Alpha Beta Gamma: The Romance Hero Fraternity

Or, People Are Not Wolves and These Terms Are Not Really Apropos Outside of Shifter  Romance and Bestiality

If you read much in the romance community you will see the term “alpha” come up all the time with respect to the hero.  Then you will also start to find debates about “alpha or beta,” as though, having classified one class of hero as an alpha, readers must by necessity fit the other types into pack terms, as well.

Um, no. 

I frankly hate these terms for the men in romance novels. 

I can at least understand why “alpha” exists–there are a lot of heroes out there who are leaders, often arrogant, often possessive, often bossy, often my-way-or-the-highway types.  The term becomes more apt when discussing shapeshifters or werewolves who might actually have that tie back to an animal nature that humans have evolved past.

That’s really the sticking point for me. Discussing humans in terms of pack behaviors seems so…unevolved.  It also in my opinion excuses or institutionalizes a lot of bullshit behaviors that civilization was designed to move us past. 

Personally, I don’t like the alpha hero.  Despite that they are often explained as being very intelligent, the way they behave tends to be more dumb jock who hits first and thinks later.  To me, it says that whatever native intelligence those characters have, they’ve never had to rely upon it as their first, rather than last, line of defense and therefore don’t use it all that much. 

I prefer men who use their brains.  This is not to say I don’t like strong men, men who have charisma, men who are natural leaders, men who are arrogant or cocky or know-it-alls.  I like a man with a brain and fists to back it up, absolutely.  But I don’t like the term “beta” being applied to those men.  It just…doesn’t quite fit.  In a pack the beta is the wing man, the alpha’s second, the enforcer, not the leader and not someone outside of the pack.  I find the implication that any man who is civil enough not to punch someone for disagreeing with him–you know, someone who conforms to modern cultural standards of decency–is really “second” to his alpha rather disgusting. And if that notion of “second” is not embedded in the romance term, then the pack analogy has already broken down and should have stopped with alpha.

Also, where is the term for loner in that pack-as-romance-analogy language?  Where is the term for a man smart enough to wander beyond his culture and strong enough to stand outside it despite social pressure to return? 

I have seen “gamma hero” thrown around, but it’s an even murkier type than the “beta hero.”  The clearest explanation I’ve found starts to imply it’s the loner type, but then adds in something about how this type of hero doesn’t put the heroine first and that is also one of his defining characteristics.  

I think I tend to prefer human personality traits to describe heroes.  Things like loner, leader, follower.  Joker, gambler, thinker, doer.  Sensitive, funny, defensive, open.  The terms are more apt because they are more specific, and–surprise!–humans have a much broader range of personality traits and cultural positions than wolf packs.

What about you, fellow romance readers?  Do you understand the terms any better?  Do you like them?  Do you know what a gamma is?…


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Filed under Reflections on Romance

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