Alpha vs Beta character afterthoughts from the When Words Collide panel

I was on the panel with Steve Swanson on Saturday. I like Steve. I think he’s a great writer, a good guy, and the only person in IFWA I would like at my back should armed assassins burst into the room. He’s that kind of guy. He thinks of alphas as lone wolves where I think you can’t be an alpha if no one is following you. Alpha wolves are alpha when they have a breeding partner. A long wolf by it self is nothing.

Especially given what I write, who has control when is 98% of my stuff. The panel had been inherited from the last year’s panel and there was some stupid nonsense about how to make sure your character doesn’t lose face when forced to “give up his role” as though there is shame in having to follow someone else’s instructions. I’m a very strong believer of your house, your rules. When we were going to Elisabeth’s aunt’s funeral, there was a man canvassing for the Red Cross. There’s just been another disaster. Elisabeth and I were out standing on the front lawn when he approached. It was Betty’s house, so I let Betty tell him that she’d already donated and she wasn’t interested. She was already sad at losing her sister but she put on a brave face.

The guy insisted. She told him no, it wasn’t a good time. He insisted that he talk to a man. I stepped between them and told him he had to go. He wouldn’t go until he spoke to the man in the house. It wasn’t just what he was saying, he was obviously angry, his hands had balled, his chest had puffed out, and he wasn’t going to go until we did what he said.

I have a very bleak, very flat, very ultimatum tone that I’ve only ever had to use once before. I met his gaze and told him that he was going to turn around and go, and very strongly implied in the tone was that if he didn’t, we were going to have a problem and he wasn’t going to like the outcome. He glared at me, I glared back, and then he backed down and left. It was a weird moment were things had gone from innocent and clueless to actively harmful in just a few seconds. I had enough adrenaline in my system to pick up a car as he walked down the sidewalk.

Elisabeth and I have been together for fifteen years. I was raised in multiple generations of messed up, abusive households, but the thought of making a single decision without considering how would affect the person I love is so foreign, I couldn’t imagine doing it. I know I would take a bullet for her, happily. I’d push her out of the way of an oncoming bus no matter what the personal risk. But as strong as that makes me, the person who is left behind, the person who has to let someone take a bullet for them is ten times stronger. You can lead by intimidation, you can lead through bribery or you can lead because the other person gets something out of it for their own good and you’re part of their plan, but you can’t draw trump in real life. At any point, someone or something can offer them more, threaten them more, or just be a better choice.

In a real relationship, you will have the person who is happier to be out front and the person who will be happier following, but only one can have the ultimate veto. Putting someone needs over your own isn’t beta behaviour and to imply that the only way to be an alpha is to always be in charge, you’ve mistaken an alpha character with an asshole. Modern fiction would tell you that’s the same thing, but it’s anything but.

Donald Maass, in writing the break out novel says to know what is one thing that your character will never do, feel or say, and then to have moments in the book where the character does, says or feels that thing. Rob Sawyer furthers it by saying the moment that your character acts out of character are the most emotional scenes. I say people will forget your plot, your world and your characters, but readers will never forget, for better or worse, how the book made them feel. If you are hanging your character on this whole “they’re an alpha” thing, you should spend the first third of the novel establishing what he will never do, say or feel…not just telling the reader, but honestly showing them why these things are forbidden, then spend the next two thirds breaking down your character so that they do, say and feel what they promised themselves they never will.

Steve said one more thing. He said he doesn’t mind it when his character doesn’t change. And that’s okay for him; he’s selling to a niche market. For the rest of us who want to be filthy commercial sell outs, if your character feels that he could never do X, finds himself doing X and does not emerge from that experience having a significant change from the beginning of the book, maybe you didn’t push your character hard enough. The number one problem I have with most of the books I read for other people is that not enough things challenge the main character from where he is to where he wants to be. Adding this internal conflict of breaking a character down to their core and rebuilding them through the situations you put them through to show off their character at their worst possible moment, you don’t know who your character really is.

It’s easy to be a good person if you’ve never faced temptation. It’s easy to be the good guy when nothing ever goes wrong. It’s when everything goes wrong, when your main character faces that one thing that will tempt him away from everything he holds dear and yet he still remains true to who he is, it’s a magical moment in fiction. But that he’ll walk away knowing what almost could have happened changes us all.

I respect guys like Steve who say they’ve never changed. I have a strong moral code I’ve been handed down that I live my life by, but if I met my twenty-one year old self, I’d probably have to kill her. We are the sum total of all the decisions we’ve ever had to make, and for some, that changes nothing and for others (who make far better fictional characters) that changes everything.

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