I’ll be frank: alpha heroes don’t do it for me. Believe me, I get the appeal. But the overly confident, domineering “save the day” type who doesn’t fully consider the heroine’s thoughts and feelings typically won’t win me over. A good beta hero is definitely appealing — he partners with the heroine and raises up her strengths rather than taking the lead. Oh yes, beta heroes are undeniably great. But there’s only one type that makes me swoon time and time again.
The unreachable delta.
He’s the lone wolf, the outlaw, the man incapable of giving or accepting love. Slave to his dark, troubled past, he’s erected a barrier between himself and the world. Guilt, shame, and anger justify those walls so that no one else can hurt him again — or conversely, to protect others from himself. A delta hero is the product of hardships that forged his worldview against society and eroded his trust in others, sometimes to the point of complete isolation.
After all, he doesn’t need anyone else.
Yet it is no coincidence that Delta (Δ) means “difference” or, more aptly, “change.” The hero was once a different type (e.g., alpha, beta, or gamma) who changed due to extreme or traumatic events. As such, great force must be applied to change him back from the path he’s set for himself — ultimately healing those wounds and restoring his faith in others. In romantic fantasy and related genres, that force is typically the love interest.
So, can the heroine tumbling into his life dismantle his defenses, destroy those walls, and show him that the world is not as horrible as he believes? Will he discover that he is deserving of love, despite the life he’s led thus far? That journey is often rife with delicious tension, closely held secrets, and satisfying glimpses into what could be — if only he can learn to trust again.
Romantic Fantasy Delta: Sicarius from The Emperor’s Edge by Lindsay Buroker
One of my favorite delta heroes is the notorious assassin Sicarius (from Lindsay Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge series). Trained from a young age as an elite, deadly weapon for the empire, there is no hope of deviating from the person he’s become. At least, that’s what Sicarius believes, and he has his reasons to keep it that way. Separating from his former employers (and society, in general) is the only way to protect his secrets. With years of blood on his hands — and a massive bounty on his head to boot — the last thing he needs is an optimistic, do-good officer who simply won’t leave him alone.
“Whether realized or not,” [Sicarius] said, “everyone you talk to is trying to use you to further his own interests. You must always be ready to protect yourself.”
“There are such things as friends,” Amaranthe said.
“That does not negate my statement. Friendship is as selfish as any other relationship, perhaps more so because it masquerades as something noble. I am more comfortable with those who approach me with blades drawn.”
— Sicarius and Amaranthe, The Emperor’s Edge by Lindsay Buroker
Despite his attempts to keep her at arm’s length, the heroine Amaranthe “sees” Sicarius and believes there is more to him than a heartless assassin. It is her persistence, support, and faithfulness (along with a slew of adventures and nail-biting scrapes with death) that slowly enable Sicarius to inch closer, to trust, and to risk himself for another’s sake. Yet all is not smooth sailing. Sicarius is faced with moments when opening up threatens dire consequences that nearly drive him back to his former ways. Fortunately, Amaranthe is there every step of the way, challenging his beliefs and proving that there truly are such things as friends — and more.
A note here: delta heroes should not be confused with another similar type — the theta hero. Thetas (Θ) are also loners who isolate themselves, but their behavior is far more self-destructive and reclusive. They may also be emotionally distant and unavailable. But, unlike deltas, they are not fighters. Instead, the sensitive theta hero channels his pain into creative or healing endeavors. A delta hero is more inclined to pick up his weapon of choice and take on threats against authority than turn that anger inward to inflict self-harm. That is the primary difference between these two hero types.
Superhero Movie Delta: Bucky Barnes from Captain America
A relevant TV/movie delta hero is Bucky Barnes, a.k.a the Winter Soldier (from Marvel’s Captain America). Bucky was a charming, confident soldier with a bright future until he was captured during a mission. Subsequently, he was injected with a variant of the super-soldier serum, brainwashed, and used as a tool to remove any opposition to the terrorist organization HYDRA.
Facing his friend Steve Rogers triggers old memories, and eventually, he returns to the side of good. Still, he carries the trauma of his past and the knowledge of acts he’s committed, which lead to a path of atonement. He keeps those who care about him at a distance, not trusting himself to be totally free of HYDRA’s control. He must learn to trust again and accept that others have faith that he will overcome his past. In this example, the power of his friendship with Steve is the “great force” that starts his journey back to his former self.
Anime Deltas: Abraham Van Helsing from Code Realize and Inuyasha from…Inuyasha
Pivoting to anime and manga, the kuudere would be the closest character type representing a delta hero (though arguably, a delta hero could also present as a tsundere). Of course, the keys with kuudere and tsundere characters are the cold/emotionless and aloof/harsh exteriors (respectively), hiding the warmer, caring side within. Delta heroes have a softer side, but they keep it locked away, protecting it from further pain. Once restored, the delta (as these –dere types) will show his protective, loyal, and even amorous side to those they care about most.
For example, vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing from the otome game (for the uninitiated, a story-based and typically romantic video game targeted at women) and anime Code Realize was trained and forced to kill mercilessly. He presents as a kuudere, cold and avoidant, keeping the heroine Cardia and the others at a distance. However, particularly in the game, Cardia remains committed to helping Van Helsing, eventually winning his faith, trust, and love.
A more well-known example is the titular demon of Inuyasha, who was treated harshly in his youth for being a half-breed (a “hanyō,” a hybrid of human and demon, or “yōkai”). Combined with a devastating betrayal of the heart, Inuyasha could no longer trust anyone but himself. This is manifested in his tsundere personality. It is not until the heroine Kagome enters his life and remains steadfast by his side as they journey to restore the powerful Jewel of Four Souls that Inuyasha discovers both love and friendship, ultimately restoring his trust in others.
Delta Heroes and Tropes
There are a variety of tropes that pair well with the delta hero, most notably the slow-burn romance. Given what we know about deltas, it is no surprise that while there may be attraction, it will take time for the hero and heroine to consummate the love growing between them. The sum of their moments and all they overcome together make that turning point powerful and incredibly satisfying.
Tropes that force the hero and heroine together (thus yanking the delta from his former life) also work well with this dynamic. Forced proximity, fated mates, and “there’s only one bed” are just a few examples that are rife with potential. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my all-time favorite tropes: enemies to lovers. (Though let’s face it, “enemies to lovers” works with all hero types and pairings, and it plays well with a whole host of companion tropes — but that’s a topic for another day.)
For me, the progression of the delta hero’s path of change, along with the heroine’s role in breaking down his walls, is compelling to read. That pervading question — will he change? — is a hook all its own. What secrets will the heroine uncover? Is she strong enough to take them on? Can he trust not only her but also himself to face his dark past? And in the end, will they find love?
I’ll be eagerly turning the pages to find out!
What about delta heroes appeals to you most? What great romantic fantasy books have you read that feature this hero type? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments!
Don’t forget to grab our lovely new graphic with a description of the delta hero’s key characteristics!
About the Author
Catharine Glen is a romantic fantasy author residing in New England. Her favorite kinds of stories take place in faraway worlds with unforgettable characters, plenty of romance, adventure, magic and the supernatural. She tends to get immersed in all things Japanese, reading, Lego, and possibly consumes a bit too much coffee and tea. She’s also a wife to a loving husband and a mom to two children and a spirited Jack Russell.
Reach her at:
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A rogue assassin on the run.
Former assassin Emamori Matsukara stands alone against the warring Ichiyo Faction. The once-notorious “Black Thorn” struggles to protect the innocent and bring justice to the Faction’s brutal raiders. But with a bounty on her head, she can’t evade her enemies forever. When an impossible encounter with a mythological Shadow of Death leaves Ema critically injured, she finds herself at the mercy of three men from a rival clan — and they know exactly who she is.
A tentative trust in uncertain times.
Lord Commander Saitama Ren faces dwindling allies and the demands of a merciless high lord. The last thing he needs is a wanted criminal on his hands — especially one who saves his life. Worse, his closest friend Hagane quickly accepts Ema into their fold, while his stoic vice commander Akhito wants nothing to do with her. Yet despite her unknown allegiances, she may be the key to preventing his clan’s demise.
A bond born from the shadows.
Alliances are uncertain, trust is a rare commodity, and peace is a relic of the past. As shadows spread across the land, secrets unfold and death lurks ever closer. Ema and her unexpected allies must venture through the dark night of dishonor and betrayal to uncover the world’s inevitable fate.
For the one who controls the shadows controls the world.
For fans of epic fantasy reverse harem like The Gladiator’s Downfall (Kristen Banet) and stories deeply rooted in Japanese history and mythology like Red Winter (Annette Marie).