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WRITING FANTASY GENDER STEREOTYPES, PART THREE: Alphas, Betas, and Losers, Oh My!

This is 3 of a series on ‘Writing Fantasy Gender Stereotypes’, if you missed part one you can read it here and also, part two here.

In our discussion of gender stereotypes in fantasy fiction—and how to avoid writing them—we’ve only briefly touched on male stereotypes, particularly the visual stereotypes seen in today’s fantasy literature. While this article will seek to discuss these visual stereotypes, I believe that it’s hard to separate the visual stereotype from the personality stereotype when it comes to male characters, so I’d like to take a look at what that means for readers and how visual & personality stereotypes of male characters can both help and hinder writers of fantasy fiction.

The Alpha Male

You’re likely already familiar with a few of these male stereotypes—anyone remember Robert Jordan’s Conan series? Be honest. Bring those covers to the forefront of your memory: Glistening pectorals, giant swords, angry monsters, the occasional scantily-clad woman nearby, and the man himself positioned in a stance of aggression and/or dominance. You want alpha male? Look no further.

In fantasy fiction, the alpha male tends to be just that: Physically strong, and often ruggedly handsome. However, he’s not always defined in terms of beauty or attractiveness—his male-ness comes from his physical strength and aggression or decisiveness. These traits were what attractedfemale characters within the stories, and not necessarily the hero’s outward beauty. With an alpha male of this variety—which is found a lot more openly in pre-1990s fantasy works—there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of “this color of hair” or “this kind of clothing” commonalities associated with the stereotype.

The Loser Male

loser-RonYou know the type. These are the lonely, pathetic male characters often stereotyped as weak, nerdy, incapable, or scrawny, and are typically eitherdescribed as unattractive or less attractive than alpha males. When these characters show up in fantasy, it’s perhaps more typicalfor them to appear as villains or secondary character types—or the third member of a love triangle. They play sidekicks to the alpha males, and it’s not unusual for them to have a physical handicap or deformity of some kind. Again, unlike with female main characters, writers don’t seem to have an “unwritten stereotype rule” about hair color or weight or level of attractiveness for these male characters, just as long as they aren’t sexier than any alphas in the story. And if this guy is your main character? Well, then you’ve got another problem, because it’s entirely likely that you’re writing the newest of male stereotype to show up on the fantasy scene, also known as…

The Beta Male

Without pointing fingers or naming names, I bet you can bring one of these gentlemen to mind faster than I can say “sparkle.” The beta male is the newest, most intrusive male visual stereotype to show up in fantasy fiction, and I’d argue it’s the least relatable type of character for male fantasy fiction readers.

Not quite alphas, and not entirely falling into the “loser” category, these men—if we want to call them that—are drop-dead gorgeous without being smug about it, are in perfect physical condition (even if they don’t work to maintain it) but aren’t overly muscular, wear only the best clothes and shoes, and any scar or physical deformity only serves to make them more attractive to others around them. But what I’d say is the worst feature of this male stereotype is that they are
overly feminized, both in appearance and personality.

Shifting the Trends

In the previous decade, several fascinating studies were done on trends in characterization in fantasy fiction. In one study of fantasy novels from the 1980s and early 1990s, the researcher discovered that the trend of authors defining their male characters by intelligence had decreased from 71% to 57%. The shift here came with an increase in physical beauty and emotional strength as the main points of characterization, something which had previously only applied to female characters.*

While this study is almost 20 years old, I’d argue that the trend increased over time—and unlike the visual stereotypes of women, which less frequently appear in publication than they do on the draft pages of aspiring novelists—to the point where fantasy shelves in bookstores have become littered with feminized male characters.

Is this a problem that’s arisen because of the marked increase of females working in the publishing industry, or due to the influx of female authors? Are women unintentionally feminizing their male characters? I don’t have an answer to that, and it would be remiss of me to point fingers either way. The real problem here is this: If readers can’t relate to perfection (and who can?), then this stereotype has to go.

Take that male stereotype!

Take that male stereotype!

Thinking Inside the Box

No one can relate to perfection. We know that. The brooding, overly attractive, always-in-tune-with-his-emotions, woman-magnet beta male has to go. More than one commenter has lamented this very issue in the previous installments of this article series, and I agree with them, the same way I believe that the visual stereotype of female perfection needs to be shifted toward a more realistic, well-rounded treatment of the gender. I say the same for male stereotypes, but allow me to make another suggestion: What if we took a step backward… toward those early stereotypes of fantasy fiction?

Hear me out on this. With the early stereotypes, the visual aspect is fairly one-dimensional; we get either giant muscles and oozing sexuality, or a scrawny, brains-over-brawn character. And before you throw stones, consider this: Each of those early stereotypes has a clear, defined flaw or weakness. Instead of treating those stereotypes as anathema, why not use them as a starting point? Why not allow male characters to be men, and build them out of these very base sketches from the ground  up, infusing them with real strengths and flaws along the way? And because the visual aspect of the stereotype is so sparse—look at those covers, after all!—there is so much leeway for today’s fantasy author to mold and shape their male character into someone truly unique, creative, and relatable.

And if you purposely create the beta male? Then that’s your prerogative as an author. However, it’s imperative to realize that your role as a writer is to present someone who your readers can relate to—someone they can see elements of themselves in—not to simply slap the equivalent of Michaelangelo’s David onto the page and give him a full black book in the first paragraph of Chapter One.

Where Are We Going?

It’s my hope, as a writer and a reader, that new and future authors will be able to learn from the shifting tides of social roles in our society, while still recalling the inclinations and deviations that come along with being either a male or female in not only our world but the worlds they create, reflecting that in their own fantasy fiction. This genre has come a long way since early days, and so have we. The end game?To finally eliminate gender stereotypes and write real peoplewho also happen to be male or female… and to tell a damn good story while we’re at it.

 

* Du Mont, Mary J.  1993.  “Images of women in young adult science fiction and fantasy, 1970, 1980, and 1990: a comparative content analysis.” Voice of Youth Advocates16.

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13 Comments

  1. rsashark says:

    Brilliantly written.

  2. Jess says:

    Might the increase in ‘beta male’ characters also be influenced by modern changes in fashion? Clothing becoming less gender-specific, more unisex etc.? Thinking along those lines, the shift from ‘alpha’ to ‘beta’ males might actually reflect a more open-minded approach to gender roles (this might not hold up if I actually examined the characters’ roles within their respective books, though that would be interesting), i.e. it’s OK for men to behave in ways that are traditionally seen as ‘feminine’, and similarly to look more ‘feminine’ – in fact, it can be very cool. Though, yes, as you point out, if these characters are portrayed as being basically perfect then that kinda undermines these positives, as that persona then becomes unattainable rather than relatable.

    Just, y’know, thinking.

  3. […] Writing Fantasy Gender Stereotypes, Part 3: Alphas, Betas, and Losers, Oh My! […]

  4. Khaldun says:

    Flawed characters are the best. Look at the main character in the show ‘Rescue Me’. He is a fantastic (if brash) firefighter, but he is also ultra-masculine, a drunk, and has serious anger issues. He is interesting especially because he isn’t perfect (not even close). These are the kinds of characters we need.

  5. songofsorrow says:

    was thinking about what you wrote of the femininity of the beta males and couldn’t help but think of a lot of japanese anime and manga and the ways in which it doesn’t come across necessarily a contradictory factor in them…

  6. […] Fantasy Faction (Faith Boughan) on Writing Fantasy Gender Stereotypes, Part Three: Alphas, Betas, And Losers, Oh My! […]

  7. As much as I admire the series, I have to say in this aspect, you will never get rid of stereotypes as long as one person is worried about sales. Since today’s reader is looking for the more sensitive, flawed side of characters; there is always a call for betas is literature. It isn’t the writer’s fault.

    It’s the readers for being skeptical.

    This is why we can’t have the old traditional white hat heroes or the black hat villains anymore. No one trusts that much to allow these things to be real. No one accepts a hero is that strong or a villain that flawed that they can’t have “redeeming” features as well.

    It is a good idea and a great goal to strive for, but you must change the world and the way it communicates first before you can start obliterating stereotypes.

  8. One minor quibble – Robert E Howard was the writer of Conan. While Robert Jordan did write some Conan books, he didn’t invent it and quite frankly wasn’t in the same league as REH.

  9. Edi says:

    Lol, worring that the FF14 chap used to depict betas is the most masculine looking character Square-Enix have ever managed – short of their ‘hulking-Gears-Of-War’ male archetype that they put in every now and then to connect with western audiences that is.

    Betas are a somewhat worrying trend – but I doubt very much that it’s likely to go away anytime soon, especially with the current prevalance of ‘supernatural romance’. That said, nice to get away from alphas – especially the Marcus Fenixs of the world.

  10. Enjoyed your article. I think the trending toward Beta males follows the metro-sexual male of society. The perfection of the unnamed sparkly series might also be influenced by some religious beliefs.

    I think you have it right though. It’s not wrong to start with a particular stereotype in mind, but the character should not stay there or follow the prescribed actions or he will be … boring. It’s when a character becomes an individual that he becomes someone readers care about.

    Becky

  11. Ronnie says:

    Awesome article! I really enjoyed this.

  12. Nei says:

    I have just finished reading your three part series about stereotypes and must say that I wholeheartedly disagree with the idea that stereotypes particularly in fantasy are somehow wrong. What is wrong with being beautiful or handsome by the standards of our society or the societies in the fantasy stories. I would venture to say in fact that your articles actually are guilty of adding to the stereotyping not dissuading people.

    As a race in order to survive we have no choice but to stereotype on sight. With a glance everybody defines a person they just met or saw. Even if that stereotype decision lasts only a few seconds. As thinking, reasoning and emotional creatures certainly we are more then the sum of a visual stereotype but in the beginning everything is a stereotype defined by our life experiences and society.

    The problem is not a character being perceived as a stereotype it is in the character remaining ONLY the stereotype. Those things we find as stereotypical are not the whole of the person but in the genre of Epic fantasy the stereotype of the hero is what the stories of that hero will say because people admire these stereotypes on a primal level. The reality of our hero or heroine may be greatly different but the epic hero we are reading is our attempt to see something greater.

    The heroes as we see them in media in person are just like you and me. They can have flaws, weaknesses be fat or skinny, smart or dumb but they can also be beautiful, and handsome. You state that we cannot relate to perfection and I say we relate to perfection very well that is what we have stereotypes for. We actually in fact have a greater problem in relating to simple perfection within the flawed imperfection of reality.

  13. Caitlin says:

    It’s an interesting article. You make a good point that males need role models but I believe authors write for their audiences. If you are going to have a book aimed at female audiences, then to appeal to them, you may need a beta male character to compliment the female character. The book would be trying to create a character that females could relate and not particularly males. I see the point in trying to round out your characters, but for the sake of not boring readers to death with all these details, sometimes it’s just easier to go to a tried and true archetype.

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