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!

Advertisements

Asexuality in Guardian of the Dead

I started seeking out novels with asexual characters once I realized there actually were some (here’s one list). I’m always excited when I start one; it’s just so unusual to see asexuality even mentioned outside of online ace communities that reading about a character who’s ace is a big deal. But I was somewhat disappointed in the way the ace character and asexuality in general were portrayed in the young adult novel Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. So this post is mostly about what I wasn’t happy with, but I do first want to start with what I liked. Mild spoilers ahead.

Pros: Kevin is not your typical cold/awkward/unfeeling asexual character (thinking of characters who aren’t explicitly ace but are widely speculated to be, like Sherlock, the Doctor in Doctor Who, and Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory). He’s the main character (Ellie)’s best friend, is quite likeable, and is an attractive, non-white guy who multiple girls are interested in. His asexuality is also accepted by the other characters, and seeing them treat it as valid and not question its legitimacy was nice. The book starts soon after Kevin has told Ellie about his orientation for the first time, and while her initial reaction is to say, “Maybe you’ll change your mind,” she stops herself, knowing that wouldn’t be appropriate.

Now, the cons: When Kevin comes out to Ellie the conversation pretty much ends there. Asexuality looks so different for each person—some are repulsed, some have a libido, some are also aromantic. But in Guardian of the Dead, what Kevin’s unique experience of asexuality is isn’t discussed or revealed at all. “I’m ace” is the beginning and end of the conversation; Ellie just makes her own assumptions about what it means and doesn’t ask Kevin any thoughtful questions.

Further assumptions are made when it comes to the relationship between Kevin and another good female friend of his, Iris. Iris has liked Kevin for a long time, but he’s never reciprocated—because he’s ace. Eventually, so that Iris won’t keep hoping in vain, Kevin tells her about his orientation, and while we don’t see this scene and thus don’t know exactly what’s said, by this point we’ve gotten the message that the reason Kevin and Iris won’t be having a romantic relationship is Kevin’s asexuality (as opposed to Kevin just not being interested in Iris in that way). However, we don’t know why exactly his asexuality is stopping them. It seems to be implied that either asexuality is always accompanied by aromanticisim, or else that an allosexual person would never want to be in a romantic relationship with an ace. Both of which are inaccurate and not ideas that should be spread.  Maybe the author didn’t intend either of these, but readers don’t know what the truth actually is (is Kevin aro? Does Iris feel the need for her relationships to include sex?), because what being ace means for Kevin is never discussed.

The last thing that bothered me is that Kevin’s character is never really developed. This is because he’s not actually around for most of the main part of the story, and when he is he’s either under a magic spell and kind of in a daze, or being lied to/kept in the dark by the Ellie. So the book starts by introducing an ace character, and then proceeds to basically remove him from the rest of the story, and not let us get to know him much more.

Some aces like the book’s portrayal of asexuality better than I did—see this and this (and here’s a review that mentions some of the same problems I saw, but also talks about other ways the book was well done). The author is also actively seeking to do representation better, and I am really glad that she’s aware of asexuality and chose to include it in her novel; at this point, I’ll take whatever ace characters I can get, and I’m sure plenty of people who might never have heard of asexuality otherwise were exposed to the concept through this book. But I do just wish that it had been represented a little better.

My ideal response to “I’m asexual”

In discussions of typical reactions people receive when coming out as ace, I’ve sometimes seen a good or preferred response contrasted with all the negative responses. And the good response is normally along the lines of, “Cool, thanks for telling me.” This response strikes me as inadequate, though, at least when it comes to the reaction I’d hope to get when revealing to someone that I’m ace.

I’ve only officially come out to one person so far. Initially I just told them I didn’t want to have sex, and didn’t use the word “asexual”, but later I emailed them a link to AVEN’s overview page. And they wrote back, “I read this. Guess there isn’t much to say about it.” And that response really disappointed me, because I felt like they were dismissing my asexuality, which I see as an important part of my identity. Maybe they felt like they didn’t have anything else to say because we’d already had conversations about it, but those had focused specifically on my desire not to have sex, rather than on asexuality as my sexual orientation. I felt like sending them that link was my real, official outing, because beyond just saying I didn’t want sex (which they could respond to with, “Maybe you’ll change your mind”), I was saying, “My sexual orientation is different from yours. This is the way I am, and it’s not going to change.” And I guess I had just expected (and wanted) that to lead to more discussion, instead of basically ending the conversation.

“Guess there isn’t much to say about it” would come across a little differently than “Cool, thanks for telling me,” but I think the latter would still leave me feeling unsatisfied. I lived twenty years not knowing there was a word for the way I was, twenty years of feeling different from everyone else—and thus twenty years of silence about my experience. Now that I know that there’s a term that describes me and that other people feel this way too, I want to talk about it. So in my ideal coming out experience, the person I’m telling would ask me questions. Not rude, invasive questions, of course, but questions like, “How long have you known you were asexual? Was it hard growing up not knowing that term?” “Are you interested in romantic relationships? What would your ideal romantic relationship look like?” “Anything else I should know about asexuality or your experience of it?” etc.

Basically, I’d want to know that the person I’m telling cares, and the way I would feel cared about is if they were interested, and showed their interest by continuing the conversation. I can definitely understand wanting to just be accepted and not have your orientation made a big deal of, but that wouldn’t quite be enough for me. Of course, if I actually came out to more people and getting a ton of questions every time became a regular thing, my opinion might change…