Writing Werewolves: The Alpha, Beta, Omega Problem

by Mac

Alpha, Beta, and Omega, particularly in the context of wolves, are early scientific descriptions of social status or rank. The idea is that the Alphas are the most dominant, powerful individuals; that the Betas are their subordinates, like lieutenants; and the “Omega” is the lowest-ranking wolf, the pack punching bag, who is submissive to everyone else and whose job is to take their abuse, and also to cajole the pack into play.

This idea of social structure has become incredibly popular and almost ubiquitous among authors writing werewolf groups, as well. In the paranormal romance genre in particular, there are a lot of Alpha werewolves who are powerful, virile, charismatic figures who are irresistible when they’re in pursuit of their “mates.” (There are a lot of problems with how these particular romance tropes are applied — such as the fact that the Alphas in these stories are almost always single males in pursuit of women whose behavior is often framed as romantic when it ought to be downright scary — but maybe we’ll save that for a future post, so I don’t hit you with too many rants at once.)

Teen Wolf’s werewolves also have helpfully color-coordinated eyes. Alphas have red eyes, Betas have yellow eyes, and there’s a weird thing about blue eyes meaning you’ve killed an innocent. It’s probably best not to look to Teen Wolf as a good example of effective worldbuilding. Or anything else. Let’s be real, that show is a hot mess. Sorry, Teen Wolf.

The paranormal romance genre has developed its own little sub-tropes around the framework of Alphas, Betas, and Omegas in werewolf packs, so they’re not always drawing directly on these terms as they’ve been applied to wolf packs, but it’s definitely still one of the most common versions you’ll see of werewolf society depicted in fiction. It’s also been used in plenty of werewolf media, like the 2014 film Wolves where Jason Mamoa plays a typically brutal and controlling “Alpha.” In the MTV series version of Teen Wolf, the designations are used but are a little more confused, with Alphas and Betas existing in a pack structure (complete with Alphas being typically depicted as controlling and violent, and also blessed with additional physical attributes that make them more powerful), but Omega is a term used for werewolves who don’t have a pack at all. Then there are packs consisting entirely of Alphas, which confuses the issue even further…

(There is also a popular trope that’s specific to fanfiction, which is also called “Alpha/Beta/Omega” or “A/B/O” dynamics, and though it shares many of the same roots as far as Alpha dominance and Omega submission, it’s not the same trope at all. A/B/O stories treat the idea of Alpha, Beta, and Omega more like sexual orientation and a description of physical sex characteristics. Some of the same problems exist in both tropes — and it gets particularly confusing when authors write A/B/O dynamics into a werewolf character setting where Alpha/Beta/Omega are also used as werewolf social ranking — but we won’t get into that here, and that is not the trope we’re discussing in this post.)

The fact that these terms are so popular, and used in so many different ways, adds an extra layer of confusion to their use, because werewolf fans will have already come across so many different ideas and iterations of what exactly “Alpha,” “Beta,” and “Omega” mean in so many different fictional universes, versus what they mean in real life, compounded with the fact that, well… the basis of the whole concept is rubbish.

Where the terms come from

These terms in relation to wolves were initially popularized by a study in 1947, which studied captive grey wolves and detailed their intense struggles for power, mating rights, and resources. The observations from that study popularized the idea that wolves are engaged in constant power struggles, and that the “alpha” wolves must ruthlessly and constantly protect their status through violence. Subsequent use of these terms in L. David Mech’s very popular 1970 book The Wolf really embedded those ideas in the public consciousness, and they’ve been firmly lodged there ever since, much to the detriment of our understanding of animals of all sorts.

Illustrations from Schenkel’s 1947 “Expressions Studies on Wolves,” showing captive wolves engaged in dominance struggles.

The problem is that this initial study, and much of the subsequent science, was based on observations of grey wolves in captivity. At the time, it was widely theorized that wolves were actually somewhat solitary, and that they would come together as packs in winter only, when they most needed strength in numbers to take large prey. Thinking they were reproducing the natural state of things, or perhaps just trying to create an easy way to observe wolf behavior, the researchers took a number of unrelated, adult wolves, confined them in an enclosure together, and observed their behavior. The unnatural set-up resulted in wildly skewed results, when it came to the actual social structures and interactions of wild wolves.

A study that examines wolves forced into “packs” in captive conditions, where they’re unable to get away from each other and form their natural social structures, is not going to give anyone much of an insight about how wolves really interact socially, any more than scientific observation of the politics of a prison yard is going to teach you about human behavior in general or human family life.

Why Alpha / Beta / Omega for werewolves simply doesn’t make sense

So, the concept of Alpha / Beta / Omega wolves comes from flawed, outdated science. We know now that wolf packs in the wild are typically just a family unit: the “alphas” are in fact just the parents, or the breeding pair, and most of the other wolves in the pack are their offspring from the past several years. (There are many other pack configurations, including extremely large packs that might include aunts, uncles, wolves welcomed from other packs, and more, but a wolf pack on the most basic level is simply a family.)

In this video, Dr. L. David Mech, a leading expert on wolves and one of the people who initially popularized the “Alpha” terminology, talks about where it came from, his own role in popularizing the terms, and why this idea is outdated and inaccurate:

So now we know that the science behind these terms isn’t right, but the other problem with its application to werewolves is, how would your werewolves have started using these terms in the first place? They weren’t commonly associated with wolves until the 1950s. Even if your werewolves wanted to apply human scientific terms to their own society, if that society pre-dates the 1950s, it wouldn’t make sense for them to use those terms for themselves at all.

If in your universe werewolf society goes back to much more ancient times, or are simply not coming straight out of human society with human views, they would already have their own fully developed culture, social practices, and language to describe themselves. Those things are also all likely to be fairly divorced from human ideas of what werewolves are all about, and human terms are also pretty likely to be inaccurate, if not downright offensive. There’s a lot of room to play with these ideas, as well, now that you know more about the history of the terms, to have the history and culture of your werewolves interact and clash with modern culture, misguided science, and human society.

The most important thing I’d love for people to understand about our ideas of power, dominance, and rank in the social life of animals, is that these are almost always just humans projecting our own nonsense onto animals. From dominance-based dog training (which also leans heavily on these very flawed studies of wolf social structure), to our ideas of controlling stallions or “lead mares” in horse herds, we as humans have done a spectacular job of pushing the idea of strict hierarchy onto animals, even though in most cases these kinds of rigid power structures simply don’t exist among those animals. Human beings love a clear-cut chain of command, whether we’re talking about military life, the structure of superiors and supervisors in our corporate jobs, or archaic ideas about fathers as lords and masters of their households. We love the idea of being the unquestioned boss, we love concepts of absolute power, and we love clearly delineated roles for every member of a social group. We’re absolutely obsessed with rigid roles of all kinds, and we seem to particularly delight in characters who sort of succumb to those prescribed roles and learn to enjoy them. And when we write werewolves with the kinds of traits that we think of as “animalistic,” like the male Alpha werewolf in a paranormal romance, who is physically powerful, controlling, and often outright abusive… the animalistic behavior is supposed to be part of the attraction and the wildness of the werewolf, but the actual behavior depicted is usually incredibly human.

When Alpha / Beta / Omega might make sense for your werewolf characters

So, as much as I obviously hate this entire trope and wish it would die (sorry, I’m trying not to be judgmental, but I’m failing), are there ever times when using this Alpha / Beta / Omega structure might make sense? Sure, there are! I’d still encourage you to come up with something a little less overused, but you can totally make this work.

When your werewolves were created by, are being studied by, or are under the control of military, government, or science forces. Say your characters are a military unit who have been turned into werewolves to make them more effective and terrifying soldiers. Their military superiors might remove them from the regular chain of command and not use standard ranks for them — they’re not actually human anymore, after all — and might establish a separate chain of command for wolves. In that case it’d make a lot of sense for them to use Alpha, Beta, and Omega as a rank structure, sort of like the werewolf unit equivalents of Captain, Sergeant, and Private. Or if they’re an experimental study group, maybe Alpha, Beta, and Omega are the names assigned to their groups in the study. Basically these are all cases where the werewolves wouldn’t have a pre-existing culture of their own, or at least not one that they’re necessarily aware of, and they’re referred to, even amongst themselves, only in the terms their human superiors or captors would use.

I said “military” and “werewolves” in the same sentence so this is definitely the moment for a still from the delightful film Dog Soldiers.

When your werewolves weren’t born as werewolves, but acquired the condition from a bite, and have no idea what they’re doing. It’s common folklore that being bitten by a werewolf will turn a human into a werewolf; in that case, your character is definitely going to be lost, confused, and searching for answers. Considering that in our world, despite the idea of Alpha/Beta/Omega wolves in animal behavior terms has been debunked for literal decades, but is still absolutely culturally pervasive, I have no doubt that a newly-turned werewolf searching for answers on the Internet will find a lot of information about “Alpha wolves,” and probably Craigslist ads for “Alphas” recruiting “betas” and “omegas” to their “packs.” You’d basically have a lot of bitten wolves inventing their own “werewolf culture” from the sources they can find, which are inevitably going to be really misguided sources. There’s some great potential here also for the culture clash of ancient werewolf lines and “old blood” looking down on the wanna-be bitten wolves who are fumbling their way through creating a pack hierarchy that, from both a cultural and scientific standpoint, would probably look hilariously misguided.

When your werewolves don’t use the terms for themselves, but humans have applied it to them. We discussed this a little earlier in this article, but it’s very likely that humans would have their own terms for werewolves, especially if werewolves are not fully integrated into human society. If your werewolves are dealing with things like human werewolf hunters, those hunters are highly likely to have their own werewolf-related lingo, and it’s likely to be both highly derogatory and highly offensive. If human hunting of werewolves is more clinical — treated like governmental pest control — it’s very likely they’d be using terms that come with a scientific history, like Alpha / Beta / Omega.

There are undoubtedly other occasions when those terms might make sense, and hopefully you can give it some careful consideration to how the history of these terms might interact with the werewolf society you’ve built, if indeed your werewolves have any organized society at all.

Now write!

I haven’t written this post with the intention of shaming authors who use this convention, but with the hope of encouraging authors to branch out a bit more in the way they write werewolves, and hopefully provide you with a bit more background on where these terms come from and their possible pitfalls for worldbuilding. There is so much rich werewolf folklore to mine from many different cultures (we’ll explore a few of the more interesting ones in future posts in this series!) and so many interesting ways to put your own spin on what werewolf society might look like. In a future post, we’ll also look at worldbuilding werewolf packs and societies, and what kinds of questions you might need to ask yourself to help you build a fully realized world for your werewolf characters.

What’s the best concept of werewolf society or social dynamics that you’ve read? And are there other topics about writing werewolves or other mythical creatures you’d like to talk about? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you!

Writing Werewolves: ALPHA, BETA, OMEGA. Where the terms come from, and why they might pose a problem for your werewolf worldbuilding.

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5 comments

Octopusgallery July 1, 2017 - 10:04 pm

Tanya Huff did a werewolf novel in the 90’s (Blood Trail) where they were a different species from human, with a culture and a language that was being lost. The pack was built around a family unit. It’s probably the closest to actual pack structure I’ve read. There was some dominance/right to mate stuff but not the way it’s done in modern UF/PNR.

She did another one in a different universe more recently but I’ve only read it once and not much of it stuck with me to say how it compares.

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Mac July 1, 2017 - 11:35 pm

Oooh, thanks for the rec, I’ll have to see if I can find that one at the library! It’s kind of a shame to have to go back to some older fiction to find different ideas; I don’t know why the ABO thing has become so prevalent in the genre, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed this post might make the rounds and people will branch out a bit with their ideas. 😀

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Octopusgallery July 2, 2017 - 5:10 pm

YW! It’s part of a series but I actually picked it up when I was a teen without reading the first book and I think it stood alone pretty well. The series is fantastic IMO as well as the spin off series. Comfort reads for me and not noticeably visited by the Suck Fairy as teen fav books often are as adults.

I hope it makes an impression too! I’ve mostly had to give up on any of the shifter romances because the screwy pack psychology just drives me bonkers and I’m just not into the prevalence of Alphaholes. I’ve been reading Regencies which have their own problems but generally not those ones. 😀

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Otookee July 5, 2019 - 7:32 pm

Seconding the recommendation for Blood Trail – I likewise found it a refreshing, and more realistic, version of werewolves. Did you manage to find it? I liked it best of the five books in the series (each one deals with one of the “classic” monsters – Demon, Werewolf, Mummy, Zombie, and Ghost, with Vampire sort of spread throughout). Blood Price, Blood Trail, Blood Lines, Blood Pact, and Blood Debt. Later a sixth one was added, but it wasn’t as good as the others.

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C’est le 1er août, je balance tout ! – Des livres et les mots August 1, 2017 - 9:58 am

[…] par les loups-garous et qui lisent l’anglais, je vous invite à lire le fabuleux billet « Writing Werewolves: The Alpha, Beta, Omega Problem » avec lequel je suis complètement d’accord, il serait temps que les auteurs arrêtent de […]

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