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May 12, 2015

What Is an Alpha Heroine?

Woman with a sword and text: How Strong Does an Alpha Heroine Have to Be?

Yesterday, I guest posted at the Writers in the Storm blog about making our characters strong yet vulnerable. I blogged about the topic here last year, but my post over at WITS includes details of how I tackled the issue with my characters in my releasing-next-week (Ack!) novel, Treasured Claim.

I shared how I balanced my hero’s strengths and vulnerabilities to keep him relatable so he’s not an alpha-hole jerk. *smile* And I also talked about how I balanced my heroine’s many strengths with her vulnerabilities to keep her likable.

I struggle constantly with keeping my heroines likable. So I have a lot of experience in trying to find that balance between showing their strengths and their vulnerabilities. One reason I struggle so much is because I want my heroines to be strong characters in many ways.

Matching the Heroine to the Hero

As I mentioned in the post at WITS, in many paranormal romances, the hero is a paranormal being and the heroine is a “mere” human. Between her gender and her human frailty, the heroine is usually at a big disadvantage.

No offense to many of my favorite books, but I didn’t want to write that kind of paranormal romance. When writing romance, I love exploring the power struggles and negotiations between the couple.

To me, a romance where the couple figuratively battles each other for the upper hand and gradually learns to function as a partnership and team feels true-to-life. So to write those kinds of stories, I needed heroines who were on equal footing—power-wise—with the hero.

In other words, I needed alpha heroines to go with my alpha heroes. *smile*

18 Traits of an Alpha Heroine

On some level, an alpha heroine is simply a character who knows what they want and is willing to stand up for themselves to get it. Depending on the story, that might mean they stand up to the antagonist, or it might mean that they stand up to the hero, or maybe they stand up to protect someone else.

I thought it would be interesting to go through the traits of an alpha male and see how they would translate to an alpha heroine. Following that same list of alpha male traits, let’s take a look at how heroines might be alpha characters.

An alpha heroine…:

  1. Won’t Fight just to Fight:
    Being an alpha doesn’t mean being b*tchy and argumentative all the time. Rather it’s about using the right tools for the situation—whether that’s tact, stubbornness, humor, logic, etc.—to stand up for herself and those who matter to her.
  2. Doesn’t Wait to Be Led:
    An alpha heroine knows what she wants and won’t wait for someone else to hand it to her. She might also lead in other ways, such as listening to, guiding, or helping others.
  3. Has Strong Communication Skills:
    She’s able to express herself in ways that get others to understand her point. She’s not afraid to have opinions.
  4. Has a Strong Presence:
    People take note of her (for good or bad). This again comes down to leadership and a willingness to fight for what she believes.
  5. Makes Decisions:
    My heroines often struggle with making (or sticking to) decisions when it comes to trying to stay away from the hero. *grin* But other types of decisions, such as standing up for others, even when not convenient, are easier for them. They believe in themselves, so they’re confident enough to follow through and take responsibility.
  6. Is Less Emotional:
    Eh, I’m not sure this is a requirement for alpha heroines. (Although it is often true of my heroines, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. This is where exposing their vulnerabilities might come in handy. *smile*) In the comments below, Serena points out that this might mean they’re able to set aside their emotions when necessary to deal with situations. They can choose to be calm, even when upset, to be able to think clearly.
  7. Looks Out for Others and Solves Problems:
    Just like how she doesn’t wait to be led, an alpha heroine doesn’t wait for others to solve issues. She’s often fiercely protective of someone and doesn’t run away when the problems get worse.
  8. Commands Respect:
    She doesn’t demand respect; she commands it simply by being the kind of person she is. Maybe she’s very competent at her job, exceptionally kind, or extremely competitive, but something causes others to look up to her in some way.
  9. Doesn’t Panic:
    She might not have all the answers, but she doesn’t panic about that (at least, not much *smile*). The decisions she makes are usually carefully considered and not just the result of random choices driven by chaos.
  10. Is Focused:
    Their focus is often directed at trying to get what they know they want. She doesn’t go into things halfhearted.
  11. Isn’t a Doormat:
    Just because she’s nice or kind or whatever doesn’t mean that she’ll let others take advantage of her (at least not long term). This goes back to standing up for herself and others.
  12. Might Struggle with Asking for Help:
    She’s more comfortable solving her own problems. She’ll often ask for help only when absolutely necessary.
  13. Is Less Inhibited in Her Sexuality:
    She might start out inhibited, but once she decides that she wants the hero, nothing will stop her. Her partner will know just how much she wants him because she’ll make it obvious (even if that’s only during their private time).
  14. Doesn’t Need the Approval of Others:
    She’s confident enough in herself that she doesn’t feel the need to reach out to others for assurance all the time. She’s okay with her opinions, even if others aren’t.
  15. Isn’t a Slave to Fashion:
    Alpha heroines won’t suffer with wearing uncomfortable heels on a regular basis unless they want to. They won’t dress with trying to impress others (other than maybe the hero) in mind.
  16. Isn’t a Social Butterfly:
    They can be plenty social with their friends, but alpha heroines aren’t looking to be super popular. So they don’t seek out others for approval or other types of reassurance.
  17. Has a Good Sense of Humor:
    While they won’t use jokes to be the center of attention, they do use humor for a purpose. They’re more likely to use humor when they want to make someone else feel better, defuse a tense situation, or put someone in their place, etc.
  18. Takes Care of Herself:
    Alpha heroines aren’t expected to have the body of a model, but they believe in themselves enough to take care of themselves in some way. They might try to take care of themselves physically, mentally, and/or emotionally.

By no means should any alpha heroine have all these characteristics down pat—ever—and especially not at the beginning of a story. But as characters grow and mature, an alpha heroine would align closer with these ideals.

That might mean she starts off opinionated and fiercely protective of someone. But maybe she’s not good at communicating and getting what she wants. Then as she grows in maturity over the course of the story, she might learn how to control her anger and command more respect.

No alpha heroes would have all these characteristics either. But maybe by seeing all the ways we can show a character to be strong, we’ll realize that “strong” characters aren’t just about being dominant, physically or otherwise.

In fact, there are many ways to create strong female characters. We don’t have to rely on the butt-kicking stereotype to create a heroine that other characters—and our readers—will respect. *smile*

P.S. Don’t forget to check out my guest post at Writers in the Storm with details of what makes my shapeshifting-dragon heroine strong. *grin*

P.P.S. If you need more suggestions, I also shared how typically beta traits can show strength in my follow-up post here.

Do you write heroines who could be labeled “alpha heroines”? What traits do your heroines have that could be seen as alpha? Do you disagree with anything on the list? Do you have other suggestions for the list? Are you an alpha female, or do you know one?

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What do you think?

43 Comments on "What Is an Alpha Heroine?"

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Carradee

When you boil it down, it seems to me that true “alpha” personalities—male or female—are comfortable in their own skin…or at least comfortable enough that they view discomfort as a challenge rather than a threat.

Whereas the jerk pseudo-alpha feels personally threatened by threats and responds with the level of immaturity inherent in that.

How a person responds with disagreement says a lot about a person—including for those people who love to argue for the sake of argument. (How do they respond if asked to stop?)

Kim

This post is so great! I needed it right now.

I love how you didn’t rely on the ‘butt-kicking’ heroine as the only way she can be strong. I get so tired of that. Strength does not necessarily mean physical strength.

My heroine is definitely alpha, but it’s hard for her because she lives in the 10th century! Part of my reason for writing is to show strong women in that time period. Their strength is different from that of men, but it is still strength. I think I’ll go through your list more carefully and take some notes about my heroine. I think it will help to flesh her out.

I’m not alpha, not at all, but I admire women who are and that’s why I write about them.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Yeah I would be considered an alpha female in that I have most of the things on the list. Haha I don’t like the being less inhibited in her sexuality part, though, since I’m not fond of premarital sex, lol, but if the two are married to each other already, then okay. That’s just me, of course. Many people would think I’m such a moral prude in disliking premarital sex, lol, but whatever. Yikes for the less emotional one. D: Aw I like emotionality in both my heroes and heroines, lol. But my heroes do tend to be more emotional than their partner and my heroines calmer. Yet being calmer doesn’t mean being indifferent emotionally, just more able to turn off the emotions to think clearly for a time. Oh struggling to ask for help? Hmm I don’t really see that as something that would make a heroine (or hero) “strong” or alpha. Even leaders rely on their teammates or “subordinates”, and wise leaders know they can’t do things alone and have to trust their team. But maybe this is only about the stereotype of an alpha person in stories, not about an alpha per se. (My hero is actually one of those people who would unashamedly ask for help and rely on his friends, lol! He has a lot of confidence in his abilities but he thinks that it’s foolish to be rash and try to go solo when having a team with him would make chances of success… Read more »
Beabe Thompson

Another incredibly helpful post, Jami. Thank you so much.

terry gene

Author Terry Gene
you got a point. I took another route. My MMC, Alex, is likeable, depressed, and overly honor bound. The FMC, Sarah, is carefree, naive, and irrepressible. Hmm, did I say his best friend is ex-MP, cares a SOG knife between her shoulder blades and a 10 mm S&W in her over-sized purse? Yep, Katie is my alpha…

dolorah

I rarely read today’s version of paranourmals – in urban fantasy, fantasy, or sci fi- because they are all so sarcastic/bitchy and slaves to a good looking alpha male. I like romance in a story, just not the cloying ROMANCE to be the story.

I like your heroines Jami. I could read them. Reminds me of Katherine Kurz, Anne McCaffrey, and David Eddings heroines. Lessa (Dragon Riders of Pern Series) has always been my favorite heroine – my alter ego. More recently is Khalan (Sword of Truth series) created by Terry Goodkind. Feminine yet completely capable; doesn’t need the hero to “save her” from her duties.

The Walking Dead (tv series, never read the comics) pays homage to awesome heroines also. Rick is no doing well in captivity without Lori to balance him, but Maggie is sure a force to be wary of, and certainly is the reason Glen maintains his moral sanity.

I have yet to complete anything in fantasy writing, my only completed books are women’s fiction. My female MC is experiencing lots of character growth from being a doormat type to self sufficient. She does need to exhibit a lot of these characteristics, even though she has no super-powers. I believe contemporary women who rise above their disadvantages in a male-oriented society is a superwoman though 🙂

I will bookmark this for future reference if I am ever brave enough to write a paranormal heroine though. I love your list of character traits.

Mary Curtis
Mary Curtis

A good checklist, Jami. Various points I will keep in mind for later on. Right now my main female character is a blank slate, having been literally drained of her past. So I’m tiptoeing around trying give her a personality that will work before the truth of her past sends her into the chasm.
As for a preferred type of heroine, I guess my mind is a trash receptacle that can accept varied personalities–but it has to be well written trash. Can trash be well written? It depends on the garbage bin you retrieve it from.

Vivian
Vivian

Excellent!

Crystal Cox
Crystal Cox

Thank you , I really love this blog post ! I think #1 is the one that can aggravate me the most . Make her strong but she still has to be likable ! If she has constant attitude and does nothing but argue , who is going to like her ?

Dave Withe (Newburydave)
Dave Withe (Newburydave)
Hey Jami; Love your email updates, even though I don’t always have time to read them. I’m a guy who writes romances. 😉 After reading this post I realized that not only do I know an Alpha female, I married her 44 years ago and counting. The battle for “leadership” still goes on, some areas are settled others not so much. Personally, I think the wolf pack alpha couple is one of the best analogies for human alpha couples. One thing I can attest to is that the dynamic is always changing, some due to basic biology (yeah boys and girls are different) and others due to increasing maturity. (If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger. Unhunh, that kind of relationship.) My most recently published space opera, novella has my male POV (1st person deep pov) in love with and pursing an alpha female (heavy battle cruiser captain). It starts at the romance 3rd plot point (I hate the full romance formula plot dance), desperate action to recover from irreconcilable differences (total committment). I realized early on that my female leads were all modeled on my wife minus the extreme diffidence (I know, dominant and diffident; go figure. None of us make total sense). But hey, she likes my romances and she’s my most discerning critiquer. Your list is very timely. I’m currently ghosting a biography of a friend’s late mother. I’m casting it as an recent historical adventure / romance. The woman involved is a definite alpha.… Read more »
Evolet Yvaine

Funny. When I saw this post, I immediately thought of Buffy Sommers and Sidney Bristow. LOL. I definitely like the list and feel that my soon-to-be heroine, Shao, inhabits some of these qualities. I like where you said, “By no means should any alpha heroine have all these characteristics down pat—ever—and especially not at the beginning of a story. But as characters grow and mature, an alpha heroine would align closer with these ideals.” Shao is a definite #12 and #13 and I’d like to think that during the course of her story, she’ll grow into those characteristics. Like others have been saying, this is very timely post. Much obliged.

Sharla Rae

Another fantastic blog, Jami. So many times writers try to make the heroine alpha by making her into a bitch. She complains and and rants and nit pics at everything until the reader hates her! I’ve tried to explain this a couple times but some don’t understand that strength doesn’t equate with a person no can get along with, especially “any” hero. You have a gift for explaining these things. 🙂

Davonne Burns
Okay, I’m going to be up front and honest about my take on this and please understand I am coming from a very different viewpoint from most people. I love the idea of a strong woman. I do not love the idea that to be a strong woman she must take on masculine traits. Simply flipping the traits means that you have a woman attempting to be masculine or have what society perceives as masculine traits. Reading through the list of traits an ‘alpha male’ should display I was very put off. It’s confining, condescending and further enforces the strict gender binary with little room for self expression. “Carry a calm and serene expression on your face and don’t be overtly bubbly or expressive while talking to someone.” In other words, don’t show what society assigns as a feminine trait. “Groom yourself well and avoid donning fashion at the cost of comfort. Pick outfits that highlight the bulk of your shoulders and torso. Stay away from extremes – too many pastel shades and weird fashion choices are best avoided.” Don’t look gay. “To adopt this alpha male behavior, don’t let yourself become overly chatty and giggly in a social situation. ” Again … don’t be girly. Overall, the whole article reads a like a list of how to be manipulative and passive aggressive. While there is nothing inherently wrong with any one trait and as you said no one would have all of them, I find the need to strip… Read more »
Rinelle Grey

Sounds like just the sort of characters I write. And love to read too. I haven’t been checking blogs lately, and didn’t realise your books were out. I’ve grabbed a copy of the first one now though, and I’m looking forward to reading it!

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Luca Thrace
Luca Thrace

Hi, Jami, my editor sent me your article because she “would certainly classify Serafina as an alpha heroine”, and becasue you’re one of her favorite paranormal romance authors. [Hi, Jennifer!]

I can’t imagine writing a story where the female protagonist is anything less than kick-ass. My favorite authors and screenwriters all have strong female protagonists: Claire in Gabaldon’s Outlander series; Daenerys and Cersei in Martin’s Game of Thrones; Zoe and Inara in Whedon’s Firefly, and so many others!

The heroine in my soon-to-be-released-on-Kindle medieval romantic suspense is all of the things in your Alpha Heroine list. My male protagonist is both strong and vulnerable, but Sera equals his strength as she learns to trust in her own inner resources.

Am I an alpha heroine? Absolutely! Know it and own it, ladies.

Glynis Jolly

My leading man, who is barely a major character in the story, is a beta character. He’s the voice of reasoning for my protagonist female. He’s the one who stops her from tripping over her own feet.

Carissa

This is a great list! And I particularly love your opening point: that the butt-kicking heroine can be overdone and excelling this isn’t necessary for writing a strong heroine.

I think it’s really important to write non-wimpy female characters, but I think that sometimes we run into a problem when we equate “strength” and “alphaness” with what are traditionally considered masculine/testosterone-driven characteristics. My favorite female characters aren’t afraid to embrace the strengths of their feminine side. I think it’s great when they are a mix of these “alpha” characteristics (which in our society is all too often really just a synonym for masculine characteristics) and undervalued characteristics such as interpersonal skills and empathy.

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