Here's a list of seven short stories, novellas, and novels in which the male romantic lead character doesn't resemble the classic alpha hero [scroll down for the start of the list]. Before we meet our beta heroes, I discuss the role of the alpha hero in literature and why sometimes beta is best.
feature photo: Christiana Rivers
Fairy Tales and Alpha Males
Cinderella wore rags and labored to keep house for her bullying stepmother and stepsisters. Snow White lay in a poison-induced coma. So did Sleeping Beauty. And then handsome Prince Charming/Prince Florian/Prince Philip swooped in to save the day. It’s a tale as old as time, as the song goes. When a beautiful woman is in distress, she needs a strong, handsome, and rich hero to come to her rescue. This storyline lays at the heart of each version the fairy tale we could title “Beauty and the Alpha Hero.”
If you take a look at the submission guidelines for publishers of books in the Romance genre today, you will see that the tale as old as time remains a current hit. Editors still seek out manuscripts featuring sexy men who will save our embattled heroine. Some publishers even specify the hero must be an alpha male. The thing is, many of these fictional 21st century alpha males are the sorts who will stop at nothing to get what they want. They are billionaires and bad boys. Their role is not just to save the heroine from whatever fate befalls her but to pursue her ruthlessly. These alphas continue to overemphasize their dominance even after the pair enters into a romantic relationship. I, for one, find this paradigm of the romantic hero to be a tad unsettling. Does the 21st century woman really need a man to save or dominate her?Does the 21st century fictional heroine really need a man to save or dominate her? Click To Tweet
“Betas Are the Alphas of Love”
Adam Conover, of Adam Ruins Everything (a show on truTV), set out to blow up the myth of the alpha male in the episode Adam Ruins Dating. In the episode, citing research disproving that wolf packs have an alpha male, he works to apply this theory to negate the existence of the alpha in the human population and to prove that so-called alphas don’t rise to the top of the pack of every social situation. I feel he misses the mark when it comes to recognizing the existence of the human alpha male. We are all familiar with a type of man (aggressive, self-centered) who uses his perception of his own strength as a means of keeping people he perceives as weak in a powerless position. In a patriarchal society, one that sees men as being born to rule over women, it is natural for some men to abuse this power. Natasha Vargas-Cooper and Kelly Faircloth refer to such a person as an alpha hole (love this term!) in a conversation they had on Jezebel. But what of the alpha male who uses his power for good?
Faircloth puts forth a theory that a true alpha hero, recognizing the power and privilege of being male, seeks to live up to his position. In fiction, this hero comes to the aid of the heroine, nurtures her, and protects her from harm. He exhibits qualities Conover attributes to beta males: generosity and kindness. Conover concludes these qualities, along with agreeableness, “are among the strongest indicators of a long and happy relationship.” In other [his] words, “betas are the alphas of love.” There are plenty of swoon-worthy examples of strong, capable heroes in fiction who make the world right for the women they love. But it is the hero “making the world right for the woman” aspect of the plot many authors wish to bypass in their novels. Enter the Beta Hero.
Beta Heroes vs. Alpha Zeroes
Chick Lit, a subset of the Romance genre, features female protagonists who are comically flawed and whose relationships with friends and family are as central to their worlds as a romantic relationship is. Chick Lit heroines possess inner strength, a quality they often ignore. They match up as well with beta heroes as with alphas. Alpha holes do make appearances in Chick Lit (I’m looking at you, Daniel Cleaver!), but not in the role of the hero.
I set out to write a beta hero when I created the character of Josh in my debut novel, Ellen the Harpist. My heroine has a lot to figure out about herself. If she couldn’t solve her own problems—if she instead needed to rely on a strong alpha male to save her—she wouldn’t be able to mature into a heroine on equal footing with her romantic counterpart. Whether in fiction or in RL, a woman is more likely to learn from her mistakes and to develop her own point of view when she doesn’t have an alpha male controlling her fate.
Below is a list of seven works of fiction in which a beta hero gets the girl. I’ve invited the authors of these books to share their thoughts on what makes the character a beta and why beta was the better bet. If you are inspired by our beta heroes, you can vote for our novels and find others beta heroes to love on this list on goodreads.
1. Josh: "Ellen the Harpist" by Diane Michaels
Josh is not wired for the role of romantic hero first when he meets Ellen at the beginning of the novel. He may be able to make her laugh, but when it comes to asking her out, well, his passive nature takes over. It doesn’t help matters when he lets his controlling, humorless ex continue to pull his strings. While Ellen spends most of the novel facing—and often flailing against—the hurdles of adulthood, Josh learns how to take command of his life. He ultimately matures into an ideal partner for Ellen, one who will not endanger her own newfound self-confidence.
2. Matt: “Don’t Mean a Thing” by Renee Conoulty
"I chose to write a beta hero for my heroine, Macie, because I wanted her to be supported, not rescued. Matt is a primary school teacher with a caring soul who treats everyone with respect. He is a fabulous swing dancer and takes control on the dance floor but doesn’t feel threatened when Macie dances with other people. He can express what he want without turning it into an ultimatum. He is a modern gentleman." —Renee Conoulty
3. Arlen: “Queen of the Universe” by Geralyn Corcillo
"Arlen Black (voted 2017 Best Book Boyfriend by a group of readers who love the genre), HAD to be beta. Why? Because of the heroine and her arc, of course. Lola Scott, the kick-ass, take-charge, and somewhat zany lead in Queen is undeniably in control of her TV show, her set, her actors. But she's not quite as in control of people and the world as she thinks she is. So the story needed a real-life nice guy, a man with secret wounds, to come into her life and shake up her perception of people and relationships, which had become warped by working in Hollywood. She, in turn, ends up saving him." —Geralyn Corcillo
4. Josh: “Two Last First Dates” by Kate O’Keeffe
"Paige, a secondary character in book 1 of the Cozy Cottage Café series, has a history of being attracted to alpha males who didn't treat her well or even notice her. She didn't know she needed someone to balance her out. As she is a timid, less self-confident, yet very positive thinking and kind character, I wanted to give her a love interest who could bring out those qualities in her, not stifle them. That's where Josh came in. Although Paige was still following her old pattern of falling for the alpha male—completely overlooking the beta Josh—she had enough self awareness to realise her pattern was damaging—she just had no clue how to break it. But break it she did through a series of events that gave her greater insight into herself. And then, when she got there, Josh was waiting for her." —Kate O'Keeffe
5. Giacomo: “Pot Love” by Sylvia Ashby
Ashby finds writing alpha male characters to be pretty boring, preferring characters who "are nuanced and mild. Who have insecurities and who happen to be nervous in social situations at times. Who don’t always get the girl or beat their opponents.
Giacomo, from my Pot Love series, is exactly this type of a man. He is successful in his business, but he is not pushy, arrogant, or a player. Instead, he loves Ashley (my clumsy and kind heroine) to bits. He supports her in everything she does and keeps her leveled when she loses her way, which is more often than she’s willing to admit.” —Sylvia Ashby
6. Aaron: “Any Way You Slice It” by Monique McDonell
"I wrote this novella, Any Way You Slice It, because I read a popular romance novel with an alpha hero and a weak heroine who was forced into a marriage of convenience, and it made me so mad.
Aaron is a beta in alpha clothing. Yes he's wealthy, handsome, and successful like the classic alpha, but he's not out to save anyone or change anyone's life. The whole premise of the story is that Piper wants to keep her life as it is. Aaron's also sweet, fun-loving, and not interested in any damsels in distress. It could be said that Piper rescues him rather than the reverse." —Monique McDonell
7. Mikey: "The Rescue" by Laurie Baxter
Laurie Baxter takes a classic alpha trope—the fireman—and turns him into a beta in this short story from the collection A Cute Pair of Shorts. "Mikey is a kind-hearted but misunderstood fireman whose squad-mates are giving him a hard time (it seems he mistakenly 'rescued' a large stuffed dog from a burning house earlier in the year). It’s starting to get to him, but he’s too good a guy not to endure." His star rises at the end of the story thanks to a rescue of sorts choreographed by the heroine. "I’m all about the betas, as a look at my other stories would quickly confirm." —Laurie Baxter
Are you a fan of alphas or betas? Who is your favorite book hero?
Meet your next beta hero boyfriend for free: Dan from King & Queen of the Bouncy Castle
Diane, what a wonderful, insightful look at what authors offer and what readers want. All my heroes are either beta, or alpha’s who learn to become beta because throughout the course of the story, they realize that while alpha may have been their identity, beta is their essence – and those are such wonderful characters to create. I have read and loved a bunch of books on this list, and the ones I have not read are going on my kindle ASAP 🙂 Thanks!
Thanks, Geralyn! Your books totally exemplify the “betas are the alphas of love” concept.
Great article, Diane.
Beta doesn’t mean second best and nice guys don’t finish last.
My favorite H (for either MM or MF) is one who has strength, perseverance/self confidence and survival instincts grounded in good morals and honour, patience and humor/kindness – usually honed and developed through adversity and contact with a wise mentoring entity (wise father or grandmother figure maybe or great literature even). They can learn the value of and how to be vulnerable and humble, often with the help and influence of an h (for either FM or MM). Those can be real assets in survival and in being a balanced and supportive partner.
I guess I feel that alpha and beta are too 2 dimensional and limiting as constructs or for the kind of male I would want as a life partner. I guess to put it in archetypal language I like a Beauty and the Beast story the best. They save each other.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kathryn. You site so many key qualities for both fictional heroes and life partners. Before I began writing and adopting the related vocabulary, I referred to men similar to your description as “evolved men.”
Great post, Diane! I ran across via the newsletter of one of the featured authors. I’ve always felt that beta heroes are under-appreciated. As a reader, I’ve always loved them, and now as a writer, I tend to write heroes who lean beta. I just happen to be the creator of the Beta Heroes list on GoodReads, so many thanks for linking to that. Now I’m off to look up all the books you’ve featured in your post.:-)
Thank you, Julianna! And thanks for putting together–and monitoring–the list on GoodReads! I was so happy to find it.
Great post Diane! My romance WIP has a beta hero and now I know there will be love for Dean even though he’s not a bad boy or a billionaire!
Thanks, Holly! And here’s to Dean’s HEA!