Winter Sunlight

Alpha jerks and the appeal thereof

Decided to make a separate post for this, rather than lumping it into the other links post, because I found it really interesting and wanted to talk a little more about it: this post by Ilona Andrews on the "alphahole" trope in romance (i.e. alpha jerk heroes). It is, I believe, inspired by this post at Book Smugglers on "why alphaholes are terrible", but the Andrews post is 1000% more interesting to me because it talks about what's appealing about the trope, and why people like it.

What I particularly liked about the Andrews post is this part:

The modern definition of alphahole has evolved, but it does retain some of its primary characteristics. Modern alphahole is generally aware he isn’t a good guy. He is, before all else, competent. He excels at his chosen profession, whether it is making billions, being a Duke, or running a ragtag crew of immortal werewolves trying to guard the world from horrible evil. By extension, alphahole is often rich, because he manages his money well. Alphahole delivers. If he invites you to dinner, you can bet your life that he has made a reservation; if your car breaks down, he will either fix it himself (points for additional competence) or make a mechanic appear nearly instantly out of thin air; if a monster is demolishing downtown, alphahole will run toward it; and if a sick child requires rare medicine that isn’t available at any pharmacy nearby, alphahole will find it. Alphahole has no chill and takes no crap.

... which was food for thought for me, because I think it nailed why I tend to like characters with alpha traits, as long as they have some basic decency to go along with it. I don't usually like characters who are irredeemable bastards and have no decency or niceness to them -- I like the ones who tend to do the decent thing, most of the time, even if they won't admit that they want to -- and the amount of assholishness I can tolerate is often in direct proportion to the narrative's willingness to acknowledge that the character is an asshole and deal with that. And there are many characters I adore who are basically just nice. But I have a huuuuge competence kink, and competent and assertive snarky jerks are definitely a type I go for.

Key emphasis on the competent, though. Just a jerk? No. Snarky jerk who's really good at what s/he does? Yes please. (Not specifically as a male-character thing, but there are a lot fewer female than male characters who really nail the specific elements that get me -- the Luideag in Seanan McGuire's October Daye books is a good example of one who does, or SL Huang's Cas Russell.)

Actually, "competent and smart" might be the one big, overriding thing that makes me fall for a character. It's not just competent jerks; I also adore the ones who are super competent but are so quiet about it that nobody tends to notice until they're backed against a wall, or the ones who are competent but play the fool so no one realizes until Sudden Surprise Competence happens.


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Yuuuup. Competence is one of the biggies for me in falling in love with characters.

or the ones who are competent but play the fool so no one realizes until Sudden Surprise Competence happens

Have you ever read Patricia Brigg's Hurog duology? It's kind of the ur-example of this for me.
I have not! I've never even heard of it. :D What are the names of the books in the series? I'll add them to my to-read list!

... but, yeah. Competence does it for me. I can also love characters who start out incompetent and try really hard and turn into badasses in their particular area (doesn't have to be physical badassery; there are many ways to badass) but it's really difficult to sell me on a character who is a total failboat. Although, in fairness, fictional characters tend not to be (outside of comedies) since there's not really much of a story if your character screws up constantly.

(Though I'm sure that five minutes after posting this I will have come up with a dozen counterexamples, because I always do. XD)
They're Dragon Bones and Dragon Blood. Good h/c in them, too. :)

And yes, totally. (I think this might be why I tend to really want h/c for comic relief characters, actually, because I crave that pushed-to-the-walls aspect, where they are forced to drop the act and actually be competent. Hmm...)
Aaaaand ... bought on Amazon. :D (Twist my arm.)

Yeah, I think this has a lot to do with why I don't normally enjoy comedies -- comedy-genre comedies, as opposed to serious works with comedic elements -- all that much. There are of course exceptions, but not as a general rule. I do love characters that surprise me, characters I dismiss at first glance who turn out to be awesome later on, but usually what I enjoy is watching characters competence their way out of situations, which is usually not what goes on in a comedy.
Hee, yay! :)

Yeah, I don't really go for a lot of pure comedies either. It pretty much has to have something else going on with it. Like Scrubs, which I adored, but that had the medical aspect to it as well. (And I craved h/c for it like burning. Never found any good stuff, either. *sigh*)
Good h/c in them, too. :)

Sold! (Plus humor and 1st person POV? *dies of happy*) I've been needing a good new book to read and this will fit that bill nicely.
Competence, yes. Which is probably why I have such an annoyance with the trend in some fanfic to kind of... set a character's competence aside, or kind of forget it exists, in order to paint all the character's adventures as being said character's fault because they're a reckless bumbler who makes foolish mistakes, and not because bad-guy is doing a thing that must be stopped.

Alphas, though, are rather hit or miss for me, with more misses than hit (although I absolutely adore characters who come off as being a jerk but are, in fact, incredibly good people, they just won't admit it). I've come to realize I'm more drawn to characters who are broken but don't realize it. Characters who try their best to keep going, move forward, and generally try to be a good person to those around them because it's those around them who matter the most, but they have these issues that are causing them problems or wearing them down without them realizing it. These characters, at least the ones I'm drawn to, are usually really competent, just not competent when it comes to recognizing their own emotional baggage.
Oh man, yeah, I HATE it when fanfic takes a competent character and turns them into a buffoon, either because the writer doesn't like the character or because the plot calls for it or whatever. Especially when it's something they're canonically good at, or if they're smart in canon but get dumbed down for fic to make someone else look better.

And yes, that makes total sense, in terms of characters. I love that kind too, and I think characters who have trouble figuring out their own emotions (characters who are unreliable narrators of their own emotional state, basically) are another "type" I go for. :D
Oh man, yeah, I HATE it when fanfic takes a competent character and turns them into a buffoon, either because the writer doesn't like the character or because the plot calls for it or whatever. Especially when it's something they're canonically good at, or if they're smart in canon but get dumbed down for fic to make someone else look better.

I've seen far too many fanfics that do this very thing to Steve Rogers. FAR TOO MANY.
I've been thinking of that as the seduction of competence for years, before I read The Book of the Courtier and discovered the word sprezzatura.
I have never heard that word before! I've learned a new thing; thank you! :)
I like competence. Competence is good. But competence can quickly turn unbelievable if they're ALWAYS competent. I want to see a competent man fail now and then, despite his competence, because all humans fail and it's how they get back up that reveals their strengths and weaknesses. I don't know how many military scifi's I've started to read only to see that the male protag is Flawlessly Competent And Wins All The Battles. So boring. I want to see a guy get battered and bruised and lose now and then before getting pushed to the edge of ultimate disaster and ultimately winning. (Because I hate it when a book makes me like a character and then kills him at the end. Heroic sacrifice is the lifeblood of certain noble tragic hero stories, but nope. No tragedy for me. Nuh-uh. I don't need it, thankyouverymuch. Unless of course it's mid-story and there's h/ccccc and recovery and triumph involved. Real life is hard and triumph often rare, so fiction is my fix-it for that. In my fictional headspace, Halbarad, Finnick O'Dair and Fili and Kili All Live.)
Oh yes, I completely agree with this! Characters who are competent at literally everything, and win all their fights easily, are boring. But I love characters who are super-competent in some areas, but can still lose, can still get beat up, get to the edge of losing everything and then win.

(Also: h/ccccc. Hee! Yes, that is how I like mine. XD)
Darn it! Crappy wifi ate my comment. I shall attempt a reconstruction.

*sighs over Lord Peter Wimsey*

Actually, all the characters I fall in love with are competent. Few things annoy me more than someone who gets other people into scrapes because they're clueless/careless.

My newly-found favorite in the category of "secretly competent" is Freddy from Cotillion.
Oh, Freddie, yes! Now I want to reread Cotillion ...

But yeah, I really don't have much patience for bungling heroes. I want to watch people come to the brink of losing because the things they're up against are just that awful, or because they've been pushed into a situation they're unprepared for (but are still attempting to deal with at some basic level of competency), not because they're just terrible at everything.
The term "alphahole" makes me think this is some kind of new variation on A/B/O. *headdesk*

More seriously: I often like characters who are jerks, and I think it's true that competence plays a huge part in that. But I also think that if you're inclined identify with the character a certain degree or kind of arseholishness can be rather cathartic. :)
I think you've helped me identify why I like some characters—I was going to say some characters I'd never like in real life, but I think I know a few people like this, and I do kind of like them in real life. And I don't understand why, because they're jerks, and I know they're jerks, and I don't support them being jerks, but they're highly competent at what they do. And generally decent in a pinch.

That's totally why I like Rodney McKay. If he were less competent, I wouldn't be able to stand him!
Oh—and that's why I didn't like #3 on Dark Matter for so long! He struck me as a Rodney McKay without the competence or the basic decency! But then we began to see what he can do well, and that he can be decent to some people, at least.
Ha, no, this makes perfect sense to me ... I actually do get along with competent jerks in real life too. Er, assuming they aren't COMPLETE assholes, but yeah, basically decent people who just aren't particularly tolerant of people around them, often having to do with other people being incompetent in their vicinity. Real-life Rodneys, basically.
Aaaaaaaa I was reading this going *nod nod nod, me too, exactly!* and then you mentioned my books and EEK. *falls over*

Thank you. <3