Issue #63 (December 1, 1998)

All About Heroes

The Sorcerer:
I started reading The Chalice & the Blade by Glenna McReynolds over the holiday weekend, and am finding it interesting going. The hero is a sorcerer, an alchemist. I was surprised to discover that this is a type of hero I've read before, but have never really considered. Anne Stuart obviously has - the heroes from her last two historicals - Lord of Danger from 1997 and Prince of Magic from last month - were also sorcerers of sorts.

The sorcerer is a solitary hero - mysterious and dangerous, powerful yet in a precarious position with the law or the king or society. While found in the medieval romance, he is also found in more recent times - the hero from Prince of Magic lives in the Georgian era. In trying to bring him further forward in time, I started to wonder - what are some modern day occupations for the sorcerer hero? Is he a man of the cloth? Is he a magician? Or is he otherworldly, a warlock, vampire, a werewolf?

Greek are the Words:
Awhile back we started talking about heroic archetypes, and I put forth the three archetypes I generally think of - the alpha hero, the beta hero, and the gamma hero. Because I am a traditionalist, I have always used the most traditional definition for the alpha hero, which Jayne Ann Krentz defined in Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women as "tough, hard-edged, tormented heroes. . . These are the heroes who made Harlequin famous. These are the heroes feminist critics despise." For me, the alpha hero is dangerous and has a tendency toward cruelty. Whether he becomes an alpha heel is up to the author, but an alpha hero is a tortured one. The beta hero is a special hero, and one whom frankly doesn't appeal to me very often, although when he is written just right, he is incredible. Something or someone may have tortured the beta hero in the past, but he presents himself quite differently than does the alpha hero. Whereas the alpha may be cruel, the beta is tender and supportive. There is a fine line, however, between tender and wimpy, and not many authors walk it well.

The gamma hero, for me, has always been my favorite. He seems to have the best qualities of both the alpha and the beta hero. He is strong yet not overly arrogant. He leads, but not by cruelty. He may have a bad reputation, but it is undeserved. He can do battle, but never with the heroine. He too may have been tortured in the past, but doesn't appear the wounded animal, lashing out at those he loves.

As I indicated in an earlier column, the definitions of hero archetypes, while perhaps once generally accepted, are no longer accepted by all readers, or authors for that matter. Some look to the wild, and the alpha wolf that is leader of the pack. These readers do not see the tendency toward cruelty that I see in the alpha hero. Other readers do not buy the gamma definition at all because they see no beta in those heroes. Beverly Medos (who wrote Beverly's Book Basket for AAR from of mid-1998 through late 1999), wrote:

"What everyone here was calling an alpha hero, I'm not sure I could even call a hero by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, redeeming a jerk doesn't get one very far - most of the time. I'm not saying never, just that a jerk IS a jerk. If there is the possibility of redemption, there has to be 'something' there to redeem, which means they're not really jerks at heart. Either they're pretending to be or they're convinced they are - which is not the same thing as being one.

"At first I tried to justify my feelings about the discrepancy by calling the nice, non-jerk ones like what JAK or Garwood writes 'cuddly' alphas. But, then I realized that by Laurie's definition of alphas, they couldn't exist. Or they are considered gammas, which makes absolutely no sense to me. To call Alec Kincaid in The Bride a gamma is so funny to me, it's laughable. I mean, really. He's adorable, slightly dense at times and all that, but part alpha/part beta? Huh? Nope, it does not compute. I see absolutely nothing beta about Alec and many others I'd call nice guys from the start. Finally, it sunk in that we just don't agree on what an alpha really is. What I can't figure out is where the idea that alpha equals abusive jerk came from. I've been giving it a lot of thought and I think I've finally figured out what it is that's so wrong about that concept to me - possibly all lead characters (hero and/or heroine) in romances are alphas in some form or another. They have to be in order to begin their own 'pack' or family. Personally, I think we need a new set of distinctions if we really want to label our romance characters in some way because the term alpha is getting pretty murky. Lately, I can't even use it in any context without cringing because I now realize that I don't know what someone else is going to think when they read it applied to a character."

What She Said:
Beverly's comments had me re-thinking these archetypes as well - there's little use using a set of definitions if we aren't agreed on what they are. So, I started with the source - Jayne Ann Krentz, and went from there. Darned if Jayne hasn't changed her own definitions! In response to an email sent by reader Carol, she wrote, " 'Alpha Male' was a term coined by romance writers a few years back to try to explain the essential qualities of the most popular heroes in romance novels. It has come to stand for the hero endowed with the classic heroic virtues: honor, courage, determination - a man who may be rough around the edges but who is capable of learning how to love. Beta males just aren't nearly as interesting, for some strange reason."

And when I wrote her similarly, this is what she had to say, "I wouldn't worry too much about the definition of 'alpha male' if I were you, however. It was always a very loose term among romance writers. It was coined mainly to distinguish between boring heroes and exciting heroes. Most working romance writers do not use the term 'alpha male' with each other. We only created it as a form of shorthand to use with editors to describe the exciting heroes (read: the ones who weren't always politically correct). The bottom line in all popular fiction (whether it is romance or any other kind) is that the only good heroes are the interesting ones and the only bad heroes are the dull ones. But each reader gets to make her own decision as to which heroes are exciting and which are boring."

Feeling released from any "official" guidelines I was operating under, I decided to talk with some other authors about heroes and archetypes. Nora Roberts, not surprisingly, wrote that she never thinks "of stuff like this, never crafts or creates a character using the alpha/beta/whatever mode. I just do people as I see them. I think, honestly, we limit ourselves by categorizing."

What Jo Said:
Jo Beverley wrote:

"The whole business of alpha etc is driving me nuts, because words are only useful if there's general agreement on meaning! Perhaps we should abandon this and work toward new terms that would actually mean something. For example, 'alpha' often includes both the leader (leader of a troop of mercenary knights, for example) and the lone wolf (the ex gunslinger who lives alone in a cabin on the mountain.) This is clearly nonsense.

"So? Can we brainstorm terms?

  • "Leader, to me is one. We could subdivide into
    • Born-to-lead (i.e. an inherited position whether it be dukedom or megacorporation) and
    • Risen-to-lead. The two probably would be different personalities.
    Two other possible subdivisions would be charismatic leader
    • Everyone adores and
    • Leader-by-terror whom everyone fears."
  • "Lone Wolf
    • By nature and
    • Wounded"
  • "Bystander - part of the group but not active, probably because of serious solitary interests such as art, technology, study etc. As a hero, doubtless can act if called upon."
  • "Communal leader - the person who's the heart and soul of a community. Leader in a way, but not a dominant leader. A priestly type would fit into this, but so would many others."

Later, Jo had more to say on heroes, more about alphas and betas and gammas:

"The gamma is not a cuddly alpha. Whoever said the alpha is tough with the guys and gentle when he can be was spot on. He's leader. It makes no sense to abuse his 'family.' He just does what he must to stay leader and keep the group together. This includes discipline, of course. In humans, however, it seems to involve spending a lot of time on male things, so contact is limited.

"Gammas, however, are outside the loop. They don't fight with the males. They certainly don't compete for leadership. The other males accept this and pretty well leave them alone. What they do is more exploratory. Arts and science - new uses for a twig! They also hang out with the women a lot and are accepted comfortably there. The really interesting thing that the ape observers found was that the gammas got a lot more sex than the alphas and betas because they were around and comfortable while the other males were guarding and fighting.

"We can see a direct analogy here with the medieval troubadour and the knight. Warriors were always worried about those sneaky, pleasing, pretty troubadours who hung around their ladies singing sweet songs and sorting their embroidery silks, doubtless with reason!

"A novel that deal directly with this sort of thing is Sherri Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country (it's SF.) I found it a bit heavy-handed, but she illustrated the ape alpha, beta, and gamma system in humans quite clearly, I think.

"But, I would be absolute on one thing. You can't have an alpha male if he's not accepted leader of a substantial body of people, including a lot of males he can control. Loners and bullies are never alphas. Let's coin another term for them. Omega men."

What Mary Jo Said:
Further muddying the waters was Mary Jo Putney, who is so often helpful in these sorts of discussions. Her comments were:

"I really don't use this (alpha beta gamma) terminology. I associate the concept of the alpha hero with those borderline psychopathic bullies who abuse women throughout a book, and get weak-minded adoration in return. The kind of jerk I would hate to share an elevator with in real life. (There are, of course, much more moderate definitions of alpha heroes.)

"The terminology, and hero, I like best is the concept of the 'Warrior Poet.' The wonderful historical writers Susan King and Eileen Charbonneau and I did a workshop on this at the 1997 national RWA conference in Orlando. (It was multimedia, with gorgeous slides from Susan, an art historian, and a marvelously appropriate Scottish ballad sung by Eileen and Susan.) I can't remember who came up with the original Warrior Poet concept (except that it wasn't me), but we all write this kind of hero, and had a delightful time developing our thoughts about him.

"Essentially, the Warrior Poet is the man who is strong when needed - so strong that he never has to bully anyone to prove his strength. So strong that he dares show the sensitive, loving side of his nature. (Think Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans, for example.) He may well be a wounded hero, but he doesn't punish innocents because he is suffering. He has the courage to walk away from an unnecessary fight - and the toughness to win the necessary battles. He likes women and children, and isn't afraid to show it.

"He is probably close to Deb Stover's gamma hero concept, but the words Warrior Poet are so much more evocative! Whenever I hear gamma, I think 'rays.' "

Mary Jo and I traded ideas and emails on the topic. Since she and I had a similar definition of the traditional alpha hero, I thought she would be interested in what Jo Beverley and JAK said. Her response was, "The hero topic certainly arouses strong reactions! Jo is, as always, wonderfully eloquent. And though JAK writes eloquently about archetypes and alpha heroes and so forth, her heroes are not what I think of as alphas. Yes, they are strong, usually tormented, bossy, and want their own way (heck, who doesn't?), but they are basically fair and decent. They don't do cruelty or mean-spiritedness. More like the gamma or Warrior Poet under my definitions, I suppose. To be honest, I've always had trouble with those traditional romances (mercifully fewer these days), where the hero behaves in a way that would cause any sensible woman to call 911. My fantasies simply don't work that way. Which is why my heroes, even the most hard-edged, are all basically reasonable men."

It was at this point when I suddenly had a light bulb go off over my head. When I started my column back in early 1996, I started the Special Title Listings as well. While some of these lists were favorite funnies and two-hanky reads, others were tortured heroes and special heroes, rakes and rogues, etc. Maybe instead of sticking with broad categories, I began to think, we should develop many narrow ones.

At first I came up with Caveman, Renaissance Man, Enlightened Man, Laird, Warrior, and Nurturer, and then I talked to a few more authors. . . .

What Alicia Said:
Among them, Alicia Rasley, who wrote:

"Here's my take on it. I'm with Jo (as usual :) that the Alpha hero is above all else a leader. He's someone who takes charge. He's just about bound to end up as the boss of whatever group he's joined.

"That is, whatever wounds he's suffered in the past don't keep him from accepting his ultimate role of leading. He is not an outlaw (or if he is, he's the leader of the outlaw band). He is part of a group, not an outsider.

"And no, he's not dark and dangerous. A truly dark and dangerous Alpha would very likely be a tyrant. The Alpha male is a social creature, not a loner.

"But there is such a thing as a dark and dangerous hero. In fact, I break the Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women category of Alpha into three categories, because frankly, that definition is simply untenable. The Alpha cannot simultaneously be a leader and an outcast, a social person and a loner.

"Here's my categorization, take it as you will:

  • "The Alpha - the leader. He might have dark issues in his past, but the way he attempts to resolve them is to take charge, to accept his leadership ability and use it to make changes. His issues have to do with the difficulty of being a leader - fear of inadequacy, ethical questions, abuse of power, rivals gunning for him, the impostor syndrome....
  • "The Delta - the dark and dangerous. His past is so dark, so damaging, and combines with such a darker temperament that he exiles himself from society and takes on loner/outlaw status. His issues have to do with the past and how to overcome it - guilt, shame, rage, isolation versus need for love.... Delta means change, and these heroes most of all must change to be able to give and accept love freely.
  • "The Theta - the wounded. Theta means both death and art. These are the wounded creators, the ones too sensitive to put on the Delta's armor, and too passionate about life to kill themselves. Their very vulnerability to life's suffering makes them creative. They can be artists or writers or healers, but their way of dealing with pain is to create with it. The Theta's issues have to do often with the self-destructive nature of the artistic temperament-- substance abuse, loneliness, the need to stay open to life without dying of the pain of it.

"Then there's the Beta, and him I define not as a wimp but more as a good-time guy. He's the open, friendly fella always willing to lend a hand or a shoulder to cry on. He likes a party and has many friends, most of whom take advantage of his good nature. His issues have to do with 'self' boundaries - care-taking, giving too much, and not planning for the morrow because today is too involving. He could be a leader but is too lazy or too busy or too uncaring to do that. Mostly he just wants to enjoy life today.

"But I'm aware I'm in the minority! I just do want to point out that the reason people have so much trouble pinning Alpha down is that the original category is way too broad and contradictory. And writers should take note of that. It's just not good characterization to load heroes down with too many conflicting strengths and issues. We should always look to the hero's situation and personality for his conflicts, not just apply 'typical hero problems.'

"If this guy is a born leader (alpha), then his issues are going to be those of a leader, not of some outcast with a terrible secret in his past (delta). If he's a hypersensitive wounded soul (theta), he's not likely to be a hired killer (delta) or a candidate for president (alpha - have to be ambitious and tough to withstand the abuse!). And if he's any one of these three, he's not likely to be the heroine's helpful best friend (beta), because he's too focused on his own issues to take much note of hers."

What Eileen Said:
Then there was Eileen Charbonneau's take on this topic:

"Susan King, Mary Jo Putney and I believe we write Warrior Poets-- not Alphas, Betas, or Gammas. Our heroes are complex and interesting to us, needless to say as we choose to spend a lot of time with them! They are not always well behaved, and often angst-ridden. But they never take out their anger on the heroine. They'd rather turn it inward - hurt themselves, than hurt the heroine.

"So, where does the conflict come from? In my books it often comes from the outside. These are adventure stories that combine larger than life events with a wonderful intimacy - which is what I love about romance. And these books do it fearlessly - and don't we all admire courage? My characters often live somewhat outside their time as they are born or convinced outside the mainstream notions of their day. My heroes and heroines have been Metis (French/Indian), Irish during the Great Famine, Choctaw after the Trail of Tears, and Quaker.

"Even the ones born in privilege get quirky on me. Olana Whittaker in Waltzing in Ragtime is struggling with her role as a post-Victorian woman and teams up with, of all people, an unschooled backwoods forest ranger spouting very unpopular notions in the infancy of the conservation movement. (Yikes, if you think 'tree-huggers' are demonized now!). And Ethan Randolph of The Randolph Legacy starts off your basic, spoiled, Southern planter's child but events and his own character take over and he becomes someone very different (and dangerous) to know in 1816 Virginia!

"Personally, I am more interested in people who defy statistics. Asher Woods was abused by the family he was indentured to at the age of 5. Judith Mercer saw her mother and siblings slaughtered, Rachel LeMoyne and Dare Gilmartin lost their families to Indian Removal and Famine. Ethan Randolph was a prisoner of war for ten years. Instead of becoming abusers themselves, all these characters turn toward the Light. This fascinates me - the fact that they've been terribly tried by outside forces and inside demons and they come out struggling, haunted, but choosing a good path. They keep me good company and inspire me."

(On December 3, Eileen Charbonneau sent me her essay on the Warrior Poet, which she, along with Mary Jo Putney, and Susan King, presented to the National RWA Conference in Orlando. You can read it here.)

What Connie Said:
I also asked Connie Brockway to comment on this because she has written such a variety of wonderful heroes (both dark and light) in the past few years. Here is what she had to say:

"I don't think romance novels have many bona fide Alpha heroes. Using the animal behaviorists' societal models, I'd say romance novels have a lot more 'rogue' male heroes.

"An Alpha male is a leader, the dominant personality in a proscribed social order. He appears in romance novels most often in soldiers' roles: war hero, a mercenary, special ops leader. The important factor in defining their Alpha status is that these men, like all alpha males, are an integral part of their specific society. They are called by nature and genetics to lead (and its attendant characteristic, 'dominate') others in order that their society might achieve its goals.

"Interestingly, females are rarely part of those societies. Females become involved with these Alphas only by chance or incidentally, after whatever action the alpha and his society have engaged in has been completed and the Alpha is attempting to repair subsequent damage; to himself (physically, emotionally and/or spiritually) or to another - a beta, or follower. Often repair is made by way of recompense, revenge, debts of honor. We've all read the story of the captain who returns from battle and saves his lieutenant's sister/daughter/widow from whatever. This is an alpha male.

"The rogue male is quite different. He's challenged authority, often by breaking his society's rules and/or defying the alpha male (king, commander, father). He's been ousted from society (family, community, armed forces, police force) as a result. His reasons for challenging the status quo are often excellent (like the captain of police is on the take) but the important factor to note here is that the rogue is not the alpha, he is not allowed back into the society from which he's been banished until he can usurp the current alpha or become reconciled to the alpha. He isn't leading anyone. He's egocentric and ruthless and aggressive - because if he weren't he'd be content to remain quietly malcontent. The rogue is an outsider, a dark horse and an unknown quantity. Often the heroine's role in these rogue hero romances is to reconcile the hero to society, to return him to a state of grace by allowing him to prove himself, usurp the alpha, or temper his nature to the extent that it can peacefully reside in society once again.

"I have no idea where the beta category arose from and I can't understand anyone wanting to write a romance about a beta. When stripped down, a beta is simply a follower - someone who lives and operates in a society. He may have a very important job but when all is said and done, the beta is replaceable. There is no intrinsic conflict attached to the beta, not until something occurs which turns him either into a rogue who challenges the status quo or an alpha who must lead, does his story become interesting.

I don't like to attach absolute emotional characteristics to any of these three types. There are many jerky alphas (probably part and parcel of the personality makeup that both seeks and seeks to hold power). There are many jerky betas. And, let's face it, being thrown from society or leaving of your own accord because you couldn't deal with what was happening but hadn't the power or guts to stay and change it certainly, isn't my idea of a great guy, either."

A Different Approach Altogether:
It was at this point that I completely abandoned the idea that heroes fall into broad categories and went back to the beginning for me, to tortured heroes, special heroes, rakes and rogues, and the like. Instead of alpha, beta, and gamma, I came up with:

The Duke The Laird The Golden Boy
The Lone Wolf The Warrior The Brain
The Libertine The Black Sheep * The Sorcerer

* Thanks to Tricia for this one

The Duke: Is defined by his ducal mien. He might be nobility or a CEO, but he is concerned with propriety and correctness. He is orderly and scheduled and a stuffed shirt just waiting to be taken down a peg by a heroine who upsets his plans and schedules.

The Laird: Is defined by his role as a leader. He feels responsible for those in his charge, whether they are a family, a clan, or a ward. The laird generally learns to share his burdens in the course of a romance.

The Golden Boy: Is defined by his perfection. Everything has gone his way in life until a tragedy or event bursts his bubble. He will have to work now for his achievements rather than relying on his golden touch.

The Lone Wolf: Is defined by being alone. He is wounded, and wears his wound as a badge of honor. He prides himself on the fact that he needs no one, only to learn that, of course, he does.

The Warrior: Is defined by his sense of honor. He is a soldier, a spy, an officer of the law. His honor will be tested in the course of a romance, and his loyalties may change as a result.

The Brain: Is defined by his intelligence. He is perhaps an absent-minded professor or a computer nerd. He often pays little or no heed to social conventions or niceties because he is too busy solving or inventing.

The Libertine: Is defined by his wants and desires. He is a hedonist who is ruled by his appetites. He believes he will never be "trapped" by loving a woman, and his sense of honor and responsibility are deeply hidden. He is a rake.

The Black Sheep: Is defined by being bad. He revels in his bad reputation, whether or not it is deserved, and seems determined to live up to it. He lives to defy convention. He is a rogue and possibly outside the law.

The Sorcerer: Is defined by his mystery. There is power in his mystery, and yet, his position is never secure. The sorcerer is a cynic, possibly a charlatan, and considers himself outside of society as a whole. He is also otherworldly.

There are cross-overs of these types - the Sorcerer might also be a Brain, the Libertine a Black Sheep. There are possibly other types as well, and I'd love to hear from you if you have others to add to this list.

Another Different Approach Altogether:
Beverly Medos, who doesn't buy the alpha/beta/gamma concept, has instead come up with came up with A Laundry Basket of Wolf Cubs. Her basket contains four character types:

  • The Thinkers, who "Glory in their mental abilities and tend to either ignore their emotions or keep them under tight control at all times. They can range from the absent-minded professors whose mind is always preoccupied with their most recent project or interest to the tormented individual who has shut off all emotions in order to survive."

  • The Lovers, who "Are guided more by their emotions than their brains. These characters tend to lead with emotions first, then think of the consequences, if at all. They can range anywhere from the sensuously inclined and usually very self-indulgent ones whose only interest truly is in having a good time all the way over to the down-to-earth types who empathize with everyone's problems and try to solve them."

  • The Rulers, who have an "Innate ability and/or desire to lead. They have great respect for authority because it alone gives structure to their lives. Because they are natural leaders at heart, they also take their responsibilities very seriously. These born worriers are concerned with the safety and protection of all within their sphere of influence, even if it means sacrificing themselves."

  • The Loners, who are outcasts. "They do honestly sometimes prefer solitude to society. For one thing, they don't normally adapt well to a group situation. They have difficulty following orders and playing by the rules because they see things from a perspective outside of the group. They want to be their own boss. At the very least, if given a choice, they prefer to be the boss."

Beverly's wolf cubs often overlap in a romance, as do the nine character types I listed above. In fact, she's shared this nifty graphic as a way of illustrating this point:

Beverly says it's important to think of each of these four characters as "the poles on our own personal directional compass with the complete being the question mark in the center. Not every character is going to fall precisely at the extremes of the directional points. They may even fall between them and be more Loner-Thinker than pure Loner, for example. And any well-written character is going to have elements of each of these four overlapping each other. Sometimes one aspect of personality will dominate and sometimes another. Sometimes a character in a story will start as one of The Four and end up as a distinct other one. That is life-like."

I've presented a great deal of material in this column that has been in the works for quite some time. This latest discussion of heroes began way back in August, in Issue #57 of this column. What began as simply a discussion of heroes, villains, and political correctness began to morph into an argument over definitions. The original question of what actions cross the line from alpha hero to alpha heel behavior became what is an alpha hero and should we scrap old definitions?

I'm not sure we've come up with answers to these questions, but I think it's exciting to talk about new terms and ideas. I hope you have found it as interesting as I have.

The Message Board:
It's time to post to the message board again. Here are the questions I'd like you to consider responding to:

The Sorcerer - Have you ever read a romance starring The Sorcerer? What are the names of some good romances featuring this type of hero? Or heroine, for that matter? What would be the modern equivalent?

Is Beta Boring? - Both Connie Brockway and JAK have indicated that Beta heroes are boring. I myself find it is the rare author indeed who can make me love a beta hero. What about you? Are you like me in that you prefer a real-life beta mate but prefer to read about more dangerous men?

What Jo, Mary Jo, Alicia, Eileen, and Connie Said - If anything these authors said seemed particularly insightful to you (and they all struck a chord with me), please expand upon it.

My Different Approach - If you find the alpha/beta/gamma archetypes less than useful, what do you make of my nine narrower categories? If it would help to make short lists for each category, please have at it! I'll work on that myself for next time.

Beverly's Four Wolf Pups - If you find the alpha/beta/gamma archetypes less than useful, what do you make of Beverly's group of four? If it would help to make short lists for each category, please have at it!

Until next time, TTFN, Laurie Likes Books
In conjunction withJo Beverley
Mary Jo Putney
Alicia Rasley
Eileen Charbonneau
Connie Brockway
Beverly Medos

Eileen Charbonneau's essay on The Warrior Poet
Read article We Need a Hero: A Look at the Eight Hero Archetypes
Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

Click here to join aarmaillist
Click to subscribe to AAR's twice-monthly mailing list