Monday, May 26, 2008

Alpha, Beta, Tomato, Tomahto

In the spirit of Memorial Day, the staff at the Diner has chosen to remember heroes of both real life and fictional types. In particular, I believe some of us are going to be talking about our favorite heroes from romance novels.

Unlike most romance readers, I have a preference for the type commonly known as a "beta" hero. While this affable sort bears little resemblence to the scientific "beta" of the animal kingdom, he is often regarded with disdain by fans of romance's "alpha" hero for being weak, passive and wimpy. He's accused of crying all the time, being a push-over and wearing his heart (instead of a different body part, I suppose) on his sleeve. These fans sometimes go on to describe the preferred alpha heroes as strong, caring, kind, smart, confident, competent and sexy. Basically, somebody who can protect the heroine physically and fiscally and see to all her sexual needs without her having to so much as say, "A little to the left, Ranger (or is it Morelli?)."

That being said, the beta heroes I've encountered in the romance genre have all those same characteristics. Strength, caring, confidence, sex appeal. The difference is they don't automatically try to LEAD in every given situation. They aren't necessarily the CEO or the tycoon or the king, though if put in that position, they function admirably. They don't assume their judgement and their ideas are more sound than everyone else's, which logically goes hand in hand with the "alpha" desire to rule. An alpha isn't just somebody who winds up in charge due to fate, destiny or the vagaries of plot, it's somebody who wants to be top dog (or is it wolf?).

What drives a character to be the boss of the world, or at least his little part of it? Many things, but among those things would be the assurance that he or she is the best person for the head honcho job due to general superiority. Alphas aren't just characters who do what needs to be done because somebody has to do it, they want, nay, they *need* to be in charge. That is a crucial component of what separates the alpha from other character types.

And somebody who wants to be the boss of me--or the heroine--just isn't all that attractive to me, fictionally or realistically. That's also why I think many heroes who get labeled alphas aren't true alphas (which gets us into gamma, delta and theta land, and I don't want to go there today). In fact, one could argue that the genre fiction definitions of alpha and beta are schizophrenic in general and can be molded to fit whatever character type a reader feels is more attractive.

The fact is, most characters are complex enough that they don't fit any type, any definition, and aren't we readers all the better off for it?

If you want to read more about romance genre heroes, you can check back at this blog over the next two weeks as Diner staffers contribute to the discussion and also follow these links:

(Note that I'm not covering the archetypes outlined in The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines, which are also interesting.)

Jody W.
A SPELL FOR SUSANNAH--Available now from Samhain Publishing
SURVIVAL OF THE FAIREST--Coming July 15 from Samhain Publishing *


  1. I'm with you. I prefer my heroes to lean more toward betas. (So much so that I married one.) When I read a stereotypical alpha hero I'm almost constantly thinking, "Dude, back off." Maybe because in most of the stories where the hero is a beta he and the heroine are working together toward a goal without him calling all the shots or (shudder) her deferring to him on decisions and whatnot.

    Thanks for sticking up for the betas : )

  2. I like beta heroes too because they give the heroines more opportunities to shine.

  3. I think the perfect hero would be the alpha male with a bit of beta in him. I like my heroes to be manly, but not so arrogant they need a frying pan to the head :) Not that I'd ever do that.


  4. I guess don't see "beta" heroes as automatically less manly than alphas, just not driven to rule. For me that's the crux--whether or not the character in question *has* to lead others in order to fulfill his psychological needs.

    Jody W.

  5. My favorite type of hero is an alpha. I like a hero whose first instinct is to protect, and that describes alpha heroes to a "T."

    For example, Aragorn (the movie version) is my perfect alpha hero. He doesn't seek to control others because he doesn't have to. People willingly follow him, but he's confident enough to follow when it's necessary.

    For him, control is about self-control and he has absolutely mastered himself, but that doesn't mean he is without flaws and self-doubt. Aragorn can lead and does. When the Fellowship leader (Gandalf) falls, Aragorn easily takes up the mantle of leadership.

    In general, an alpha hero always has your back. He's a loyal friend and a staunch champion. In short, he's a knight in shining armor.

    Yup, I love my alpha heroes.
    -happy smile and sigh-

  6. Ah, I love them betas. Although I prefer to call them reluctant heros. Every hero I've written is one. *G*