Grace Draven began asking her reader and writer friends a few really interesting questions lately, questions I hold close to the heart. One of them included a request to define what a strong heroine was.
The answers were as varied as the stars in the sky.
In a previous question, she asked people to define Alpha, Beta, and Gamma heroes, character tropes many consider to be ‘strong.' Once again, the answers were shockingly varied, and some of them genuinely horrified me to a certain extent.
In a way, both of her questions directly deal with the strength of characters in fiction. Since I'm a genre fiction author, I'm going to stick with what I know: genre fiction and its heroes, stereotypes, and definitions.
Of all the tropes I want to discuss, I think this one has me up in arms the most. Whenever someone says ‘Alpha' character, lately, it means you may as well be writing an ‘Asshole' character instead. Somehow, a man or woman's strength as an ‘Alpha' is directly related to their ‘Asshole Level.'
It disgusts me. Alpha is a lot more than having an asshole character abusing those beneath him. I understand this is a common trend, especially in romance or shifter fiction, but the Alpha trope type is so, so much more diverse than ‘Asshole man or woman who needs a good person to fix them.'
Fuck that shit with a stick. An Alpha can be a lot of things, and they don't need to be someone who needs some nice person to come around and ‘fix' them.
Of course, as long as people keep misreading ‘Alpha' as ‘Asshole,' fiction isn't going to change much. It's really a sad state of affairs, in my opinion. Don't get me wrong, I definitely enjoy the badass man who is softened over time because he learns important lessons in life, but that isn't what it means to be an Alpha, not in my opinion.
I view the Alpha character as someone who has a predominant role meant to safeguard, protect, or guide those beneath them. The methods can be varied. Some Alphas are like Superman, that dashing hero who strides in and sweeps the girl off his feet and is the typical Boy Scout. Curran (Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels series) is a great example of an Alpha who takes protection to an extreme, and he will be an asshole to accomplish his goals, but he does it for the sake of everyone he protects. Underneath his exterior is someone exceptionally concerned for his people, and he will do just about anything for them. He changes over the course of the series, too, becoming a stronger person–still an asshole in many ways, but one who can be understood and respected.
Alpha can mean asshole, but it doesn't mean exclusively an asshole.
I'm going to showcase my Alpha characters from my books and go into their asshole ratings. Some aren't assholes at all. They're varied. Why?
Alphas are individuals, and Alphas serve a role. They don't have to be assholes to fit that role.
I'll begin with my Alpha Assholes.
Desmond can be found within the pages of Tales of the Winter Wolf (Boxed Set and Volume Six), Winter Wolf, and Beneath a Blood Moon. He is Nicolina's father, and is considered the top Alpha Fenerec (werewolf) in the Witch & Wolf world. He's an old Fenerec, though not the oldest in the series/world. He is considered a lone wolf, although in reality, he has been adopted and accepted by two of North America's largest packs. He is the enforcer of the Inquisition, and his job is to kill people who break the rules and protect Normals from the supernatural. As such, his asshole level is quite high.
He doesn't want to get close to people he might have to kill.
Then he had daughters with his mate, and his overprotective tendencies kicked into overdrive; this is a man who has always been strong, able to brute force his way through just about any situation. He has killed, and he has killed often.
Having children, however, mellowed him far more than he cares to admit, especially since his mate had to violate a taboo for the sake of one of their daughters at the price of the other.
This guy is a Grade A dick. He does exactly what he wants, how he wants, when he wants. But, he does it with a purpose: to protect.
In Tales of the Winter Wolf, he's portrayed as a wolf to fear, but the lie of his existence is revealed piece by piece over the course of the books he's in. He's never a point-of-view character, and I really doubt he will be. (I might feature him as a lead character in a Tales of the Winter Wolf short, however.)
Kalen is one of the lead characters from Storm Without End and Storm Surge (Requiem for the Rift King.) He only has one arm, and he uses his often shitty personality to protect himself from relationships. Around every corner, he expects someone ready to kill him for his rank. He puts the ass in asshole, and he has an entire kingdom of some of the roughest bad boys (and girls) to defend, protect, and rule. As such, he puts the ass in asshole but he uses it as a shield.
Those who know him realize he's just a guy who would much rather have his presence be felt rather than seen, working from the shadows without anyone ever acknowledging his existence. Survival has hardened him, but his good nature hasn't been beaten out of him yet, and at the end of the day, he lives to protect his people and the rest of the kingdoms.
He's an asshole, no doubt, but he's a very simple asshole to understand. If you don't hurt those he cherishes, he'll leave you alone. Unless you're his dad. Boy, does Kalen ever have Daddy issues…
Elliot makes his first appearance in Inquisitor, and when readers first meet him, his Alpha Asshole status isn't immediately seen. In actuality, he's a really nice guy forced into the Alpha Asshole role. Almost every single Witch & Wolf world novel is somehow touched by the Alpha Asshole over all Alpha Assholes in this series. Desmond's the main Alpha Fenerec Asshole, and at the end of the day, Desmond bows to Elliot.
I'll leave the hows and whys for you to discover. In Elliot's case, the ‘Asshole' part is due to necessity of who and what he is. He has to be that way.
He doesn't want to be that way.
The next type of Alpha I want to discuss doesn't fall into the Alpha Asshole profile at all. They're undeniably Alphas, but they aren't jerkfaces, either.
Seattle's Alpha is as far from an asshole as it gets among Alpha Fenerec. He makes his first appearance in Tales of the Winter Wolf, and is the male romantic lead of Beneath a Blood Moon. He's an Alpha, and he's one many people respect. He leads with an iron fist, but it's wrapped in velvet, and he only acts when he absolutely must. He had a rather untraditional start as an Alpha, and his unusual rise to a position of power among Fenerec have shaped him into a strong nice guy.
In short, he's thought of as the type of man everyone wants guarding their back. He's loyal, will do just about anything for a friend, and cares dearly for those under his rule/supervision. He's loved by many, hated by few.
He's one of my favorite Alpha characters to write about, because he's tough but kind. He's just a good guy who makes the best of bad situations.
To me, Sanders is the definition of a fun Alpha; he protects and is in a position of power, but he prefers to use cunning over brute force to get the job done… but if brute force is required, he has it in spades, and he isn't afraid to use it. He's a very easy man to underestimate, but he's very upfront about his Alpha status. There are two Fenerec above him in the food chain, and he knows it–and he toes with the second-strongest Fenerec as often as possible.
This power couple darts back and forth between the Alpha Asshole and the Nice Guy Alpha. In Nicolina's words, Richard is a nice guy with a guilty conscious. He acts like an asshole when necessary, but in reality, he just wants to have a normal life, have a little fun, and love the people he loves. This pair has more issues than National Geographic, but they're a little bit of everything. They're adults, they're kids, they're serious, they're immature, they're strong, and in so many cases, they're weak.
These two are great fun (and a challenge) to write because they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders as the leading Alpha pair of the North American Fenerec packs. When shit hits the fan, they're the ones who have to deal with it. They pull out their big bad monsters on the block cards when necessary, but the threat of their existence is usually enough to keep people in line.
They don't have to be assholes about it. Now, Nicolina? She's a firecracker, but that's totally different from being an asshole.
Of all my Alpha characters, Dante is quite possibly my favorite. He is a nice guy who simply doesn't recognize he's an Alpha of any sort. He starts out as a Gamma hero, but works his way to full Alpha by the end of Blood Diamond.
I have more Alpha characters, but these ones are my particular favorites.
Beta heroes are fascinating; in most situations, these are the secondary support characters. They're the characters who help the Alphas from the shadows–or directly–in some fashion or another. They're strong characters in their own right, but they don't carry the weight of command easily or well. They're followers, but they're followers who can pick up the banner of hero in a jam. Betas work best when partnered with an Alpha who makes them shine. Of course, this is just my opinion of what Betas are.
As a quick list, here are the betas who compliment the Alphas above.
Kalen: Breton and Maiten. These two Guardians are Kalen's right hand men, and without them, Kalen wouldn't have survived as long as he has. Over the course of Requiem for the Rift King, there are a lot of Beta heroes who step up to make sure Kalen can change the world. Without them, he's fucked. Without him, they're fucked, too.
Desmond: Few people rise up to a support role where Desmond is concerned, but Richard and Sanders can, which makes Richard and Sanders even more interesting as Alphas. They sometimes serve as Desmond's betas, and they know it. This also sets Desmond apart from many of the other Alpha characters. He's mostly a lone wolf without consistent people to protect, which is a problem in his position.
Richard & Nicolina: Frank and Alex/Lisa serve as betas to this pair of Alphas, although Alex and Lisa are Alphas in their own right. It makes for a very interesting power play, especially as Frank is also a Gamma hero in addition to being a Beta. (What? How?! I'll explain a little below.)
Dante: Brandon, one of Dante's employees, and Zach, the captain of the Wave Dream, are Dante's right hand men and serve as his Betas. They aren't often seen on the pages, but their presence has influenced Dante quite a bit. Since Dante's confused as far as Alphas go, they have a really tough job. (Sorry, characters. Well, sorta. Okay, I'm lying. I'm not sorry at all.)
Sanders: Sanders has a huge Beta-style support cast, but his mate is his right hand woman, and she fits whatever role he needs at any given time.
I rarely write about Beta characters without them having an Alpha to support. That said, I have loads of them in my books, as they are so incredibly fun to write. As secondary characters, they bring books to life.
One day, I might just dive in and write a novel with a Beta character as the only lead rather than a complimentary lead, such as is the case with Breton in Requiem for the Rift King.
The hardest nut to crack is the Gamma Hero. The Gamma Hero is that person who wants to fly under the radar but still manages to change the world around them. This is the guy who rescues kittens from floods without drawing attention to himself. His–or her–main characteristic is actually super easy to understand.
They don't really mean to be heroes, but there's a job that needs to be done, so they buckle down and get to work. The Gamma Hero truly shines when their loved ones are at risk–or someone needs help.
They don't draw attention to themselves. They don't have a lot of people to protect, but they have a need to do something right or good–or even not so good. They can be an assassin who lurks in the dark places of the world, removing those who would ruin their plans–or bring ruin–to what is important to them.
These are the most diverse of the hero types, because they are just so damned varied by their nature.
They're also my favorite to write.
Jesse Alexander from Water Viper is one of my favorite Gamma Heroines. She has the headstrong quality of an Alpha, but she would rather no one notice her at all unless they're hiring her for a job–preferably one that doesn't involve her having to kill someone. She's an assassin, but she's an assassin with morals. When she strikes, she changes the world.
She doesn't even realize how much she changes the world unless it's too late to stop it from happening, no matter how much she doesn't want to be involved. She fits the reluctant hero profile, too, but at the end of the day, she's a strong woman who just wants to live to see another day.
She didn't set out to be a catalyst of any sort. She just does the absolute best she can each day without drowning. She doesn't end up doing a very good job of keeping her nose out of trouble, though.
Jesse leads me to the second part of my discussion: strong characters.
I don't really think I can say this better than I already have when I initially answered Grace Draven's question, so I'm going to just go with my original comment:
I'm probably going to have a non-traditional answer here, but strong to me means she gets back up from whatever keeps knocking her down, and that she does what is necessary. It doesn't mean she stands up to everyone, is a bitch, etc, but rather she has a level of perseverance and grows through the story. Maybe she does end up standing up for herself later, but she is a rock in the flood or the tree that bends in a storm without snapping.
Exchange she for he as necessary. This applies to both men and women. Strong doesn't mean asshole. If anything, assholes are so often the weakest characters there are. They simply lack the depth of understanding to be strong enough to bend. They don't know how to get up when they truly fall.
It's that person who keeps standing, no matter how much it hurts, how far they've fallen, or what has been done to them, that is truly strong.
Strength isn't in a lack of failure.
Strength is failing and getting back up and trying again.
Sometimes, a character needs to fall flat on their face and wallow before they discover they're actually strong enough to stand. Some characters never manage to rise from the ashes, but the ones who do?
Those are the truly strong, and they can fit any character trope type.
Don't limit yourself into believing that the only strength is in wealth and obvious power. Chances are, that bent, sad woman who struggles to care for her family is far stronger than anyone else you've met. Strength is so much more than having power over another person, and I think we as readers and writers forget about that sometimes.
It isn't the trope type or the type of hero that makes the character strong, but their actions, their trials, and their ability to stand back up and fight the good fight, even if they lose–especially if they lose.
Strength comes in many different shapes and sizes, and it doesn't need to have ‘Asshole' attached. I think it's high time we as readers (and writers) started redefining our fiction so that characters with true strength can come to the forefront without being shadowed by the stereotypical Alpha Asshole.