I’ve wondered a bit if the #MeToo movement has changed our vision of the romantic hero. I don’t think abusive men have ever been the norm in romance novels, but they’ve made their appearances. And the arrogant alpha male is certainly a common trope.
Our love affair with alpha males
I personally still like many alpha traits. I grew up reading Harlequin Presents, and they often featured larger than life heroes – think princes, sheikhs, CEOs, shipping magnates… So that still feels pretty standard for me when I think of romance novel heroes.
It’s not that being a CEO is inherently sexy (Elon Musk makes me think quite the opposite). It’s the fantasy of getting that guy that every woman wants – the captain of the football team, the genius, the star. The guy who’s gorgeous, rich, charming, and successful. And princes and sheikhs and CEOs are just the uber of the uber, where (superficial) success is concerned.
The real draw of the alpha male
But I don’t think women pine for those sorts of heroes because we’re superficial (though, if I’m honest, I think I’d always choose an attractive, financially stable man over one who’s poor and ugly, all else being equal).
No – I think it’s because we want to save them.
They have all of this stuff, all of this success, but surely deep down, they must be lonely and need our love?? We want to teach them to have better values, I guess – to value love and family and commitment and fidelity over wealth and influence. To show them that just because they’re rich and powerful men, in the things that matter, they aren’t any better than us.
But if alpha is passe, what do we replace him with?
The other traditional option is the beta hero. I’m not as familiar with this archetype, but it’s typically described as “the nice guy”, who’s kinder, humbler, and more sensitive than the alpha.
In practice, I think betas tend to be quite similar to alphas, in that they’re both attractive and successful. But betas inhabit a smaller world than alphas. Maybe they’re the country doctor or lawyer, the catch of their small town, rather than a man desired by women around the world.
By my definition, alpha means work/success-oriented, while beta means more family/community-oriented. Betas might have good jobs and be successful, but their focus isn’t their work — it’s the lives of their families and friends. Sadly, alphas often don’t seem to have family and friends.
My problem with beta heroes
The problem with nice guys isn’t that they’re nice. Nice is great. But in a story, in a romance, ideally your characters will change and grow. Romances in which the characters change tend to be more satisfying, since through their growth they earn their happy ending, rather than having it bestowed upon them.
In general, nice guy heroes have it together. Sure, they lack love in their lives, and maybe they have some external source of conflict to deal with, but their values and priorities are in order – they value their loved ones above their work, which is kind of critical in a romance.
I mean, the goal of a romance novel is to arrive at love and commitment and family, so if your hero is already ready for those things, he doesn’t really have far to go to grow and change.
We often pair alphas with betas
In my observation, we often pair an alpha male with a beta female in romance.
Yes! By my definition of alpha and beta, heroines can be alphas and betas, too.
Like beta males, a beta heroine values love above all else, so she doesn’t have much room to grow – at least in the context of a romance novel. She may just need some financial stability, which the alpha can provide, and she’ll be set. This is the basis for many, many Harlequin Presents, but it’s not really a satisfying character arc.
The alpha heroine is a woman who’s all about her career. And it’s the nice guy, beta hero’s job to step up and convince the alpha female that there’s room for love, even in her hectic world.
There’s nothing wrong with careers! But, romances are not about women finding their dream jobs and living happily ever after! Romance is about love and family, so in a romance, career is never going to be the peak and optimal goal of life.
These are fine story arcs, but notice that they’re both one-sided: The alpha changes and grows, while the beta remains pretty much unchanged. But ideally, both characters in a romance should learn and grow and earn their happy ending.
What’s the alternative?
Enter the gamma hero.
By most definitions I’ve found, a gamma is simply something between alpha and beta.
By my definition, a gamma hero is an alpha on the outside – he’s larger than life, gorgeous, plus he may be rich or powerful or famous or have some other trappings of alpha-dom.
But, the main difference is, gamma heroes ARE NOT ARROGANT.
Man, I hate arrogant men.
Alphas tend to wear their success on their sleeve, it’s the thing that defines them. They expect respect or even adoration. They think what they do is the most important thing in the world. They are entitled.
But a gamma, while he may be equally successful, doesn’t own his success. It doesn’t define him. He may even take on responsibility out of a sense of obligation, rather than to live that alpha life. He’s grudging in his success.
And he’s maybe a bit messed up, for whatever reason, as supplied by the author. He’s made mistakes. He’s maybe a bit of a loner, who craves love, but doesn’t feel like he deserves it.
The beauty of the gamma
So, with a gamma male, you get that “I want to fix him” draw, that “aspirational” hero (ugh, did I just use the word aspirational?), but he’s also a nice guy who won’t try to dominate you. He would be an equal partner.
But more importantly, there’s plenty of room for a satisfying storyline with gammas, with change and growth on both sides.
Sure, you could match him with an alpha or a beta female, but as a complex soul, he’s unlikely to find them very interesting. But, match him with a gamma heroine – a woman who can take care of herself, who knows there’s more to life than work, but is also somehow blocked from finding love and family – and you have a perfect match.
These wounded souls will empathize with each other, and lead each other to salvation through love.
This is why I love gamma heroes (and heroines), and it’s why I named by imprint Gone Gamma Publishing. Gamma characters are all about strong internal conflict, about learning they deserve love. So when they finally work through their problems and arrive at those dramatic revelations of love, it can be oh so very satisfying.
So, are heroes different since #MeToo? Might be bit soon to tell, plus I’d have to leave finding a definitive answer to people with better research skills than I.
But, I do think it’s harder to write an arrogant, pushy hero these days — even if they reform and change their ways through the course of the book. Who would be attracted to someone like that in the first place?
Next month, I think I’ll try analyzing some books and movies using these alpha-beta and gamma-gamma frameworks. Should be fun.
Note: I know I’ve written this article from a very M/F-centric point of view, but I think these alpha/beta/gamma character archetypes and pairings can also apply to M/M and F/F romances.