Alpha and omega

My hero in Farewell to Kindness is an alpha male.

My hero in Farewell to Kindness is an alpha male.

No, not the Alpha and the Omega, though it is Sunday here in New Zealand.

In a number of Facebook events, and most recently in a discussion on the Facebook group ‘I Love Historical’, we’ve been invited to comment on whether we prefer alpha or beta heroes.

I wasn’t quite sure what people had in mind by the terms, so I’ve done a bit of research, and here’s the result.

The terms come from research into dominance hierarchies in social animals. The alpha male is the leader; the one with the greatest access to food and mates. In some social species, only the alpha male can mate; in others, mates are shared by the alpha and his trusted lieutenants; in still others, the males lower down the social hierarchy will sneak access to the females, or several lower ranked individuals will gang up on the boss.

David, the hero of my current WIP Encouraging Prudence, is a beta.

David, the hero of my current WIP Encouraging Prudence, is a beta.

The beta male is the lieutenant — the alpha’s trusted offsider. He will often take over as alpha if the alpha is disabled or killed.

Next down the hierarchy is the gamma, and so on, till we get to the omega — the animal no-one wants to be, the weed who everyone picks on.

Depending on the species, females can also be alphas, betas, gammas, and omegas. A female alpha might be pack leader, as with hyenas, or half of an alpha pair, as with wolves.

Popular culture has seized on the terms alpha and beta, but has them wrong. I found a lot of articles implying beta was the opposite of alpha, and was a bad thing to be. Not so. Beta is the cushy role, the wingman spot. Beta individuals suffer less stress, but still enjoy many of the benefits of leadership as they coast along in their leader’s train.

Alpha males chartHow much any of this applies to people is questionable. We’re a hierarchical social animal, beyond a doubt, but our tendency to pair bonding and our ability to ignore our instincts both mitigate against a true alpha, beta, gamma type of social structure.

That said, the categories are more useful than I expected in romantic fiction.

Think of the alpha male as the one who must be in charge; the natural leader who finds it hard to sit back and let others take the lead (though a good alpha is happy to delegate to a trusted beta).

The beta male is the one with the same ability to lead but not the same drive to always be first; the lieutenant who can always be trusted to support his leader but who can step up to take over if he has to.

And the gamma is a follower born, happy to take and carry out orders, and only really happy when he has someone to look up to.

I’ve saved this chart in my character tools database. I found it on an organisational psychologist’s site, and I think it will be a great help in character development in novels to come.