Saturday, September 12, 2015

Every Hand Against Him: The Underdog Alpha

Heroes are a continuing source of fascination for anyone who reads or writes romance. For some, only an alpha—powerful, passionate, possessive—will do. Others prefer betas: kind, caring, considerate, who tend to be more a source of comfort than a source of conflict for their heroines.

Personally, I can see the appeal of both.  I like a hero who is strong, capable, and knows how to take charge. But I also like a hero who can be gentle, thoughtful, and doesn’t have to prove he’s got the biggest one in the room all the time. Who doesn’t have to dominate or, worse, conquer the woman he loves. Plus, exposure to some of the old-fashioned bodice rippers of the ‘70s and ‘80s makes me extra-picky when it comes to alpha heroes: too many of those guys would have sent me screaming in the opposite direction if I were the heroine.

Just as I have no use for bullying alphas, I have an equally low tolerance for smug alphas. The ones who sit on top of the food chain, complacent and entitled, confident that everything their hearts desire will drop into their laps like ripe fruit, and unthreatened by anything or anyone because they’re rich, powerful, influential, well-connected, and, of course, hot. That sort of hero leaves me cold.

Consequently, the surest way to get me to root for or even like an alpha, however arrogant . . . is to take all those advantages away from him. Stack the deck against him. Give him obstacles—lots of them. Give him an Achilles heel—or two dozen. Put him in a fight for his life and don’t telegraph his victory as a foregone conclusion.  Make things hard for him, and once he rises to the challenge, make them even harder. Let him have to work, really work, to get what he wants, in life and in love. Turn the top dog into an underdog.

Here are five alpha heroes I’ve taken to my heart over the years. Strong, resourceful, sometimes arrogant men whom I don’t automatically want to punch…because the whole world is lining up to do it first.

1. Tyrion Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire; George R.R. Martin): Nothing like being born with physical challenges—like dwarfism—to test an alpha’s mettle. Not to mention being born into a family of tall, beautiful, ruthless blondes, several of whom want you dead. The rest are content merely to exploit your loyalty, your political acumen, your brilliant strategic mind, and your longing for affection, approval, and acceptance. But somehow, against seemingly insurmountable odds, you manage to wriggle out of the various traps set for you and emerge, battered but prepared to fight—and scheme—again. You’re the alpha as trickster, with survival skills men twice your size can only envy as more and more of them become casualties in the game of thrones.

2. Francis Crawford (The Lymond Chronicles; Dorothy Dunnett): The world should be your oyster if you’re a true Renaissance man—a polymath, a skilled tactician and soldier, a natural leader of men, and a highly desirable lover to women. Too bad your country thinks you’re a traitor, there’s a price on your head, and countless angry men are hunting you all over Scotland, hoping to bring you in and watch you hang. One of them is your own brother. And even if you succeed in proving your innocence, your life won’t be a cakewalk, because your own restless nature and the ambitions of others will continually draw you into webs of intrigue and eternal powerful struggles between warring nations. And let’s not forget the half-buried family secrets that cloud your past, complicate your present, and obscure your future, not to mention your love life. Lucky you.

3. Ross Poldark (The Poldark Saga, Winston Graham): Coming home wounded and scarred from the American Revolution is hard enough without also having to contend with a dead father, a crumbling home, a struggling mine, rapacious businessmen seeking to enrich themselves at your expense, and a faithless sweetheart who’s chosen to marry your more materially prosperous cousin instead. It’s a good thing you’re as tough as old boots with a natural habit of command and more than one trick up your sleeve, because you have to be. It’s an even better thing—though it takes you a bit too long to realize that—that you end up with a woman as strong as you are, who understands and accepts your rebellious spirit and your need to kick against society’s restraints.

4. Richard Sharpe (Sharpe, Bernard Cornwell): You’re brave, tough, a consummate soldier, and the one-time savior of the Duke of Wellington, who subsequently promoted you from the ranks…proving that no good deed goes unpunished.  Your men distrust you, your fellow officers scorn you, and you confront unrelenting class prejudice and staggering military incompetence on a daily basis. But through it all, you fight on, clawing your way up the ladder, earning respect and accolades the hard way—because that’s the only way you know how.

5. Miles Vorkosigan (The Vorkosigan Saga, Lois McMaster Bujold): Like Tyrion, you must cope with the physical challenges of dwarfism—but with a vicious difference. While his condition is genetic, yours was forced upon you in utero, by a toxic gas grenade lobbed at your father and your pregnant mother. Barrayar, your “backwater dirtball” of a home world, would have aborted you as a mutation or otherwise disposed of you once the extent of your birth defects, which include brittle, easily broken bones, became known, if it weren’t for your parents’ determination to give you every chance at a life. Every day is a fight to prove your right to survive, as you push your mind and your will beyond the limits of your fragile body, changing entire worlds—including your own—in the process. You give people a light to follow, even when it means becoming a moving target yourself.

So, who are your favorite alpha heroes and what makes them special to you?

Pamela Sherwood


  1. I love Miles and his way of coping with all of the adversity that has plagued his life from the onset, and I was fascinated by Poldark series when I read it so long ago. I really enjoyed Fitz in Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy as well!

  2. E.L.F., Miles is definitely one of a kind, and alpha in a way that doesn't make me want to knock his teeth out! I haven't read the Farseer trilogy but I've heard good things about it.