Omegaverse fiction has become more popular in recent years, and it’s not really difficult to understand why. At its best, it’s a way to explore gender constructions and critique the rampant misogyny that defines Western patriarchal societies.
One of the most interesting things about the emergence of so-called a/b/o dynamics, though, is just how often the “b” in the trope disappears.
I myself am guilty of that. In some ways, “omegaverse” is a better description for many, many stories, because they simply gloss over the existence of betas.
What are betas in omegaverse? What is their purpose? In most cases, we’re missing a golden opportunity to explore “beyond” the idea of a strict binary.
Alphas, Betas, and Omegas in the Omegaverse
The first thing to understand is a/b/o dynamics are based on an outdated idea of social dynamics in wolf packs. In the 1940s, researchers discovered there were “alpha” males, the most dominant wolf who became the “leader” of the pack. This wolf generally had “breeding rights” to almost any of the females.
There were also “alpha females,” generally the most dominant female of the pack. She would have access to the alpha male, and she might harass other females in the pack if they mated and had pups.
Today, researchers recognize this isn’t really the structure of most packs. The “alpha male and female” are usually just “parents.” The other members of the pack are often their offspring from multiple years, at various ages. Wolves form their own packs, but they’ll often hang around with Mom and Dad for a few years, perfecting their hunting skills. Some wolves never leave the pack.
Nonetheless, writers adopted the “pack dynamics,” particularly for werewolf fiction. After all, why wouldn’t humans who turn into wolves have some “wolf-like” behaviors? Surely, they’d model their social dynamics on wolves too.
The Beta’s Role in the Pack
Within the (erroneous) 1940s theory of social dynamics in wolf packs, there was the idea of the “beta.” This was usually a male wolf who was subordinate to the alpha male. The beta was like his co-pilot or co-captain. In humans, we might recognize the beta as a “wingman,” a “right-hand man,” or “a second.”
Unfortunately, the lingo of this outdated and frankly wrong theory was applied to humans as well. You may have heard some people refer to a certain “type” of man as a “beta male.” That usually means he’s not very aggressive or assertive. He lacks confidence. He’s a “yes man,” one who hypes up his “alpha” friends. He’s perpetually a follower, very rarely confident, and often not very good with women.
Werewolf fiction also absorbed the beta, although being a beta in the omegaverse often has different connotations. In some series, betas are indeed subservient to alphas. In other stories, they never even show up, disappearing from the “a/b/o dynamics” entirely.
What Roles Do Omegaverse Betas Play?
Betas tend to disappear from a/b/o dynamics. The stories instead focus on alpha and omega characters. There can be any number of reasons for this.
Most often, betas simply do not play a constructive role in the relationship. Their existence can also complicate the social structure of the world, so some authors dispense with them.
In stories where betas appear, they may be more like “regular” humans. Betas are not hyper-aggressive like alphas, nor are they subservient like omegas. They may not have the same drive to mate—betas might be unaffected by heat cycles and pheromones.
Some stories include betas who are “scent-null,” meaning they’re immune to omegas and alphas. Some authors allow betas to reproduce. In other universes, betas are all infertile, somewhat like worker bees (although research shows that worker bees can actually reproduce. It’s rare and often dangerous.)
This is why stories rarely focus on betas. When they do, they highlight the challenges of a beta falling in love with an alpha or an omega. A story might also highlight the struggles of beta characters who are infertile.
Rethinking Omegaverse Beta Roles
I think there’s some resurgent interest in beta characters and the role they play within omegaverse universes. The a/o dynamic will likely always be the most popular, but there are some authors exploring the different roles betas could take on.
I’ve seen at least one fic writer (and there are probably more) create a universe where the beta is just as essential to reproduction as the alpha and omega. This story made full use of the “b” in a/b/o dynamics. The plot centered an a/o couple who needed to add a beta to the mix.
This explores beyond the gender binary (since you effectually have three sexes) and explodes norms about monogamy. Instead, such a universe normalizes polyamory. It even challenges ideas about biology and parentage. In this particular story, every child had three parents, not two.
In other universes, betas contrast with alphas and omegas, who are “wild” or out of control. By compare, betas might be “more civilized” (an idea I’ve been toying with in my own work). It’s not inconceivable to see a society where the betas—as calm, rational heads—are in charge of both alphas and omegas. (Omegas normally occupy the lowest rung on the ladder.)
Most writers put betas underneath the dominant, aggressive alphas, but even this can be a way of exploring ideas about masculinity. What happens when a beta falls in love with an omega? Can they be happy together?
Challenging Narratives around Love, Sex, and Marriage
Perhaps more significantly, beta characters challenge norms around love, sex, and marriage. As beta characters lack the “drive” around reproduction, they might also lack a sex drive. This isn’t always true; some authors depict beta characters as having “vanilla” sex compared to the heat-fueled romps of alphas and omegas, but they still have sex and sex drives.
If the betas in the universe can’t reproduce at all, though, then they might have lower sex drives. They might even be completely asexual.
Ace characters threaten the “status quo” patriarchal society tries to push: fall in love, get married, have kids. Ace characters—and beta characters in omegaverse by extension—force us to question if kids are the only way people get a “happily ever after.”
In some ways, they force us to rethink the contribution individuals make to society. A childless aunt or uncle isn’t “lesser” because they don’t have children of their own. In fact, they can provide much-needed support for parents and kids alike. Friendships are also invaluable.
Western patriarchy tends to devalue these relationships because they aren’t reproductive. But they are, in the sense that they contribute to getting more kids to adulthood under “better” circumstances than they might if they had to be raised by their parents alone. The idea that Mom and Dad are the only caretakers is ludicrous—and some writers explore the idea of extended family being key caretakers and supports via beta characters. That’s alongside explorations of what a fulfilling life can look like outside of the marry-reproduce narrative that’s so often pushed.
Why Does Omegaverse Ignore Betas Sometimes?
The answer here is pretty simple. Most romances push the idea that the HEA has to be getting married or having kids. One critique that stands out for me is romance epilogues often having the couple “level up.” If the book ends with the couple being “partners,” the epilogue will show them getting engaged or getting married. If the end of the book is the getting married, then the epilogue will show them having kids.
Why can we not accept a couple that’s childless or doesn’t decide to get married? Why do we need to capitulate to the idea that there is a logical progression to love-marriage-children? Human relationships are messy; life is messy; and happiness manifests itself in myriad ways.
This narrative, though, is the likely reason betas are often overlooked in omegaverse. Instead, we tend to focus on alphas and omegas, who are more likely to follow the “plot beats” of romance—at least, romance as defined by Western patriarchy.
In that sense, though, betas are often some of the most revolutionary characters in omegaverse. Alphas and omegas might occupy “traditional gender roles,” but betas—as a third thing that exists outside a reproductive binary—can showcase alternatives.
Some Secret Third Thing
Western paradigms often present binary thought. If you’re not X, you must be Y. We encounter this with many different things: male/female, straight/gay, black/white, good/bad.
Yet experience shows us that the world is not a set of strict binaries. Instead, there is a lot more nuance—a lot more “gray area,” spaces between neat boxes.
Omegaverse beta characters complicate binary thinking. They are not alphas or omegas, and in that sense, they become that “secret third thing.”
It’s not terribly surprising that they disappear then, much the same way Western paradigms overlook and erase third genders in cultures around the world. Western social narratives also close out intersex individuals, who do not necessarily conform to the “male/female” binary. And Western thinking compels even some trans individuals to try and squeeze themselves into the binary: if not man, then woman.
But many people do not neatly fit into these boxes, and there have been attempts to push back on the binary. At the same time, the binary continues to close ranks. Nonbinary individuals are often considered “women lite,” or they’re asked to be “androgynous”—which is usually femme-coded. The binary thus prevails. If not masculine, then all else is feminine—even if we’re arguing that the binary is not a binary.
This is why betas are so often on the sidelines and in the dustbins of omegaverse stories. We’re not quite sure what to do with them, because they don’t fit into the binary. Even as we try to take it apart, the binary reasserts itself.
I think that’s one reason we’re seeing a resurgence of betas in new and interesting roles in omegaverse. These are not just “sidekicks” for alphas or sad saps who can’t have an HEA. They are a window into whole new ways of thinking and being.