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Alpha Blog 2
This is the second installment for the blog I started for struggling writers about how to write convincingly about strong men.
Okay, I accept that when it comes to violence -- after writing 15 books on the subjects of violence, street survival, how knives are used in the streets and studies in what I like to call, "front-line psychology" -- certain hairy knuckled people might get the impression that I know what I’m talking about.
I’m also okay with the fact that I’ve been required reading in all the branches of the US military on different subjects (especially among those undergoing MP training). I’m happy that I’ve been told by Federal Agents that they first saw my DVD StreetSafe at Quantico (FBI Academy).
All of this makes sense to me; since you’re talking about those who’s job it is to deal with very unpleasant people.
It’s the number of romance writers who read my work that made me go "Say what?" When I asked why. I was told that I lived the life of their characters. Well, okay, I’m Scottish and I’ve been known to wear a kilt. So I’ve done live-steel, un choreographed sword fighting. While we’re at it, I’ve also herded cattle from horseback (Yep, when ya marries into a ranching family, visits to the in-laws have a habit of turning into working vacations). So okay, I’ve survived all kinds of dangerous adventures (I tend to think of them more as misadventures). And there’s no denying I’ve had some wild, passionate and torrid relationships in my life (FYI, the first time that redhead from Part 1 were ’together,’ I actually left claw marks in a metal wall). And yes, I’ve faced down and defeated some truly evil monsters.
But all that not-withstanding, I have a hard time thinking of myself as a prototype for a romance novel male. Well, okay maybe 20 years ago, but I haven’t been shot at for over 14 years. Back then I was really good at riding to the rescue of folks who had gotten themselves into situations that were way over their heads. And at the same time, I was pretty good at convincing seriously unpleasant people to ply their trade elsewhere. (No I wasn’t a cop, I didn’t arrest people after they had done bad, I was the one ’discussing’ their bad behavior as it was happening and preventing them from completing it).
Now while all of that may sound exciting, it was just another day at the office to me. And yes, in order to be able to do that I needed to have a big degree of, for the lack of a better word, Alpha-ness.
These days I’m a taxpaying, home owning citizen, which kind of ruins the whole romantic swashbuckling hero image. But one of the biggest changes is in my status as an Alpha Male. Yep, I’m still an alpha. But while before I was was a wolf among wolves, it is the 400 or so people who look to me these days as a ’clan chief’ that makes me an alpha.
It’s called the "Animal List" and while I was just sitting there -- minding my own business -- something not unlike a Scottish clan developed around me. In case you think I’m practicing either false humility or intentional deception with that ’minding my own business’ statement, I’m not. Even back in the bad old days ’being volunteered’ happened to me. I always felt like a cartoon character. You know the gag -- first, you have a line of huge-chested, he-men, spit and polished soldiers and the commander says "I need a volunteer for (fill in an incredibly dangerous task)." Then the entire line takes one uniformed step back leaving some poor small schmuck -- with his sleeves dangling past his finger tips -- standing out in front as though HE volunteered.
Well I was THAT schmuck! I got volunteered whether I wanted to go or not. And that’s how I became a clan chief. I was so busy helping folks that one day I looked around and realized that I had a whole bunch of VERY competent people who have organized themselves into a clan and are calling me ’chief.’ My outraged roar of "HOW THE HELL DID THIS HAPPEN?!?!" could be heard over three counties.
Well the answer is simple. Trust. Here are all these folks coming to seek my (and here’s another word I have problems with) wisdom’ and advice. And they do this knowing that I will honestly give them what I think -- sans hooks, manipulation or self-interest. (In other words I’m not telling them to do this because I will profit by it).
What is interesting about this is that I have no real authority over these people. Nobody has placed me into a socially accepted position of authority, where my dictates on a particular subject are law (e.g. cop, judge or general). They listen to me because they know I am operating with THEIR best interests in mind, not mine.
So once again, I’m the little schmuck with the extra long sleeves. Before I change tracks (and if you didn’t think that was coming, you haven’t been reading this blog long) I want to point something out about the nature of power. Specifically, power over other people.
Power isn’t yours, it is loaned to you.
That is to say people give you power because it is in THEIR self-interest. Now stop and think about this for a second, because it works on all kinds of levels. Authority is granted to individuals because someone else believes that person can serve their needs.
And a big issue of this is trust. As an extension of this ’trusting the other person to serve their needs’ a certain degree of power is granted to that person. Think about this. A company promotes someone to management with the understanding that by granting this person authority over other employees, that new manager will look after the businesses interests.
In the other direction, a group elects someone a leader because they trust that person to look out after their interests first and foremost -- and not his/her interests. As an aside, I’ve also just handed you the formula for you novel’s bad guy. Specifically someone who has put his interests not only first, but to the detriment of other people’s interests.
This is important to realize because such a person has floated into a set of rationalizations that allow him to proceed with evil deeds, but at the same time justify what he is doing as NOT making him evil. If you don’t have your bad guy telling himself that he has to do this evil thing for a ’good’ reason, what you end up with is a mustache twirling villain. Watch the movie Open Range for a good example of a bad guy who honestly believes he is protecting his interests Okay, so he’s rationalizing his greed, meanness, arrogance, ego up to, and including, theft and murder -- but that is why he is such a believable bad guy.
So here’s the thing about Alpha males, it isn’t just because you can cut them off at the knees and call them a tripod that makes them Alphas. It is that they can be TRUSTED with power. Hey, even Ben Franklin saw this when he said "You can give a man office, but you can’t give him discretion."
What we’re talking about is leadership, not just power. It is that someone or a larger group trusts them to give that character power to act in accordance with ’their’ interests -- not just his. In case you haven’t recognized it, this is THE difference between the hero and the villain. They both have power. The bad guy has his henchmen. They give him power and allow him to force anyone who doesn’t give it willingly to still submit. And until the time that they run across your hero, these henchmen always had success using force for the villain’s ends. (Not a very successful bad guy who routinely sends his henchmen to get slaughtered by the local populace. Once word gets around in the Henchman Union, his potential employee pool dries up).
Your hero, on the other hand, is given power in the form of aid and assistance by the supporting cast. Granted it’s usually on the sly (because if the hero doesn’t win, they don’t want to draw down the ire of the villain and his normally successful henchmen). The townsfolks are investing in your hero’s ability to save them from the local tyrant. If they didn’t believe that he could do that then they wouldn’t help him.
Or as is often the case of betrayal, the person looks at the hero, decides he can’t win against the local evil overlord, and says to himself "Self (he says he says) This guy is going to lose, so you might as well turn a profit out of the inevitable." In truth, this kind of behavior is normally rewarded by the ’bad guy’ because this lil’ fella helped him look out for his ’interests’ by telling him where your hero is laid up and recovering. But, if you really want to show what a sleazebag your bad guy is have him betray the betrayer while moralizing how he hates a betrayer.
So far we’ve looked at stuff that is pretty much obvious to the art and craft of story telling. Well okay, so it’s only obvious if you’ve thought about it. Then once you do, then you say, "Well that’s obvious now that I think about it..." ’Cept for one small little detail... A story of a clan chief who hangs around his front yard listening to people and giving them sage advice about their problems isn’t exactly good story telling, is it? A steadfast and reliable man who shoulders the daily grind of caring for others isn’t a page turner either.
So those aren’t the guys you’re writing about.
Often young writers are told not to make their heroes too perfect, give them a flaw, give them something that makes them human. Well, let me propose another way to approach this subject. And to do it while at the same time keeping it interesting reading. Make him either a young alpha (who hasn’t grown into his full power yet and accepted the responsibility of others) or make him a Lone Wolf Alpha. That is to say someone who has, for personal reasons, turned away from taking the mantel of leadership.
Now this doesn’t have to be a character flaw either. It could be a sense of guilt over past choices, a sense of betrayal (think about the poor schmuck with the long sleeves, don’t think he isn’t going to be cranky over being volunteered by all the others). OR it could be a sense of "I’m just not ready or up to that task" or -- and this is a big one -- fear of getting emotionally hurt again.
Now doesn’t that last one sound rather ridiculous? I mean WHATever! If this guy isn’t afraid of getting shot at, then why is he afraid of emotions?
Well to tell you the truth, quite often getting shot at is a
whole lot easier than dealing with emotional hurt. (And yes, I speak
from experience on this). That’s because Alphas actually feel things
very, very (and did I mention ’very’?) deeply. They are far
more sensitive, aware and paying attention to their surroundings
than the average person. If they weren’t they wouldn’t
See interesting thing to understand about successful sociopaths, while it is true that they do not have the empathy of normal people, they are VERY much keen observers of other humans. They know and understand human motives, they just don’t have the same ones other people do.
BTW, the reason I say ’sucessful’ is these sociopaths have this trait. It is what allows them to function among normal people. Also, if they don’t have the ability to look outside of themselves and pay attention to their surroundings, they’d have gotten their heads blown off a long time ago. There is a Darwinian process going on among sociopaths (in fact, that’s what you’re writing about, the sociopath was able to function until he ran across your hero).
This brings us to the Lone Wolf Alpha. A Lone Wolf Alpha is both aware of his surroundings, sensitive to the people around him and at the same time separated from normal human relationships. That’s what makes him an interesting character (and also something that female characters in romance novels want to get together with and engage in a little furniture breaking sex).
Here’s the point, which I veered away from (but I’m back now), a typical alpha would already be involved in a group dynamic before you’d come to your story line. And sorry to say to Romance writers, it’s true "all the good men are already taken." That’s why you need to find the good man who’s afraid of what most people take for granted or desire. Using Romance writing again, something has to be keeping him out of the relationship that you’re wanting to put him into. And often this largely revolves around him not wanting to get hurt again, feeling insecure about his ability to do something or guilt over the past.
In short, something has driven him away from normal human relations. This in spite of the fact that he is so competent in other areas. What he’s short on is experience with successfully dealing with his own emotions -- because they are like tidal waves within him. Tidal waves that he doesn’t know how to handle. And this even works for a team leader who is great at working with his team members to save humanity from invading aliens, pirates or orcs from Mordor. Something inside of him has kept him away from this aspect of life.
Something that he feels so deeply about that he’s blocking himself from it. Think of Aragon in the Lord of the Rings. Although he was a natural leader, one he didn’t want to be king because he felt he wasn’t up to the job.
Two, he didn’t want to consummate his love with the Elven maiden because she was immortal and he wasn’t. He wasn’t thinking about his interests, he was still thinking about others. It is the tension about him coming into his own (or a relationship) while facing these reservations that make for dynamic story telling.
I’m going to go back to a movie I already mentioned, Open Range. There you have two examples of alpha males who have struck out onto lives of near isolation. Boss Spearman was driven to a life of nomad ’freegrazing’ because his wife had died and he couldn’t stay at ’home’ anymore. Charley Waite (interesting name neh?) was driven there by guilt over his past. (I say interesting name because one must ask who was really the one waiting, him or Sue Barlow?)
Understanding that the Lone Wolf Alpha has chosen to separate himself from normal human relationships because the depth of his feelings allows you to maneuver your character more believably.
A well known fact among physical terrorists ... I mean physical therapists, doctors and fighters is that humans tend to move around pain. That is to say that we change how we move to protect a harmed area -- or lessen the pain of a hurt area. And that is one of the secrets of the Lone Wolf Alpha. The character who is out the having adventures that are worth reading about ... instead of the more mature alpha who is doing the daily grind of taking care of his people in a more mundane context.
As much as he may be able to knock bullets out of the air with a certain appendage, he is vulnerable -- and scared -- in a totally different area than your readers.