Write Byte

What's it All About, Alpha?
Or
The Up Side of Dark Heroes


Our last topic was Alice Duncan's The Down Side of Dark Heroes. In the midst of readying that topic for this page, our own Laurie Likes Books was in discussion with author Suzanne Brockmann about heroes, including the proposed new archetype by author Deb Stover of the gamma hero.

Here's a bit of how that discussion went:

Suzanne Brockmann: I've been thinking about this over the past few days, going hmmmm. . .. And then late this afternoon my entire family went out to see The Empire Strikes Back. (I was one of those 16 year olds who saw Star Wars two dozen times when it first came out, but I didn't see The Empire Strikes Back more than once or twice.) I didn't remember much of it, but I remembered every single scene with Han and Leia (the romance) as if it had been seared into my brain. And I was sitting there (there is a point to this story, and it is coming soon!) and I was watching this movie and realizing how totally my life and my idea of strong heroines (Yes, Leia was one of my role models) was impacted by this movie.

And I realized that every Alpha hero that I've ever written has a little piece of Han Solo in him. (Some have bigger pieces than others!) Why do I love Alpha heroes? Two words: Han Solo.

So, yeah. Count me in. I'd love to write about my lifelong love affair with Alpha heroes.

LLB: I don't know if you read my most recent column, but in it I talked about a hero archetype proposed by Deb Stover - the gamma male. For some reason Hans Solo seems more gamma than alpha to me, although I haven't seen the movies since I was a teenager. With a name like Solo, however, you are probably right!

Suzanne Brockmann: I'm not sure I buy this whole Gamma thing. It seems to me that gamma is just a re-labeling of the alpha male -- simply to ease the souls of the people who are so certain they dislike alpha males!!! The lines between alpha and beta are not black and white. (But grey does not gamma make. . .) (IMO)

IMO, a true leader (ie true Alpha) can fight the battle, nurse the wounded, cook dinner for the troops and wash up afterwards. He can negotiate peace treaties as well as go to war. (Sounds kind of like that Highlander character you're so fond of. I haven't seen that show yet -- I'll make a point to check it out.)

(Actually, what it really sounds like is a working mother!!! My God, the true alpha male is really a working mother!!!! Okay, I'll admit it. I'm babbling now. . .)

Alpha, Beta, Gamma, anybody for Delta? In any case, here is Suzanne Brockmann's ode to the alpha hero.

When Laurie emailed me and asked me to write what I love about alpha males, I didn't get back to her right away.

I thought about it for a few days, wondering what I could say. Alpha males are. . . alpha males: strong, tough, stubborn and complicated in ways that mystify the more logical female brain. And yes, it is more logical to cry when you are sad, to grieve when you suffer loss -- to express deep emotions that you feel rather than to lock them up where they can grind your insides into shreds.

So what is it exactly that I love so much about alpha males? How could I take that indescribable feeling I get when I fall in love with a perfect alpha male character and put it into words?

I kept thinking.

When I create my characters, I don't think in terms of labels. I don't say, okay, I'm going to sit down now and create an alpha male or a beta male. Instead of male or female, alpha or beta, I create a human being.

I'm a strong believer in the theory that environment and upbringing play an important part in establishing a person's personality. It's true, there are quite a few personality traits we as individuals are born with, but if a boy is born with a sensitive, beta-type personality but is raised in an abusive, be-tough-or-get-crushed type environment, chances are, he's going to grow up to be more of an alpha male. He's going to learn to fight, and he going to learn to hide his feelings -- perhaps he's even going to learn not to feel.

Take my Navy SEALs, for instance. I've written three books so far in my Silhouette Intimate Moments Tall, Dark & Dangerous mini-series, and all three of those alpha male heroes (Joe Catalanotto from Prince Joe, Blue McCoy from Forever Blue, and Alan "Frisco" Francisco from Frisco's Kid) had a less than desirable childhood. Joe grew up on the "wrong side of the tracks" in a tough New Jersey urban area. Blue's mother died when he was small, leaving him to live with a stepfather who gave him food and shelter but no love. And Frisco had an abusive, alcoholic father. They all had to fight harder than most to win.

On the other hand, in my next three books in the Tall, Dark & Dangerous series, I intend to tell Harvard's story. Harvard, also known as Chief Daryl Becker, is the huge, Jane Austen-loving, diamond-studded-earring-wearing, African American member of SEAL Team Ten's Alpha Squad. (Hmm. Wonder why I called them Alpha Squad...?)

Harvard is, of course, an alpha male. (That's no surprise.) But he was raised in a loving, upper-middle-class environment, rather than one in which he had to fight to survive. He did extremely well in school, excelled in athletics, even attended Harvard -- hence his nickname. The personality he was born with is pure alpha male. Yet his upbringing was all beta, and that enables him to draw himself up to his considerable height, look another man in the eye and announce that Sense & Sensibility is one of his favorite of Jane Austen's books. (Boy, am I going to have fun writing about him...)

Each of these men were shaped by those beliefs they learned as a child, but like all living humans, they continue to be shaped and reshaped by the things they learn as adults.

You see, here's what I know about people: we all have beliefs and values that control how we live our lives. A so-called alpha male may value freedom and adventure over security and safety. In fact, an alpha male may see security as something to stay away from. To him, security might mean being tied down. It might mean confinement or loss of independence, which could be pretty scary to someone who's learned to depend only on himself.

In the same way, an alpha male might see openness and emotional sharing as other values to avoid. An alpha male has probably learned through experience to believe that being emotional -- to reveal his emotions -- is often viewed as being weak. Likewise, no doubt he has learned to believe that if he reveals his weaknesses, he leaves himself open to attack. Either physically, emotionally, financially, whatever -- if he allows his weaknesses to show, he's setting himself up to be hurt.

An alpha male isn't insensitive. He's simply thickened his skin until no one can penetrate it. (Or so he thinks. . .) In fact, my alpha heroes are extremely sensitive -- deep down inside.

So okay. It's that old Mr. Spock thing again, isn't it? (It's been my experience that everything in life always comes back to Star Trek -- one way or another. And, no, I'm not trying to claim that Spock is an alpha male. He is merely a brilliantly conceived and intriguingly created character.)

Here's my point: according to my sources, Vulcans aren't without emotion. They have simply trained themselves to be emotionless. (Sound familiar?) And since Spock is half human, since he's got that extra-emotional human side to battle, he's more vulnerable than your average Vulcan. So we watch him closely, waiting for that moment his emotions are going to break free -- eager to witness the emotional volcano.

Spock was/is hugely popular -- especially among female fans. It's that Nurse Chapel thing -- we love to imagine what it would be like to be the one to make Spock react with true, powerful, volcano-strength emotion.

And there's no denying it, when Spock goes over the edge, he goes big.

And such is the case with alpha males.

Anyway, I kept thinking. Alpha males. Alpha males. What is it about alpha males. . . ? How can I explain what I love about them concisely and clearly?

Then last night I went to see The Empire Strikes Back. Although the Star Wars trilogy had a huge impact on my young, impressionable self when it first came out, I hadn't seen the second installment in the series in years. As I watched the movie, I nearly jumped out of my seat right there in the theater during the extremely intense and romantic scene between Han Solo and Leia -- when Darth Vader is about to test Lando's carbon freezing unit on Han.

You know the scene I mean. (And if you haven't seen this movie, what the heck are you waiting for? It's an American classic!) Proud, stubborn Princess Leia is in a near panic (all held beautifully inside, since she is part alpha herself) at the thought that within moments scoundrel, intergalatic smuggler, rebel hero and her dear friend, Han Solo, could die.

At this point in the movie -- and in their growing relationship -- Han and Leia have shared a powerful kiss or two along with a slew of hot, barbed words and equally hot looks. But neither have dared put this thing they feel about each other into words.

As Han is pushed toward his fate, he lunges for Leia, and she for him, and they kiss passionately before they are torn apart -- perhaps forever.

Leia, as strong as she is, is still a woman and she can't not speak. "I love you," she tells him.

Han stands there perhaps about to die, a hard, strong alpha male to the end with his head held high, and says, "I know."

I love you. I know.

Why does this work so well?! How can this Alpha male say something so cocky, so seemingly insensitive, and yet still bring tears to our eyes, even as we laugh and shake our heads at him?

Here's the secret: it's in his eyes. It's in that long, silent, emotion-filled look Han gives Leia. God bless Harrison Ford for portraying Han Solo in such a way, but somehow as he utters that line, "I know," he says so much more with his eyes. His eyes say "I love you, too. I love you forever. I love you passionately, endlessly, always. Until the end of time." In fact, his love is so strong that we know it will live beyond him. Even his own death won't snuff out his love for this woman.

And that's what I love about alpha males. When they love, they love completely. Eternally. Endlessly.

They may not be able -- or even want -- to speak such feelings aloud. But when it happens, when they give in to their feelings and allow themselves to love, it's very, very Big.

I love you.

I know.

What more can I say?

Suzanne Brockmann

Suzanne Brockmann at AAR