Notes from my experience of writing an asexual character

This is my post for the March 2015 Carnival of Aces, which I’m hosting on the topic of Writing About Asexuality.

So I wrote a first draft of a novel with an ace protagonist and have been revising it recently. As I’ve worked on it I’ve had various thoughts/worries/concerns about writing an ace character, and I thought it might be useful to share them (even the ones that are kind of extreme or probably unfounded). Any thoughts or advice you may have is definitely welcome!

  • [trigger warning for sexual assault mention in this bullet point] My protagonist’s straight boyfriend doesn’t really get her asexuality, but he doesn’t try to force or convince her to have sex with him. But I’ve wondered if I should make him worse—I don’t want to unrealistically portray the experience of being ace as “Everyone will respect you and be decent about it (even if they don’t understand)!” The idea of “there should be more sexual assault in this novel” seems kind of horrible and makes me decidedly uncomfortable, and of course there are plenty of mixed relationships where that doesn’t happen, but I wouldn’t want to gloss over the danger that some people face from partners who don’t respect their boundaries.
  • My protagonist eventually comes out to her family, and it’s a big moment and a big choice for her (although it’s not the final resolution of the story and isn’t as satisfying as she’d hoped/expected). But I’ve second-guessed whether I actually want to make it that big a deal. Does doing so imply that coming out is an essential part of the ace narrative? Am I overemphasizing its importance? Queenie wrote in this post about YA novels where the gay main character’s eventual coming out to his parents is portrayed as an important step for his personal growth, and how that could influence GSRM kids/teens into thinking they have to come out to their parents. Even though my novel isn’t YA, in writing the coming out part as such a major thing, am I enforcing that idea? (And/or is the big coming out scene kind of boring/overdone/predictable at this point, and not something people will want to read again?)
  • My character has a lot of internalized sex-normativity to unlearn, so in her darker moments she gets down on herself about her orientation. This eventually gets better, but I feel like it might not be read as positive representation by aces who want to see stories of people who are fine with their asexuality and not agonizing over it. While it is realistic, because a lot of aces do go through that, I feel like it might make the story unappealing to some aces.
  • As Aqua said in her carnival submission, if you’re writing an asexual character, you also have to take on the job of educating. So I have to explain what asexuality is in my novel, and I also have to give my character an accurate, nuanced understanding of it, so that she doesn’t say things like, “I’m asexual, which means not interested in sex.” But what if it’s not realistic for her to completely understand the complexities of the definition? What if she would naturally equate her sex-repulsion with her asexuality? Well, even if that is the case, realism can’t win out here. Education has to trump the story, because I definitely don’t want to write a book that propagates harmful, erasing definitions of asexuality. But avoiding that might cause the story to suffer a bit. This is another example of why, with asexuality so little known, it’s hard to write about in fiction. Too little explanation and you end up equating asexuality with aromanticism; too much and you’re hurting the story with awkward info-dumping (Siggy discussed his solution for the latter in this post).
  • I’ve worried about my character playing into stereotypes in any way—like if she’s a little nerdy, is that bad? In the post I just linked to, Siggy also mentioned the idea of having two ace characters so that one person doesn’t have to be the representation of asexuality. But at this point, inserting another ace into my novel just for the sake of having more than one would be artificial and forced, and even if it would make the representation better, that’s a little farther than I’m willing to go.

In conclusion, a big part of the problem is that with every choice I make, I have to worry about whether I’m somehow misrepresenting asexuality. Because there are so few books with ace characters, and even fewer where the ace is the protagonist, when writing a novel about an ace it’s hard to escape the pressure of needing to do it just right, in a way that won’t somehow portray asexuality negatively or inaccurately, or leave aces disappointed or unhappy.

But, of course it’s impossible to write a perfect ace character who’s going to the one ultimate representation of our orientation… which is exactly why we need more ace characters!

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17 thoughts on “Notes from my experience of writing an asexual character

  1. onlyfragments March 31, 2015 / 11:40 am

    I think, personally, you should listen to your character and let her tell you what to write. If she has negative moments about her asexuality, then that’s who she is and you shouldn’t try to cut that out. Same with her boyfriend – if it’s not in his character to be pushy or abusive, don’t make him that way just for the sake of representation. Honestly, I feel like dysfunctional mixed relationships have FAR more representation than healthy ones…

    I know you want to educate people, but honestly, that shouldn’t come at the expense of the story – otherwise why not just write an Ace 101 book? If your characters are well developed, people will see the nuances in the story and understand your intentions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • cinderace April 1, 2015 / 1:03 pm

      Yeah, definitely good points; I was actually thinking of your post as I wrote this because I knew it would be somewhat artificial/forced to try to change my characters. :) And I’ll be thinking more about what you said about education too–I guess I really don’t have to explain everything in the story but can trust people to do their own research if they’re confused or want to know more about something.

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  2. Silvermoon March 31, 2015 / 12:13 pm

    I think, at least for the point about the boyfriend, it’s not necessary- because fiction is also about escapism, so you don’t always want to read all the bad stuff. Sometimes it’s good to read a happy version, you know?

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    • cinderace April 1, 2015 / 1:27 pm

      Very true; as I said to Elizabeth, my idea is often “fiction needs to be realistic!”, but that’s definitely not always the case, and sometimes you can do a lot more with fiction that isn’t actually strictly realistic.

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  3. Siggy March 31, 2015 / 12:20 pm

    Congratulations on the first draft! I don’t know if you actually want to be congratulated, but I haven’t gotten nearly that far so I think it’s pretty cool.

    I also think about sexual assault and abusive relationships, and whether to include them. They’re important issues to me, but I simply don’t want to write about them. It’s too depressing! To me, that takes priority over representation, and that’s the end of that.

    Re: darker moments. Yeah, how do we portray doubt? I feel like you can easily portray someone who is ashamed of being gay, and readers will pretty much take it for granted that this is a “conflict”. But I’m not sure if this would be the case for an ace character. My first thought is that, depending who the narrator is, the narrator can clue us in that it’s a conflict. My second thought is to simply assume readers are smart and will figure it out.

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    • cinderace April 1, 2015 / 1:18 pm

      Thanks! Congratulations are definitely appreciated. :) I’m still surprised sometimes that I’ve actually gotten this far.

      Yeah, I really admire authors who can cover those topics, and think it’s really important that they are portrayed in fiction, but like you I would rather avoid writing about them myself; I just don’t think I have the emotional fortitude.

      My character kind of goes back and forth between being okay with herself and being unhappy with it, so that internal conflict is pretty obvious. And I started her out with a firm belief that nothing’s wrong with her and that she doesn’t want to change, and her doubts develop as time and her relationships go on, so I think that structure–being okay with it, then having that chipped away at, rather than her thinking she’s broken from the start–will help?

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  4. Elizabeth March 31, 2015 / 3:48 pm

    About sexual violence—I think that an important way to counter it in real life is to show people what a healthy and accepting model for a mixed relationship would look like. So often reality falls far short just because people can’t even imagine any other way to be, so they get stuck in these violent scripts. And yeah, we don’t always want to be reading about it. So don’t force it.

    I think it’s okay to have characters say inaccurate things, as long as what they say eventually gets challenged, and they learn from that. Having your character find a community of other aces and learn from them could be a way to resolve that sort of thing, without necessarily having to introduce another individual ace character. If she says something overly simplistic at first without realizing how reductive it is, and then later says something similar to but either corrects it or shows some awareness that it’s actually really inaccurate to say that (even though she might not be willing to get into the more complicated explanations with this particular person), then you’ve shown realism and character growth at the same time. And also introduced the idea that there are a lot of different kinds of ace experience out there, so a single representation isn’t everything.

    If you really wanted to mention sexual assault somehow you could have it come into the story that way, too—with one of your characters reading up on it and then bringing it up. Maybe the boyfriend reads about it on the internet and gets really worried about accidentally pushing too much or something. I don’t know if that would fit the character at all, but maybe it would fit one of your characters and feel less forced than trying to introduce it another way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • cinderace April 1, 2015 / 1:25 pm

      Yeah, I tend to want to make things realistic—meaning negative, often—but I like your point about the possibility of fiction showing a different, better way. And that’s also a good point about the character maybe not having the best understanding at first, but that eventually changing; I’ll be thinking about that as I continue revisions. And yeah, bringing up the idea of sexual assault without it actually occurring in the story could also work well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I appreciate it!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. cinderace April 1, 2015 / 1:00 pm

    Thanks to everyone for the comments so far; I’d been thinking I wouldn’t change anything with the mixed relationship, but had been wondering whether I should reconsider that, but now I feel better about leaving it as it is. :)

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  6. Futurus Essay April 2, 2015 / 2:33 pm

    Hey, fellow ace novelist here. I love how thoughtful your post is, and I love that you’re writing in such a critical, reflective way. But I agree with the comments above, in that I feel story and character comes first. I think it would be a mistake to sacrifice the integrity of the narrative due to anxieties about whether your representation is ‘authentic’ enough. There’s no right or wrong way to be ace. Your character’s journey is your character’s journey, nobody else’s. On a similar note, I don’t see how adding sexual assault will make your story more authentic if the characterization does not ring true. I think it can be just as powerful to depict the trials and tribulations of a long-term relationship in an emotionally honest way, rather than making it some kind of starry-eyed fairy tale romance. Things like negotiation, communication, and reconciliation are very important and not often depicted in fiction, and they can actually be very compelling from a narrative perspective. After all, I’d like to think that we as a community are not defined solely by suffering. Anyway, those are my thoughts on your project thus far, and I hope they’re helpful. I’d love to read more.

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    • cinderace April 8, 2015 / 1:48 pm

      Sorry for the late response, but I appreciate the comment (and nice to meet another ace writer!). Yeah, I guess I should try to not worry so much about representation and focus on the story. It’s just that I know that if I give my book to my family to read for example, it’s going to be the first they ever really hear about asexuality, so it’s probably going to shape their impressions. But all the comments here have encouraged me to not worry so much about that kind of thing.

      With the idea of sexual assault, I wasn’t sure if my aversion to writing about it was overriding accurate characterization–like maybe it is realistic for it to happen, but I told myself it wasn’t because I would prefer not to include it. So I’ve particularly struggled with that, because I wouldn’t want my own sensitivity to cause me to portray a rosy version of things that really wasn’t true to the story or characters. But I definitely see that value of exploring non-abusive mixed relationships too.

      After all the thinking that I’ve been doing I will probably write a follow-up post to this one at some point. :) Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

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  7. neyronrose April 2, 2015 / 4:41 pm

    I’m not familiar with your topic, but I edit books. As others have said, you don’t have to change your characters to make it all negative (or all positive). There have been a number of debates among minorities about whether books should be educational, responsible and show “respectable” examples of that minority, like W.E.B. DuBois wanted for African-Americans, or show a variety of people, “respectable” or not, like the contributors to FIRE!!! magazine did.

    Then there are the arguments about whether members of the LGBTQ community will lose aspects of queer culture if they “assimilate.” And whether books should be written to be educational and responsible, or purely for entertainment purposes. There have been a number of forms of that debate. I think I would say, “Write what feels real to you, and/or right for the characters.”

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    • cinderace April 8, 2015 / 1:55 pm

      Thanks for the comment. Yeah, it’s not that I would want to be either all negative or all positive, but just that I want to be realistic, meaning true to the characters and story–and maybe more negative events/feelings (or more positive ones) would be more true than what I have now… So while it is somewhat that I’m worrying about how to portray things on a broader level (like, “What will this thing happening or not happening make people think about asexuals?”) there is also uncertainty about what would be truest to my story, like I said in my reply to Futurus Essay’s comment above.

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  8. ettina January 1, 2017 / 5:32 am

    I’d just like to mention that if you try too hard to avoid making your ace character a stereotype, you risk leaving those of us who fit the stereotype without representation. There are aces who feel like their sexuality is inextricably linked to their sex-repulsion. There are nerdy aces, and aces who are on the autism spectrum. And there are aroaces who don’t see those two things as distinct. Don’t be so afraid to leave people with misconceptions that you leave out those voices. The swishy fabulous gay guys deserve representation just as much as manly gay guys do. Which is why we need lots of stories. Aces need to have the equivalent of both Glee and Brokeback Mountain to represent us.

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