Monday, February 11, 2013

The domineering male with spinach and dish soap

My longstanding critique partner writes heroes who are chauvinistic, knuckle-dragging jerks.

I can say that, since I write heroines who are unlikable, unsympathetic bitches.

We've critiqued each other's work for close to a decade, long before either of us had a book contract or a clue how to spot our own idiotic habits. We've gotten good at rehabbing each other's work so our editors aren't subjected to the ass-hat behaviors of our characters' earlier selves. By the time readers see the finished product, her heroes and my heroines have been transformed from douche-nozzles into quirky, imperfect-but-likable individuals.

At least we hope so.

I woke this morning to an email from my critique partner with the first ten pages of her new manuscript and a request that I identify instances of domineering jerkitude before she goes too far with the story.

The irony?

In her effort to avoid creating a pushy pig, she'd gone too far the other way, crafting a man who urgently needed to grow a pair of love spuds.

The whole thing got me thinking about spinach and dish soap.

When I first began spending time with my gentleman friend, I invited him to dinner. He listened politely as I recited the planned menu – hazelnut-crusted halibut, steamed red potatoes, homemade bread.

"I'll make sauteed spinach," he said. "You have olive oil, right?"

I was taken aback. I love to cook, and I do it often for friends and family. When I invite people to dinner, most reply by asking, "what can I bring?"

Usually, I demur. "Don't worry about it," I insist. "Just bring your smiling self."

If it's a good friend, I might suggest a bottle of wine or a loaf of bread. But most of the time, I give in to my need to prove I have everything handled and my reluctance to issue orders. It's easier to tell people to arrive empty-handed than to feel like I'm handing out assignments.

Which is why my gentleman friend's offer of sauteed spinach caught me off-guard. He was assessing my needs and finding a way to contribute without requiring me to assign him something. I'll make sauteed spinach may have been a simple statement, but to me, it was akin to him saying, I will look for ways to be useful to you without waiting around for orders. He wasn't asking me what he could bring – he was telling me.

Pushy? Presumptuous? Maybe a tiny bit. But also the most successful form of foreplay imaginable.

It could have been a fluke, but it wasn't. A few months later as we bustled around the kitchen cleaning up after a meal, he watched me squirt dish soap from a plastic bottle.

"Why don't you use that built-in soap dispenser next to the sink?" he asked.

I shrugged. "I wish I could. It hasn't really worked right for years."

He grabbed me by the hips, pushed me aside, and crawled under my sink. "I think I see the problem," he called from the depths of the cupboard. "Got a screwdriver?"

I stood there dumbfounded for a minute. OK, maybe I was checking out his ass. And maybe I was also contemplating making an inappropriate screwdriver joke.

But I was also pondering how sexy it was to have a man who didn't just yell from the couch, "you need any help out there?" He anticipated the likelihood of me saying, "that's OK, I've got it," and bypassed my half-assed refusal by doing the job cheerfully and without making me ask for it.

And yeah, he pushed me around in my own kitchen. A little domineering, but holy-mother-of-hell, it was sexy.

There's a fine line when it comes to writing alpha males in romance or any other genre. On one side of it, you have the chest-thumping caveman taking charge because he's certain the silly little woman can't do anything for herself. On the other side, you have a guy who sees a genuine need and takes charge of fulfilling it without waiting around to be asked or listening to half-hearted refusals. It's a tough balance for a writer trying to create an alpha male who doesn't come off as a guy two steps from clubbing a woman over the head and dragging her by the hair toward his den. The trick, perhaps, is in showing your reader an intuitive helpmate, as opposed to a controlling misogynist.

Oh, and lest you think my gentleman friend reserved the sensitive caveman bit for those early months of dating, I'm happy to report things haven't changed. I spent the last week battling a nasty cold, which meant he spent most of that time ordering me to take care of myself and rest. On Saturday, he caught me in the kitchen trying to do dishes.

"Go lie down and relax," he commanded. "I've got this."

I agreed, then turned and began rummaging in the cupboard for a mug.

"Out!" he ordered. "Now!"

"But I need tea."

"I'll make you some tea and then I'll do the dishes," he said. "Just go lie down."

Five minutes later, he brought me a steaming mug of tea, accompanied by a filthy joke about teabagging

"You're a pig," I told him.

"You love it."

Very true.

Here's to men who've learned the secret of blending a touch of pushy, domineering attitude with the spirit of a sensitive helpmate. They're the ones who get laid in romance novels.

Deservedly so.


Geoffrey Cubbage said...

Not just an "alpha male" thing! (Loaded phrase, that.) Competence and a willingness to use it unprompted is sexy in ANY romantic partner.

There's a classic Miss Manners snippet along the lines of "Asking if you can help with the dishes isn't courtesy; getting up and doing the dishes is."

I think we can safely update "courtesy" to "sexy" without upsetting Miss Manners too much, don't you? She's a tough old bird.

Unknown said...

a joke about teabagging!!?!?!? ahahahahahah *snort* he's perfect for you, huh?

i need a gentleman friend like that...does he have a brother, preferably with brown eyes? ;)

Christina Mitchell said...

No cup of tea has ever gone without a dirty, tea-bagging joke in my house either.

I feel you. I have been struggling with my novel because in my original draft, my hero was such a wimp. A previous critique group had a few men in it and they reacted with absolute disgust :D I tried to explain that this was a "woman's fantasy" and they were like, nope, no woman wants that guy. When I started re-writing, it was foremost in my mind, because they were right. I didn't want that guy either, but I also didn't want him to be a "chauvinistic, knuckle-dragging jerk". It's difficult but the hero needs to have kindness without fawning. He should take the lead without talking down or babying. Sexy is someone who knows you can do it, but doesn't want you to have to bother.

My husband- when we were dating- saw how frustrated I was because I didn't have a kitchen table in my apartment. I couldn't afford one and so I soldiered on, eating on the floor. He went out and bought me one and set it up so it was there when I came home from work one day. There was no notice, no special holiday, he did it because he saw I needed it. It was the most wonderful gift anyone had ever given me. A man who knows when he is needed is better than buckets of roses or bags full of jewelry.

Deborah Small said...

My husband exactly--sending my sick self to bed w/tea and a kiss and is currently vacuuming the house, this after he brought me breakfast in bed and then went out and scooped the dog poop in the yard. Definitely sexy. Definitely loving. Definitely loved; my Alpha hero. :)


Geoffrey, you make a great point! A partner of either gender who takes the initiative to do something instead of asking, "how can I help" (thereby putting the burden on someone else to give orders) is sexy no matter what!

Karla, alas, no brown-eyed brothers. There's a sister, but I don't think either of you swings that way :)

Mencara, that is an adorably sweet story! It can be tough to find the right balance between knuckle-dragger and wuss when writing male characters. I hope you nail it!

Deborah, dog poop scooping is an extra special level of love!


Linda G. said...

Your gentleman friend sounds a lot like TG. We're both lucky ladies. :)

Crystal Posey said...

I love this post, Tawna!

Mary said...

That's exactly the level of alpha I love. The one who knows what to do and when to do it, is confident enough to make it a statement rather than a question but to do it all with a sweet confidence that takes my breath away.

Man, those kinds of alphas are both hard to write and hard to find. You lucky gal, you! :)

Neurotic Workaholic said...

It is nice to be taken care of and to know that someone's looking out for you. It's also nice to read stories with alpha males who are recognizable and relatable, meaning that they remind me of guys I've met in real life. Then it makes it easier for me to understand why the fictional heroines fall for them.

Handy Man, Crafty Woman said...

My WIP has a beta male. I've discovered this is uncommon in Romancelandia. I don't care, I'm sticking with it. My hubby is a beta. I'm being careful, and making sure my character comes off as assertive and strong when he needs to be, and not wimpy. I'll read about alphas, but the betas get me all hot & bothered.

Oh and your gentleman friend cooking AND bossing you around in your kitchen? HOT. (sorry, lol)

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Here's to your gentleman friend. His attitude and his ass sound an irresistible combination ;-)

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Anonymous said...

This is the funniest post I've read all week! I love it! Great analogy for making believable characters and I will totally be looking for these mixes of manliness in my book as I started writing a romance and wanted to make my two guys seem different, but of course LIKEABLE.

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