Alpha, Beta, Heathcliff — An Alphabet Of Romance Heroes As part of the NPR Books Summer of Love series, Lynn Neary digs into the history of the romance hero, the difference between alpha and beta heroes, and why Heathcliff is really kind of a jerk.
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Alpha, Beta, Heathcliff — An Alphabet Of Romance Heroes

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Alpha, Beta, Heathcliff — An Alphabet Of Romance Heroes

Alpha, Beta, Heathcliff — An Alphabet Of Romance Heroes

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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There's one hard and fast rule for the romance novel - got to have a happy ending. The two people you think should be together will be together in the end. But the journey to happily ever after can be bumpy, and romance heroes come in many forms. As part of our Summer of Love series, NPR's Lynn Neary set out to learn what makes a romantic hero, you know, romantic.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: The first thing I learned about romance fans - they have a language of their own. Jane Litte is a blogger at

JANE LITTE: We have names and acronyms for everything within the genre.

NEARY: Acronyms like HEA for happily ever after, or the lesser HFN, meaning happy for now. There's even something called the fecund epilogue that involves lots of babies. And there are all kinds of heroes - the action hero, the pirate hero, cowboy, vampire and werewolf heroes. You get the idea. But we're going to stick with the basics. First and foremost, says Sarah Wendell, who writes about romance at, there is the alpha hero.

SARAH WENDELL: Not only are they super powerful, controlling, authoritative, and also often shirtless, they take care of everything.

NEARY: Not far behind, the beta hero.

WENDELL: He's not the most charismatic. He's not the biggest guy in the room. He's not, you know, a high-placed person in a career. He's funny, he's easy-going, and one thing I really like about beta heroes - they're emotionally fluent and able to handle what happens when they meet someone that they're really interested in.

NEARY: Now, I was all about this beta hero guy, until Wendell told me that a good example that everyone would recognize is Chandler from "Friends." Chandler from "Friends"? You see, my idea of a romance hero, which was imprinted on my brain before my brain was fully formed, is Heathcliff. You know, the guy from "Wuthering Heights," who spent his life chasing his beloved Cathy all over the moor.


MERLE OBERON: (As Cathy) Heathcliff, fill my arms with heather - all they can hold.

LAURENCE OLIVIER: (As Heathcliff) Cathy, you're still my queen.

NEARY: I mean, that still gets me. The only problem is I re-read "Wuthering Heights" a couple of years ago and to my horror, I realized that Heathcliff is downright mean. He is so obsessed with Cathy, he thinks it's OK to ruin everyone else he knows. He's not just abusive, he's a jerk.

CARRIE SESSAREGO: I'm sorry Heathcliff fans, but it's true.

NEARY: Carrie Sessarego is the author of "Pride, Prejudice And Popcorn."

SESSAREGO: He's a fascinating jerk. He's a mesmerizing jerk, but there's never really a point where he says, you know, maybe I shouldn't have been such a jerk.

NEARY: And that moment, the moment when a romantic hero realizes that maybe - just maybe - he has not been treating the heroine right. Well, says Sarah Wendell, that is a key element of a successful romance novel. And, of course, romance fans have a name for it. It's called the grovel.

WENDELL: The depth of the grovel is usually determined by the depth of misdeeds that he's done leading up the point where he goes, whoa, I have to change in order to win this person in order to have my own happy ending.

NEARY: And that brings us to one of the most popular romantic heroes of all time - Mr. Darcy.

SESSAREGO: Darcy would never run around the moors screaming the name of his beloved. He's much too dignified for that.

NEARY: Carrie Sessarego says the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth in "Pride And Prejudice" is a template for one of the best loved types of romance. The hero may be an arrogant jerk when the book begins, but he meets his match in the poor, powerless but clever, heroine.

SESSAREGO: When it comes to the battle of wits, they are equals, and so it's exciting because you know they can each hold their own. And you know at some point they're going to realize that nobody fights this much unless they are actually madly in love.

NEARY: And when it comes to good grovel, well, who does it better than Darcy?


MATTHEW MACFADYEN: (As Mr. Darcy) I will have to tell you - you have bewitched me body and soul and I love - I love - I love you. I never wish to be parted from you from this day on.

NEARY: When all is said and done, which is better - beta or alpha? As it turns out, some heroes are a little bit of both. Sarah Wendell points to Robert Grey, the spy in "The Spymaster's Lady."


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) So they would begin thus. She recognized the first of many little compromises he would force upon her. Each yes made the next one easier until, as he hoped, it would seem wholly natural to do exactly as he told her in all things

NEARY: That all sounds pretty alpha to me, but Wendell says Grey has a combination of heroic traits.

WENDELL: He's alpha in intellect and alpha in skill set, but there's another scene early in the book where he describes himself and he's the most nondescript invisible dude and relies very heavily on not being the biggest, baddest guy in the place.

NEARY: And, of course, the spy who is the heroine of that book is every bit as brave and clever as he is because, says Jane Litte...

LITTE: Even the worst hero can be redeemed if the heroine is good enough.

NEARY: In other words, behind every good hero, rest assured, there's a really great heroine. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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