Monday, February 25, 2008

In Praise of Beta Heroes

by Nick Conrad

There are only so many nobles, warlords and top executives out there—not every guy gets to be a big dog. And not every guy is cut out to be a big dog, either. What of all the nerds, the shy guys, the loners, the mellow types who do their thing quietly and without ceremony? Some heroes aren’t bent on being in charge all the time—they don’t have the same swagger, the same sometimes overwhelming confidence of the standard garden-variety alpha male. These are our beta heroes—the guys who don’t roar as loudly and who might need a little more prodding when it comes to going after what they want.

The beta hero, generally speaking, is a likable fellow who’s usually not without some significant—although sometimes not immediately noticeable—talents. But even though he doesn’t stand at the head of the pack, the heroine is drawn to him, and it’s not hard to see why. At the heart of it all, the beta hero is sincere. When he falls in love with the heroine, there is no question about his motives. Unlike his alpha brother, the beta man tends to show sensitivity more quickly. There’s less possessiveness, less of a desperate drive to make the woman his. In fact, often the beta hero is more tactful in his pursuit, to the point where he might not be the one doing the pursuing. Sometimes he starts out as a friend to the heroine and moves in later. Other times, he steps aside and lets her come to him when she’s ready. Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is one such hero.

Sometimes a hero can have a beta-seeming exterior but have very alpha aspects. He could be quiet and nerdy, boyish and easygoing—the point is, he’s not immediately recognizable as alpha. Once upon a time, a socially awkward bespectacled reporter known for being “mild-mannered” was actually a flying bulletproof powerhouse who saved people and could leap tall buildings in a single bound. But not every Clark Kent has to be Superman in disguise. Some beta men really are just mild-mannered guys who don’t move mountains or ooze testosterone out of every pore. But sometimes a situation arises where they need to spring into action, either to come to the aid of another character in the book (often the heroine) or to “prove” themselves in another way. Perhaps the geeky accountant suddenly reveals that he can fiercely hold his own in a fight, or the laid-back playboy who seems like he never works uses an impressive business prowess (and equally impressive funds) to come to the rescue. Or perhaps, in a streak of glory for nerds worldwide, the hero might have his moment in what seems like his most natural element—perhaps he’ll save the day using his expertise in computers or math. Either way, he shows that he might be mild-mannered at heart, but he can still be a superhero when one is needed. And the flash of alpha doesn’t even have to be so dramatic. It could be that the heroine has taken the reins of the relationship—and everyone is perfectly satisfied with that setup—but the hero needs to stand up for himself because she’s not respecting him. Or perhaps she needs him to help her ground herself, come back to Earth. A bit of maturity can be just as sexy as a bit of muscle.

Another common beta hero is the man-child who needs to grow up. He’s often something of a dandy, and that’s part of his charm—he’s fancy-free and able to show the heroine a good time. But after a while, his youthful attitude can become too much to bear. No one in an adult relationship wants to be the only grownup all the time, and the heroine most likely doesn’t want to be his mom. So such a hero has some maturing to do, and it’s preferred that he do it within the scope of the book. Sometimes the need to spring to action in a crisis is the trigger for the man-child’s growth spurt, but other times it’s not so dramatic. The key is that the hero realizes that, in order to cement—or maintain—his relationship with the heroine, he needs to step up and be a man. He needn’t completely kill the Peter Pan within—most likely, his boyishness is part of his charm, and his youthful view of the world has taught the heroine some valuable lessons. So, in the best case scenario, both the man-child and the woman he loves learn a little from each other.

Some readers might be wondering about relationships that contain two men. The two heroes could have any combination of personalities, but it is true that they might be an alpha and a beta. However, the relationship between the two of them (if they are romantically and/or sexually involved with each other) might not be so transparent as that—such a pairing does not default to alpha man: dominant and beta man: submissive. Their own relationship dynamic might be very different from that based on the other factors surrounding it. All of this to say, alpha and beta are not automatically equivalent to dominant and submissive (or “top” and “bottom”, either). That is an oversimplification of complex personality traits that can have many facets. If we wanted our heroes to be two-dimensional cutouts, we’d be making paper dolls of them instead of seeking them out in books.

Note that the beta hero who shows alpha aspects is not the same as a beta in alpha’s clothing. As discussed in a previous article on alpha heroes, the title does not make the man—just because your hero is a great warrior or the head of a major corporation does not mean he has an alpha personality. Yes, both of those positions require some alpha traits, but he’s not on the clock all the time. Sometimes a powerful man just doesn’t want to be in charge in his personal life, too. Moreover, attempting to make a hero alpha simply by putting him in armor or in a CEO’s swivel chair is lazy writing and, like all lazy writing, rarely works. The true definition of a hero as beta or alpha comes from within.

Beta men help make the world go around. For every leader, there have to be multiple loyal followers, and the men who fulfill these roles are no less lovable than their bosses.

10 comments:

Belinda said...

This was a great post about the beta male. I wrote a similar post about why I love to see beta males in fiction here.

I have a question for you: why do you think romantic fiction doesn't capitalize on the beta male the way it does the alpha male? Tradition? That's what readers actually want to see? That's what the authors want to write about? Or something else?

Anonymous said...

Oh, excellent article. I like the complexity involved with a beta in alpha clothing (cops/military are another facet of this) and the hero who needs to mature over the course of the relationship. So often in a romance the woman has to "come into her own" to be with the guy...it's nice to turn this around sometimes!

Margaret

ECPI Editors said...

Belinda, your blog article does a great job of summing up the beta hero's greatest qualities. Beta heroes are safe and immediately lovable—the guys many readers want to come home to. So the alpha male, who is in many ways a foil of that, is so popular in romantic fiction because he represents the other side—the embodiment of no-holds-barred fantasy. When you're reading about a beta man, it's easy to imagine him as the guy next door or in the next cubicle (or, for many readers, the guy you go home to at night). Beta heroes generally don't spirit their heroines away on horseback, and they tend not to be enshrouded in mystery or ooze danger from every pore. Regardless of what adventures lie in store for beta heroes and their heroines, the men themselves as a rule are somewhat grounded in a familiar reality. That isn't to say that alpha males don't exist in real life or that they can't be written convincingly, but their purpose is somewhat different.

Nick

Anny Cook said...

Alpha fellows don't do much for me. I like Betas that reveal a flash of alpha stuff every now and then. I certainly wouldn't want to live with an Alpha guy! Give me a Beta everytime. Steady as she goes...

Belinda said...

Nick,

Those are really good points. Thanks for your opinion on this! I suppose for me it must be personal preference to write about beta males because while I understand the attraction to alpha males, my favorite characters are always the beta male that can make me laugh.

brenda said...

Thanks for a great post. I am working on developing characters for a new book and found this post and Belinda's really helpful. I would love to read what your thoughts are on alpha and beta females?

Belinda said...

Brenda,

Not to direct traffic away from Redlines and Deadlines, but Romancing the Blog has a series of articles on alpha and beta females that I looked up for you because this is a very interesting topic...

The Alpha Male's Heroine discusses what happens when your uber-alpha male has a beta heroine; read the comments for a discussion of the pluses and minuses.

The Beta Heroine wonders whether there is such a thing, and whether a beta heroine is actually just a girl who isn't "kick a$$" but also isn't "too stupid to live."

Nice Girls Finish First talks about the trends of the alpha female and the lack of the nice girl being the heroine.

brenda said...

Thanks, Belinda
However did we manage without blogs! :)

Kate S said...

I'm late to the party here, but I'm so glad to see this blog. I love beta heroes and think they've been vastly underrated. In fiction and real life. :)

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