Going Over the Rainbow: Writing an Asexual Character Part 2
I apologize for this post being late, but I spent some extra time to make sure I covered as many topics as possible.
For the last couple of weeks we’ve been looking at the asexuality spectrum and how to write asexual characters. Last week we discussed more about the spectrum and went over some terminology for various points on the spectrum as well as things to keep in mind and questions to ask yourself.
This week I’d like to show you how to put these things into practice. We’ll look at some examples of asexual characters in the media and why the character may or may not be a good representative of asexuals. We’ll also go over how to write romance with a character who identifies as asexual.
As you’ll hear me say many, many times over the course of this series; you are writing a person, not an orientation. This fact needs to be in the forefront of your mind at all times to avoid stereotypes and othering language.
Let’s look at some examples of asexual characters in current media. Unfortunately there are very few to choose from.
I’ll start with a poor example first. Some of you might get upset at this, but please bear with me while I explain.
Many fans believe Sheldon Cooper from the sitcom The Big Bang Theory to be both aromantic and asexual.
“When Sheldon Cooper was introduced to us, he was not like the other nerds. He was abrasive, clinical, and showed no interest in Penny whatsoever. In fact, he showed no interest in anyone, either romantically or sexually. He disliked being touched, a trait which had remained consistent until recent seasons. His lack of interest in sex, relationships and intimacy led many people, including myself, to believe that Sheldon was an asexual character.” — Stephanie Gallon
However in recent seasons there has been a marked change in the character toward being more sexual, though still repressed and awkward as a vehicle for comedy. This is incredibly unfortunate and only reinforces the idea that asexuals are ‘broken’ and simply need to meet the right person to experience sexual attraction. His recent behavior on the show has greatly disappointed many asexual and aromantic persons. The show’s writers have fallen back on problematic tropes in order to generate laughs. I’ll discuss those in a bit.
But wait, you say, I don’t understand what’s wrong with writing a sexually repressed character coming to terms with their sexuality?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing a sexually repressed character. But aces are not sexually repressed and implying that we are kinda misses the whole point of writing an asexual character. As an ace I find Sheldon’s character both cringe-worthy and incredibly disheartening and I’ve only ever sat through two whole episodes of the show. (Not all aces agree with me as is their right, some watch the show because it’s the only show with any—even poor—asexual representation).
Sherlock Holmes is often considered asexual. There is no focus on romance in the books, movie or BBC series. Holmes is fully focused on his work. Sex isn’t even on his radar. Unfortunately, we never get a full confirmation of him being asexual, everything is subtext.
While it’s nice to have a character that ‘seems’ to be asexual it’s much nicer to have it confirmed.
In my novel The Jeweled Dagger, the main character Lafayette is a genderfluid demisexual. They’ve never had sex and have only experienced sexual attraction twice in their life. In the second book their orientation will play more of a part in the story and I intend to specifically name it so there is no question as to their orientation.
This is all well and good, you say, but I’m writing a romance, I can’t just leave that out entirely. Fair enough, so how do you go about writing a romance with an asexual character?
Note: These are merely suggestions, not rules. There is no wrong way to be ace.
Step 1: Sex ≠ Love
Focus on growing the relationship beyond the romance. Some asexuals, like demisexuals, will need plenty of time to grow into the relationship and discover their feelings. After all the relationship itself is what keeps your reader reading. (Regency romances have been doing the no-sex thing for ages so it is totally possible, you’re just writing a character who doesn’t experience that weak-in-the-knees, butterflies in the stomach feeling of sexual attraction).
Step 2: Keep the dialog going.
Communication is essential especially if there is going to be sex. This is one of those times where foreplay is going to take a backseat to talking. I know, I know, talking is not sexy. However, it is necessary to establish your character’s feelings toward sex so that the reader knows exactly where they stand. Communication is the lifeblood of real life relationships. Fiction shouldn’t be any different, the whole miscommunication for tension thing can play a role in other areas, but please not this one. So, please don’t be shy about writing your characters frankly discussing their expectations when it comes to sex.
Step 2.1: This step is very important to make certain that your asexual character is properly consenting to having sex. Sexfavorableaces on Tumblr has some great questions to consider and while they are more focused on real life situations I think they are good for us to consider for our characters as well.
1. Do I want to have sex right now?
2. Do I like them as a person? I’m not going to have sex with someone I think is a jerk or who I just don’t like very much.
3. Do I feel like I “have to” have sex or “have to” do certain things with them? Because I don’t want to be coerced into doing something I’m uncomfortable with.
4. Are we sober/can we consent? Alcohol/lack of sobriety lowers inhibitions and some people make decisions they regret or would not have made while sober. I don’t want anyone to regret what we did or feel violated. I, personally, don’t feel comfortable having sex with someone who isn’t sober. I know some people are, but that’s a limit for me.
5. I want to make sure the other person is comfortable and isn’t either pushing their own boundaries or feeling like they have to do anything with me. I look at body language and listen to tone of voice. If they seem uncomfortable, I pull back and check in. If they seem uncomfortable with something, I don’t do that and let them know that I won’t do it. I see no reason to push someone to do something they’re uncomfortable with.
Step 3: Sex is not needed.
Make certain that the end goal of the romance is something other than sex. I know, it sounds counter-intuitive given that for many romances sex is the end goal. However, your character is asexual and even if they are sex-favorable having sex as the end goal makes it seem as though they needed the sex to make the relationship ‘real’ and this is not what we want. The relationship IS real. Sex is all well and good, but having it be the main goal only reinforces asexual stereotypes. There are tons of other relationship goals that are just as intimate and satisfying, some more-so in my belief. I’m not going to dictate goals to you but I do urge caution.
Step 4: Master the tension.
In most single title romances, the main source of tension is between the two main characters. Since this is the whole point of the plot, that’s understandable, but what do you do when sex isn’t on the table? Well, there are plenty of other interpersonal sources of tension that aren’t sexual in nature. All you have to do it look at your relationships around you; family, co-workers, friends. What kinds of tension and conflict do they experience? Start there and see where you can go.
In The Jeweled Dagger, one of the main sources of tension is trust. Jasper and Lafayette don’t yet know if they can trust each other. The moment they decide to trust each other is one of the highlights of the novel, but now there are new sources of tension and conflict from both internal and external sources. If you are struggling to find sources of tension/conflict just remember to look at your character’s motivations. Below are some examples.
Step 5: Keep your ace intact.
Aces are not broken no matter what society tries to tell us, so please be very careful about having them ‘fixed’ by a sexual relationship or having them suddenly realize they are sexual after all. This goes back to the ‘gay for you’ trope as well. Instead of having your character realize they are sexual after all, perhaps they are demisexual?
That leads us into the tropes. A while back I did a post on tropes and how they can be traps for the unwary. Tropes of and in themselves are not bad things at all. Think of them like themes but less esoteric. However, unlike themes they can perpetuate some very harmful stereotypes if used poorly.
TVTropes.com has an exhausting (yes exhausting) list of tropes. We are going to look at just a couple of the more harmful tropes and see how we can avoid them.
“Alice is celibate and might even come across as if she was Asexual. However, her sexuality is actually really strong, it’s just that she can’t express it because she is too burdened by shame, fear and/or guilt. Thus, she might be unable to take initiative herself, or to consent to things she actually does want. And even if she does manage to take initiative or give consent, it might still backfire horribly as the shame etc reasserts itself.”
This one is easy to avoid. If your character is asexual they won’t experience any sexual attraction. Being celibate is a conscious decision where being asexual is not a choice. However this doesn’t mean that all aces are cool with sex, as we discussed last week some are repulsed by just the thought. However their reasons for being repulsed will probably be different from what is listed in the trope. If your ace is sex repulsed I urge you to do some research and ask questions of sex repulsed aces.
“For some reason, the character is mostly ignorant of and often confused by common social conventions and behaviors. They usually grasp enough to minimally function around other people most of the time, but any circumstances outside of their limited experience fluster, puzzle, or (at worst) upset or enrage them.”
This one is especially problematic and potentially harmful to aces, autistic and mentally ill persons. I would exercise great caution around this trope to avoid stereotyping. Asexual doesn’t automatically mean socially stunted or inept. Not experiencing sexual attraction doesn’t mean you cannot grasp social situations. This trope can reduce your ace to a robotic stereotype if not handled very delicately.
“When the writers make it clear that there will be no romance between any of the lead characters. There are a few ways around this, such as giving the characters offscreen significant others, or make the characters a figurative or literal family group and/or siblings, but on-screen romance still remains non-existent.”
This trope can make it seem as though the ace character is incapable of love in any form, something that is a disturbingly common misconception. This reduces the character to a prop, or just a vehicle to keep the plot moving forward. You can avoid this by giving your ace character close friends and other relationships that are not sexual in nature. Asexual doesn’t mean unfeeling.
“Usually appears in fiction (and real life) in the form of furiously whispered rumors. “I hear Alice and Bob don’t even sleep in the same bed anymore.” Mostly used to indicate a marriage that has hit the rocks for whatever reason—sometimes a particularly bad betrayal of a spouse, sometimes serial small betrayals, sometimes simply a marriage where the love has died over the years.”
Again this equates sex with love and that a relationship without sex cannot possibly be a close loving one. This is incredibly unfortunate and harms not only asexuals but persons who for one reason or another are not physically able to have sex or who might not enjoy or want sex for various reasons other than orientation. There are a myriad other ways to show love other than sex or physical intimacy.
There are many other tropes but I think you are probably getting the idea.
The best way to combat all the negative stereotypes and tropes is to make certain your ace character is fully formed as a person. Their sexual orientation is only a small part of who they are and while it can have an impact on their relationships and how they view others it is not their sole defining trait.
While I have done my best to introduce you the orientation and give you advice on writing an asexual characters there is much I did not cover. I encourage you to do your own research and to reach out to asexuals to help you create fully fleshed characters. I’m always happy to answer questions as best I can or direct you to people who can answer them for you.
If you have any questions, comments or concerns please leave a comment below.
If you enjoyed this post and would like access to exclusive content please consider supporting me on Patreon or please send me a coffee using the button above. Many thanks from this nerdy queer. ^_^