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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Me and romantic desire

I don’t know what my romantic orientation is (or if the concept is even useful to me). I had settled on wtf/quoiromantic, but have also wondered if aromantic is really more accurate, and after reading Queenie’s Greyromanticism 301 post, I feel like greyro could be a possibility. But! Right now I’m not really concerned with finding a label; it doesn’t currently matter to me which of those, if any, is the best fit. So this is not a “what am I??” post, but just a (slightly fragmented) overview of some of my history of romantic (or not) desires.

As I’ve seen a lot of other people say, when I first found out I was asexual and learned about the concept of separate romantic and sexual orientations, I assumed without question that I was heteroromantic, because I’d previously had crushes on guys and wanted to have a boyfriend. But now I’ve started wondering if I actually experienced romantic attraction to those guys/actually wanted a normative romantic relationship, or if I was just brainwashed by compulsory heterosexuality.

I was lonely a lot as a young teenager, and dreamed of having a best friend. I also dreamed of having a boyfriend—because I thought they were two separate things. Now I can see that I wanted the same thing from both relationships—someone who would care about me, be there for me, like me a lot. There was really no difference in what I wanted from a boyfriend and what I wanted from a best friend. But I imagined the best friend as a girl, and the boyfriend would’ve of course been a guy. I didn’t even consider the possibility that I could have a guy best friend who wasn’t my boyfriend (or that I could have a girlfriend!).

When I had crushes on guys or “liked” them, which did happen to me with a number of different guys, and when I thought abstractly about having a boyfriend, I never actually wanted all the typical trappings of a romantic relationship—as far as I remember I never thought about kissing or touching them in any way, didn’t think about romantic dinners or going on dates or receiving flowers from them. What I wanted was the commitment—to know that someone really liked me (not in a romantic way, but just as a person) and wanted me in their life in a long-term, definite way. All my life, society had told me that the only way to have this long-term committed partnership that I wanted was through a (heterosexual) romantic relationship. So no wonder I thought I was heteroromantic for so long.

I never assumed I was allosexual (or, as I would have thought of it at the time, the same as everyone else sexuality-wise), because it was obvious to me that other people wanted something—sex—that I didn’t. But I assumed I was heteroromantic because I did want society’s idea of a romantic relationship.

I think the stories I wrote when I was younger provide an interesting look at how I saw romance and what kind of relationship I wanted, since I could write whatever I wanted and give my characters the relationships that I viewed as ideal. I wrote sweet romances with a close bond between two people but no physical element, as well as stories of strong male-female friendships with no romantic component (like the Cinderella story I mentioned in this post). In the latter cases, that friendship was always both characters’ primary relationship; neither of them had a closer friend or a romantic interest or partner. And it was the same with the romantic relationships I wrote—the two romantic partners were also best friends.

One story I wrote ended up being pretty much my ultimate “this is how I feel about romantic relationships” story. A girl ends up in a new setting with two guys she’s never met before, and she develops a romantic relationship with one, based on physical attraction (aesthetic and sensual, I guess; maybe kind of sexual, but I didn’t think about that really or go into any detail about it), and a friendship with the other, based on common interests and deep conversations. At the end, she kind of has to choose between the two guys, and she chooses the friend. It’s kind of ambiguous whether she’s decided that she actually loves him romantically, or just that she values this relationship over the other, considering the friendship more real and meaningful than the fairly shallow, superficial romance.

That ambiguity, and the fact that the friendship wins out, is pretty much a perfect illustration of how I feel about romance. I don’t know if I feel romantic attraction—I just know I want a deep friendship with someone, something more solid and definite and committed than friendships are normally viewed as. Romance without friendship doesn’t really make sense to me; I know it’s a thing (see the comments on this article [the article itself is very sex-normative, unfortunately], where some people say they don’t consider their partner a friend at all), but I could never have a relationship like that.

I used to think that I just conceived of romance differently from most people, but now I’m starting to wonder if maybe other people are feeling something that I don’t. Maybe what I always saw as romance is more of a queerplatonic relationship. But, maybe there is an element of romance to what I want. Who knows? I don’t, and for now, I’m okay with that.

March 2015 Carnival of Aces – Call for Submissions

Hi everyone! I’m excited to host the Carnival of Aces this month and have chosen the theme Writing About Asexuality (which of course includes the entire ace spectrum). Possible topic ideas include:

  • How can well-meaning non-ace writers do a better job portraying our orientation in their articles/books?
  • What should fiction authors avoid when writing asexual characters? What are some ways to do it right?
  • What particular concerns or difficulties exist when writing about asexuality for a non-ace audience?
  • If you’ve ever written about asexuality, what’s your experience been like? What lessons have you learned, what kind of responses have you received, what do you wish you’d done differently, what are some of your triumphs?
  • What do you feel is lacking when it comes to writing about asexuality, in ace spaces or in wider discourse?
  • How are online ace communities shaping the way asexuality is talked about and conceived of through our writing? What shifts have been positive, and which have been negative? What should we do differently in the future?
  • What are some examples you’ve seen of badly-done writing about asexuality, and why did they fail? What are some good examples and why were they successful?
  • What advice, criticism, or positive feedback do you have for anyone writing about asexuality—ace bloggers, article writers, authors of educational material, fiction authors, etc.?
  • Anything else you can think of related to this subject!

Anyone can submit to the carnival and in any form—writing of any kind, videos, artwork, etc. You can submit by commenting on this post with the link to your submission or by emailing it to me at cinderaceblogs(at)gmail(dot)com. At the end of the month I’ll collect all the links in a post. I look forward to reading your contributions!

Male-female relationships in fiction

I enjoy reading young adult books (I’ll write more about one of the reasons why in a future post), and I was listening to one recently, Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, in which—spoilers—a friendship develops between a guy and the main character, a girl. It was the typical “they start out hating each other and then find out they actually enjoy being with and talking to each other and become friends” thing, which was nice if unoriginal. And then it became even more typical because the relationship turned romantic. And I was disappointed, because why couldn’t we just have a good male-female friendship story? Why couldn’t we leave it at “they actually found that they liked each other platonically and became good friends”?

That got me thinking about male-female relationships (between people who are roughly the same age and unrelated) in fiction in general, and it seems like for the most part they always do end up romantic, even if they don’t start that way (in mainstream movies even more so than in books). It’s frustrating, but it actually does kind of make sense. If a story were to end with the main male character and the main female character in a purely platonic relationship, that would be unsatisfying, because the relationship wouldn’t feel solid or lasting. There would always be the possibility that one of them would enter a romantic relationship, and if (or when) that happened, that relationship would replace or at least diminish the friendship (especially if both characters were heterosexual). And who wants to read a story where the focus is on a relationship that’s so fragile and easily dissolved? In fiction—and quite possibly in real life too, generally—to last, and thus to provide a satisfying ending to a story, a male-female relationship has to be romantic.

I found this to be true when I tried to write a story focusing on a non-romantic male-female relationship. Years ago I wrote a retelling of Cinderella in which I, typically, got around the love-at-first-sight issue by having Cinderella and the prince know each other before the fateful ball. The way my story was unusual is that their relationship never became romantic, not even after Cinderella realized that her best friend was actually the prince in disguise and he took her to the palace to live with his family. (Although when my mom read the beginning, she commented, “Ah, a romance,” and I said, “Nope! No romance here!” and she countered, “Of course it’s a romance! It’s Cinderella, and the girl is giggling at something the guy said.” I don’t know if that speaks to the flawed nature of my mom’s assumptions about male-female relationships, or the flawed nature of my portrayal of one…). I don’t remember what inspired me to keep the relationship platonic—maybe it was just a desperate attempt to bring some originality to a story that’s been told and retold so many times already. But I’m guessing that at least part of my motivation was a desire for a different kind of story—a less heteronormative, more ace-friendly one, even though I had never heard the terms “asexual” or “heteronormative” at the time—from the ones I had been told all my life.

The problem was that my ending, with Cinderella and the prince living together as best friends rather than a couple, no romance involved, was unsatisfying even to me, the author. Because yay, when the story ends they’re together and happy, but the prince at least will be getting married at some point in the future, and then what happens to Cinderella? Is the prince’s wife going to be okay with his female best friend living in the castle with them? Is the prince still going to care about Cinderella and want her around as much as he does now? Probably not. So even though the end of the story was seemingly happy, it felt wrong, because if I looked beyond the written ending things really weren’t going to be that great for Cinderella. Her happiness likely wouldn’t last; she’d probably eventually lose her friend (and her nice new life), and after he’d been the most important person to her during the story, and their relationship had been the main focus of it, that made the ending just feel sad. Maybe it was realistic, but I’d been going for a platonic happily-ever-after.

Maybe such a thing doesn’t exist, though. While I didn’t want to do the stereotypical romance thing, my platonic relationship-focused story kind of failed and would have been much more satisfying, if also more cliché, as a romance. But it’s sad that stories of platonic male-female relationships just can’t be as satisfying as romances, because it locks people into telling just one kind of story—and the fact that romantic male-female relationship stories are the only ones that get told may be part of what makes people think that men and women can only relate in a romantic way.

Right now I’m rereading The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale, which is about a friendship that forms between the two titular characters, who are both married to other people. It’s great to read a story about a non-romantic male-female relationship—but a lot of the story is about the two main characters trying to decide if they do actually have romantic feelings for each other, and people making assumptions about their relationship (that it is sexual and/or romantic in nature), and their spouses having issues with it. So when stories of platonic male-female relationships actually are told, the idea of romance is still very much a part of them—and if it’s that hard for a fictional woman and man to have a platonic relationship, think how hard it must be in real life.