The alpha male is currently very much in the ascendant in romantic fiction—all you need to do is look at the proliferation of finely honed abs on Amazon’s Contemporary Romance Best Seller list for proof. From E. L. James’ Christian Grey to J. R. Ward’s Blind King and Jodi Ellen Malpas’ Jesse Ward, the modern romance world is rife with dominant heroes initiating heroines into their complicated lives. Welcome to my world.
And I get it, as a reader. Romance novels are all about wish fulfillment, and I love a commanding, tortured, obsessed master of the universe as much as the next woman. The risk writers run in going the alpha route, however, is of relegating their heroine to the role of empty vessel waiting to be filled.
It wasn’t always this way. Think of Jane Eyre, the primogenitor of all romance novels, to which, I would argue, every successful romance novelist writing today owes an unpayable debt. Told in the first person, it is clearly Jane’s story. We’re more than a hundred pages in before Edward Rochester even puts in an appearance (interesting to note that in her prequel, Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys takes it a step further: she never even calls Rochester by his name). By the time Edward falls off his horse on that narrow lane near Thornfield, we’re completely invested in Jane because we know her.
We know her because we’ve watched her from childhood … unleashing an epic smackdown on her Aunt Reed … climbing into bed to comfort her dying friend Helen at Lowood School. Come on, tell me you didn’t love the defiant, angry girl who said, “When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard … so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again.” Go on, sister!
When I read a romance novel, I want to root for the heroine the same way I rooted for Charlotte Brontë’s “mocking changeling.” This was my goal when I sat down to create Luna Gregory, the heroine of my Lord and Master trilogy. How could I help readers come to know Luna? How could I create a modern, compelling heroine?
In the end, I focused my efforts in five areas:
Like her antecedent Jane Eyre, Luna is an orphan, a woman touched by tragedy, in whom still waters run deep. One of the advantages of telling Luna’s story in the third person and starting it when she is twenty-six is that I can bide my time about revealing the full circumstances of her parents’ deaths, the terrible aftermath, and the ongoing impact this experience has on her life. I want Luna’s story to reward the patient reader, who craves a full, satisfying story, so over the course of the trilogy we will learn that she is a great deal more than the cool, reserved, “Keep Calm and Carry On” English heroine she initially appears to be.
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A reticent lead female presents challenges, of course, particularly when it comes to finding ways to tell her story. She isn’t going to tell it herself, that’s for sure! So I worked hard to flesh out Luna’s relationships with her three best friends from university, as well as her boss, Lady Wellstone, purely so that the reader could see her reflected in them. On a personal note, I suppose this book is the anti-LeanIn, in that Luna really relies on the other women in her life. The relationship between her and Lady Wellstone, in particular, is arguably the other great love of her life, after Stefan.
Having read more than a few romance novels where the heroine’s work life was … sparingly portrayed, shall we say, I knew I wanted Luna’s career to be integral to her sense of self. It says something about the inferiority complex personal assistants have, however, that I initially hesitated to “write what I knew” and make her a PA. I’m glad I did, not just because of the illicit thrill I got from lifting and dropping a few of my own PA pet peeves and nightmare stories into her life. Luna’s job is also a vehicle for demonstrating her doggedness, her fierce loyalty, and her slight OCD tendencies.
The biggest issue I have with the alpha male phenomenon in romance novels is that it almost invariably leads to an uneven playing field in the bedroom. Heroine as disciple, there to be taught; or worse, chattel, there to be subjugated. And again, I do get that romance novel sex is about fantasy and voyeurism, not necessarily what you experience, or even want to experience in real life. But it was a non-negotiable for me, writing a heroine who is openly, unabashedly sexual, just as capable of dominating as of submitting, and as expressive in bed as she is reserved out of it.
I like to describe my hero, Swedish entrepreneur Stefan Lundgren, as a quiet alpha. He’s driven, knows what he wants and does what it takes to get it, but—much like Luna—he doesn’t shout about it or himself. I’ve written him this way mostly because I myself find these characteristics alluring, but also because dialing that alpha intensity down a notch leaves room for my quiet heroine to shine.
I accept that I and other romance writers have a job on our hands to win over readers who are wedded (they wish!) to their uber-alphas.
To those readers I would say this: even if you’re an alpha girl till you die, what does it say about your leading man if the woman he falls in love with isn’t as compelling and complex as he is? If he’s really all that, the love of his life should be a woman who deserves his attention. And yours.