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?Pin It