A Lesson in Romance Terminology: Alpha, Beta and Gamma

In almost every romance review I read the words: alpha, beta and gamma, used in some way or form. Heck, I use most of these terms myself! But it’s recently come to my attention, that sometimes we use these words out of context, or interchangeably, when in fact they are anything but.

An alpha hero the dominant male in a novel, one who can be and is possessive and jealous of the heroine, but also cares for her and wouldn’t hurt her himself. The alpha perceives anyone who comes between the heroine and himself as a threat, but also strives to protect those he loves. Alphas can also have hidden vulnerabilities, etc.

***A more updated definition, given by Noelle Pierce (thanks, Noelle) states that the alpha male of the following:

Sarah Wendell from SmartBitchesTrashyBooks.com recently posted about this and coined the term, “alphole” to describe the past “alpha males” and how they’ve changed. In her words,“Just as every role in romance changes, the definition of alpha changes, too. In Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance (Simon & Schuster, 2009), Candy Tan, co-founder of Smart Bitches, and I described the “Alphole” hero. It used to be that romance was populated with alphas who were really assholes—autocratic chest-pounders with a tendency toward rape or at the least forced seduction. Alphole heroes still show up every now and again, usually as someone who is too assertive without any humility or honor—they’re not really dominant. They’re really just assholes. Alphole heroes are among my least favorite.

But now, readers are more likely to read about Alpha males with strong moral integrity, a hidden tenderness or the ability to be lethal while consistently choosing not to be—those make for some delicious heroes. Alpha heroes could be anything. They could be the alpha of a wolf pack, a literal alpha. They could be commanders or military officers or police chiefs. They could be lords or, depending on the mythology or theology of the romance in question, The Lord. (Heh—God, the Ultimate Alpha Male, particularly in the Old Testament.)” (Reference.) 

One of the best examples of an alpha male is Raphael from Nalini Singh’s “Guild Hunter” series. You may remember Raphael from two blog posts ago, when we counted down the top ten supernatural heroes – as defined by my reading buddies and to some extent myself – when he came in at number 8. Strictly speaking, if the contest had been between Alpha males alone and had not included criteria such as “sensitivity,” Raphael would be the KING OF ALPHAS by far.

As a character, Raphael is physically stronger than most all males in the series and enjoys the position of Archangel, a title never given to the weak and wimpy. Similarly, Raphael is also possessive of his heroine, Elena, to the point that even she – who is no pushover – gives in occasionally so as to prevent all-out wars between Raphael and the other male characters. Raphael’s big defining alpha moment in the novel: When he tells Elena to stop wearing silver earring, the symbol of a unmated female. Other moments include, risking his life for Elena and remaining celibate for a year waiting for Elena to wake from her coma, among others scattered throughout the series.

Other great alphas include, Bones from Jeaniene Frost’s “Night Huntress” series, the males from J. R. Wards “Black Dagger Brotherhood” series, the males from Kresley Cole’s “Immortals After Dark” and the heroes of Gena Showalter’s “Lords of the Underworld” series.

book cover of   England's Perfect Hero    (Lessons in Love, book 3)  by  Suzanne EnochOn the other hand, a beta is milder hero. A beta is more vulnerable and sensitive than an alpha. Though the beta hero is far from a wimp and can show instances of jealousy and possessiveness, these are never his dominating traits. These guys are nice.

I confess, I don’t read too many romance novels with beta heroes since I’m more attracted to the alpha hero. But one significant beta that comes to mind is Robert Carroway from Suzanne Enoch’s England’s Perfect Hero. Robert has the perfect amount of vulnerability, as a war hero who has survived a great trauma. Robert is a wreck of a man and is suffering from post-traumatic stress, depicted through his panic attacks. Robert shuns society, not wanting them to know how vulnerable he really is, but eventually opens up to Lucinda who he begins to trust first as a friend and then as a lover. Robert’s defining beta moment is his willingness to help Lucinda snare a husband, who is not himself, at the beginning of the novel, while a true alpha male nearly almost always screams “mine” from the moment he sets his eyes on the heroine.

Other great beta heroes are Jane Austen’s Mr. Knightley from Emma and Edmund Bertram from Mansfield Park.

Finally, there is the gamma hero. I found two competing definitions of the gamma once I looked it up. One blogger says that a gamma hero is a “combo of the alpha and beta. He’s got all the mad, bad alpha characteristics like being super strong and aggressive and being the guy you turn to if hell is at your door, but he’s not super arrogant. He cares about others (and not just the heroine; the gamma seems to have strong ties to friends and his family). Folks may think the gamma is the Big Bad, but usually his reputation is undeserved and if you look past the surface, you find a guy who was just misunderstood.” One the other hand, the consensus among Amazon reviewers – which is where I first read book reviews on novels I’m interested in – is that the gamma hero is one who is indifferent and is never possessive of the heroine.

So which gamma definition do we consider the correct one? Can the two definitions be combined into one? As in is a gamma hero considered indifferent towards the heroine because she is not the centre of his world, like she is for an alpha and even a beta or is there absolutely no middle ground?

When I looked up examples of gamma heroes a lot of readers directed me to Anne Stuart’s heroes, but once I read a  couple reviews of Breathless on Amazon, I found myself leaning towards the second definition of gamma more and more:

I’m writing this review because I wish I’d seen it before reading this book. When Anne Stuart is good for me, she’s golden. But when she’s bad, she makes me feel traumatized and violated. I think it’s a testament to her skill as an author that she makes me feel so intensely, but I also wish someone would silently point out the books that would traumatize me, so I could avoid them. I wish I could stop reading her altogether…but when she’s good, she is too good.

In order to explain this, I do have to give some mild spoilers for the end of the book. I won’t do that in this review but I will write a comment that details them for the truly curious.

I had a real problem with the hero of this book. Basically, it is this: in the very first pages of the book (this is not a spoiler: you can read the passage in the excerpt here on Amazon), he pays someone to abduct and rape the heroine and force her into marriage.

First, it’s quite clear when he discusses it with the man in question that he would have been perfectly fine if he had raped her, and so he gets full marks for the intention.

But more importantly–even though the heroine says “It hadn’t been rape,” I quite frankly don’t agree. In fact, that infuriated me hugely. To say that it wasn’t rape just because she realized he was strong enough to make it happen anyway, so she didn’t fight is just bull. He takes her against her will; she says no, repeatedly, he does it, and she decides not to fight because she doesn’t think she has a choice and he’s bigger than she is. That, in my book, is rape. And yet the heroine has almost no emotional reaction to it other than a general aversion because the oaf isn’t very good at sex. I found the scene hugely traumatic.

I kept reading, because it’s Anne Stuart. And I know Anne Stuart does bad heroes–not like fake bad, but really bad. When it’s good, it’s great. But when it’s bad, it’s awful. And this was…awful.

If the hero pays someone to rape the heroine, he is going to have to do something really spectacular at the end of the book for me to believe in it. But he doesn’t. There’s no hint of repentance. There’s no grovel. The only thing that remotely hints at some kind of redemption has as a background something he plans to have happen to her that is so foul that it is irredeemable. And in my mind, “deciding not to do something truly foul” just does not come off as sufficient grovel. Especially considering that he is basically awful through and through.

I loved her heroine–she was fantastic, which is why I’ve given the book two stars. But at the end of the book, I wanted her to shoot her husband dead and walk away laughing. (Reference.)

I’m sorry to say that if this is the best example of a gamma hero, I will endeavor to studiously avoid this type of hero. However, if someone has a better example please, please leave a comment and I’ll look this up. I tend to enjoy romance as a genre because thought the heroes can be flawed they are almost always redeemable…Lucien from Breathless was not, however, no matter what his motives.

The defining differences between all these heroes is in how they interact with the heroine. For instances, both the alpha and the gamma can be cold, but the alpha will never be cold towards the heroine. Also both betas and alphas can be vulnerable, but betas open up about their vulnerabilities more easily than an alpha. Similarly, both the alpha and the beta hero will remain faithful to their heroines, throughout the novel or a series. On the other hand, this trait is not always guaranteed in a gamma. However, the one trait that is common in all these heroes is their love for the heroine, which they will admit at some point in the novel. Although, the gamma sometimes never admits their love until the very end of the novel.

Of course, not all heroes fall into these categories…they are not black and white and merely guidelines. While a hero can be predominantly alpha, he may also have beta tendencies, etc. So the definitions provided should be seen as guidelines for when we are reading a review, but only by reading the book itself can we really know what the hero is like.

-Rika Ashton (aka The Hero Categorizer)

P.S: If any of my definitions are wrong/misleading, etc please let me know and I will correct the error of my ways.

P.P.S: If you have better examples of the gamma hero, please let me know as well…I would hate to write this type of hero off my reading list due to one bad example.

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12 responses

  1. Illiana Cruz

    Okay, I love Raphael now that I’ve started reading Angel’s Blood – thanks to you by the way. Love you for that!

    I have read some Anne Stuart, and yes, all her heroes are always BAD and not fake bad, like the reviewer said. They are always cold towards the heroine and the “I love yous” always come at the end of the novel. Anne Stuart is a good writer, but her heroes were so problematic for me that I stopped reading her novels. Sorry, Anne. 😦

    I’ll try to look up more gamma heroes and get back to you.

    Like

    January 26, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    • Thanks, I really do need more examples of the gamma male…and I’m really, really hoping that most of these gammas are in fact the best of both worlds – alpha and beta combined – rather than what I’ve read of Stuart’s heroes so far.

      Like

      January 27, 2011 at 10:55 am

  2. Noelle Pierce

    Hi Rika! I wanted to make a note of the definition of alpha male. That one is a little outdated. Alphas used to be pretty arsehole-ish in the past, but they’ve been updated so that the heroine of today doesn’t feel the need to forcibly remove his…tenders. Because, really, what’s sexy about a possessive, jealous man? Nada.

    Sarah Wendell from SmartBitchesTrashyBooks.com recently posted about this and coined the term, “alphole” to describe the past “alpha males” and how they’ve changed. In her words,

    “Just as every role in romance changes, the definition of alpha changes, too. In Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance (Simon & Schuster, 2009), Candy Tan, co-founder of Smart Bitches, and I described the “Alphole” hero. It used to be that romance was populated with alphas who were really assholes—autocratic chest-pounders with a tendency toward rape or at the least forced seduction. Alphole heroes still show up every now and again, usually as someone who is too assertive without any humility or honor—they’re not really dominant. They’re really just assholes. Alphole heroes are among my least favorite.

    But now, readers are more likely to read about Alpha males with strong moral integrity, a hidden tenderness or the ability to be lethal while consistently choosing not to be—those make for some delicious heroes. Alpha heroes could be anything. They could be the alpha of a wolf pack, a literal alpha. They could be commanders or military officers or police chiefs. They could be lords or, depending on the mythology or theology of the romance in question, The Lord. (Heh—God, the Ultimate Alpha Male, particularly in the Old Testament.)” (Toward the end of this review: http://www.kirkusreviews.com/blog/romance/smart-bitches-trashy-books-alpha-new-year/)

    I can’t remember any beta males in the romances I read off the top of my head, but I always compare betas to WALL-E. He was supportive and caring, and could step up when he needed to, but always let EVE stay in charge.

    Prior to your post, I didn’t find much on Gamma heroes, so I can’t speak to that. It’s what I strive for in my writing, though, when the heroes don’t take on a life of their own and decide they’re really alpha. 😀

    Like

    January 27, 2011 at 5:22 am

    • Thanks so much for the updated definition. I added it to my post.

      Nearly all the definitions are problematic in some way, because reviewers almost always contradicted themselves. But the defining quality that they all seem to agree of for the alpha is that he’s the take-charge type of guy. Other reviewers say that heroes change types within a novel. According to a discussion on Amazon, Raphael was a gamma but became an alpha when he showed he can get jealous and possessive, which apparently are what most reviewers still associate with alpha:

      http://www.amazon.com/tag/romance/forum/ref=cm_cd_dp_rft_tft_tp?_encoding=UTF8&cdForum=FxM42D5QN2YZ1D&cdThread=TxXF14N8OW0Y00

      Wall-e is adorable, and the perfect example of a beta from a movie. SO CUTE!!! 😀

      I’m not clear on the exact definition of the gamma yet either, since its so rarely used. (Though it does seem to be popping up more often, but I’m wondering if that’s because no one has really defined it yet and people are using it arbitrarily…)

      Like

      January 27, 2011 at 11:08 am

  3. I haven’t really thought about Gamma heroes because most of the time the Alpha traits overpower any others. So, for all I know I may have read a bunch of Gammas, but have considered them Alphas.

    But, with the second definition of Gamma would it be London’s Perfect Scoundrel…the book before Robert’s with Saint? (I don’t think he says ‘I love you’ at all actually)

    Like

    January 27, 2011 at 7:55 am

    • Could be, it’s been a while since I read that book so I can’t recall what he was like exactly…

      I get so mad when the hero doesn’t say “I love you” because I always feel like there’s something missing. I think Stephanie Lauren’s hero from “Devil’s Bride” didn’t say he loved his wife until four books into the series (he wasn’t the hero of this book, just the secondary character) because he thought it might give her an edge over him if he admitted it…moment of utter dorkdom in an otherwise decent hero…I was so mad! >:/

      Like

      January 27, 2011 at 11:15 am

      • but the way it ends Saint shows that he loves her without actually saying it

        Like

        January 27, 2011 at 12:34 pm

  4. @priscillashay: It was the same thing in Devil’s Bride, everyone and their dog knew that Devil loved Honoria, but he never said it. Honoria knew, Devil knew, he knew that she knew and she knew that he knew, but he never said the actual words…really, how hard would it have been…

    Like

    January 27, 2011 at 2:03 pm

  5. i like it A Lesson in Romance Terminology: Alpha, Beta and Gamma « Rika's Musings now im your rss reader

    Like

    February 5, 2011 at 12:29 am

  6. Chelsea Neal

    I’ve read a lot of alphas barely any betas, and just recently got hooked on Anne Stuart. Her gammas are ridiculous and honestly I was looking for a change. It’s true that they are down right cruel to the heroine. I’m more focused on Stuart’s Ice Series, so the reason why they are so cruel is because of the job that they have. It’s really cute though because the more cruel they are the more they are trying to suppress their feelings. In Ice Blue, the hero gets all jealous when the heroine wears his cousin’s yukata. So I’m more inclined that the first definintion of gama is correct. I can understand why most would avoid gamma heroes, but Anne Stuart has this art that really makes me like them. Plus the heroine might be hurt by what the hero does and says, but she’s strong enough to move on or fight back.

    Like

    June 6, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    • Welcome to the blog, Ms. Neal and thanks for the insight on gamma heroes. The gamma is so rare in romance that I don’t think I’ve ever read any novels with them in firsthand, so clarification is aways valued. Thanks.

      I’ve heard mixed comments about Anne Stuarts heroes, some people really seem to like them and others can’t stand them. I’m beginning to think that they’re an aquired taste. Thanks for the recommendation on the “Ice” series, since I’ve finally decided to give Ms. Stuart a shot, I think I’ll start there. 😀

      Like

      June 7, 2012 at 11:47 am

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