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May 14, 2015

Are Beta Characters Weak?

Keyboard buttons spelling BETA with text: Are Beta Characters Weak?

Between my guest post at the Writers in the Storm about balancing character strengths and vulnerabilities and my post on Tuesday about alpha heroines, we’ve been talking a lot about character strengths lately. But I want to talk about the opposite problem: a character without strengths.

In the comments of my last post, Lee Summerall brought up the question of where beta characters fall. Lee was concerned that because I talked about the strengths of an alpha heroine, that must mean that betas are the opposite: weak.

As I pointed out in my reply, I would never say that betas are weak. Different, yes. Weak, no.

I think this is important to realize, especially as how Lee points out, in real life most of us (and most of our characters) are going to be a mix of traits. Like I mentioned in that post, I don’t think many alphas—hero or heroine—will have every alpha trait on the list.

So where do beta characters fall? And what would a weak character really look like?

Is It Bad for a Character to Be a Beta?

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t write uber-alpha heroes. My characters are a mix of alpha and beta traits, with some leaning more one way and others leaning more the other way. So by no means do I think beta traits are negative.

That’s hard to tell within popular society, however. If we do a search on beta male traits, we’ll find tons of articles from men’s sites with headlines like “Avoid These Beta Behaviors at all Costs!” or “Be an Alpha or Fail in Life.”

Um… They’re writing for a different audience, trust me. *smile*

If we go back to the original use of alpha/beta and how they relate to wolf packs, we see that betas are the second in command. Second.

In other words, there are a lot of other wolves further down the peon chain than the betas. In many cases, the betas are required to step up and lead the pack later in life, so they’re obviously not incapable of acting like alphas when the situation calls for it.

What Are Beta Traits?

So what are beta traits? Just for fun—and because I like the challenge—I’m going to take the traits that one of those men’s articles says to avoid and show how those traits are not a bad thing. *smile*

  • Weak and Submissive Body Language:
    At first glance, this seems like a bad thing, right? But what if we’re faced with a boss with an itchy finger on the “you’re fired” trigger? An alpha might act cocky anyway.
    In other words, a beta would use their smarts to avoid a pointless and/or harmful pissing contest where the contestants metaphorically compare the size or length of their you-know-whats. Choosing to be submissive either to someone we respect or to survive to fight another day is not weak.
  • Afraid to Take Risks:
    Afraid? Or simply more cautious? Again, some alphas would be overly confident and jump into a decision without enough information.
    In contrast, a beta might be more calculated with the risks they take. Yes, there are many people who never take risks, but we’re usually not going to find them among our characters—if for no other reason than it’s our job as the author to push them into situations that force them out of their comfort zone. *smile*
  • A Follower:
    A beta wolf won’t follow any random wolf that comes along, just like how he’s not submissive to every member of the pack. Only the alpha. His choice to follow the alpha is calculated—maybe because being second-in-command is a promotion, or because of loyalty, or because he respects the alpha.
    J.R. Ward writes uber-alpha heroes in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series. Yet every one of those alpha heroes chooses to follow the king. It’s not a bad thing to support those we care about or respect.
  • Seeks Approval:
    In real life, most of us want others to like us. This desire might keep us humble instead of arrogant, or inspire us to be friendly to the cashier at the grocery store even when we’re feeling tired and grouchy.
    There’s nothing inherently wrong with being nice just because we don’t want others to dislike us. This need drives much of what keeps society functioning and often forms the basis of many of our characters’ vulnerabilities, which helps keep them likable and relatable.
  • Lacks Confidence:
    Many of us lack confidence in one or more areas (writers are notoriously filled with self-doubt), and this is a common source of our characters’ vulnerabilities as well.
    Some of the advice in men’s articles for this trait is awful: “only those who lack confidence are perfectionists,” don’t worry about the future,” etc. That advice could easily lead to over-confidence, sloppiness, and the stupid kind of failures.
    No one is going to be an expert at everything, and it’s smart to admit when we don’t know enough to take action or make a decision. Real alphas know when to trust their team, and real betas are smart enough to recognize when something is beyond them.

That post I linked to last time about alpha male traits was condescending enough (which is why I focused only on the traits themselves and not on that other post’s descriptions), and the articles about beta males are even worse. Either way, don’t believe everything they say. *smile*

What’s the Core Difference between Alpha and Beta?

Beta traits are not bad, negative, or weak. It’s not a bad thing if we (or our characters) feel the need to prove ourselves (this drive can be a different kind of ambition) or give up in the face of failure (quitting a job we hate or abandoning a story that’s not working is often the best thing for us), etc.

In fact, when we look at the specific beta traits, the real difference between alphas and betas often seems to come down to where they draw a line. For example:

  • They both can take risks (the beta wolf wouldn’t be second-in-command without taking some risks), but a beta’s risks might be more cautious or calculated. Or maybe they’re only comfortable with smaller risks.
  • They both can have confidence, but an alpha might be faster to assume they know more than they do. Or that their instinct should be trusted more than the experts.
  • They both can be confrontational, but a beta might have a smaller circle of passions that would inspire them to confront a situation. For example, a character would have to be far below beta to not act to save a loved one.
  • They both can be determined, but an alpha might stick with a problem until a solution is found. A beta might step back and reevaluate or call it a good-but-failed try faster.
  • They both can be leaders, but a beta might happily give up the job if someone more qualified comes along.
  • They both can have opinions, but an alpha might be more stubborn in sticking to their opinion while a beta might be more willing to listen to others or to keep quiet when their opinion isn’t needed or helpful.

Last time we talked about how alphas know who they are and are comfortable in their own skin. The same can be said for many (not all!) betas.

However, their priorities might be aligned more with others: others’ impressions, others’ loyalty, others’ trust. They might be focused on others for the greater good. These are not “bad” things.

In others words, the strengths we find in alpha characters often still exist in beta characters, but maybe at a lower or toned-down level. At the same time, as I mentioned under “Follower” above, the traits we find in beta characters might exist in alpha characters as well, but maybe only in very limited situations.

How Does This Relate to Story Writing?

A healthy character—who they are at the end of the book—will often consist of a well-balanced mix of alpha and beta traits.

  • An overly confident or overly unemotional alpha might learn to embrace a certain amount of beta caution or emotional vulnerability to connect with others (especially in a romance).
  • An overly risk-avoiding or insecure beta might learn how to tap into a certain amount of alpha confidence or risk-taking and thus come to trust themselves more.

So their character arc and the story plot often focuses on events and situations that will force our character away from the unhealthy or extreme level of their traits. Scared betas will find courage they never knew they had. Cocky alphas will find a reason to trust others. Etc., etc.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s sometimes a thin line between strengths and flaws. Any alpha trait could be good or bad, a strength or a flaw, depending on how extreme of a level it’s taken to. Ditto for the beta traits. And whether our character is alpha or beta, they’ll need to find the strength to overcome their flaws.

What’s a Character without Strengths?

As I mentioned in my reply to Lee, we usually want to write characters who aren’t passive. They’re going to be proactive in some way and not just reactive.

If we’re writing literary fiction, we might have passive characters who merely react to the plot. However, I focus on genre writing, and our characters would do something to actively interact, cause, and create the plot.

Simply by writing a story that forces our characters to face uncomfortable situations, we’ll show them being active in typical alpha ways, no matter how beta they are. For example, a character could be beta in every way except for their determination to protect a child, etc.

This is far different from a character without any internal strength. Recently, I read an interesting article about the danger of people being too nice.

In a psychological experiment testing why certain subjects would be willing to follow orders to hurt innocents, researchers found:

“Those who are described as “agreeable, conscientious personalities” are more likely to follow orders and deliver electric shocks that they believe can harm innocent people, while “more contrarian, less agreeable personalities” are more likely to refuse to hurt others…

People who were normally friendly followed orders because they didn’t want to upset others, while those who were described as unfriendly stuck up for themselves.”

It might be easy to say, “Oh, friendly and agreeable, that must mean beta.” Except that beta wolves choose who to give their loyalty to. They wouldn’t follow a random wolf—or a random researcher.

They give their support because they see the bigger picture and know what’s for the greater good. Remember all those words like calculated in my list above? Betas are smart.

Someone who follows randomly is like the wolves below the beta in the peon chain. They might not even have enough ambition to be beta.

That’s what a character without any internal strength looks like. That’s what true weakness is.

In storytelling it’s usually a far worse problem to write one-dimensional characters than to write a character with beta traits, or even a preponderance of weaknesses. A three-dimensional character with weaknesses will often be more interesting than a one-dimensional character who’s all-alpha-all-the-time.

In fact, we might write characters who start along the lines of those who would follow randomly. We might have characters so broken or abused that they have no strength.

Yet in a positive arc story, these characters would grow and strengthen. That growth can make for an interesting story. That growth makes them strong. Whether they eventually lean more toward the beta or the alpha side of traits, even those characters are definitely not weak. *smile*

Do you disagree with my take on betas? Have you seen popular culture descriptions that make betas sound pathetic? Do you think betas are weak? Do you write characters with some beta traits? Do you agree that for many characters, the healthiest path might be a mix of alpha and beta traits?

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Carradee

Frankly, I think true alphas and betas are, at their core, more similar than they different. Primary difference that I see are that alphas would rather be trailblazers, and betas would rather be followers. But that’s preference, not necessity.

A true alpha, comfortable in their ability to lead, can take a beta position; and vice versa.

My personality is far more beta than it is alpha, but I seem to act more alpha than beta. Case in point is how I interact with clients: If you know what you want and understand its effects, I’m fine following that; if you say you want something that sabotages something else that I have reason to believe you want, I’ll politely press and make sure you comprehend what you’re asking for; and if you seriously don’t know what you want, I’ll take over. But taking over is not my preference.

Carradee

P.S. One likely source of my willingness to step into “lead” positions: I have far too much experience with leaders blaming followers for doing exactly as instructed, so when I have cause to suspect that what someone’s asking for isn’t what they want, then it’s far less risky to put my foot down then then than it is to face the “That isn’t what I asked for!” later.

I still sometimes have difficulty with someone defining what they want and then later proving that they meant something other than what they said, but that’s impossible to avoid entirely.

Twik
Twik

The concepts of alpha/beta wolves is woefully outdated science. Even animals don’t fit in those categories, let alone humans.

Christina Hawthorne

This is brilliant, Jami. Well done!

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Hi Jami, I find it very interesting that many people think alphas are better than betas. I personally like betas more, lol. A beta male sounds a lot more attractive to me than an alpha male does, haha. And it’s funny that you mention articles that denigrate beta males, because on urban dictionary, there is a mix of definitions. Some people define beta males as superior to alpha males, and some define beta males as inferior to alpha males. It depends on how they define beta and alpha. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=beta+male Also, I have never understood why some people believe that it’s SHAMEFUL for a man to remain a virgin. 😛 In my books, it’s something to be PROUD OF if they remain a virgin until their marriage and ONLY ever have sex with their wife. I’ve never understood why male promiscuity is viewed positively either, whilst men who remain sexually celibate or who only ever have sex with one woman in their life are viewed negatively. 🙁 Anyway, just my rant against a belief system I disagree with and don’t understand, haha. If I were still marrying, I would most definitely prefer a virgin man. I want to be his first, lol. Okay back to the topic of betas, yeah I think most, if not all, people have a mix of alpha and beta traits, and manifest different traits in different situations. I see myself as more “alpha” than “beta” (alpha and beta as defined in your posts), yet I have…  — Read More »

Ebony
Ebony

Hi Jami, I agree- there’s nothing wrong with being alpha or beta, just as long as you know what you are doing and you are comfortable with your actions. The media tries to portray beta traits as weaknesses when, if studied closely, they have many similarities to alphas (or, the “stronger” ones). It’s all a matter of preference, as others have stated before me, and personality. For example, I tend to hear the phrase “Be a leader, not a follower” constantly. But what if you are choosing to follow someone for good reasons? People who followed leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr or even religious leaders are not considered weak. In fact, many are considered brave for following them. So, in the end, being a follower is not always a bad thing. Looking back over this list and the one on your last post, I can see a mix of traits in most (if not all) of the main characters in my stories, and they are the main characters for a reason, are they not? Many of the people I know have a mix of traits as well, and most of them happen to be friends of mine (or, at least, people I can tolerate). I myself tend to lean more so towards the beta side (though that never stops anyone from coming to me for assistance with issues they are not sure how to resolve). All in all, wonderful post, Jami. I shall await the next one. -Ebony

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[…] If you need more suggestions, I also shared how typically beta traits can show strength in my follow-up post […]

Sophie
Sophie

This was interesting.

I find a mix of both in my characters, though that is definitely influenced by the show my fanfics are based on. Even if they display alpha traits by taking risks and taking leadership, it could (and HAS, in Fuyumi’s case) end badly if they aren’t at least a little cautious. Then again, some have more beta than alpha, probably to balance it out.

I agree that many alpha traits are seen as better, but you do need some balance. It probably isn’t helped when many kids’ shows have their main protagonist has many alpha traits etc. But, variety is needed in the world, so we have that balance of alpha/beta.

Daniela Ark

Hi Jami, I have been reading your blog for a while now but it is my first time commenting. Congrats and Thank you! Your blig is a great resource for aspiring authors like me! I think real characters are not alpha or beta but HAVE alpha or beta moments or periods of their lives, or react in an alpha or beta way to specific situations. I’m always looking for tips to create more believable, complex characters and this post is very helpful! 🙂

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[…] I dislike “alphahole” heroes (when they cross from strong to a bullying or controlling jerk) and don’t shy away from beta heroes. […]

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