It’s no secret that Erin loves powerful alpha heroes. Without getting bogged down by history, there is a reason that, at the time of this writing, my picture on the bio page is a portrait of the Duke of Wellington (for the record, Holly chose it). In a recent piece, we noted that “We have different tolerance levels for alphas, but extreme alpha-holes need not apply.” So I did a quick search of alpha-hole book lists, and I’m chuckling to myself at the number of books I’ve read on this list. Of the three of us, I have – by far – the most inclination toward this type of hero.
Even so, I enjoy a variety of HEAs, and now that I’ve branched out in my sub-genre reading space, I’ve noticed that there are certain trends where heroes are concerned, depending on the sub-genre. Painting with a broad brush, I have found that heroes in popular historical romance (histrom) are more likely to be alpha-ish, emotionally constipated, and domineering while heroes in popular contemporary romance are more likely to be, well, cinnamon rolls.
Because I like to make arguments based on more than feelings, I evaluated my own reading on our blog tracking list (about 120 books), omitting paranormal romance, f/f, and so on. I broke down the reading to confirm that my suspicions were not just in my head. Spoiler alert: they weren’t. I also looked at the publishers for these books to see if I could spot any trends there as well, because when I looked at that alpha-hole list, I had an inkling.
Obviously these heroes are not all the same by any stretch, so my categorization of each hero was based on the overall impression created by both the hero’s actions on the page and his backstory. I opted not to use the term “alpha” because not all of the heroes with the stereotypically masculine behavior we’re examining can be categorized as “alpha” heroes, but they still engage in behaviors that include (but are not limited to): paternalistic, overprotective or controlling behavior, possessiveness, emotional constipation, displays of power, withholding information, and other sorts of toxic masculinity. These heroes are, for the sake of brevity, labeled “domineering.” By contrast, a hero that I labeled as “not domineering” would present an overall impression opposite of a domineering hero: respectful of the independence and personhood of his partner, with whom he communicates openly and whom he treats like an equal partner.
What we get when we break heroes down by contemporary vs. historical when evaluating “domineering” vs. “not domineering” is:
When we break down my reading in this way, it becomes clear that there’s one trend in histrom while we see a different trend in contemporary romance. Concerned about the pub dates of the books I read? Even if I cut out all the older books that might skew in favor of a “domineering” hero (by filtering down only to ARCs), the trend is still apparent, although we do see “not domineering” heroes becoming slightly more popular in histrom. (Holly and Ingrid tend to read more self-pub ARCs than I do, so that could influence the results. But maybe not the way you’d think. Keep reading.)
The world of romance is both enormous and diverse, and reading preferences are extremely subjective, so I can only unpack this based on my conversations with Holly and Ingrid and my ingestion of greater Romancelandia on Twitter or other media. But I don’t think there’s a particularly strange underlying reason for these trends. A straightforward explanation is that histrom allows us to be far enough removed from our current reality that we can allow for the fantasy without guilt. We are able to make excuses for domineering behavior that we know is objectively unhealthy in a relationship because we know that, from a social and legal standpoint, it was worse to be a woman then than now, and expectations of men were different then. When we read those behaviors in a contemporary novel, it’s harder to extract ourselves from the present and the knowledge of what we would accept in a romantic partner, and the ick factor increases.
To a certain extent, these beliefs are based on historical fact. Property ownership, suffrage, job prospects, and so on have changed dramatically for women in the past two centuries (and beyond). But, while it’s fair to say that social expectations of men have also shifted in the past two centuries, men didn’t suddenly collectively realize that treating their partners with respect was the thing to do, and now here we are. Thus, to a certain extent, the histrom domineering hero is both a fantasy based on real historical context and a product of generic verisimilitude.
For example, we expect that Highlanders are enormous, kilt-wearing, alpha men with oceans of emotional reserve and tree trunk thighs. There is very little difference between the characterization of Highlander romance published by Julie Garwood in the late 1980s and early 1990s and that published by Maya Banks or Monica McCarty in the 2010s. Or Lynsay Sands today, for that matter. On this blog, we can point to a Highlander series started by Maya Banks in 2011, that included actual bodice ripping and (minimum) dubious consent. But Highlanders aren’t the only heroes that fall into a generic category. We have similar expectations of dukes and other aristocrats (see Holly’s Duke Project for further consideration of our fascination with dukes), largely thanks to the writings of Georgette Heyer in the mid-20th century. These expectations are based on generic verisimilitude, and they allow us to plug into the fantasy we want.
By contrast, contemporary romance is inextricably linked to the world we’re currently living in. Historical knowledge is not required, so we don’t need to rely on expectations of the genre for context. Within the realm of contemporary smut, we can drill down to certain categories that create expectations of content similar to histrom, such as books about motorcycle clubs. But, by and large, contemporary romance reflects the big, messy present. That said, individual fantasies don’t necessarily change just because of temporal setting. I don’t suddenly stop melting for domineering heroes just because I’m reading contemporary smut. But I do struggle much more with enjoying it.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen voices in Romancelandia declaring they’re so tired of horny, alpha heroes with boundary issues and emotional constipation. And as Holly has noted, it can be wearying to be presented with the same type of emotionally constipated hero all the time. But given the divergence between heroes presented in histrom and contemporary smut, the issue seems to be more than just the reader’s hero preference. It’s easy to feel like we shouldn’t like things that we know are bad. Or if we do, it’s like a dirty little secret and we can’t in good conscience recommend them to other readers. Just this month on Twitter, @JenReadsRomance started talking about sex in smut and brought up Christine Feehan (who apparently writes a lot of questionable sex). If you read the whole thread, you’ll see that Jen posts screenshots of texts discussing Feehan’s work, and she’s read a lot of these books, some of which fell in a catnip category for her. But when asked by someone else in the thread to recommend a book, she said she didn’t think she could because of the objectionable content.
Now, Feehan writes paranormal romance, which I would argue falls into a fantasy bucket similar to histrom (lots of domineering heroes in PNR!). But the conversation illustrates that we all draw lines about what we’re okay with reading, and if all (or most) of those domineering traits I described above are a turnoff for a reader, it’s important to know where to look for new reads. When the idea for this post started percolating in my brain, I felt like the popular, widely marketed and praised contemporary romance I had been consuming consistently presented cinnamon roll-esque heroes. I’m referring to books like The Kiss Quotient and A Prince on Paper and Get a Life, Chloe Brown, which are all absolutely fantastic. And they all have heroes who behave with emotional intelligence and who demonstrate respectful behavior, not only to the heroines, but to everyone. But…nearly all of our 2019 recommended contemporary reads included these cinnamon roll-ey heroes. Not an alpha-hole or domineering hero in the bunch! Meanwhile, we’ve recommended histroms with heroes that I’d cheerfully strangle if I were married to them (though, to be fair, no alpha-holes there either). What was the deal with that?
Which brings me to that niggling suspicion I had where those publishing trends were concerned. I’ll be honest – I was surprised at the number of contemporary domineering heroes I saw on my first pie chart of all heroes. Then I looked at the books involved. I can’t say I pay all that much attention to publishers except to know which of the big imprints publish smut, but at a glance, it sure looked like the domineering contemporary heroes were self published. So I checked.
If we break down my reading by traditional publishers (by which I mean a corporate entity that provides traditional publication services to a 3rd party author) vs. self-publishers (which includes authors who have set up publication LLCs or the like solely for themselves), the results are a bit staggering. Where contemporary romance is concerned, trad publishing clearly demonstrates a preference for a non-domineering hero. If we dig deeper, examining the domineering heroes in the trad publishing category, about half of the books were Harlequin category romance, like The Maid’s Spanish Secret, which has a hero reminiscent of an aristocrat in a histrom. There is no denying that these category romances serve a specific purpose, just like those generic historicals. It’s the reason they exist.
For purposes of comparison, here is the publisher information for our histrom bucket, and we can see that trad publishing overwhelmingly leans toward domineering heroes.
When all’s said and done, the important thing to consider is what sort of hero you might be interested in reading. If you like histrom but you don’t swoon for a domineering hero like I do, it might be beneficial to check out some indie romance or queer romance, which doesn’t tend to have the same dynamics as non-queer m/f smut (to be clear, if at least one party in the relationship identifies as queer, this can include m/f pairings). Try Cat Sebastian or K.J. Charles (or go check out our tag). If you’re totally hooked on trad publishing, there are some authors playing with gender roles or writing more beta-ish heroes in romance, like Eva Leigh or Grace Burrowes. If you like contemporary romance but like a domineering hero, a Kindle Unlimited subscription might be just your cup of tea (although there are quite a few self-published authors who aren’t on KU who sell books for about $4). Or delve into category romance. Just note these sorts of books aren’t likely to be at the library (Amazon doesn’t sell books or e-book rights to libraries).
Of course, if you like to read anything and everything, it might just be beneficial to know what the publishing gatekeepers are promoting. Have you noticed any trends in sub-genres lately?