The Appeal of the Beta Male by Elizabeth Vail
[themify_box ]Elizabeth Vail is a critic, essayist, and romance author who reviews romance, fantasy, and YA literature for her long-running book blog, Gossamer Obsessions. Whenever she’s not being administratively supportive for money, she writes freelance, reviews movies, sings, and argues over the internet. Her debut novel, The Duke of Snow and Apples, came out in August.[/themify_box]
I was inspired to write this post after reading Michelle Sagara’s examination of the Alpha Male and his enduring popularity in the romance canon. I’ve enjoyed Alphas before. It would be hard to be a romance fan, otherwise, since you can’t throw a rock into romance novel territory without it inevitably shattering against the washboard abs of an Alpha Male. They are everywhere. They’re popular, they define the genre in many ways, and moreover, they sell like hotcakes. Muscular, dominating, aggressive hotcakes.
However, in my years of reading romance, I have always gravitated towards the dark horse of romance: the Beta Male hero. The shy boy next door. The reclusive gardener. The kindhearted book-restorer who happens to be a gargoyle.
Betas are the minor chord. Lower key. They tend to be mellower and less ambitious than their Alpha counterparts. You won’t find too many Betas as ruthless shark CEOs, for example. This doesn’t make them any less confident than Alphas – their confidence and contentment with their lot in life just doesn’t extend towards controlling their environment to the extent of an Alpha Male who needs to run his Fortune 500 company, award-winning cattle ranch, or werewolf pack.
A perfect example of this would be Phin Tucker from Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation: he’s perfectly happy to spend his day playing pool in the backroom of his bookstore, drinking a few cold beers, and helping his buttoned-up heroine Sophie Dempsey explore the kinkier side of her sexuality. I come from a family of fairly high-strung, high-stress overachievers, so this is why the ideal of the relaxed ne’er-do-well is such a powerful fantasy. A man at ease with life and his place in it, who’s capable of going with the flow and adapting to whatever life throws at him without having to control it, is narrative catnip to me.
However, Beta Males are just as determined to chase after what they want as Alpha Males. How the Beta Male differs from the Alpha is in his approach. If Alphas are controlling, than Betas are manipulative. A Beta Male’s seduction tends to be verbal and intellectual rather than physical and aggressive.
They often wind up partnered with strong, damaged, and wary heroines – so a Beta’s seduction must fly under the radar in order to avoid setting off a heroine’s emotional tripwires. For me, this always lends an extra spice of creativity, suspense, and escalation of tension to the relationship, like an emotional heist film. It’ll take more than a punishing kiss to win over the heroine – the Beta Male has to be sneaky.
In Rose Lerner’s magnificent A Lily Among Thorns, our heroine Lady Serena is a former courtesan with underworld connections. She’s paid her hooker dues and knows far too much about Dukes of Slut to fall for their macho bullshit – she’d have spotted and dismissed an Alpha Male at fifty paces, but the unassuming but secretly brilliant chemist Solomon Hathaway slips right past her defenses when he asks her for help recovering a pair of stolen heirloom earrings. Solomon isn’t especially wealthy or powerful or forceful – instead, he’s vulnerable, and insightful, and unexpected, and knows his way around a vial of hydrochloric acid. Serena’s comfort around him turns to partnership, then trust, then even more, and her gradual awakening to love is glorious.
Sagara’s essay declares that the appeal of the Alpha Male comes from his utter confidence and control over his world, which allows the heroine to be uncertain and insecure in relative safety. This certainly isn’t true of Beta Males – their insecurities, weaknesses, and flaws are often just as much a part of the story as the heroine’s. From my own experience, a flawed and insecure Beta hero enriches the story, because it conveys that the hero has equal stakes and character development in the narrative, and that both protagonists have something fulfilling to offer the other.
The eponymous gentleman from Mary Balogh’s Lord Carew’s Bride must overcome his insecurity over his injured arm and leg. The gentle gargoyle Lannes from Marjorie M. Liu’s The Wild Road (one of the few Betas I’ve encountered in paranormal romance, by the way) has to work up the courage to reveal his true self to his heroine. Even S.T. Maitland from Laura Kinsale’s Prince of Midnight must learn to accept his dashing glory days are over in order to aid the heroine in her quest.
In many ways, the character arcs of Betas and Alphas are opposed. With Alphas, the controlling, hyper-masculine, aggressive hero learns to appreciate gentleness, commitment and femininity, and adapt to the unexpected twists and turns that life churns out. The Beta, meanwhile, grows to overcome his insecurities, take initiative and fight for what he wants when things seem bleakest.
I used to worry I was in the minority when it came to romance novels. I used to wonder if I “really liked romance” if I remained indifferent to (if not outright hated) what seemed to be an important aspect of romance – the dominant hero. I thank God for the romance blogger community and Twitter because they showed me that wasn’t true. Mary Balogh, Rose Lerner, Kate Noble, and other prominent romance authors consistently write Beta heroes to cleanse my palate when the beefier heroes of Judith McNaught, Susan Mallory, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips send me running for the hills.
Are you a fan of Beta heroes? And if so, why? Which one is your favourite? Is there a romance author who writes fantastically understated heroes that I haven’t mentioned?