Writing Beta Heroes

As part of Olivia Dade’s #NotRWA17 virtual conference, I did a tweetstorm on writing beta heroes. It starts here, but if you’d rather read it not on Twitter, I’ve copied it below.

Welcome, everyone, to a quick thread for #notRWA17 on writing beta heroes. Or “beyond alpha: writing heroes who break the mold.”

Feel free to mute/unfollow if you’re not interested. I have 50ish-tweet thread, then I’ll answer questions/discuss.

The first thing I want to say that the alpha/beta/gamma taxonomy isn’t based on science.

The famous studies of wolves were based on animals who didn’t know each other–artificial, not real, groups.

Psychologists prefer the term “social dominance” to alpha, but there’s debate abt whether that’s real too.

So alpha isn’t real. We also might not like it because no fully realized, three-dimensional character should be reduced to a label.

But—and this is a big but—alpha/beta/gamma have use value. They can help you pitch or market your story,

And I do see readers using them as short-hand to describe their catnip (there are lots of alpha lists on Goodreads!)

So for my purposes, alpha refers to characters who are professionally successful and in charge;

Alphas tend to be top-down leaders and are often emotionally closed off, wounded, or wary;

Alphas are often powerful, dominant, possessive, and ruthless in public and in love.

I’m trying to be gender-neutral (despite my thread title), because there’s no reason a heroine couldn’t be alpha.

In contrast, beta characters are easy going. They can still be successful, but maybe they aren’t the boss,

Or if they are in charge, they lead via teamwork and are more focused on doing good, being fair, etc.

Betas are often kind, funny, smart, and emotionally aware.

And who are gammas? If we’re using the (defunct) wolf pack theory, gamma = a character who is another step removed from power

Gammas can be foot soldiers who blend alpha & beta traits, but I also use the label for characters who challenge the status quo.

Villains, revolutionaries, criminals, agents of chaos and anarchy: these *can* be gammas (though sometimes they’re alphas).

For me, alphas and betas are in and benefit from the current system; gammas are outside it or don’t benefit.

A few alphas: EL James’ Christian Grey, Alisha Rai’s Akira Mori, Dallas and Lexi in Kit Rocha’s Beyond series.

A few betas: Jane Austen’s Henry Tilney, Suzanne Collins’ Peeta Mellark, Chandler from Friends.

A few gammas: Robin Hood, Han Solo.

Again, I’m not saying these categories are real in any scientific sense or that your characters can’t be a blend.

Where, for example, is Mr. Darcy? Well, he’s rich, but he isn’t the Duke of Devonshire. He’s a step down the ladder.

He’s smart, but he’s also shy and socially awkward.

His great act of heroism is covering up Lydia’s indiscretion—which he does so behind the scenes.

While the 95 P&P had him diving into lakes and fencing, Mr. Darcy in the book isn’t that active. Folks, I think he’s a beta.

We can fight about Darcy later, though!

What I really want to talk about is how these different archetypes lend themselves to different conflicts.

Because alphas are common in romance, especially for heroes in m/f, we’re really familiar with those narratives:

Alphas have power & want to keep it; alphas need to have their cold, frozen hearts thawed; alphas don’t want relationships.

If it sounds like I’m mocking, I’m doing it with love. I do enjoy reading alphas, especially care-taking ones, but…

I also write almost all betas, at least for my heroes. To me, alphas seem to have it too easy. Yes, they often have sadness,

Even trauma, in their past, but the common internal conflicts with alphas–their inability to relate/connect–are often repetitive.

So enter the betas! Warm, funny, easy going, intelligent, nice, kind, team-oriented betas.

What’s the problem? Well, some readers find betas boring.

/Gasp/ Say it isn’t so, right?

To make your beta every bit as irresistible as an alpha, I think you need to do two things:

First, you have to pick tropes and internal conflicts that mesh with your character.

For example, betas tend to be less secure than alphas (tho alphas can be fronting). Betas also tend to be shy,

And betas aren’t generally as ambitious. (Or their ambition is rooted in different, less selfish, motives.)

This doesn’t mean betas don’t want things and can’t work to get them.

Indeed, I love it when betas lose their shit and finally fight for what they want, because acting out of character shows us how much they care.

Two of my favorite betas losing their shit books: Susanna Kearsley’s The Fire Bird and Tamara Morgan’s In the Clear.

But you have to earn that moment and think about how betas might use their agency in a sneaky or understated ways.

Second, you need to clarify the stakes. Since your beta doesn’t have total power, the stakes (probably) aren’t world-ending.

But low stakes in an absolute sense doesn’t mean boring. I’d argue the best season of Downton Abbey was the first,

When we had episodes about who was going to win at the local flower show. Small? Maybe. But it was huge to the characters.

(And a more thoughtful metaphor for social change than the show managed later on. But I digress.)

If you pick a conflict that grows out your characters’ motives/identity and show what the stakes mean to your characters,

A school teacher fighting against lunch fines (see Adriana Anders’ “Grassroots”) can feel as serious as an alpha saving the planet.

So that’s what I have prepared. What do you love about betas or other non-alphas? What’s challenging about them?

And why have those pesky alphas stayed so popular for so long?

ETA: and here’s an article from AAR that describes Deb Stover’s definition of gamma, which is is the source for mine.

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One thought on “Writing Beta Heroes

  1. A few notes and caveats based on the conversations I’ve been having on Twitter:

    – I definitely don’t want to defend the bifurcation in romance between alpha/beta heroes or to reify the division. Fully realized characters will generally be blend of both, and that’s good.
    – I primarily find the concepts helpful as short-hand. So when I was developing The Easy Part series, I saw Michael and Parker as more alpha and Liam as more beta. (And Millie is a beta, Lydia is an alpha, and Alyse is an alpha who’s been pretending she’s beta. It works for heroines too.) The same is true for Fly Me to the Moon, where Genevieve and I wanted to make sure we were writing a range of heroes and heroines.
    – You’ll note a lot of qualifications in here: often, sometimes, tend to, seem. A character doesn’t, and can’t, check all of these boxes. Some betas are warm and team-oriented, some are quiet loners. Some alphas are confident and even dominant, and some feign those qualities out of insecurity.
    – I specifically avoided using the word weak because I emphatically don’t think betas are weak.
    – No matter how you’ve handled your characterization, I do think my final bits of advice make sense: the conflict should grow out of the character and you have to show what the stakes mean to the characters. Seemingly low stakes will work if you show us how they’ll feel if they lose.

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