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Friday, April 15, 2011

Guest Blogger: Laurie Schnebly on Alpha Men

Alpha males sell books.
No matter what else they might be good at -- and we’ve all seen them be good at LOTS of things! -- they’re fabulous at selling books. But that doesn’t mean every reader, much less every writer, adores those classic alpha males. For one thing, we have a hard time defining exactly what an alpha male IS. I’m going to ask your opinion, down below, but first let’s look at what we love about these guys...and why we resent them. Alpha males take command, right? Which can be wonderfully attractive -- and which can also be downright annoying. What makes the difference? Or IS there any difference?

Cool vs Not-So
Picture a guy who’s standing at the scene of a disastrous five-car collision, telling everyone what to do. “You! Back up the van. You! Get that bike out of the way. You! Move your vehicle toward the curb.” He’s a laudable hero, managing to accomplish whatever needs taking care of and getting everyone around him to do what he says.

But now picture that same guy giving those same orders in a grocery store parking lot where nobody’s hurt; there are just a lot of cars milling around. Suddenly he’s a bossy jerk. Yet he hasn’t changed his behavior. It’s only our interpretation of his behavior that’s changed. Which is part of why it’s so tricky to write the kind of alpha hero who’s guaranteed to delight readers.

What else makes it tricky? Well, let’s see:

* There’s a fine line between a man who’s powerful enough to stand strong against whatever the world throws at him while never breaking down, and a man who’s incapable of expressing any emotion except anger.

* There’s a fine line between a man who’s all about protecting what’s his, including the woman he loves, and a man who views that woman as his possession.

* There’s a fine line between a man who’s so incredibly sexy that every woman in the room is dazzled by his sizzling presence, and a man who’s willing to share that smoldering sexuality with every woman in the room.

How much is too much alpha? How little is too little? (Okay, did everyone else’s mind just go to the same place mine did? Uh, never mind.) Back to the fine line -- women who love reading about alpha males don’t usually stop to think where that line should be drawn.

All they know is, they LIKE their romantic heroes strong, courageous, forceful, vigorous, confident. Suave or rugged is okay, millionaire or firefighter is okay, battered Harley or magnificent steed is okay, but aside from those little details there’s not a whole lot of room for compromise.

With alphas, there’s NEVER much room for compromise. And that’s exactly what makes them so easy to resent. How come they always get to call the shots? How come they can attract any woman they want just by crooking their little finger? How come they don’t have to deal with the things all the rest of us do? Oh, but wait! Once this alpha hero falls in love with the heroine, he’ll have to change his ways. Right?

Alphas Changed By Love
Er. Well... That’s tricky, too. Because if suddenly this rip-roaring testosterone-driven leader of the pack is murmuring, “Yes, dear, I’ll pick up the drycleaning and be home for dinner whenever you say” -- drat it, he’s no longer quite such a thrilling prize. He’s more of a regular guy...the kind most readers experience in everyday life. So where’s the romantic excitement in THAT? You see the dilemma?

Genuine alpha males can be as tough to write as they are to live with -- and yet they’re so attractive, we can’t just throw them out of our pages! How do we get around that? Here’s where your opinion comes in. Two questions, and I’d love to hear what other writers and readers think. (I’d also love to quote you in my “Alpha Males From Abe To Zeus” class next month, so please let me know if that’s NOT okay.)

First question: Do you know any alphas in real life -- and if so, what are they like?

Second question: Have you written any alpha heroes -- and if so, what was the biggest challenge you faced?

I’m eager to get your thoughts on this...and by the way, if you live with an alpha male in real life OR in fiction, you have both my admiration and my envy!

Laurie, betting everyone here would appreciate tips on How To Live With An Alpha from those who’ve figured out the techniques


  1. Laurie,

    What a great blog! Thanks for joining us today at Lady Scribes. I think the biggest challenge for me in writing either an alpha or beta male is finding that balance. It's easy to make the alpha too overbearing and a beta seem too "wimpy".

    I would love to take your class. If I can't take it this time, I hope you'll offer it in the future. I always enjoy your classes. :)

  2. Great post, Laurie, and what a thought-provoker. Here's one of the things that came to me: I think some alpha males -- maybe even most of them -- operate from a gut-level fear, and it's probably one they don't recognize. They certainly don't admit or claim whatever the fear is. Somewhere during their formative years, those guys decided the best way to deal with fear was to out-scare the things that scare them. "High alpha" behavior is a form of denial, IMO, reinforced by cultural cues.

    I've been around military men and real-life cowboys all my life, and it's hard to find a more overtly alpha bunch of alphas. (A room full of them is amusing to watch ... from a safe distance. ;-) ) Thankfully, most of the ones I've known have been capable of showing a softer side to the ones closest to them. (Otherwise there would be nobody close to them. What woman would go anywhere near all that testosterone-laced posturing if it's a 24/7 affair?) Classic alpha body language and emotional responses are their first fall-back position, though, when things go awry, even in small ways, because the bahvior always gets results. The results may not be positive, but they're results. In the alpha's experience, the results have been positive more often than not.

    In MY experience, alphas learn news ways to relate when their behavior produces more negative than positive results. That's true in both novels and real life. The process can make for a breathtaking character arc in a romance. There's something vindicating (from a female perspective), touching and often humorous in watching an alpha male come to terms with the notion he's the source of his own trouble -- and then try to fix whatever isn't working. :-)

  3. Samantha, you're so right about finding that balance! Because you're right that "overbearing" and "wimpy" aren't what readers want -- for what WE want, for that matter -- and yet it's tough to get the best of each side.

    And if you're interested in the class, just scroll down at
    to May 2011...it'll be for writers who REALLY want to nail alpha males!

    Laurie, who keeps stumbling across phrases I (kind of) regret having used

  4. Wow, there's a lot to be said for growing up with military men to get plenty of firsthand experience with alphas...what a great education that was, because all these observations sound VERY true!

    Laurie, especially liking how they'll change their behavior if the old way isn't working :)

  5. I lived with an alpha male from the day I was born until I moved out of my parents' house. lol.

    I wonder if an alpha's level of alpha-ness is determined by what he brings into the situation - whether it's being in control for control's sake or being in control to maintain order or protect others. It's the latter alpha that I like to meet. :-)

  6. Debora, that's a good question -- what DOES determine the level of alpha-ness? (Love that word.)

    And where so many characters go off track is mistaking "control to protect others" or "control to maintain order" for "control for control's sake." Then...watch out, world!

    Laurie, intrigued by what (if anything) makes them slip back and forth

  7. Great post, Laurie. I love writing alpha males. I really do not care for beta males, but I am not entirely certain why. I find them wimpy, which is awful, because men should have sensitive sides and be able to express themselves. What do I find trickiest about writing alpha males? Hmm...It's, as you said, very hard to bring out their emotions without changing what makes them an alpha too much. In my last book, I pictured my hero as a cake with layers. First layer, alpha, second layer revelation with change and a bit of emotion, and finally the third layer where he is still mostly alpha, the cake part, with a very fine layer of thin icing, emotions-the soft part, to finish him off and complete his hero's journey.

  8. Julie, the cake with layers is a GREAT image! (Although now you've really got me craving a triple-layer cake with tons of frosting...)

    And you're sure not alone in wondering why, when men SHOULD be able to show their sensitive / expressive sides, beta males can so often come across as wimpy.

    Which makes writing THEM every bit as tricky as writing the alphas -- although I'm betting, given the choice, anybody would rather write about a guy who resembles cake.

    Laurie, now just DYING for chocolate :)

  9. Hi Laurie,

    Excellent post. I've encountered alpha males who always need to be in control. I had one who needed to appear to be in control for appearance sake, but he was really a coward. His sensitive side was truly an act; he was even trying to control that. But it's not easy to see through their act.

    I'm not sure that alpha males can be changed by love. It really depends on how true they are to their alpha nature and whether he truly loves the heroine and how deep their love is. But it's fun to read alpha males when love does transform them. We can always hope for that in real life.


  10. Hi Laurie -

    Thanks for an excellent post. I think that my favorite alpha males in books (and real life) are the guys who are tough, but gentle with any vulnerable creature. The taciturn guy who gruffly shouts orders as he kneels to scoop up a crying child --- I think it's a matter of action, not language to demonstrate the best of an alpha male.

  11. Sheryl from BostonApril 15, 2011 at 11:36 AM

    Hi Laurie,
    I've worked and lived with alphas. I've seen alphas who could not adapt, and when life forces them to do so, they come across as sadly broken. I've seen the grizzly who turns into a teddy bear. I've seen the socially and verbally adept alpha who has no problem telling you how they feel while cutting down opponents and quietly taking control--those are the scariest and most breathtaking.

    On the other hand, I can tell you alphas need sturdy environments. Whether because they are impatient or don't remember their own strength. They strip faucets, crack china, unhinge doorknobs, break chairs--I could go on. Do not surround them with delicate things unless they are only to look at from at least four feet away.

    I wish I could take May's class. I always enjoy and learn so much from all of your classes.

  12. Hi Laurie,

    Love your post! I love that alpha's are so commanding and I think the very sexy ones are commanding in all the right places, er, situations. (now you have my mind going to places it shouldn't) I agree this is difficult to nail down as a writer though and I imagine the line would be different for each reader because don't we all have a slightly different take on most things in life? That being said, there are some clear lines, like the example of yelling in the grocery store parking lot you mentioned ... so not sexy.

    This is a fun discussion!

    Take care,

    Barb Han

  13. Darlene, that's a poignant and haunting thought -- the idea that perhaps alpha males can't truly be changed by love.

    And it's probably why so many readers love novels in which that DOES happen, because in real life the odds might not quite be so good!

    Laurie, suspecting it'd be tough to survey alpha males about ANY topic except maybe the best weapon for a particular purpose :)

  14. Liz, I like your idea of showing the alpha's best self through action rather than language -- because alphas just seem like innately active guys, don't they?

    And all the more appealing when they're helping someone vulnerable...maybe especially if they don't want it known that they're doing so.

    Laurie, getting all mushy myself at the very thought!

  15. Sheryl, I wish I could meet the alpha you're describing as socially and verbally adept -- what a treat that must be, watching such a guy in action!

    As compared to the guy (and, yes, my husband is definitely in this pack) who can't look at something fragile without it breaking. Sigh...

    Laurie, who finally started buying dishes I don't really CARE about

  16. Barb, what a great -- and, er stimulating -- definition of alphas who are sexy in all the right situations.

    Because, heck, even if he's struggling through a blizzard or a battle or a forest fire and the heroine is locked up in a tower someplace, we all have our vision of what COULD happen once they finally get together...

    Laurie, figuring that's why readers keep buying our books :)

  17. Just read your blog and it was great. I have been blessed to have lived with two alpha's in my life. I was married to the quintessential alpha for 34 years until his death 8 yrs. ago. Bruce was the hard driving business man, wouldn't even consider letting anyone else drive the bus. Not handsome in the classical way but his charisma could be sorted into the chick magnet bin non the less. I think If I could sum it all up, the drive to succeed is in the genes first and foremost. I believe there is a root vulnerability in the genuine alpha males (not just the bullies) that contributes to their drive to be in control. There is no way they would allow a chink in their armor to show except to the person(s) who has earned their trust. And that trust doesn't come easily. In hind site, he made me the best I could be but I did miss being just plain old me from time to time.

    I now live with another alpha male who I have known since I was 6. I will write a story about him one of these day. He is a retired, Viet Nam Marine Gunnery Sargent, old school biker and wears the handles attributed to the Alpha Male with ease. He is at home in the boardroom or on the back of his old shovel head Harley depending on his mood. The difference with him is he is secure enough in his own alpha that he can be the gentlest of lambs most of the time but do not threaten his pack or the gunny will be front and center.


  18. Bridget, congratulations on having won the trust of TWO alpha males...that's quite an achievement!

    And it lends the weight of experience to your observations about the drive to succeed, combined with the value of feeling secure enough to be gentle. Sounds like a winning combination. :)

    Laurie, suspecting you MIGHT have had something to do with that...

  19. I know some alpha males and I think the problem with knowing them and writing about them is that they suffer from FTN (like "Failure to Thrive" in babies only it's a "Failure to Negotiate" with people they don't consider Equals -- which takes in almost everybody except a select handful of people).

    Don't know whether they're born that way or whether they decide not to negotiate with Lesser Folk as they go through adolescence, but whether the alpha is a biker or a bank president, his own thoughts on every subject are formed before he'll admit others' thoughts entrance to his mind. It's like he says, "I trust ME." Period.

    I think my experiences with the alphas I know is why the males I write tend to be betas. You can reason with a beta. I can still get caught up in a story that has an alpha male hero, because the urge to conquer that casts-me-aside type is still there -- but I know that a desirable alpha male is an ILLUSION and that, in reality, I want someone to write about and live with that I can negotiate with, who will value me -- not as arm candy or a usable product -- but as a person.


  20. Becky, I like your "Failure To Negotiate" idea -- especially paired with the realization that hardly ANYONE counts as an alpha's equal!

    And what a great illustration of why betas are appealing...gotta love a guy who'll not only negotiate with a loved one, but also see her as a person. :)

    Laurie, wondering if imagining an alpha who'd do that is like imagining Santa Clause

  21. My son and his father are both alpha males, I think. They each have to get the last word with everyone else but they listen to each other.

    They don't always listen to me though. I knew when I married an alpha that might cause trouble. Except I didn't realize he would pass the genes along.

    Alphas are more attractive if you don't live with them. I know!

  22. Great Post Laurie!

    You do some of the best classes around.

    My brother (my 4th youngest sibling, who is now 40-years-old) is an alpha-male to-the-max. He makes me crazy with all his hard-nosed opinions and ways of doing things. But, the day I broke my ankle, he was there, and took my hand firmly in his. I've never felt more safe.

    My hubby, who I love more than any other in this world, is not an alpha male. Thank God! Which is probably why we're due to celebrate 25 years of marriage. :-)

    In romance... I've penned two alpha-males, matching each with heroines who knew how to roundly gut them, then piece them back together, agian. Bullfights to the end, they were. But never a stronger bond have I seen on my own page. Love seems to root best in freshly tilled soil.

    My favorite alpha-male romance is Mary Jo Putney's A Kiss of Fate.


  23. Naomi and Nina, talk about powerful testimony for the advantages and disadvantages of being with alpha males!

    Interesting about sons learning from fathers, and I wonder how many alphas grew up with an alpha dad vs becoming a leader on their own. (Hmm, potential study there.)

    And, boy, I like that image of relationships rooting in freshly tilled soil.

    Laurie, with "Happy Anniversary" wishes to anyone celebrating years with an alpha OR a beta man (or woman, for that matter)

  24. Thanks for the great post, Laurie! One of the things I love most about the alpha in my life is that he may be tough, but he'll always do what he thinks is fair and right, no matter what it costs him. He believes in hard work and in giving your best to everything you do. Plus, he always gives everyone the benefit of the doubt.

    I've never attempted to write an alpha and I'm not sure if I could EVER pull one off, but if I did I'd probably give him these qualities. :)

    Hmmm...now I'm thinking that writing an alpha one of these days might be a lot of fun! :)

    Gina B.

  25. Gina, if you DO wind up writing an alpha you can tell the one in your life how he inspired a romantic hero...what a lovely tribute!

    And you've gotta love a guy who believes in working hard, being fair AND giving everyone the benefit of the doubt.

    Laurie, glad that's NOT just a Santa Claus fantasy

  26. Every alpha I've written has a fatal flaw, but they don't see it that way. The heroine sees it before the hero does, and it almost drives them apart until he finally understands that he'll have to change in some way.

    She has to change, too, or it would not be fair.


  27. Rhonda, you're SO right about every alpha having a fatal flaw...same as every other character has a fatal flaw! And, yep, they rarely see it that way -- they see it as "who I am, what I do, how I feel," etc.

    Which is where we writers get into the fun part of making things so bad for 'em that they HAVE to change, even though they're usually resisting the heck out of it!

    Laurie, impressed at how even the most mild-mannered characters consistently refuse to change no matter how cooperative they might be in other respects

  28. Hi Laurie, great blog. It really made me think. I wonder if the best Alpha males are those who step up to the plate because they are there - like Bruce Willis said, "That's what makes you that guy." (Die Hard 4). They are the ones who are willing to do the hard work, make the decisions, sacrifice their desires for what they think is right. OK, sometimes they are like Captain Kirk and hit on anything in a skirt, but they still have the urge to lead when others won't or can't. On the other hand, if their motives are purely selfish, we may think the same characteristic makes them controling and a jerk. Imagine Kirk without his ship, Bruce without the bad guys - now they are just... well, obnoxious. In fact, look how obnoxious (though funny) Harrison Ford is in 7 day and 7 nights at the beginning of the film, but by the end - I was in love, while at the same time thinking, would I really go live in a beach shack with him? Maybe,,, Anyway, didn't someone once say that the antagonist really makes the hero? Perhaps that is what makes the hero look so good and appealing for the small season of the story.

    Kirksa Lee

  29. Kirksa, that's a cool idea -- that alphas are those who step up as needed. Situational alphas, as it were.

    Although if they can't ever accept the notion that leadership isn't NEEDED in a particular case, there might be some conflict...which, hmm, is probably a good thing. :)

    Laurie, chortling over Captain Kirk hitting "on anything in a skirt" because that's so vivid and so true!

  30. Laurie,
    I love with many alpha-heros. Done right, they can melt the heroine's bones while showing her she's the only one for him. And who doesn't want a guy like that???

  31. Donna, what a great phrasae -- "loving with many alpha-heroes" is a perfect combination of everyday life and wholehearted love!

    Although here's hoping only ONE of them is your mate, and the others are characters and/or family...because otherwise it's hard to imagine what might happen. :)

    Laurie, all in favor of a hero who can melt the heroine's bones while showing her she's the only one for him!

  32. Great post with great comments! What helpful stuff!! I can only peg one true alpha I've known (friend, not relationship) in real life. It was during college, and he was going into the military special forces. While he was often annoying and arrogant, there was no one I'd want around more if there was a problem. I'm writing one right now, and its tough--I know I'm veering off when my heroine starts wondering if she should be thinking he's a stalker, not a boyfriend. *sigh* Fine lines, and all that.

  33. Robin, your heroine wondering if this guys is more of a stalker than a boyfriend is a wonderful red flag -- hard to imagine a better warning that he MIGHT be going a little too far in one direction.

    Although it's probably a safe bet that if she winds up in any kind of trouble, he'll be her first pick for getting help!

    Laurie, liking your description of "annoying and arrogant" and the one you'd want first "if there was a problem"

  34. Laurie -

    Loved the blog and so true in every respect!

    As for knowing any Alpha Males in real life - I was married to one for 13 years. Notice the 'was' in that statement. In moments of crisis, I always knew he'd take care of the situation, but the rest of the time he could be more than a little demoralizing to be around. He was always right. No one else was ever as smart or capable as he was. I so saw him in your first example in the grocery store parking lot.

    At the time I thought I knew how to deal with him, but looking back - my coping mechanism was to lose a little part of my soul every day. The day he left, I was able to breathe again - and I hadn't realized I hadn't been breathing for 13 years. I'd just gotten so used to him.

    I wrote my first set of Alpha Males heroes while I was married to him. I think that was a little therapeutic, honestly. I was able to create those tough, strong, capable men we all seem to love; but I was also able to get into their minds through their POV and see what they were thinking and feeling. So I think that's the key. If, as readers, we understand why someone is doing something it makes it easier for us to forgive their flaws. That 'why' makes all the difference, and in real life you can't ever get that.

  35. Ava, you sure can't beat real-life experience for raising the question of why somebody does/is what they do/are...and you found the perfect way of answering that!

    Which, come to think of it, might be one of the very best things about being a writer. What better way to make things turn out happily, every time?

    Laurie, glad you got your soul back

  36. I love thinking about alpha males. I was raised by one, married one and gave birth to two. My relationship with my husband works because I am diametrically opposed to him. I am arty-f artsy, and he is Mr. Business and man stuff. I am in no competition to him at all. I tease him that he is wimpy, only because is is completely whimper. We are truly a case of opposites attracting. He went out to slay dragons every day int he business world, knowing when to be quiet and when to fight. So I'd say he is not the bull in the china shop type of alpha.

    My kids. Oye. They do not compromise. They don't have the finesse of their father. Their first language is fists. They have yet to become completely civilized. Their hearts are in the right place and will defend the weak. They love kittens and little animals. Believe me when I say that furniture has flown, windows have been broken, and holes have appeared in walls. I guess they are puppy alphas.

  37. Celeste, I love your image of "puppy alphas" -- that's darling! And so much easier to live with than the idea of clumsy-thoughtless-whatever; it's not like they can help things breaking. :)

    Sounds like another few years of growing up with a dad who knows when to be quiet and when to fight will add a bit more finesse and civilization to your little alphas...at least we can hope!

    Laurie, wondering how long it TAKES to civilize an alpha anyway

  38. Hi,

    Is it too late to sign up for the class? I'd love to take it.

    I work in with almost all men. Watching alpha males from a cultural perspective is very interesting. Men from India act differently than men from China, but they are so alpha. I guess Alpha's are definitely a product of their environment.


  39. Amy, I don't imagine it's too late -- just go over to (all spaces closed up) Writers Online Classes dot com and choose the button for this class.

    We just started yesterday, so you won't have any trouble catching up!

    Laurie, betting you'll recognize quite a few of the quotes in there which came from this blog :)