Some Alternatives to the Alpha Character Part 1: We Can Do Better – The Resourceful Beta Character
Alpha character? We can do better. But with what? If we kick these glory hogs off center stage, what is to take their place? What’s the alternative?
Storytellers have known since antiquity that the characters that don’t have it all sewn up from the start hold the reader’s interest. Consider the enduring success of The Demon in the Bottle, The Brave Little Tailor, Jack & the Beanstalk and Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves (actually, the earliest versions of the Red Riding Hood story would also fall into this category, prior to its being turned into a morbid “morality tale” by Perrault, and from there into a “damsel in distress tale” by the Grimm brothers).
Rather than lazily rely on an alpha character to slay dragons, hit villains in the mouth and save the day, these stories utilize the resourceful beta character, a team of beta characters (with the story driven by an ensemble, rather than a single central character), a gamma character, or a hybrid of beta and gamma.
The Resourceful Beta Character
Just as the alpha character is lionized, beta characters often end up with unjustified bad reputations. For the record: Slackers, lumps, cowards, and similar “losers” are not beta characters: They’re omega characters, the favored flavor in a small array of comedies, and the central focus of way too much Mumblecore.
Betas have long been misperceived as toadies of the alphas, the wannabes who never made the grade and simply bask in the reflected glory of the alpha. Or they’re sad sacks constantly under heel (intended or not) of alpha characters. Or they’re pathetic damsels in distress or similar victims waiting to be rescued. Many beta characters are just that, and nothing more.
But betas are not necessarily minions, toadies or victims. They do prefer to avoid risk and confrontation, keep to the background and tend, at least in their younger days, to be somewhat introverted. But they are neither weak nor cowardly. They simply prefer diplomacy, compromise and conciliation to chest-thumping and confrontation whenever possible.
They see through pose and hubris, but will listen, understand, comfort and sympathize.
Often intellectual, they prioritize brains over muscle. Thanks to an ability to synchronize their brain’s right and left hemispheres, they’re able to combine creativity and strategy. They’re refined and emotional, at least compared to alphas, and often have an inner self-esteem that doesn’t prove itself in terms alphas understand.
Jimmy Stewart and David Niven both made careers playing heroic beta males Contemporary actress Jennifer Love Hewitt is considered the quintessential beta heroine.
And one need not necessarily be all that heroic – at least not at first.
To be continued . . .
© 2015 by G. H. McCallum and excerpted from Writer to Writer: First Edition, an anthology put out by the Writer’s Mastermind Group, and available from Amazon books.
Look for G. H. McCallum’s novel The Bluebottle Boys, this autumn from Duvanian Press and available from Amazon Books.
G. H. McCallum
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