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Fandom 101: Everything About Alpha/Beta/Omega Dynamics You Wanted to Know (but were Afraid to Ask)

A guest post by Aeryn Jemariel Knox.

Omegaverse, also known as Alpha/Beta/Omega Dynamics or a/b/o for short, is one of the most baffling paradigms that fandoms have ever invented. Even within fandom, most peoples’ reactions on discovering a/b/o range from bemusement to disgust to fascination. I’ve had some non-fandom friends ask if it’s related to the alpha male/beta male concepts that have become so popular in certain corners of Reddit; I’m very glad to say that no, it is not—that is an example of convergent language evolution. At best, they both call back to the same misunderstanding of wolf pack dynamics, but the typical “Alpha Male” would be cast as a villain character in most a/b/o stories, if he’s present at all.

At heart, a/b/o can best be categorized as a science fiction sub-genre. Yes, really. It’s speculative fiction that examines current societal assumptions, problems, and fears through a lens of alternate physiology. If you thought a/b/o was just an excuse for porn, well… being honest, most of my best and deepest stories start out as “an excuse for porn.” My thoughts on that are best saved for a future blog post.

The most common defining feature of a/b/o is right in the name—humans are biologically stratified into two or three sub-, or secondary, genders: alphas, sometimes betas, and omegas. Alphas are typically described as socially dominant, physically strong, and they have certain physiological traits that we’ll get into later. Omegas are generally assumed to be socially submissive and physically weak, though in most a/b/o stories there is some element of challenging those assumptions.

A/b/o has its roots in the “kink meme” days of the late 2000s and can more-or-less be traced back to tropes common among people writing werewolf erotica. Lots of early a/b/o has a significant focus on pack dynamics and more “wolfy” characteristics. This is still an element of a/b/o as it’s currently written, but it makes up a smaller percentage of the overall works produced than it once did. A reader can see these roots in genre tropes such as children being referred to as “pups” in most a/b/o stories. The first a/b/o fic—as far as anyone in my social circles has been able to determine—was a Supernatural RPF AU story, and, even in the genre’s inception, there is an element of challenging assigned gender roles. The assumed roles of an omega are present and accounted for: that they belong barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, that they should be relegated to caretaker roles, that they shouldn’t work, etc.—think every stereotype of a 50s housewife. Similarly for an alpha: that they are hyper-sexual and domineering, to be feared by most omegas, inherently predatory, etc. But the characters who are the focus of the story deliberately and obviously go against these trends, expressing their individuality and bucking what their society expects of them. In a very 2010 sort of way, they are “not like those other girls.” There are critiques to aim at that trope as well, but the point stands: subversion has been a part of a/b/o since moment zero. Not every author chooses to lean into this aspect of the genre but, in my opinion, subverting the genre tropes makes for the most interesting a/b/o stories.

It’s tempting to describe a/b/o as a setting, but that’s not accurate. It’s more like a toolbox from which an author can pick and choose elements to add to any setting they are writing their story in, then use those elements to help them tell their particular stories in a unique way. I’ve read historical a/b/o, fantasy a/b/o, modern-day a/b/o, canonverse a/b/o, science-fiction a/b/o, western a/b/o… you name it, it’s probably been combined with a/b/o. And not all authors will apply the same level of focus to any given aspect of a/b/o: just because you add some cinnamon to your chili doesn’t mean you’re suddenly making a dessert. Every author puts their own spin on the world—that’s part of the fun. 

So, keeping in mind that hardly any a/b/o stories will use every single genre trope, here’s a list of some of the most common features that make a story recognizably a part of this genre.

Societal stratification: To varying degrees, societies in most a/b/o stories are divided by secondary gender. This can mean anything from “omegas experiencing easily recognizable misogyny or other discrimination,” to “cultures that have strict hierarchical structures in which omegas are segregated, barred from certain social opportunities, or kept as property.” How many people are born each designation (a term often used to refer to the types of sub-genders in the genre) varies widely depending on the story. Sometimes, all humans are either alpha or omega and there are no betas; sometimes, alphas and omegas make up only a small minority of the population. Sometimes only men are divided and women are all betas, if they’re incorporated in the sub-gender system at all. (If there is one major weakness to a/b/o, it’s the lack of focus on how women are affected by this social structure, but if I get into that, we’ll be here all day.) Depending on the author’s goals with the story, these social structures may be used to make commentary on our modern society, to create obstacles for our heroes to overcome, or it may be leaned into by people who enjoy the power dynamics and differentials that result from the a/b/o set up. Other works have egalitarian a/b/o societies in which the different genders are treated equally! Oppression and discrimination are not a requirement of the genre, it’s just an often-seen element.

Pheromones/Scents: One of the many physiological differences often present in a/b/o is that humans give off pheromones or some otherwise-defined personal scent. These scents serve a variety of purposes: they’re linked with attraction; they often indicate where an individual is in their mating cycle (see the next paragraph!); they aid identification since each person has their own individual scent; and more broadly one can usually tell who is an alpha, an omega, or a beta) by their scent. Often, someone’s scent gives clues to emotional state, especially extreme distress or sexual arousal. A compatible pair may know instantly that the person they are scenting is their “true mate,” or may be particularly attracted to this person’s scent. Betas may or may not be able to pick up on these scents and may have a “neutral” scent or no scent to speak of. Scent blockers may or may not be used in polite company, and even if scent blockers exist in a specific a/b/o ‘verse, they may fail at narratively appropriate moments. It’s a frequent genre element that scents emanate from a “scent point” on the characters’ necks, and that the spot in question is especially sensitive to touch/kissing/etc.

Mating cycles: Likely the most well-known aspect of a/b/o is the hormone- and/or pheromone-driven mating cycles. Omegas experience an estrus or “heat,” and sometimes alphas also experience “rut” though this is somewhat less common. A person’s secondary gender is often a mystery until they “present”—usually marked by going through their first heat or rut—sometime during puberty. Pheromones given off during these times can have a disproportionate effect on people of the “opposite” secondary gender who happen to be in the vicinity; in some stories they provoke such a powerful reaction that omegas cannot leave the house during heat for fear of sexual assault. This is where the genre starts to display some of its more non-consensual elements, which are not always present; sometimes heat just makes them horny. But sometimes they absolutely must, er, resolve their heat with an alpha, which leads to a “Fuck or Die” situation—a trope as old as slash fanfiction itself. 

How frequently heats and ruts occur varies by story; the most common are monthly (mirroring human menstruation cycles) or every three months, six months, or year, mimicking various animal species (for example, dogs go into heat every six months, so stories that emphasize the wolfy aspects of a/b/o often have heat cycles on a six-month pattern). Trying to figure out how to navigate a life/job/family while working around mating cycles is a frequent feature of a/b/o stories.

Mpreg, which is genre-speak for “male pregnancy:” In most a/b/o stories, omegas of any primary gender have the ability to get pregnant and carry children. It’s a mainstay of the genre, but like any other trope in the a/b/o playbook, the level of focus on it varies from author to author. Sometimes, it’s glossed over entirely or deliberately omitted. Sometimes, it’s only suggested for the sake of—for lack of a better phrase—“breeding kink.” But some authors use this genre to tell stories about familial relationships and explore the emotional and physical journey of pregnancy through the eyes of their favorite (generally male) characters. Mpreg stories can also incorporate lactation and may follow the characters’ post-pregnancy lives to segue into the kidfic genre. The extent of the omega male character’s feminization often increases in proportion to the focus on mpreg in the story (though, as with all of these tropes, I am wary of making sweeping generalizations because a writer is absolutely free to write an mpreg story where the pregnant character remains thoroughly masculine throughout). Note that a story including mpreg doesn’t automatically mean the fic is a/b/o. There are other fandom tropes that can result in mpreg, but the most common trope that leads to mpreg in modern fandom is a/b/o.

Medicines: As part of mirroring regular society, it’s also common for a/b/o stories to incorporate elements of genre-appropriate birth control and other types of medication. For example, scent blockers have already been mentioned; scent blockers are often incorporated to enable an alpha, beta, or omega to navigate society without people judging them based solely on their scents, or to enable them to present themselves to the public as a sub-gender different than their birth sub-gender. Another common medication is “heat suppressant,” which is what it says on the tin—an omega on heat suppressants won’t go into heat (until they fail at a narratively appropriate moment, anyway…noticing the genre trends yet?). On the flip side, “heat inducers” are also absolutely a genre feature, with obvious results.

Related Genres: As said earlier, a/b/o can be combined with any other genre. But it does have some sibling tropes that are more often coupled with a/b/o for fiction-writing purposes. When I first started reading a/b/o, there was a heavy emphasis on the power dynamics inherent in the existence of “dominant” alphas and “submissive” omegas; that made it feel close to the biological Dom/sub genre (a sub-genre where being a Dom or being a sub is inborn and is essentially a sub-gender in a similar way to a/b/o). That seems to have been a feature of that particular fandom, though, which leads me to wonder how different a/b/o looks in different fandoms. (Full disclosure, most of my experience has been in the Supernatural fandom.) A/b/o stories set in modern/contemporary settings tend to be more common than other types (such as science fiction, fantasy, etc.), though that’s been changing as a/b/o continually ripples outwards into more fandoms. In stories where omegas are considered property, they heavily overlap tropes with slave fic; some more romantic a/b/o can read like a soulmates au, with people recognizing “the one” immediately by scent and a focus on true mates and/or the formation of a strong mating bond, usually for life. 

Of course, coupling a/b/o with these tropes isn’t required. Nothing in a/b/o is required. These are all simply options; as I say, it’s better to look at the aspects of a/b/o as toys in the toybox—play with the ones that appeal to you, ignore the rest.

Other Anatomical Differences: This is where I cannot avoid getting sexually graphic, so for those who’d rather avoid an explicit rating, I’m putting this section at the end (under a Read More on platforms that include that functionality).


So, what’s the point of all this?

If you ask a hundred people why they like a/b/o, you will get two-hundred answers. Some people come to the genre for the primal, animalistic appeal of heats and ruts, pheromones, and the, uh, anatomical differences. A lot of people enjoy  the “he couldn’t help himself” trope in fiction; non-con fantasies are extremely common, and the fantastical elements of a/b/o make it a great way to explore them at a safe remove from real-life situations. Or perhaps you’re drawn to the opportunity to explore pregnancy in a safe way with your favorite characters, or maybe you really enjoy the strict societal structures and the obstacles they create. Maybe you love that moment when the omega realizes that this handsome alpha is his true mate and they live happily ever after.

For me, as may already be clear, a/b/o is strongest when it’s used to shine a light on the oppression of marginalized classes and the ridiculousness of strict gender expectations. Over and over, a/b/o stories focus on omegas overcoming their oppression and empowering themselves. But my favorite corner of a/b/o that I’ve found, my weird little a/b/o niche, focuses not on alphas or omegas, but on betas.

There was a time when I wondered to myself, why would anybody focus on betas? Why would you write an a/b/o story and then focus on the people who don’t experience heats and ruts and mating cycles? Who don’t have a scent? In a world where all interpersonal relationships are defined by this rigid structure, why would you focus on the people who are outside of it?

And then I realized that I had to write a story about betas.

The result is the most personal story I have ever written, which gets deep into my experience of being nonbinary (or genderqueer, or gender fluid, I’ve used all those labels at different points of life) through the lens of somebody who is neither alpha nor omega, but is instead distinctly “other.” The joy of using a/b/o to tell this story, and what makes a/b/o such a strong vehicle for telling subversive stories of all stripes, is that it magnifies everything about gender and sexual attraction, making it all bigger, brighter, more obvious, which lets you dig into the nuance of an character’s experiences when they don’t fit the status quo. 

The number of people who have read this story and said “I’m not genderqueer, but I relate to Dean’s struggle of feeling other” has been hugely rewarding. In the end, that’s the story I was telling, through my own experiences but with the personal “serial numbers” filed off, which allows it to be a story accessible to anybody. That’s the beauty of using a fantasy or sci-fi language to tell a real story: when it doesn’t directly reflect anybody’s exact experience, it’s easier to see yourself in the mirror.

Whether you decide to dive into this genre or not, I hope this has been useful in understanding the, er, ins and outs of this strange little world that we, as a community, are continually collectively creating. Happy reading!


Did you scroll down to read the naughty stuff? *cough* As it were. We’ve got you covered. Be forewarned, there’s NSFW text describing unusual genitalia ahead:

THE PORN PART:

Okay, so let’s talk about knotted dicks and self-lubricating asses.

…that’s it, really.

Alphas generally have a “knot” of extra erectile tissue at the base of their penises that inflates and becomes firm during orgasm with the intention of locking their penis inside the omega’s penetrated hole (which is usually, but not always, the anus). This is where the werewolf origins of a/b/o are the most obvious, because yes, this is modeled after canine genitalia. The knot inflates to a size that makes removal impossible or highly painful for the omega, although if left it where it is, being knotted is generally described as highly pleasurable. Most of the time, the alpha can enjoy multiple orgasms while he’s in there, and ejaculate tends to be, uh, copious. This lasts for as long as the author decides is narratively appropriate and provides a great opportunity for post-coital conversation, either awkward or heartfelt depending on the story. Because the knot means the penis grows quite large, a common a/b/o sexual trope is size kink; less common but still fairly frequent is “inflation” or “bulge” kink—which is a kink related to the feeling of being “full” of a partners ejaculate to the point of feeling swollen (in a good way), and also being able to feel or see the penis moving within the bottoming partner when looking at the bottom’s backside and/or belly.

Omegas, on the other hand…

There’s much more variety in omega biology. On one end of the spectrum, you have male omegas who are written as having both a penis (sometimes smaller than human average) and (usually) testicles and a vaginal opening located somewhere around the perineum. Sometimes, a male omega won’t have any penis at all. More commonly in the a/b/o that I, personally, have enjoyed, the omega has a fully functional penis and testicles (sans knot), but when aroused, he will produce personal lubrication in his anus, which is the intended orifice for sexual intercourse. This personal dampness is usually called “slick” and has a habit of popping up at the most inconvenient of times and staining one’s underwear and/or being noticeable by scent. When an omega is in heat, this slick becomes copious and uncontrollable, often to the point of requiring rubber sheets on whatever unfortunate bed the omega has confined himself to. Generally, slick is described as having a similar aroma to the omega’s scent, but more concentrated, and also as being delicious to the alpha. Rimming is thus quite a common sexual act in a/b/o fics, more common in a/b/o than in other mlm genres.

It’s also worth repeating, while discussing sexual kinks in a/b/o, that due to the “uncontrolled sexual need” aspect of omega heats, consent issues are common in a/b/o. Rape/non-con are mentioned above, as the omega-in-heat becomes irresistible to the alphas around them; however, even in a/b/o stories that don’t utilize that trope, omegas in heat will often desperately plead to be sated. Consent can be dubious at best for either or both partners; it’s common that the couple settles those consent issues after the act, when they’ve both calmed down enough to discuss what happened and offer up their mutual expressions of “no, you didn’t hurt me, I would have wanted you anyway.”

In spite of all the relatively high-minded ramblings above, there is a huge amount of totally valid a/b/o that is pure, unadulterated smut, and if you happen to enjoy these kinks, you have a plethora of options to pick from. (Trust me, they are much hotter in context than when laid out bare like this.) The beautiful thing about fanfiction is that we don’t have to choose between interesting, empowering, subversive stories and sizzlingly hot filth. They frequently go hand in hand, and in no genre  is that more evident than in the wide, wild world of a/b/o.

Thanks for reading!


Now that you know the basics, ready to read some a/b/o? Check out the oh-so-erotic “Heated Desperation” by Aria D. Leren.

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