I was reading Soulless by Gail Carriger over the weekend, which is an enjoyably light read featuring both vampires and werewolves in a steampunk setting. Being a romantic comedy in which the male lead is a werewolf (thank goodness; wouldn’t have touched it if he’d been a vampire), there’s lots of references to Alpha and Beta males (and also, given the main character, Alpha females).
Alpha males are a staple of the romance genre and pop all over the place in urban fantasy and other genres with werewolves, vampires, and/or romance. They’re usually not so blatantly labelled except when talking about werewolves, given the classification comes from pack animals like wolves. They’re really meant to personify physical and mental strength, leadership and confidence, but badly or simplistically written, they tend to be jealous, arrogant, violent arseholes who in real life would be stalkers, rapists, and domestic violence perpetrators.
In case you hadn’t guessed, I generally cannot stand the alpha male (in fiction. I don’t think I’ve ever met a real-life arsehole as bad the ones I’ve come across in some romance books, though I have met real-life alpha males and generally find their posturing quite amusing as long as I don’t have to talk to them) unless they’re well-matched to the female lead and have a sense of humour (as in Soulless).
[Simon: Can't stand alpha males? You wrote one.
Me: You were supposed to the villain. Lord knows how you ended up as the romantic lead.
Simon: My immense good looks and charismatic manner.
Me: Yeah, I still plan to shoot you at the end of the book, sweetheart.]
On to beta males. In the romance genre, they’re often the humorous, even slightly buffoon-y, leads but I have a different definition. Let me quote Carriger, the author of Soulless, when asked who her favourite character is:
I’m torn between Professor Lyall and Floote. I have a little bit of a thing for capable and efficient gentlemen with quiet humors and calm dispositions.
Me too. Calm, competent men who actually get things done while Mr Arsehole Alpha is off ranting or brooding or obsessing about status or measuring the size of his mobile phone or whatever it is these Heathcliff types do. They also have the decency to converse politely with women they don’t find attractive and don’t intend to sleep with, which some real-life wannabe alphas don’t (it’s always fun trying to make small talk with them in a social situation, I can tell you).
[Simon: I have plenty of time for women.
Me: Because you intend to sleep with them.
Simon: Because I like them, tib. And I get things done.
Me: By delegating to your personal beta male.
Simon (shrugs in an annoyingly masculine fashion): That's what he's there for. He loves it.
Augusta: God! I can't even talk, and yet I feel driven to inform you you're an arsehole.
Augusta: ...you are very good looking, though.
Me: I'm going to have to bitch-slap my subconscious.]
I was reading another book, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan (which I loved), with a character that perfectly typifies this sort of male lead: Alan, the brother of the viewpoint character (Nick; sort of alpha). Quiet, clever, competent, and by the end of the book, you realise just how strong he is. Nick’s great as a viewpoint character — Alan’s freaking adorable.
Of course, the most important thing about that character, or the literal Alpha and Beta males from Soulless, or any well-rounded lead, is that they are decent characters first, and fall into those categories second — and even then, generally only loosely — just like real people, none of whom are 100% alpha or beta or omega or whatever animal classification you want to try to force on them. One of my favourite characters ever is Lord Peter Wimsey; he’s nothing like the modern alpha male but nor could he really be called a beta with its unfair undertone of submission.
He’s just one hell of a good character. Know any more like him?