospitable terrain.
“History has been kind to both the Highlander and his counterpart in the American West. Rugged, untamed men, pure of heart, strong of will, pitting their skills against any enemy, for the sake of those less fortunate, who placed their trust in them. It was a trust they earned. A trust they still hold in our hearts. And in our novels.”
Reader Nora hit upon the mystical aspect I mentioned earlier when she wrote, “I think that Scottish romances are so appealing not only because of the ruggedness, but also because of the mystical aspect. In almost every Scottish romance someone has the ‘Sight.’ At least for me, that is a very appealing aspect of the sub-genre. Western romances may have the same rough-around-the-edges heroes, but they do not have the magical heroines!”
AAR Reviews Editor Blythe Barnhill wrote, “On the Scottish setting…it occurred to me as I was reading your thoughts about it that Jamie Fraser is much sexier in Scotland than later when he comes to America. I am sure the setting has something to do with it.” Does anyone else feel the same as Blythe?
Another reader wrote in at length about the allure of the Highlands. Natasha who had this to say:
“I too agree with you on the allure of that beautiful country. I have Scottish ancestry from both sides of my parents and when I visited, there was just something to that area of the world that called to me. Which must bring reasoning as to why whenever I hear bagpipes, fiddles and such it’s as if I can feel all my ancestors coursing through my veins. Something ancient and knowing comes about me as I imagine the sights I visited and hearing the music of a proud people.”The turbulent past of Scotland makes for an amazing romance in itself for the simple fact that there were so many unknown H/H of that time. And that it only makes sense to the writer and reader that fictional story lines can be created and put together with great passion and incredible adventure!
“And Laurie, maybe the reason why you feel such a kinship to Scotland is perhaps you may too have an ancestor of a Clan calling out to you from across the channels of time…?”
While it’s doubtful that the blood of the Highlanders courses through these Eastern European-descended veins, it is possible that the turbulent history of my own “clan,” persecuted for thousands of years by various peoples around the globe, is part of my love for the Highland romance. Not too many authors are writing romances set in ancient Egypt, the Inquisition, the pogroms, or the Holocaust.
Get Over It! AAR Reviews Editor/Historical Cheat Sheet Editor Ellen Micheletti’s segment in Issue #54 about the hero from Linda Howard’s Sarah’s Child engendered a great deal of discussion. To briefly re-cap, Ellen (and Marianne, who reviewed the book), disliked Rome because he couldn’t seem to get over his traumatic past, which affected how he treated Sarah. I asked readers to post to the message board which heroes were able to get over it/themselves. Only one reader managed to post on topic; all others wanted to talk about why they disagreed (or agreed) with Ellen.
Here’s a sampling of comments:
Jennifer: “I totally disagree about Sarah’s Child and Rome and Sarah Matthews. Rome has not only lost a wife he loved, but two small boys he adored. He, like any man worthy to be called a man, feels that he should have been able to protect his children, and his wife, from anything bad that could ever happen to them. When he failed, he felt guilty, he felt lost and he felt as if he were not a man. Ellen said that he took all of this out on Sarah, and this is true, but that is what human beings do, they take out their worst feelings on those they are closest to, because they know it is safe to do so, and that they will still be loved. As for Sarah, if you want to know what love is, I suggest you get out your Bible and look up First Corinthians, Chapter 13. ‘Love is patient, love is kind, it keeps no record of wrongs. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.’ Sarah loves Rome, period. No matter what he does or doesn’t do. I love this story, because I want to be loved like that. It is the ultimate way to love and be loved.”
Darlene: “True confession time – Sarah’s Child is one of my all-time favorites (she said, ducking ) That said, it’s probably more for sentimental reasons than anything else: I’ve been a romance reader since I was 12. Devoured all the Harlequins that came out monthly (this was in early 70’s when Hqns were the only ones available). However when I met my own Mr. Right in the early 1980’s, I stopped reading romances because 1) I realized that it was highly unlikely that I would ever live in England married to a millionaire and have a houseful of servants! and 2) having ‘finally’ experienced intimacy myself, I was too frustrated (pun intended) by the lack of intimacy in the stories. So I started reading murder mysteries instead! (Go figure!) Anyway … during my second pregnancy in 1990 I happened to pick up a copy of Sarah’s Child at my local library. The title must have appealed to me because of my own situation. I read it and was astounded – there were no servants and the bedroom door was open! I was hooked on romances all over again and have been to this day. So this is a book that I probably won’t read again (especially as I’m reminded by the column of his self-absorbed arrogance), but I’ll always keep on my shelf as a memento of a rediscovered love. P.S. Another reason it’s special – just like Sarah, I ended up having a daughter, too! P.P.S. My eldest, Jacob, was named after romance author Anne Mather’s several heroes with that name!!”
Teresa: Galeran de Heywood from Jo Beverley’s The Shattered Rose is a perfect example of a hero who has been terribly hurt and got over it. After years of trying to conceive a baby with his wife Jeanne he goes on Crusade to please God. He returns a few years later to find that the baby Jeanne had soon after he left has died and the she has since had a baby with another man. Instead of spurning his wife, as everyone, including Jeanne, expects, he works to rebuild their marriage. A true hero indeed!”
I’d like to suggest another hero who got over it! – Clayton from Lorraine Heath’s Always to Remember. I’d love to have you think about heroes who have been to the brink and got over it.
Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know:
After talking about the get over it! hero, it seems only fitting to segue into the hero who is mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Last time I asked, “Which heroes came close to crossing that thin line between Alpha hero and Alpha heel? Which crossed the line? Under what circumstances do you forgive the ultra-alpha hero who is abusive? Are you like me and need to see that the heroine sees his humanity or is his background sufficient? What is the worst thing a hero you came to love did to the heroine?”
Responses varied, and much of the discussion on the message board focused on the terminology. Robin, for instance, wrote that this: “talk about ‘alpha’ males is all wrong and has no connection to current thinking of what constitutes ‘alpha’ behavior in males or females animals. What does a stable alpha act like? I was watching a program on primate & monkey behavior and saw a baboon male that typified the alpha male perfectly. This male did the all the macho behavior necessary to maintain his dominance amongst other males in the troop, but after that he strolled over to the females and babies, sat down and started grooming babies. IOTW he made ‘nice’ when he was with the females and beat the stuffing out of the males when needed. He could distinguish between what was appropriate behavior for each sex. My kind of man! This was in contrast with another male who would fit the common perception of ‘alpha’ male. He made no distinction between how he treated males, females or babies. He terrorized the whole troop. Not good for infant mortality or fertility (stress). The ‘alpha’ male of romances.”
While Robin is correct, that the terms “alpha male” and “beta male” were first used by those studying primates, these terms were “borrowed” by those studying and building the romance genre and are not necessarily directly applicable, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, while humans are related to the primate world via evolution, we are not “lower” primates, and the behaviors they engage in are not our behaviors. The alpha primate may be the leader of his group and beat up on the beta primate, but he doesn’t wear a waistcoat and play whist. Secondly, the “borrowing” of scientific terminology was never intended to be used as an exact translation in terms of literary description. According to Jayne Ann Krentz in her groundbreaking Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, the “alpha males” can be described as “tough, hard-edged, tormented heroes. . . These are the heroes who made Harlequin famous. These are the heroes feminist critics despise” (page 132). According to a later essay by Kathleen Gilles Seidel, the term alpha hero came into use “because some authors were engaged in a struggle with their editors about a certain type of hero” (page 224). My guess is that the term developed in order to differentiate between the old style of hero and that very style of hero JAK/Amanda Quick is best known for.
I have always used JAK’s definition as my own, even though I believe it ironic that the heroes she is most known for are not classic alpha heroes, or are they? I think the key to JAK’s definition is in the torment. The classic tormented hero is the hero who lashes out. Elizabeth Lowell writes alpha heroes. Sometimes they work for me; at other times they become alpha heels. Amanda Quick aka Jayne Ann Krentz does not, in my opinion, write alpha heroes, at least not any more. Neither does Julie Garwood. These authors, in my estimation, write gamma heroes, a term coined by romance author Deb Stover early last year on the listserv. Her definition of the gamma hero is “one who doesn’t fit the image of the macho alpha male, or the easygoing Beta either. He’s a combination – a mutation? – of both types of man, and makes a hero to die for.”
I’m not fully satisfied with any definition of a gamma male I’ve seen so far – all I know is that I know one when I read one. We need to develop three working definitions for each of our heroic archetypes so that we can all be talking on the same page. For me, definitely, the alpha hero has a tendency to be cruel. Others, such as Suzanne Brockmann, in a Write Byte from last year, doesn’t buy the gamma hero archetype at all; although the alpha she describes is a far cry from the original Harlequin he-man – older, domineering, threatening.
This is not a small quibble or a discussion of semantics. We will end up comparing apples to oranges if we cannot come to an agreement on this. Indeed, the comments posted to my message board were all over the place because of this problem in defining terms.
Angela disagrees with my interpretation of the alpha hero as well. She too has read Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women. She wrote, “I think part of the problem is one’s definition of Alpha Heroes.They are dominant males but not necessarily abusive. My favorite hero’s are alpha’s with a heart such as those by JAK in all her forms as well as Garwood and SEP. Who will call any of the heroes in an Amanda Quick novel anything but Alpha, yet they are in no way abusive? The Alpha hero is also able to use this toughness in a protective rather than abusive manner. The trouble is the line between dangerous and a jerk. I don’t enjoy books where you can’t believe in the taming of the hero because
He is the ultimate ass or
The heroine is the ultimate wimp.
These two problems often occur in the same book, in fact almost always. A truly strong heroine will not allow a hero to be an ass no matter how hard he tries. I can also accept some abusive behavior by the hero at the beginning of a book as long as
He repents by the middle of the book (not the last chapter)
There is an explanation in the heroes past to show why he is tormented and mean in the beginning.
Both of these have to be present. These are in fact usually some of the best stories though very hard to come by.”
AAR Reviewer Rebecca agreed with Angela on one point in all this discussion of heroes: “We forget that the heroine is just as important. I have no respect for a heroine that puts up with any kind of alpha male abuse for any length of time, much less through the whole book. The ‘eventually my love will change him’ theme just cries out doormat. Krentz is a great example of an author who can really balance alpha males and equally strong females.”
Of course, DMAW has something to say on why the heroine is so often dismissed. In a very early column (Issue #8), I talked about authors Laura Kinsale and Linda Barlow’s argument that we focus on the hero because it allows us to identify with our masculine side. Between the woman as reader and the hero in a romance, we are made whole. The other reason, of course, that we “love” heroes so much, and, in particular, why we may love the alpha hero, is that they are often literally brought to their knees by the power of love.
But I digress. . . Back to the subject of the alpha hero. Julie isn’t crazy about alpha heroes. She doesn’t like reading romances where the hero is strong but not virtuous. “He doesn’t have to be a goody-two-shoes, or even moral by any conventional definition,” she wrote, “but he has to be able to get beyond believing that anything he wants is right by definition. In a way, alpha jerks seem like the male version of the TSTL heroine. They both get stuck at the preschool level in some vital area – they do things any first grader knows are completely unacceptable, they don’t learn from experience, and they can’t connect cause and effect. I really don’t like wasting my time with either one. Another problem is that if I have to wade through hundreds of pages of abuse described in detail, I want equally lavish detail to prove that he really has changed his ways. An ‘I love you ‘ and a syrupy epilogue just won’t do. I suppose if you look at it allegorically, an ultra-alpha jerk can be satisfying. If the story is a power struggle between Male & Female, then it’s a much greater coup for women if the hero stays a Neanderthal, but devotes his brutality & power to the service of his woman. The heroine conquers, rather than the hero changing. On that level, it works, but I’d still rather read about a less symbolic couple.”
Julie is, of course, writing about what author Adele Ashworth commented on in the last issue of LN&V. How far are we willing to go, how long will we wait when reading a romance, to see that the hero has repented and is worthy of his heroine’s love? Lainy found that, “Rogan Perrigrine in Jude Deveraux’s The Taming crossed the line. In the end he loved her, but in the sequel, The Conquest, he still did not treat her as any woman should be treated. The worst thing a male can do to the heroine…There are so many that they do, however, raping her has to be the worst. Taking her in a moment of fury, and having her forgive him is pretty pathetic.”
Carol pointed to two alpha heroes she’s read – one she loved, the other crossed over into alpha-heel territory. Her favorite alpha was Stephen de Warenne in Brenda Joyce’s medieval Promise of the Rose. She wrote, “Although he is a very dominant character, it is very believable that he had to be in the time that he lived. He is the generation after William the Conqueror and the heroine is his biggest enemy’s daughter. Their disputes with one another all are over which side of the conflict each is on. There is no rape that occurs but the alpha hero takes a very dominant sexual role right from the start. Stephen also has to struggle against the fact that his king, William Rufus (who was gay) has had the hots for him since childhood. This is despite Stephen’s being his ablest warrior. As a warrior, Stephen is very macho and being someone’s gay interest is not the type of thing to sit well with him. My idea of an Alpha Heel is Clayton in Whitney, My Love, by Judith McNaught. I don’t like the heroine much better though. He certainly has no excuse, other than being a duke, for his behavior. They are not enemies in a brutal war together by any means! He just decides he’s going to force her to marry him and that’s that. She opposes him. That is basically the thrust of the whole book from one self indulgent display on either’s part to the other’s self indulgent display!”
Christina wishes for the day when she’ll read a romance with an abusive hero who is told by his heroine, “that’s enough, I’m not going to take it anymore.” In my fantasy, the heroine leaves for greener pastures, only to be followed by “the previously abusive alpha realizing his errors and crawling to her to make amends. I’m tired of the heroine always taking the licks (physical and emotional) and forgiving her man anything.”
While there seems to be agreement on the abusive alpha hero, we do not seem to agree on our definition of the alpha hero. Beverly Medos (who wrote Beverly’s Book Basket for AAR from of mid-1998 through late 1999), disagrees with my viewpoint and agrees with Angela’s. She wrote, “At first I tried to justify my feelings about the discrepancy by calling the nice, non-jerk ones like what JAK or Garwood writes ‘cuddly’ alphas. But, then I realized that by Laurie’s definition of alphas, they couldn’t exist. Or they are considered gammas, which makes absolutely no sense to me. To call Alec Kincaid in The Bride a gamma is so funny to me, it’s laughable. I mean, really. He’s adorable, slightly dense at times and all that, but part alpha/part beta? Huh? Nope, it does not compute. I see absolutely nothing beta about Alec and many others I’d call nice guys from the start. Finally, it sunk in that we just don’t agree on what an alpha really is. What I can’t figure out is where the idea that alpha equals abusive jerk came from. I’ve been giving it a lot of thought and I think I’ve finally figured out what it is that’s so wrong about that concept to me – possibly all lead characters (hero and/or heroine) in romances are alphas in some form or another. They have to be in order to begin their own ‘pack’ or family. Personally, I think we need a new set of distinctions if we really want to label our romance characters in some way because the term alpha is getting pretty murky.”
I agree – the terms are getting murky. Maybe the definition of alpha itself has changed since JAK put together DMAW in the early 1990’s. Maybe not. Let’s try to figure it out together. But remember – our definitions do not have to “match” the dictionary definitions that were created for scientific purposes. Angela posted a second time to the message board, with this definition of the alpha male after a search of the Internet Public Library:
1. The head or leader of any body of men such as a tribe, clan, or family.
2. A commanding male. A dominant male.
Angela added, “Nowhere in this definition does it say an abusive male. A dominant Commanding male can be abusive, but can also be a protector rather than tormenter.”
Finally, to further muddy up the waters, I want to leave you with a posting made by author Jo Beverley about the alpha hero who is brought to his knees by the power of love:
“Why? Why this urge to bring a man to his knees? Now, if people said, ‘when a good woman shows him she’s his equal in all the ways that count,’ I’d be with you. Or even, ‘when a good woman knocks some sense into his head.’ Or even, ‘when a good woman takes him in hand and looks after him.’ (Those true alphas, like true geniuses, are usually clueless about real life.)”I mean, if you want an alpha, enjoy his alphaness, either as the woman he comes home to when he’s wounded, or when he needs the gentler side of life; or as his fellow alpha who loves to be out there kicking butt. Why turn him into a gamma? Or even be both, women being much better at multi-tasking! He’s a grown man. If he’d wanted to be gamma, he’d have become it on his own. He’s an alpha, a leader, a fighter. And he loves it. He won’t thank the woman who seduces him away from it, or blunts his edge.
“You don’t take Genghis Khan, Wellington, or a top race car driver and start trying to make them into a more tender, caring man. They are what they are, and that’s what makes them interesting, though not necessarily great mates.
“Same thing with rakes. When I wrote Emily & the Dark Angel, I was so tired of all these rakes who’d been collared and brought to the hearthside by ‘good women that I stated that Verderan was taking Emily away for a life of monogamous raking. They were going to have fun, naughty or nice.
“Another alpha quality is to be front and center, life on the line. Not hiding. Honor demands that there be no half measures. No rationalizing a safer way. An alpha has to accept his or her responsibilities as leader, or major player, or prime defender. Has to accept the consequences without blinking. Blink and you lose.
“What books have alphas who are brought to their knees? What books have alphas who stay absolutely alpha at the end? Books with alpha men matched with alpha women? And what do readers like about alphas, and what do they want them to be at the end of the book?”
After reading Jo’s comments, I feel more comfortable in believing that gamma heroes do exist. I also feel comfortable in believing that Alec Kincaid from The Bride does not fit JAK’s definition, or Jo’s, for that matter, of an alpha hero. But I’m up for a good debate! Let’s see if we can come up with some definitions.
The Message Board:
It’s time to post to the message board again. In addition to the new questions posed in this column, I’m going to keep last issue’s nine survey questions going for another two weeks. For those who didn’t respond, I’ll repeat them after providing the new questions to consider:
What draws you to western or Scots heroes, or, more broadly, the western or Scots romance?
The Get Over Yourself! hero – Which ones succeed; which do not? Which type of get over yourself! stories have you read – ie, the hero who can’t get over a previous betrayal, the hero who can’t get over his background, etc?
More on Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know: What are your definitions of the alpha, beta, and gamma hero? Surely there is a range of behavior in each archetype, but there should be a point of demarcation as well. Is JAK’s original definition out-dated? Do you believe in the gamma archetype at all? What do you think about Jo’s comments? Finally, it’s okay to give characters as examples, but let’s try to devise actual definitions.
Here are those nine survey questions repeated from the last column:
What do you do/read to get out of a romance reading slump?
Conversely, what do you read after you’ve read a fabulous romance by which everything else pales in comparison?
Do you judge books against the marketplace or against the author’s other books, or a combination?