The Beta Hero: A Non-Stereotypical Male Character

beta hero antihero hipster-358479_960_720I think, somehow, I am destined to create what I learned only yesterday are beta heroes. I had never, until this week, heard there was such a phenomenon. Now I am so glad I know what he is. You see, several members of my critique group have been telling me that the male protagonist in my current novel is not “strong enough” – that he ought to be more macho, more – and these are my words now – traditional. It has been a profoundly frustrating experience. You see, I don’t want my main characters to be constrained by traditional boxes, not the men and especially not the women. So, while all the members of my group think my female lead is great, they have been telling me my male lead ought to be more stereotypical (my words again). I was even told he is a “wuss” and that that’s not what readers want. They seem to equate “strong” with “macho.”

I beg to differ. When I think back to my previous books, none of my male protagonists really fit the mold. Yet, my readers have loved those characters. They see no problem with them. And this is true even of my male readers. It seems readers and writers respond differently. Hmmmmm.

So, for those of you who don’t know, and I think that is many of you, this is what I’ve learned about a beta hero.

He’s not the swashbuckling bad boy who sweeps you off your feet in a fit of wild passion. He’s not the guy who welcomes a fight and acts or speaks before he gets his brain in gear. He’s not interested in eye candy on his arm, though he may still be struck by beauty. He’s not the guy who charges into the fray, shouting, arms waving, stirring his men into a frenzy.

So, what is he, then? He’s a thinker, a quiet guy who doesn’t make decisions on a whim or on instinct. He’s the guy you warm to slowly, the one you want to take home to your parents, the one you want to marry. He’s steady, reliable, and cerebral.

Here’s what Laura Dane has to say: “…a beta hero is a strong, smart man who would do anything to help his woman. But he’s more easygoing and laid back. He’s the good guy. The guy who handles problems calmly. He’s often very smart and prefers to use that intelligence and his personality to make things happen.”

And Katie Growrie wrote at So You Think You Can Write, “He’s not an alpha — perhaps less prone to unexpected fits of jealousy, making commands, and doing things for the heroine’s own good (often without her knowledge) :). The beta hero is often gentler, kinder, more laid back. He’s the charming guy next door, the patient single dad, the nerdy younger brother.”

He can also be more likely to ask for the opinion of a peer, more likely to listen to advice before making a decision, more likely to share the leadership role, and less likely to seek glory or the spotlight.

He is more likely to be in his head. He won’t blurt out his feelings or thoughts. He is less likely to jump to conclusions.

Does that make him a poor leader? Not in my books. He leads well, and with great insight; he simply doesn’t make a grand show of it. But those he leads know that and therefore they trust him; they respect him, and in the end, will follow him anywhere. He makes fewer mistakes than his alpha counterpart. He’s the tortoise, not the hare.

At least that’s how I see it.

I feel vindicated. I love my beta heroes. My readers do, too.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

33 thoughts on “The Beta Hero: A Non-Stereotypical Male Character”

  1. Good post, Yvonne. I, too, like non-traditional men, men who feel more, bluster less, who let their actions speak for them instead of their boasts. Most of my male MC are beleaguered by doubts and think long and hard about what they need to do or what they have done. They’re not the thriller-type heroes; they’re much more human than that. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. You have just described the hero of my next book. Smart and calm under pressure, but never starts a fight. He’s younger than his love interest. He’s shorter than she is. Everyone loves a come-from-behind win! (I hope)

  3. What a great post, Yvonne. Makes me want to read your books. Frankly, I get bored reading about stereotypical macho men, same as I do when I read about stereotypically beautiful women. The beta man is much more interesting on so many levels.

    Glad you weighed what your critique group told you. I’m lucky I have a wonderful critique group as well but a writer needs to hang on to their own truths as they go forward.

  4. Very interesting, Yvonne! I think I would like reading about the beta hero better, too! A lot of cops have to act more like beta heroes, or they end up on the front page news, for the wrong reasons. I know a guy who worked as a bouncer at bars for many years. The objective there was not only preventing a fight, but staying out of one himself, even when provoked. Staying cool under pressure, talking sense when others are talking trash – these are the skills of a good bouncer, and a good beta hero!

  5. I like your idea of the beta hero, Yvonne. I do no like to read books where the hero/heroine are the best in everything–looks, intelligence, personality, etc. I like them to be real. They have faults, but they are not harmful faults. They fail, but are not failures. I agree about the critique groups too. I am not part of one now as I don’t drive at night, but I found that unless I took a very short complete piece to be critiqued, the critiques on the 3 pages out of a longer work would come back useless at times. They would tell me I should add this or that, but if they only knew, ‘this’ and ‘that’ are in a more suitable place in the story . Thanks for sharing this information. Makes me feel better. 🙂

  6. Hi Yvonne,

    Thank you for the very excellent and mind provoking article on Beta Heroes, no hero is macho enough for some readers, not even Conan the Barbarian LoL :>). It sounds like your beta heroes are highly satisfying to your readers. I believe in beta heroes, too because we all have our faults and feelings.

    To me, it sounds more like your critique group members might be out of sync with your book’s characters. I would ask myself, are the members in this critique group the same members as for my earlier books or has the critique group membership changed? Why didn’t this concern about my beta hero show up in my earlier books? What has changed? Did I have my beta hero do something out of character? If nothing changed in the beta hero to cause this reaction by the critique group, then I would reach out to a few of my other loyal readers and followers and get a second opinion.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Yes, this is a different group though one of them has read my previous books.

      Of course, another question to consider is where does our character cross the line from beta to alpha? Or does that beta show enough strength to still be a leader or hero? So much to think about isn’t there.

  7. I love this! I didn’t realize my heroes are beta heroes. I even have a couple of beta villains around too, now that I think about it.

    I’m going to share on my blog. THANK YOU!

  8. Yvonne, excellent advice. I’ve been told my characters are one-dimensional. It’s frustrating. I’m reading up on trying to create better ones. Any ideas? Thanks for posting.

  9. Hello, everybody:
    I’m sorry to come to this late. I was going to answer this last week but got sidelined by something else.
    I draw my ‘heroes’ – the male lead character, in other words – based on men I identify with because that’s the most convincing to me.
    They’re not ‘take charge’ men and boys. Women aren’t drawn to them initially because of displays of man’s man manly man-presumed strength and manliness.
    I’m not sure I even like those sorts of men. I’ve seen a lot of them and they’re often the first to fold when the going gets tough.
    But my guys tend to be reticent – I would even say they’re the Laconic Moronic Kiwi Bloke.
    They’re not weak. But where a situation arises that requires him to step forward because no-one else will then he does. I’ve then found that as the story progresses we learn more about him. Actions tell us about his character.
    That’s how I do it, anyway.
    Thus in 1968 a high school in rural New Zealand needs a coach for the first fifteen to get them through the last three matches including one against an English-style private school.
    No-one wants the job. In a New Zealand context the rugby first fifteen is a school’s sporting and social pinnacle. But here is a team so bad they haven’t won for five years.
    But the coach of the 6th-grade B volunteers because no-one else will and despite his lack of coaching credentials.
    We find out as the story progresses that he’s no weakling. He fires the team skipper (son of the mayor) and several players and brings in new ones. He withstands a great deal of pressure in the town to reinstate the mayor’s son.
    The other hero is an 18 year-old pupil doing a repeat school year. He lives with his Nanna. He is a loner and social misfit and not good at much – except kicking a rugby ball off the ground and a long way up the paddock and between the posts.
    The coach tries to enlist him into the team for his goal-kicking. The youth is terrified and he says ‘no’.
    Which brings me to my heroines – or lead female characters.
    I base mine mostly on women I’m familiar with – my Mum, her sisters, who were university educated and articulate teachers, their friends, my sisters and cousins, my nieces, and, I’m finding, my four young granddaughters. All independently minded, all have plenty to say and are unafraid to say it, and know their own minds.
    Thus the coach hero is balanced by a strong woman who is also a teacher.
    My goal-kicker has two strong women in his life – his Nanna, who has brought him up since he was a baby; and a new one, a girl from a Dutch migrant family.
    She is regarded as untouchable by all the ‘take charge’ boys at the school. She does not say ‘no’ when he asks her if he can take her to the school dance. She talks him into joining the first fifteen.
    I tend, also, to make my heroines a little bit superior in some way to my males.
    Thus in one the main character is headed to be her Catholic school’s dux. She speaks four languages. She passes exams with ease. She is taller than the hero, who narrates the story.
    He wasn’t good at school and study. Despite his averageness he had a gift for writing so he works as a sub-editor (copy editor) on a newspaper.
    But when she needs his strength and commitment he gives it to her utterly and is surprised by how much she tells him it is worth. Being the modest (Laconic Moronic Kiwi Bloke) he thinks he’s just doing the decent thing.
    What I find puzzling is that a book written for Kiwi blokes about rugby – a sparsely populated field in New Zealand fiction – is, going by feedback from readers, more popular with women. It’s nothing like what I intended.
    But they like my male and female characters.
    – Paul Corrigan

    1. Hi Paul, our comment policy states that comments over 200 words should be turned in as a guest post – just fyi for the future. Thanks. 🙂

    2. Hi Paul: Thanks for taking the time for such an in depth comment, even though, as Kat says, it’s a wee bit longer than usual. Your characters sound a lot like mine. I agree that it allows for better character development. Looks like you live in a well balanced family – the kind this world needs and your characters follow that lead. Good on you.

      And, hey, a guest post might be something to consider.

  10. Hello, Yvonne:
    Thank you. I’m sorry about the reply that was, I find, longer than your post. I truly was unaware of a limit.
    A guest post? Steady on. I might be rash enough to try it …
    – Paul Corrigan

  11. I agree with your article. Most of my male protagonists are how you describe, it’s how the real world works, not everyone is a gung ho hero some are quietly waiting and when push comes to shove they are there, protecting you, family, dog or cat. lol

  12. Good post. I find beta heroes more real, more easy to relate to. I would go a bit further too. They are flawed and not necessarily in some “socially-acceptable” way. My own MC in my debut novel has all of those elements of a beta hero and some! He’s nervy, a bit neurotic even, a self-confessed coward and hater of confrontation. I@m sure some will find him a ‘wimp’ 🙂

  13. I create only ‘beta’ types…very few are the alpha macho men, and if they are, they have an achilles heel the size of a car. Mental issues, physical issues, etc. I love these types the best!

  14. Great post, and I fully agree. One of my own ‘sidekick’ characters on a wip is a beta hero, very laid back and back-up for the female lead. He’s the one who will spring surprises when they are most needed.

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