Romance writers and readers love those arrogant, persistent alpha males, but in our quest to create them, sometimes we cross the line from sexy to creepy.
I love the take-charge, arrogant alpha hero as much as the next romance reader, but sometimes even I have a little trouble handling the actions of such a character when he’s trying to get to the woman he wants—especially if she’s not interested.
Romance lovers find the fantasy in the idea of being swept away by a man who absolutely cannot resist the heroine’s charms. He absolutely has to have her, no matter what. We love that. We love seeing a strong man brought to his knees, so to speak, in the realm of love. It’s the fantasy. As Caroline Linden, author of What a Gentleman Wants (Zebra, 2006), puts it, “It’s a plot line the average woman can really enjoy, because who wouldn’t want to be pursued by a hot, sexy man determined to have you?”
But when is it too much? When the does the fantasy get…well…icky?
Consider this: annually, one million women (and 371,000 men) in the U. S. are stalked, with the majority of them under the age of 34, according to a 1998 study from the National Institute for Justice & Center for Disease Control. This means that there are potentially one million women each year, plus the friends and family who are aware of their situation, who have had experience with stalkers and could find that persistent alpha hero a little too much when he’s part of their fantasy.
Because I’ve read some romances where the hero’s actions made me feel more than a bit uncomfortable, I started thinking about how to keep our heroes from crossing the line. I also talked with several romance writers about the topic in order to identify what might be considered “too far,” and how to keep that romance feeling from going bad.
There were many common themes that arose, and I’ll recap them in the course of this article, but first I’d like to define what I mean by a “stalker.” There are different types and motivations of stalkers, and some of them are more dangerous than others (John Hinckley, Jr., anyone?). Of course, our alpha heroes aren’t going to try and assassinate a president in order to get the attention of our heroine, but there are some things that are a little less cut and dry.
Stephanie Patterson (author of the Eppie finalist The Woman in Question) is a paralegal who has worked on both sides of stalking cases, and she says, “The legal definition of stalking in Oregon [where she works] is ‘repeated, unwanted contact.’” So, for the intent of this article, let’s use this as the definition of a stalker: a man who persists in his contact with the heroine, even after she has indicated non-interest. The “indicated non-interest” is the operative phrase.
Keeping that in mind, here are the kinds of things that stalkers do when being persistent in approaching their target, after being rebuffed:
- Calling them
- Waiting for them outside places like home, work, school, or shopping
- Watching them from afar
- Following them
- Sending letters or emails
If a man I wasn’t interested in did this to me in real life, I’d be very nervous. I wouldn’t think it was flattering or sexy or intriguing…if I wasn’t interested.
We have lots of romance novels where the heroine isn’t interested in the hero, at least at first, but that’s part of the game. Anna Campbell, author of Claiming the Courtesan (Avon, 2007), says, “[Romance novels are] a fantasy! When this man pursues this woman saying that he and she are meant to be together, he’s right. They are meant to be together. When he says to her that he can give her pleasure beyond her wildest dreams, he can give her pleasure beyond her wildest dreams. It’s part of the romance novel paradigm.”
So because it’s a romance novel, we know they have to get together in the end, we know he’s the only guy for our heroine…so how do we as writers keep that fantasy from going bad, while the heroine gets her act together and realizes that the hero is the only guy in the world for her?
Here are some tactics some of our colleagues have used to keep that fantasy alive:
Get us deeply into the hero’s point of view
In her April release, Anna Campbell writes about a very determined alpha hero. But, she says, what keeps him from coming across as creepy or frightening is “that I use deep viewpoint to show his emotional state, his reasoning, his desperation. Because the readers experience at least half of the story through his eyes, in a sense they become him. His actions under these circumstances become comprehensible, empathetic, even necessary. So he’s not a stalker, he’s a tortured soul in search of his only salvation. That makes him sympathetic, not terrifying.”
So when we understand the reasons for the hero’s actions, and that they aren’t selfish or self-serving, we can go along with the fantasy without that squicky feeling. Diana Crosby (His Captive, Zebra 2007) agrees, saying, “The delineating fact between a stalker and an alpha male’s is that of morality. An alpha male’s decisions, though harsh or severe at times, are made with good intent. A stalker’s motives are self-serving with disregard for those they harm.”
Show him the error of his ways
If your alpha male does step over the line—maybe he breaks into the heroine’s house for what he considers to be a good reason—drag him back to reality by making him face the consequences. Caroline Linden says, “I say, let him be wrong and suffer the consequences. Let him get busted doing something over the line, and get slapped up the side of his head. Do something to knock some sense, and sense of respect for the other characters (especially the heroine), into him.”
A real stalker wouldn’t learn from his mistakes, he would simply become more determined; which is why women often need to file stalking orders in order to try and free themselves from unwanted attention.
If your alpha hero goes too far in his pursuit of your heroine, make sure he learns from it and takes a visible step back. That will go a long way in endearing him to your readers’ (and your heroine’s) hearts.
Let the heroine clue us in
Three-time Golden Heart finalist Dr. Debra Holland has nineteen years of experience in counseling individuals, couples, and groups on a variety of matters. She says, “The line between stalking and courting are the phrases, ‘Leave me alone.’ ‘Go away.’ ‘Stop bothering me.’ ‘I’m not interested.’ ‘No.’ If the heroine is vague or she’s giving him mixed messages, then it’s okay for the hero to keep trying. For example, she laughs while she says no. Then he can wonder if she really means what she says, because her laugh and facial expression encourage him to believe she might just need some more romancing from him.”
RITA-winner Diane Gaston (who also writes as Diane Perkins) agrees. “The heroine should know, at the same time that the hero pushes himself on her, that she can depend upon him over all other people if she needs him. It takes the skill of the writer to make the heroine’s limits clear and to show how the hero respects them, even as he pushes her in other ways.”
Give us another reason…
Dr. Debra Holland also suggests that if the heroine is interested in a man other than the hero, who is shown through the story to be detrimental or otherwise not good for her, and the hero is being persistent in his attentions to draw her away from him, we can accept more over-the-top, desperate measures. Again, this is because we understand why he is trying to get her attention, and that it’s not only for his benefit, but for hers as well.
Or if she has a friend or sister, or other member of her support system, who is encouraging the hero’s persistence…once again, we can see why he’s trying harder. If it’s done skillfully enough, we see that the heroine’s close friend has a better understanding of her needs than she herself does at that time, and we know it’s better for her in the long run.
Tammy Kearly, who writes romantic mysteries, pinpointed the difference between courting and stalking quite clearly, “It’s only stalking if the heroine doesn’t want the attention. Two guys could be doing the same things to the heroine, in the same book at the same time, but if she’s interested it’s okay. If she’s not, it’s stalking.”
That about sums it up.
So as writers, when we want to show the persistence in our alpha heroes without turning off our readers—or our heroines—we should take care to keep him moral and teachable, and let the heroine’s actions or reactions absolve him from his overstepping the line. Handled with such care, even heroes who break into their targets houses can be redeemed, in both the eyes of the heroine and the reader!
© 2011 Colleen Gleason