The Alpha Character Archetype gets a lot of hype. Especially in romance, er well in most genres. I personally find it very cliche and it is something I avoid. But why, you ask? Let me explain.
The Alpha Character Archetype
Most of the time when you mention an alpha male people immediately think of wolves. This is both unfortunate and scientifically incorrect. Wolves do not have a pack dynamic that includes the concept of an alpha. (http://io9.com/why-everything-you-know-about-wolf-packs-is-wrong-502754629)
The quintessential alpha male is often portrayed as the ultimate hero, the man every male should strive to be (http://princesswithapen.hubpages.com/hub/How-to-be-an-alpha-male-Typical-characteristics-personality-traits-and-behavior-of-an-alpha-male). Tami Cowden broke down the eight types of heroes aka alpha males in her post We Need a Hero: A Look at the Eight Hero Archetypes (http://www.likesbooks.com/eight.html).
- The Chief
- The Bad Boy
- The Best Friend
- The Charmer
- The Lost Soul
- The Professor
- The Swashbuckler
- The Warrior
But what about the women? What types of character roles to women generally get?
Again Tami Cowden breaks down the most popular types for us in her post The Women We Want to Be: The Eight Female Archetypes (http://www.likesbooks.com/78.html)
- The Boss
- The Survivor
- The Spunky Kid
- The Free Spirit
- The Waif
- The Librarian
- The Crusader
- The Nurturer
Most of these types share certain traits that make them an alpha character (The Best Friend and Waif excluded). Jami Gold in a recent post (http://jamigold.com/2015/05/what-is-an-alpha-heroine/) outlined these traits as follows:
- Won’t Fight just to Fight
- Doesn’t Wait to Be Led
- Has Strong Communication Skills
- Has a Strong Presence
- Makes Decisions
- Is Less Emotional
- Looks Out for Others and Solves Problems
- Commands Respect
- Doesn’t Panic
- Is Focused
- Isn’t a Doormat
- Might Struggle with Asking for Help
- Is Less Inhibited in Her Sexuality
- Doesn’t Need the Approval of Others
- Isn’t a Slave to Fashion
- Isn’t a Social Butterfly
- Has a Good Sense of Humor
- Takes Care of Herself
Reading through those lists, do you see an issue? Yes, these are all stereotypes. Which is basically what archetypes are: stereotypes we can use as starting points to creating whole characters. However, some of these are so overused they are becoming cliche. Like the Waif or the Chief, we’ve seen them so often as soon as we realize that’s what a particular character is we already know what’s going to happen. While the traits are desirable in and of themselves no character is going to have all of them and it’s not even necessary to have any of them to have a heroic character.
The Archetypal Rut
So what can we do to break out of the archetypal rut? Let’s look at the recently released Mad Max: Fury Road for some good examples of how to mix it up. Both Max and Imperator Furiosa at first seem to be alpha characters, gender aside.
At two points in the movie Mad Max: Fury Road both Max and Imperator Furiosa claim to be seeking redemption. They are both haunted by their past, Max is being driven insane with guilt and suffers from what appears to be PTSD, flashbacks and hallucinations. Furiosa’s past is left to our imagination but her drive to return to the Green Place and recover what she lost is all we need to know.
They neither one find their redemption by the end of the movie. Not redemption as we might think of it. Their character arcs are static in that they remain who they are from start to finish. It’s the world that changes around them. They both transform everything they touch for better or for worse. As expected sparks fly when these two encounter each other. And not the sexy kind.
Max and Furiosa at first glance seem to fit the alpha character archetype. Strong, determined, unapologetic, take charge and unswayed by emotion. Then we quickly see the archetype for both males and females subverted in a number of ways.
‘Mad’ Max is mentally ill. Furiosa is disabled. Max is routinely beaten to a pulp and is never at any point in charge of the situation. Furiosa is the de facto leader as the driver of the war rig and makes the decisions but when it becomes apparent that things are not going well she lets the others have a say. She’s not afraid to seek help from those she knows she can trust. Max seeks help, at first by trying to demand it and then accepting it when it’s offered. Max spends the first third of the movie muzzled and mostly speechless. Furiosa’s words are few and carefully chosen. They both have moments of panic driven by fear and the chaotic situation happening around them. Through it all they both react to each other as two people who have found kindred spirits, hardened by what the world has made them and determined to survive at all costs. There is no male/female dichotomy here. Simply people struggling to exist in a world ruined by greed and save what matters to them.
In short they are wholly human and utterly believable in a situation that seems unbelievable.
The one character who gets a redemption arc that isn’t being talked about is Nux. He starts out as a sickly war boy, dying and reliant on a blood transfusion from his ‘blood bag’ to keep functioning. I won’t spoil his arc but it’s beautiful and very poignant.
Even Immortan Joe is given humanity when we get to see him grieving the loss of a child and how he keeps a piano and other ‘unnecessary’ items locked in a vault. For his depravity he knows what makes us human.
Archetypes, like tropes exist for a reason, but like tropes they can fall into cliche and should never be used solely on their own to create a character. When looking at the traits for a hero don’t be afraid to go against the grain and let them have their flaws, lots of them. Let them show their suffering but not be conquered by it. Let them be humble and relinquish leadership but never relent on doing what is right. Don’t be afraid to make them human and don’t be afraid to go against the archetype.
Next week I’ll discuss the issues with the alpha male/female dynamic and why I think it’s something to be avoided especially in romance.