by Cara McKenna
A gazillion years ago, Savannah shared a post about Alpha versus Beta heroes, and someplace in the comments I mentioned one of my own favorite "alphabet" hero types—the Theta. I said I'd write a post on the topic someday, and now a gazillion years later, I am!
I first saw the Theta hero defined in Rebecca Vinyard's Romance Writer's Handbook. She also refers to him as the Lost Soul or loner archetype, and Vinyard says this of him: "Tortured and secretive, he's got a vulnerable heart and discerning eyes. He also tends to brood to excess and can be unforgiving. He might wander through town, or maybe he was cast out because of some evil deed or deformity. […] In work, this man is very creative, but he's very much a loner, too. […] In historicals, he's the lone gunman."
Yum. The truly delicious thing about the Lost Soul archetype is that in a romance, we know it'll take an extraordinary woman (or man) to break through the crust and claim that guarded heart.
I can't say for certain that I've published any books featuring a true Theta, despite my love for them. I think Shane from the Shivaree series was driven to Thetaism by Gabriel, which is a bit backward…he was reasonably happy as the Alpha of his little kingdom until his troublesome lust interest sauntered in and saddled him with a year's worth of sleepless nights and a sexual identity crisis. A romance my alter ego Meg Maguire has coming out from Samhain in April may feature a Theta; Max from The Reluctant Nude is tough to classify. He's a recluse, but he's also far pushier and more outgoing than the average Theta. My very first romance manuscript (in the drawer, yet to be polished and shopped around) starred a textbook Theta—such a loner he abandoned society to move out to the middle of nowhere as a survivalist. Oh, so tortured. And why exactly is that so attractive to so many of us?
For the reader, I suspect much of the appeal of the Theta hero is the challenge. The more impossible it seems that he could ever let love in, the more we want to see him rescued from his grim, self-imposed exile. There's also the bad-assitude. We love Alphas for their strength, but Thetas are just as strong…perhaps more so, given that they rely only on themselves, their wits and their brawn. They're nearly always reluctant heroes, thrust by circumstances into heroism when they'd perhaps prefer to stay out of others' problems. Other times they actively seek to help, but as unnamed vigilantes. If they act bravely, they do so out of grudging duty or self-preservation or vengeance, and not for glory. They're often described as "anti-heroes".
Some Thetas from popular culture: Eli from The Book of Eli. Sirius Black from the Harry Potter books. Mulder from the X-Files. The Beast from Beauty and the Beast. Sawyer from Lost—he went from borderline villain to highly unlikely hero over the course of the series, thanks largely to The Power of Lurrrrve™. Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings. Wolverine of the X-Men is perhaps the most classic example; a broody, grumpy loner with a pitch-black past, who steps into heroism because of two women—one he feels compelled to protect as a daughter, and one he loves, unrequitedly. Darker incarnations of Batman could also be considered Theta—he's a master brooder. Many comic book protagonists fit the bill—no shortage of secrets and haunted pasts in the superhero world.
Thetas often have a bit of a curse surrounding them, something that causes them to push others away, lest they get hurt by the Theta's lifestyle or enemies, or disrupt the carefully constructed solitude the Theta chooses to cloak himself in. Thetas need saving as much as they need to save others. Those two things must happen in tandem, and I personally find that irresistible.
Going back to the Wolverine comparison, I feel compelled to point out that Thetas pair very well with urchins and dogs. That's shorthand to say it works handily to draw a Theta into heroism with the use of a weak character in peril, often a child but perhaps a love interest (Mad Max, Jack from Romancing the Stone, Louis from Interview with a Vampire, Eric from The Crow). They may be hell-bent on minding their own business, but beneath the angst beats a heart of gold, and they'll step up when truly needed. Thetas are also well suited to keep pets or other non-human companions, as it shows they're lonely, but unwilling to trust or depend on a fellow person for company (Eli from The Book of Eli, Han Solo, Eric from The Crow, again).
Now plenty of us love a wounded man, but go too far with the Theta's darker characteristics and you risk wandering past mysterious loner right into creepy loner…think Travis from Taxi Driver. A genius character, but nobody's love interest. There's sometimes a fine line between guarded recluse and sociopath.
It's late, so I'll leave you with that as my guide to the elusive, reclusive, anti-hero archetype, the Theta. Have you spotted one in a movie or book or TV show recently? What's your verdict? Well, for now I'm off to bed, to dream of brooding, damaged men in need of a good heart-melting. See you in the comments!