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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Beta Guy

"Wait a minute. Nice boys don't kiss like that."
Bridget to Mark Darcy in the film Bridget Jones's Diary

Nice boys--the typical beta heroes in romance novels--are capable of some wonderfully unexpected moments. They're the men who are overlooked until they're needed, the men who avoid confrontation and are content to stay in the background until it's their moment to shine. And when they do shine, they can do it brilliantly.

A beta guy is responsible, dependable, practical, adaptable. He may not get all the attention, but he gets the job done. He'll offer the heroine a shoulder to cry on, and he'll entertain her kids at a birthday party. Superromance author Karina Bliss calls the beta hero "an alpha who has evolved."

Betas exhibit their leadership skills in subtle ways. They set excellent examples rather than enforcing their will; they prefer to negotiate rather then fight. They choose their battles carefully and then try to win them with reason. They can be just as stubborn and protective as alphas--they simply choose different ways of dealing with circumstances.

A few years ago I listened to an editor tell an audience of aspiring authors that she preferred stories with alpha heroes. And then a few minutes later she listed film examples of the types of stories she was looking for: romances like While You Were Sleeping and French Kiss, with nary an alpha in the bunch.

If a writer is crafting romantic comedy, a beta hero is the guy she can count on to roll with the punches and deliver the quips. According to Michelle Bardsley, "the beta hero will laugh at himself and the situation and the alpha hero won't...the reader laughs WITH the beta hero and AT the alpha hero." On the other hand, a beta hero may use his humor like a shield to deflect discussion, distancing himself from the heroine, tossing off a joke instead of revealing his feelings. He can be hard to pin down, since he's adept at wiggling out of an unpleasant situation.

I love betas, in spite of their flaws. I love living with them, and I love writing them. I prefer nice men in real life, and I appreciate nice men in the books I read, too. I love their subtle layers and their surprising strengths--they're seldom the typical open book.

Who are some of your favorite film or fiction beta heroes? Have you ever tried writing one? What do you think are some of the rewards or drawbacks of creating a convincing beta hero?


At 9:49 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

My all time favorite movie with beta hero is While You Were Sleeping. I'm so glad you mentioned it, Terry! I have it on DVD and watch it when I want a great romantic comedy.

I have written a couple of beta heroes. The first one I wrote is in a romantic comedy time travel called Meet Me Yesterday--alas unsold. The beta hero is a guy the heroine overlooked in college. When she time travels back, she ends up eventually falling for him. I think one of the challenges in creating a beta hero is to make sure the reader roots for this guy as an underdog to win the heroine's affections, but not to ever let him come across as wimpy.

At 10:05 AM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, Mo :-)! I love time travel stories, and yours sounds intriguing. Is it a second chance story? I love those, too :-).

A wimpy guy would never be romance novel hero material in the first place, right ;-)? No true heroine would choose or deserve a man like that.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

I am a HUGE fan of the beta male, and I love the description of him as an "evolved alpha."

One of my favorite romantic arcs is where you have a heroine who is lovable but has some pretty deep flaws. Her beta male friend is supportive, but at some point he calls her on her behavior; even cuts off their friendly relationship until she changes. And she thinks, "Wow. If he won't put up with this, I guess I really have to change." Then he's aloof while she changes, and in her newfound self-knowledge, she realizes he's the guy for her.

Or...Her beta friend's reaction hurts her too much to re-approach him, although she takes the lesson to heart. Her behavior correction, while positive, is new to her, and leads her to fall for someone who is a mistake. It goes badly, the beta steps in and does an emotional rescue, and they realize they're meant for each other. Yay!

This arc works equally well for heroines who are bitchy alphas and shy girls who need to stop being doormats.

At 10:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, the Beta Male! That's what I've been looking for all my life. Not that I've been with any Alpha male, mine were usually Dysfunctional Male. But in my romance reading I love the Beta male! I'd rather read a story with a believable man in it than some Alpha who has to be perfect and brooding and save the day. Though I understand some people read purely for escape and an Alpha male does the trick. Personally, I guess a Beta male to me IS an Alpha!

At 11:15 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

I agree with Linda, for me there is a fine fine line between a really great beta and alpha male because most of the qualities you described, describe my alpha men. :)

An alpha who has evolved. I like that, too. Makes sense.

My favorite alphas aren't brooding violent men, but they DO stand out in a crowd and they are fun and daring and adventurous!

I do like all the Tom Hank movies and I believe he would fall under the beta category, right?

Your betas sound perfect, Terry. My favorite beta would definitely have to be Mark Darcy, hands down. I did love those fight scenes between the two men in that movie because neither of them knew how to fight. ha!

At 11:25 AM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Esri--that term "emotional rescue" is perfect! I was determined to avoid using "sensitive" in my description of the beta hero, but he IS sensitive. He cares about people's feelings. The fact that such a man is labeled a "wimp" by some readers has me shaking my head.

Linda--I cringe at some of these labels, so I enjoyed your take on the issue :-). Any human being--or richly developed character--will be too complex for such simple terms. But the terms are handy for discussions like this ;-).

I enjoy reading stories with alpha heroes, too. Any hero will do ;-), as long as he deserves and wins the heroine and makes me sigh along the way.

At 11:54 AM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, Theresa :-)! Yes, those alphas do stand out in a crowd. And there's no denying their positive characteristics are heroic.

Besides, I think betas can brood, too ;-).

At 12:58 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

This so confuses me, this alpha and beta thing. I always start out any book thinking, I'm going to write an alpha hero...and he inevitably turns out beta. A younger brother, a dutiful son, a beta masquerading as an alpha (A Reputable Rake), a gentleman's secretary, for goodness sake, and Tanner, my last, who is another beta masquerading as an alpha. It's hopeless!!

At 1:17 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Diane: It's tricky, isn't it? And very much a continuous spectrum. Your heroes really are betas in disguise. They're in strong roles, and they'd like to believe they're always right, but the fact is, they're very open to other viewpoints. As I recall, curiosity is often one of your heroes' defining characteristics. It's the crack in the door that lets the unconventional heroine in. I think curiosity is not a very alpha characteristic. Alphas are pretty sure they know everything there is to know.

Theresa: I'd say Mr. Hanks falls squarely in the beta category, yes. And I'd say Clooney is a gamma male. But as Alton Brown would say, "That's another show."

At 1:23 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Diane & Esri--I agree, there seem to be shades of alpha and beta in many characters...which means they're interesting and complex and REAL.

An agent once told me the hero of my first book was an alpha masquerading as a beta. I was surprised and secretly pleased I'd been able to pull off a few alpha traits. But I don't think I could write a classic alpha, even if I set out to do it.

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

I've been mulling this over all day. At first I thought my hero was an alpha who retreated into beta characteristics in order to avoid more pain...but now I think he was an extroverted Alpha who's now an introverted Alpha. If that's even possible.

Ack! You Posse gals really make a person think.... :)

At 2:31 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Gillian--if you're having trouble classifying your hero, then he mustn't be stereotypical...which is a good thing, don't you think ;-)? Most important, he sounds interesting :-)!

At 3:40 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Diane, that's great that you do betas masquerading as alphas. You get the best of both worlds that way.

I used to enjoy writing time travels for that same reason: I could get away with pitting a smart, opinionated modern-day woman with a medieval man who's used to quiet women who draw his bath and tend to his needs without question.

And Gillian, your hero does sound interesting. Maybe he is still an extrovert and now he's hiding out for a while to lick his wounds, so to speak? Is he like the Beast in Beauty in the Beast who probably started out as an extrovert but who is now angry and bitter, hiding from the world? I'm sure I'm not helping matters at all...

At 3:41 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...


I meant Beauty AND the Beast. Not Beauty IN the Beast. Ha!

At 4:22 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Terry: I love your heroes. They're very complicated and real feeling.

Theresa: "Beast in Beauty"... Hurhur.

Gillian: Hi! I don't have a comment. Just "hi!"

At 6:13 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Yes, Theresa, that's a good description, and beauty IN the beast is fairly spot-on, as well.

Terry, thank goodness he sounds 'interesting' and not 'manic' ;)

Esri--Hi! right back! (grin)

Is Syndham from A Summer to Remember and Simply Love, Mary Balogh, a Beta hero? He would be, wouldn't he?

At 7:46 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Theresa--I think you should stick with "beauty in the beast"--it's brilliant! You could do a workshop on that topic :-).

Esri--thank you so much (blushing here).

Gillian--omigosh, Syndham! (Excuse me while I pause, all choked up again. Isn't Mary Balogh a goddess?!) Yes, you could make a convincing argument that he's a beta: a younger sibling, stoic, artistic, dutiful, adaptable. To me he's just...perfect. Happy sigh (sniff, sniff).

At 9:02 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Yes, Mary is my 'desert island' buy; if I had no other books, I would have hers.

And I know in the back of my head I measure all other heroes against Wulfric and Tresham.

At 11:15 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Terry, I LOVE Burke in Maybe, Baby. I'm almost done with the book, but I especially love when he first kisses Nora and pushes everything off the table and kicks the chair aside and buttons pop and things fly...hilarious! In that moment, he seemed a little alpha to me! Love Burke. He gets my vote for great hero material!


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