How to Write Asexual & Aromantic Characters

Hi all!  A few years ago I was a panelist at the Scribes and Scribblers Convention, on how to write asexual and aromantic characters.  I decided to rework my slides into a written guide for greater availability.

For those who are new here: Who am I and why am I qualified to talk about this?  I’m aromantic, asexual, autistic, non-binary, in a queerplatonic relationship, have been part of aro and ace communities for years, and one of my special interests is aspec microlabels, flags, etc.  While the amount of fiction I’ve actually written since graduating a year ago and losing the structure of university could, uh, be greater, I myself write mostly-contemporary fiction with aspec characters.

Table of contents: to write aspec characters, you first have to know what it is you’re even writing about, so I’m going to start with a crash course on being aspec and what it is and isn’t.  After that, I’ll give more writing-specific advice on what to do and what to avoid when writing your own aspec characters.

Crash course time: the basics of asexuality and aromanticism

Definitions first.

Asexuality = a spectrum of experiencing little to no sexual attraction.
Aromanticism = a spectrum of experiencing little to no romantic attraction.
Aspec = an umbrella term referring to everything or everyone on both spectra, because who wants to say “asexual and aromantic spectra” every time?
Allo- = the prefix that’s opposite the “a-”; experiencing attraction.
Split attraction = sexual and romantic attraction (and other types like aesthetic) don’t necessarily operate together.  Thus, while many people tend to consider their sexual orientation as covering all categories of attraction, and some people are both asexual and aromantic, a person can also be asexual and biromantic, or heterosexual and aromantic, and so on.

Who are asexual people?  Not to scare you off, but the key thing you need to know here is it’s not as simple as it might seem just reading a few definitions.  Attraction, action, and sex drive differ, so not experiencing attraction to the same extent as allosexual people doesn’t necessarily mean someone isn’t having sex, or that someone who chooses to be celibate is asexual.  (Although I personally suspect being asexual might make things easier on occasion if you happen to also be celibate for religious reasons or the like…)  There’s a whole range of experiences and opinions on sex and romance, ranging from repulsed to neutral to favorable to “huh??”.  I personally am in the “hates sex” camp, and just don’t understand the concept of romantic attraction at all to feel any particular way about it.

There are also many more specific/niche labels, often called microlabels, that people may use to describe their experiences.  Don’t feel like you need to research/memorize them all, because there’s quite a lot by now, but it’s good to be aware of their existence when understanding aspec people and experiences.  One thing you should be familiar with though is demi- – this refers to only experiencing sexual and/or romantic attraction after an emotional bond is formed, and is one of the spectrum identities outside of asexuality/aromanticism themselves that you’re probably most likely to hear about.

What does this have to do with writing?

Now that we’ve addressed the basics, an obvious question before we get much farther is, why?  Why should anyone care about writing aspec characters?

First, people in general need to see themselves represented.  Our media influences our assumptions about the world around us, so when we don’t see a certain type of person – for example, someone who doesn’t experience romantic attraction – represented in the things that teach us about the world, and most if not all people in our personal lives are not like that, either we feel like there’s something wrong with us that needs to be “fixed” if we’re asexual/aromantic, or we assume the same thing about other people and don’t accept them as they are if your friend or the like is the asexual/aromantic one, even though we mean no harm.

This is especially true for aspec people.  The assumptions that all adults experience sexual attraction and desire (allonormativity) and want monogamous romantic partnerships that will be more valuable than friendships and other relationships (amatonormativity), and that they’re immature or have a medical disorder or the like if they don’t fit into those expectation boxes, are deeply ingrained and normalized in our society, and reinforced through negative portrayals in media.  An example that’s infamous in the community is “that House episode” (“Better Half”), in which a supposedly asexual patient is proven to be lying about her sexuality because her husband is asexual, which turns out to be the result of a brain tumor.  As a result of not having positive examples and role models of their experiences, so many aspec people feel broken, put themselves in arguably nonconsensual situations feeling like they just have to force themselves to like it, and so on before learning about asexuality or aromanticism and finally having a positive way to understand themselves and their experiences.

And it’s equally important that allo people also see this positive representation.  A problem after self-realization is that frequently, people around us just don’t believe us because they’re subject to the same assumptions and lack of knowledge as we were, leading to discrimination in the form of feeling isolated, dismissal of our experiences, constantly having to explain/justify ourselves in ways a gay person might not need to even if facing prejudice, etc.  Asexuality and aromanticism are still to some extent just simply invisible compared to some other identities/orientations.  People need examples of the normal variety of human experiences so they know how to be respectful and accepting of others just as much as people need it to understand themselves.

Who should write aspec characters?

My opinion is “anyone who wants to and is willing to put in the work to do it well.”  This includes probably getting a sensitivity reader if you plan to formally publish the work.  Some people might argue that it should only be people who ARE aspec, but I’m of the perspective we don’t have time for gatekeeping if we actually want the pool of representation to increase like we say.  Not to mention, gatekeeping has a negative impact on authors who are aspec but may not want to come out publicly.  (And being part of the community doesn’t automatically mean someone can’t represent us badly/inaccurately anyway.)

There’s also an element of demographic accuracy for those who value it.  We exist in the real world regardless, so if you want your fiction to have demographic accuracy, it’s worth considering whether the large university your main character attends would reasonably be expected to have an Aces & Aros Club among its student organizations, for example.  (I don’t know how common this is, but my university did.)

How to Write an Aspec Character Without Promoting Stereotypes or Otherwise Fucking it Up

Tip #1: As mentioned, have an idea of the variety and nuance of aspec experiences.  Within the umbrella terms, some people enjoy sex or a romantic relationship and some don’t.  Some people see it as an important part of their identity and like collecting all the microlabels, (see: me, lol), while others don’t.  Different people will have different reasons for the same behavior: one ace might be sex-favorable and have sex for the physical experience, while someone else might be sex-neutral and do it for a partner’s sake, while a third wants a baby.  Labels can stack on top of each other, because aspec identities have a stronger element of “if” more than “with whom” than some other ones.  So someone could be both grey- and pan-, meaning they both rarely experience attraction but when they do they’re pan[sexual/romantic] in who they’re attracted to.

Tip #2: If it fits with your genre/topic, don’t be afraid to have multiple aspec characters.  For example, if it’s contemporary and your aspec characters know they are such, it’s totally realistic for them to be part of online communities, a support group, etc.  Or just simply have an aspec friend.  Birds of a feather and all.

This also provides you with two advantages.  One, it allows you to demonstrate the variety mentioned in the last point if you have multiple aspec characters with different experiences of being aspec.  Two, it broadens the range of roles those characters can play in your story without taking on extra risk.  In the real world, aro or ace people can obviously be the villain in someone’s story just as much as anyone else, but if your only aspec character in the story is the villain, doing it in a way that doesn’t come across wrong can get trickier due to the relative lack of aspec characters to provide a broad spectrum of examples.  But if you have multiple aspec characters playing different roles or on different sides, now you have more leeway to explore realistic human behavior without worrying about making a negative social statement.

Tip #3: Make some human aspecs too, not just androids and aliens.  Commander Data is cool, and it’s not bad to have aspec androids and aliens, but keep in mind that if only the androids and aliens in your story are aspec and none of the humans, than it can reinforce the assumption that sex/romance is a fundamental part of being human and to not be properly into it makes someone “other” or “not fully human.” 

Tip #4: Know your motivation before making them cold-hearted loners.  Emotional coldness and “they must be so lonely” are common, and false, stereotypes about aspec folks, especially aros.  There are plenty of other types of relationships and love besides romance: familial, platonic, fur babies, self-love, queerplatonic relationships… Being aro doesn’t automatically make someone uncaring, emotionless, or an object of pity.  

That said, I’ve realized since I first did the presentation that saying “don’t do that” isn’t right either.  Someone can be aromantic and also happen to be an uncaring jerk.  Some people are aplatonic, a group that often gets left out of everything because so much of aro discussion that you think would naturally extend to include them relies on “but we still have friends, we’re not that weird!”  Some people identify as loveless aros.  I’m autistic and a relatively unemotional person it seems when comparing myself to others, and I personally feel my being aro probably stems from that.  So to say nobody should do that is to simply transfer who gets erased/misrepresented from one segment of the community to another.

So I guess my main point now is, make sure you’re portraying a character that way for realistic reasons, not because your automatic assumption is that that’s just what life would be like for everyone with limited romantic attraction.

Tip #5: Avoid tokenism by making the character more than their label.  Some of us get really into using labels, talking about this stuff, etc., and others not so much.  Some of us have personal character arcs that involve coming to terms with our identity or coming out and like to see that in fiction too, and some of us prefer happy stories where the aspec characters are allowed to just be without their identity or orientation being an essential plot point or a difficult “here’s what it’s like being queer in the world” navigation.  Give your characters goals, favorite colors that aren’t necessarily green or purple (the aro and ace colors besides black/gray/white), hobbies, personality traits, or habits that annoy their roommate, and story roles that don’t exist solely to highlight the main character’s need for a partner or make the character the butt of jokes.  (I firmly believe they did Sheldon Cooper dirty in how they wrote him.)

Tip #6: Watch out for allo- and amatonormative messaging in your writing, even if you never write an aspec character in your life.  As touched on previously, allonormativity is the assumption that everyone wants and has sex, and amatonormativity is the assumption that everyone desires a monogamous, romantic relationship, which is more important than other types of relationships.  Even if you have no interest in writing aspec characters, everyone should try to avoid messages like that partnering up is necessary to become complete as a person, or inherently superior to other possibilities, or that not wanting sex is something to overcome.  A relationship can definitely be an individual character’s goal, but avoid making it a broader societal implication in an amatonormative way.

Tip #7: Some community jokes/symbols for character authenticity!  The one I hear the most is references to cake and garlic bread, the official joke being “[cake / garlic bread] is better than sex.”   Also dragons got involved as an aspec symbol along the way.  I don’t know how – something about how they aren’t real, the same way random people think aros/aces can’t be real maybe?  Playing cards (aces) and arrows sometimes show up too because of the play on words.  Also, the “main” colors for aces are purple and aros green, but there’s a separate flag for combined-aroace people that’s blue and orange.

Conclusion, further resources, and things Mia wants you to write for them:

Lastly, do strongly consider getting a sensitivity reader if you’re putting the work out into the world in a formal capacity.

If you want to learn more, the LGBTQ Wiki is an awesome resource for finding and learning about various labels.  The Aroace Database is a great resource for finding existing fiction books and characters.  (I also maintain a list of aspec nonfiction here on Writing For Life – see tab on the top bar.)  Salt & Sage Books has How to Write Asexual Characters: An Incomplete Guide.  Julie Sondra Decker’s The Invisible Orientation is basically a book-length 101 on asexuality.

Finally, this is not based on a scientific study of exactly how much of what rep exists already, to be clear, but here are some ideas I personally have for specific types of aspec rep I’d like to see more of, if you want ideas on where to start.

  1. Autistic aces.  There’s overlap between the two with autistics being much more likely to be ace (and trans, incidentally) than the general population, so a body of ace representation that’s actually representative needs to include a lot of works with autistic aces.
  2. More microlabels.  There is so much out there, there’s a wealth of opportunity to put a specific one on the shelves that just isn’t commonly found.
  3. Crime novels with aspec characters of all types.  This is about the only fiction genre I actively seek out to read, and uh…where are my aroace detectives??  (Although in broader point, just a wide variety of genres in general.  You can have all the aro/ace rep in the world, but if it’s concentrated in a couple genres, so many readers will still be excluded simply because those aren’t the genres they read.)
  4. Elderly aspecs – a lot of existing work tends to be YA, and the community is largely young people in my experience.  I think we could benefit from more stories with aspec grandparents and how they navigate that given different social attitudes and awareness when they grew up and all that.
  5. Contemporary ace stories that don’t still involve romance.  To be clear, “ace teenager has to figure out how to navigate a romantic relationship as an ace” is a perfectly valid story and I fully support it as valuable representation.  But, I have to confess, I read very little aspec fiction myself despite arguably having a professional stake in doing so because I don’t want to read about romance any more than I want sex scenes, and a lot of ace representation still includes that from what I’ve seen.  
  6. Disabled aces.  In real life, disabled aces often get shoved through the cracks because the ace community is trying to distance themselves from medicalization, and the disability community is fighting back against desexualization, so this especially could be explored in fiction.  Plus, there are so many different disabilities – so many opportunities to write a character that’s a reader’s first time seeing someone who’s really like them in fiction.

I might end up doing this presentation again someday, so if you think I should include something that’s not here currently, have concerns about how inclusive the way I framed something is, etc., feel free to say so and I’ll consider future drafts accordingly.

One thought on “How to Write Asexual & Aromantic Characters”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *