Paranormal Romance and the Alpha Male

At All About Romance, Lynn Spencer wonders whether heroes in paranormal romance are given a pass for controlling, stalkerish and sometimes outright violent behaviour towards their heroines that readers would not tolerate in historical or contemporary romances.

Now I have an extremely low tolerance for controlling behaviour and arsehole alpha heroes, let alone rape and physical violence. I can’t stand that sort of character at all, which is also why I kept away from the romance genre for years after a few bad experiences with vintage bodice ripper type romance in my teens.

Nonetheless, I must confess that whenever I hear or read someone complaining about all of those controlling alpha males and fated mates in paranormal romances, I always wonder what sort of books they are reading. Because due to the PhD I’ve read a lot of paranormal romances and urban fantasy. And while I’ve certainly come across my share of controlling and possessive ultra-alpha heroes, it’s still a far cry from “Most paranormal romance heroes are like that”. Because if they were, I’d probably have thrown in the towel and picked a different topic.

Now unlike most people who complain about all of those ultra alpha heroes in paranormal romances, Lynn Spencer actually gives some examples. In fact, she gives three namely A Hunger Like No Other by Kresley Cole, The Smoke Thief by Shana Abé and Twilight by Stephenie Meyer.

Now Edward’s problematic behaviour towards Bella has been discussed ad nauseam. And I agree that Edward’s behaviour is definitely stalkerish and that he tries to control Bella. I would not classify him as an alpha arsehole, however, simply because Edward is absolutely not the type for that. If anything, he’s a besotted schoolboy who follows the object of his affection everywhere. Besides – and that’s the bit about the Twilight series that many of its critics miss – Bella is not so easily controlled. Indeed, throughout the entire Twilight series there is one repeated pattern. Edward/Jacob/the Cullens/Charlie try to protect Bella and keep her from doing something (dating Edward, rescuing her mother, going to Italy, marrying Edward, getting turned, having the baby, etc…), for her own good of course. And Bella goes out and does it anyway, though she usually gets herself in danger in the process and needs to be rescued. In short, the entire Twilight saga is about Bella wanting something, other people telling her that she can’t have it and Bella going out and getting what she wants anyway.

As for The Smoke Thief, I read that book years ago and did not particularly care for it, which is evidenced by the fact that I never read another book by Shana Abé. I recall that the coercive and controlling behaviour by the hero bothered me, but that I put it down to the fact that The Smoke Thief is a paranormal romance in a historical (18th century) setting. And in historical settings, there is at least some justification for controlling and domineering behaviour, even though one must not forget that many of the actual romantic literary heroes of the period were anything but controlling alpha males. Whiny Werther or Osbert from Ann Radcliffe’s The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne who goes bravely to his execution only to promptly faint upon seeing the executioner sharpening his axe (a scene so unintentionally funny that it prompted a laughing fit in the middle of the London tube) are a far cry from the alpha males of today’s historical romance. Still, while The Smoke Thief did not work for me, I put my issues with the hero down to the tropes of historical rather than paranormal romance. Besides, as far as I recall, there is a mitigating factor to the hero’s behaviour, namely that he is trying to protect the heroine from execution.

Kresley Cole is an interesting case. While I read two of the earlier books in her Immortals After Dark series, I haven’t read A Hunger Like No Other, the book Lynn Spencer mentions (which I didn’t know until I checked my database, because I can never keep Kresley Cole’s titles straight). However, the common complaints about fated mates and violent heroes certainly do apply to her series. And initially Kresley Cole was one of those authors whose popularity made me curse, because reviews made it clear that her books contained the sort of possessive alpha hero that I hate. Yet she was popular enough that I couldn’t possibly omit her. I’d have to read at least one of her books. So I checked summaries, bought the book that seemed least problematic to me and ended up liking it more than I thought I would.

My most recent experience with Kresley Cole’s works was reading an excerpt from Lothaire (the link goes to a PDF file), the latest installment in the Immortals After Dark series, in order to supply a student of mine who is obsessed with the series with spoilers.

Talking of spoilers, there will be some behind the cut:

Now the titular character, Lothaire, goes quite a bit beyond domineering alpha male and bad boy. He is basically a villain, the biggest, baddest, nastiest vampire out there. Forget Edward Cullen, this guy is the real deal.

Though the excerpt starts not with the titular hero, but with Saroya, a self-styled death goddess, who is as pleasant a character as Lothaire himself. At the beginning of the novel, Saroya is in the process of slaughtering five priests who were trying to exorcise her from the body she is currently inhabiting, that of Ellie, a 19-year-old trailer park inhabitant from Appalachia. The priest are not her only victims either, indeed Saroya has killed an unknown number of people, all while residing in the body of Ellie. But Ellie’s will is not so easily suppressed and so she resurfaces just as the police arrives to arrest her.

All this is the prologue, though it’s not labeled as such, because there is some weird American prejudice against prologues. The next chapter picks up five years later with Ellie about to be executed for the crimes Saroya committed using her body. Ellie is partly looking forward to her own execution, because she figures that her death will also mean death for Saroya. Ellie is literally strapped to a gurney with a needle in her arm, when Lothaire finally shows up (after a brief appearance when Ellie was about to be arrested). For Lothaire is convinced in the way that only paranormal beings can be that Saroya is his one and only fated bride and he is not about to let the body she’s currently occupying get executed for what he considers “a trivial number of murders”. So he slaughters a few prison wardens and witnesses, rescues Ellie and teleports out of the prison. Ellie, however, is not too happy about being rescued, particularly not by Saroya’s fated mate, and so she promptly starts throwing things at Lothaire.

At that point, the excerpt ended and I was left with two reactions. My first reaction was, “Wait a minute, there’s approximately ten people killed in the first three chapters, including priests and prison wardens, the heroine and the hero are the ones doing the killing and besides, the heroine is about to be executed for a crime she actually did commit. And this was marketed as a romance novel?!” My second reaction was heading over to Amazon to buy the book only to realize that it was only available in hardcover.

As I mentioned above, I hate domineering alpha heroes. And yet here I was, willing to buy a paranormal romance whose hero was so ultra-alpha that he not just crossed over but pretty much immigrated into villain territory. The big question was why?

First of all, the excerpt was well written and quickly grabbed me. Secondly, there was no pretense here that some creepy, stalkerish guy who controlled every aspect of some poor woman’s life and freaked out when she as much as talked with another man was a hero. Lothaire is a villain and knows it. So is Saroya. And so the main theme here is “Monsters need love, too”. Which is pretty much the overarcing theme of Kresley Cole’s series.

Finally, there’s Ellie, an underprivileged girl from a trailer park in Appalachia. Who not just proves herself to be exceptionally brave by allowing herself to be executed in order to stop Saroya from murdering half the population of Virginia, but who also gives as good as she gets. I mean, she has just been rescued within seconds of being executed and what does she do? She starts throwing things at her rescuer, even though he is the biggest, baddest vampire ever and has just promised to punish her (how he can do worse than lethal injection remains to be seen). It’s pretty obvious that we don’t need to worry about Ellie, because she can take care of herself. And in the process she’ll cut the biggest, baddest vampire ever down to size.

Indeed, this is what sets apart domineering and violent heroes in paranormal romance and urban fantasy from domineering and violent in other romance subgenres. Because while I would be incensed to see some Greek billionaire tycoon blackmail his young secretary into marrying him or would be equally incensed to see the dark Scottish lord kidnap and imprison the daughter of his mortal enemy, a demon locking horns with a vampire or two werewolves having a bout of rough sex does not bother me nearly so much. First of all, werewolves, vampires, demons, etc… cannot really be expected to behave like humans. It’s the Klingon sex dilemma. A violent sex scene among humans is offputting to me, but I wouldn’t mind that same sex scene between Klingons, because that’s what Klingons are like.

Besides, it’s not so much the alpha heroes that bother me – though some things like rape and physical violence committed towards those who cannot defend themselves are dealbreakers – but the unequal power balance between hero and heroine. And paranormal romance, even of the fated mate and ultra-alpha hero variety, usually has more equal gender relations.

Besides, when I look at the books I’ve read for my PhD I find a couple that did bother me, either because the hero was an out and out rapist (a Harlequin Nocturne by Beverly Barton) or because the power relations were very uneven with an extremely domineering and even mind-controlling hero and a wet blanket heroine.

Another thing that I noticed is that those series where gender relations were extremely uneven, where fated mate tropes and extreme alpha heroes were common were inevitably those series where I read a single book or two as an example of the series, but did not read the rest. Meanwhile, the series that had me running to my PC to order the remaining books were all more even in their gender relations and often featured strong female characters.

So is the violent alpha hero a problem in paranormal romance? Yes, to some degree he is. Ditto for the fated mate trope. But there are also plenty of books out there without those problematic tropes.

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One Response to Paranormal Romance and the Alpha Male

  1. Pingback: Beyond the Greek Alphabet – Romance and Non-Stereotypical Gender Roles | Cora Buhlert

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