Alpha or Beta…How Do You Like Your Hero?

Years ago, when I first started reading romance, every hero was an alpha male, and nearly every heroine was a helpless ingénue. He was usually in his thirties. She was between the ages of 18 and 22. He was rich, successful, and being with him would solve all of her financial worries. She was an innocent, often orphaned or raised by a grandparent, and, if not poor, she worked for a living as a nurse, secretary or teacher. Her one dream in life was to marry a rich man and never have to worry about money again.

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You’d think that was in the 1950’s, but it was actually in the 1970’s. The era of The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, when everything seemed just a little simplistic.

In the 1980’s, the picture of the hero in romance changed little. Oh, maybe he didn’t come from family money, but was now a self-made man. However, he was still hard-headed, handsome, forceful and rich…an alpha male. The heroine, however, started to change. She became a little older, maybe in her mid-20’s. She was almost always still down on her luck, because the hero always rescued her, but she was old enough to at least have a college degree. She might have a little more spunk, wanting to make it on her own, and she didn’t always roll over and give up her job or all she had worked for. The hero had to be willing to accept a woman with the ambition to make it on her own, one who wasn’t so dependent on a man for her lifestyle. Still, these heroines often worked for the hero as his girl Friday, executive secretary, or in another support  job. She might be a nurse, but he was the rich and accomplished, miracle-working surgeon.

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from the film “His Girl Friday”

It seems like the advent of the beta hero happened around the 1990’s. Although there are some examples of the beta hero in classic literature, (in Emma by Jane Austen, for instance), the 1990s saw the emergence of the gentler, boy-next-door hero. He was the good guy in town, the one who opened doors, wooed a girl with flowers and a dimpled grin, had tousled hair, and could change a tire in 3 minutes flat. He might be an artist, or a boat builder, or a firefighter. He wasn’t necessarily well-off, but he was never destitute. Really, how sexy would that be for a reader, or for the heroine?

The heroine, on the other hand, might have her own business (a bake shop, for instance). She could own a ranch, or be an accomplished television reporter. The heroine has become more self-sufficient, and wants more than just financial stability, as her profile has developed over the years.

How long will it be before we have an alpha heroine, one who becomes the provider while the beta hero stays home and raises the kids?

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I have to say, I loved the alpha hero of yesterday, even though they could be brutes sometimes. I remember the first Harlequin romance I read, entitled A Song Begins, by Mary Burchell. In the story, a talented singer becomes the recipient of an anonymous benefactor’s gift…private lessons from a domineering, exacting, macho, boorish opera conductor. I loved both characters, as did many other readers, because Burchell ended up resurrecting them in at least one other novel later on, as secondary characters. However, the hero, Oscar, really was quite mean. Today, people would be crying “foul!” and the heroine, Anthea, would be suing him for emotional distress.  No self-respecting heroine would put up with that treatment in 2013!

What  has brought on this change? Is it that there is a new normal, that in the post-feminist world, the traditional family dynamic has changed? My mother and my mother-in-law both worked, long before post-feminism took hold, but their role was still to maintain the household and nurture their families. However, professional satisfaction, and the idea that women could have careers and not just jobs, has become more prevalent in today’s society.

In turn, career women can’t possibly do it all (although many of us try to be Supermom and Superwife). There just isn’t enough time in the day. As women’s perception of a satisfactory life has changed, so has our idea of what constitutes the perfect man…and the perfect romance.

The perfect man, for many of us, is the man who is a partner, not a dominator. He doesn’t make the rules, he works with the heroine to carve out an existence that works for both of them. Is he a pushover? Definitely not. And I have to admit, while I like having a partner in real life, my fantasy is still the alpha male who will take the reins and “be a man”, at least in my reading (and certainly when it comes to romantic pursuits). I also like to feel cherished and protected. In reality, though, if I’m pushed, I push back. I’m too strong a character to ever want to be lorded over by anyone, much less the hero of my own personal story.

I’ve often thought I preferred the alpha hero, but my perception is changing, thanks in part to authors like Kristan Higgins, Jill Shalvis, and even our own Diana Quincy, whose beta heroes’ endearing qualities make them just the kind of men I want for their heroines. They are gentlemen who know their minds, who appreciate the talents and accomplishments of their partners, and can put aside their own egos for the sake of the relationship.  They are also fantastic in bed. Isn’t this just the type of man we all fantasize about?

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So what about you? What is your hero like? Do you yearn for an alpha male, or appreciate the flexibility of the beta hero? Have you changed teams, and why? And if it won’t spill the beans on your own WIP, what do you see as the next phase of the hero in romance?

Please share!

Hugs,

Jaye

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17 Comments

  1. Jaye, this is such a fantastic post, and one we can all, I’m sure, relate to. We are the modern day heroines: so strong it’s sometimes to our own detriment! I married an Alpha, and still love my reading hero’s the same way (as long as they can tap that soft side when it counts)! I always like the Beta Hero’s more than I imagine. Yes, Diana’s Sebastian in Tempting Bella comes to mind. As do the heros in Vicki Lewis Thompson’s nerd series (ex: Nerd in Shining Armor)…Just as the Alpha’s have to have a soft side, the Beta’s have to be tougher and stronger than they first appear. Hidden gifts help–and I don’t just mean behind their fly! : )

    Reply
    • Jaye Marie Rome

       /  October 1, 2013

      Good point, Jenna, about heroes having a little bit of both in them. A Beta hero can’t be wishy washy, nor can an Alpha hero be overbearing. I haven’t read the nerd series…I’ll have to put that on my TBR list. Thanks!

      Reply
  2. One of the things I admire about the romance genre is how it changes with the times. I think the media’s perception of romance novels is still stuck in the 1970s and 80s while the genre itself has evolved way beyond that to reflect the reality of women’s lives today. That said, I still love an alpha hero in my romance novels, although they can’t be overbearing anymore, just very strong and very good in bed. 🙂

    Reply
    • Jaye Marie Rome

       /  October 1, 2013

      Amen to the last, Nancy! lol

      Romance certainly has changed with the times…thank goodness!

      Reply
  3. Great post, Jaye! I’m a sucker for an Alpha hero, which is probably why I married one. But it’s nice to read the occasional Beta hero, the nice guy who finishes first. The natural conflict that comes along with an Alpha lends itself to romance novels a little better than a Beta, which is probably why we see so many stories written that way.

    Reply
    • Jaye Marie Rome

       /  October 1, 2013

      That’s an excellent point about the natural conflict…especially if the heroine isn’t a pushover, either. Sparks tend to fly faster and hotter when both are fighting against giving in, and yet fighting to make the relationship work.

      Reply
  4. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  October 2, 2013

    Jaye I love how you tackled the evolution of the hero in this post. I really don’t care for the Alpha hero of old. As you said, his abusive ways wouldn’t hold up in today’s world of romance. I believe most of my heros are Alphia with Beta tendancies. One may have more Beta than Alpha. It could just be that in todays modern world, just like we need a bit of both in our men (mine is an alpha who could use a toouch more of the beta) our heroines are growing stronger and the men are forced to do a bit of the give an take, which in part becomes the evolution of their character within the story. Great topic!

    Reply
    • RoseAnn, as I’m reading everyone’s responses, I have to agree that romance readers today really want a strong male, but they do also want a man to have a softer side. Not quite a “metrosexual” male, but perhaps a man who can multitask the way women do, be focused at work but equally focused at home on the task at hand. Anyone know a man like that?

      Reply
  5. Mia

     /  October 2, 2013

    Hello Jaye,

    I wrote a manuscript with a beta hero. My heroine was from New Jersey. She was Jersey strong which probably is the closest to alpha woman you can get. Any contest I entered they told me they didn’t like my heroine. I had a cousin from NC read it and she said put a scene in where he trips her. She needs to fall. (Yes, I agree my cousin is not nice nor helpful with fixing the story) Anyway, the point is I’m not sure the world is ready for an alpha heroine yet. Maybe it needs two alphas like Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, but I wasn’t a fan of their relationship.
    VF Diana Quincy owned how to write a beta male which can make you drool in Tempting Bella. There should be workshops at conferences using her material to show the writer how to get it done correctly.
    Speaking of conferences hope the Femmes have an over the top time at NJRW’s in two weeks.

    Mia

    Reply
    • Interesting that you should say that about an alpha heroine not being likeable, Mia. I’ve read alpha-leaning heroines, but the hero is always even more alpha. I don’t read erotic, but I would think that the uber-alpha heroine matched with the beta hero would be more in line with that.

      And ouch…a hero tripping a heroine? That’s just mean! Whooo-eeee, sounds like someone is drinking too much of the Fifty Shades lemonade, lol!

      Reply
  6. Hi Jaye. I enjoyed your evolution of the heros. Like RoseAnn, I’m not fond of the Alpha hero of the past who was too dominating or treated women like they were stupid. I like a balance. An alpha from a career perspective but someone who isn’t afraid to hold a crying baby or make dinner. I have one or two beta heros I may write about at some point, but I agree with Joanna that conflict is easier to develop with an alpha hero. Today’s woman has evolved (both in and out of the bedroom) to be more alpha, which lends itself to needing a beta type of guy to round her out.

    Reply
    • Rounding out an alpha with a beta…hmmm…what have you read where both are alpha? Anything? I wonder if two betas would work too well…they might not ever get down to the business of their relationship.

      Reply
      • Not both alpha. I’m saying in the case where the heroine is more alpha, then it works well to have the hero more of a beta. I agree, two betas would go their separate ways and never face anything. The book would be over before it even started.

  7. Diana Quincy

     /  October 5, 2013

    Hi Jaye. I do traditionally prefer an alpha hero, and I definitely married one. But I do have a soft spot for the beta hero. My most recent hero is a beta and he might be my favorite! I do dislike the alpha hero who abuses the heroine, who somehow still loves him. The best hero is maybe a beta with a bit of alpha in him!

    Reply
  8. Yes, Diana…abuse is definitely OUT! Not romantic at all. Perhaps Beta heroes lend themselves better to sweet romances? Although I don’t necessarily think of your romances as “sweet”, and you write an awesome Beta hero.

    Reply
  9. Hi Jaye,

    Great post, especially because I’m knees deep in Alpha male right now! I do love a good Beta hero, too but I think he’s a bit trickier to pull off. Don’t all heroines want to sleep with the Alpha and marry the Beta? 🙂 Cheers, Michele

    Reply
    • Jaye Marie Rome

       /  October 14, 2013

      Ha…I’d like my Beta to be a bit more Alpha sometimes!

      See you Thursday!

      Reply

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