For the past few weeks, I've been writing about familiar romance tropes that might help you identify what books you love and why you love them. Plot devices and sources of conflict often attract readers who seek out similar tension across several stories. But did you know that you can also have a reading addiction to a character type? It's true: Many of the things you like about a particular character may suggest a type, and thus have a name. Once you can name your favorite type, you can search for lists of other books with that same feature.
For example, most folks understand the idea of the "alpha male" or the "alpha hero." He's the badass and the leader—the one whose authority isn’t questioned. He can be enigmatic sometimes, and mysterious or even ominous other times. But what about the heroes who aren't alpha? They might be beta heroes. There are even more hero types, but this week I'm all about the beta hero.
A beta hero isn't a weak hero—not at all. Unfortunately, it's sometimes easier to define what a beta hero is by what he isn't. He isn't the alpha, he isn't automatically dominant (hence the term "beta") and he isn't a badass (though he can be). A beta hero might be quieter, thoughtful, sometimes nerdy, and very often hiding a depth of character that could match the Grand Canyon.
The danger with a beta hero is that, sometimes, they're nice—and that can be deadly. If they're too nice, then they're just boring.
But a beta hero doesn't become the hero by pretending to be an alpha (though that does happen). One way in which the beta hero can attain power and agency in a story is through his intellect. One of my new favorite beta heroes, John Langdon in Loretta Chase's The Devil's Delilah, quietly dominates many scenes in the book without the reader knowing it until near the end. He's clever and scheming, very smart and very protective but, instead of fighting on someone's behalf, he's more likely to work behind the scenes or take humiliation onto himself to spare someone he cares about. His heroic qualities are not based on his brute strength, but instead on the considerable power of his intelligence. He's one of the smartest guys in the room.
And really, for much of the story, he wants to be left alone so he can go read his books. Who doesn’t relate to that, am I right?
Courtney Milan also writes wonderful beta heroes. Her book Unclaimed is about Mark Turner, the youngest of the Turner brothers. Mark is also brilliantly smart—it might be more correct to say that I love very intelligent beta heroes—and after writing a book on celibacy, he finds himself famous in England for not having sex. He's both bemused and frustrated by some of the ways his writing has been interpreted. His heroine is Jessica, who is challenged to seduce him and publicly humiliate him in exchange for a life-changing amount of money. Part of the conflict is her increasing unwillingness to harm someone who is, for all intents and motivations, a good and honest person who cares about her.
An upcoming novel I'm reading now, Let It Be Me by Kate Noble, also features a beta hero. Oliver is the second son of an English lord and lives in Venice to pursue his love of theater while also taking care of the people he cares about. He's smart and clever, but he works very, very well behind the scenes. He identifies what is needed and arranges things exactly right—but never demands any credit. If the world is a stage, he's the stage manager. The show can't go on without him, but he doesn't show up center stage to receive attention for his work, either. One of the things I like best about Oliver is his constancy: He's very honest and honorable.
I love beta heroes because, when they are deployed by a talented author, they explore alternate methods of heroism and dominance. They aren't going to force everyone to their will just by showing up and demanding it, but they are going to demonstrate their worth as the hero—often in subtle and endearing ways. You have to watch, er, read closely. More often than not, beta heroes, especially the fiercely intelligent ones, are the heroes who surprise me as I read.
What beta heroes do you enjoy? Do you have a favorite?
Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. She loves talking with romance readers, and hopes you'll share your new favorite romance reading recommendations. You can find her on Twitter @smartbitches, on Facebook, or on her couch, most likely with her eyeglasses turned towards a book.