Writing Asexual Characters (Part 1)

Writing Asexual Characters (Part 1)

It’s not a terribly well-kept secret that asexual representation in media is rather dismal.  What the public consciousness understands about asexuality at all is typically misinformed, if there is any information at all, so it’s not terribly surprising that asexual characters show up infrequently in fiction as a result, and when they do show up, often as inaccurate and offensive caricatures.  That’s not a situation I’m happy with, so I’m constructing this guide on things to know, keep in mind, and watch out for when creating well-rounded asexual characters.

Let’s Define Some Terms

Writing asexual characters is a lot easier when you have a (correct) definition of asexuality.  So let’s clarify on some relevant terminology before we go further.

Asexual: A sexual orientation determined by a lack of sexual attraction. This can be used as an umbrella term for all types of asexuality, but is also commonly used to refer to someone who feels no sexual attraction whatsoever.

Allosexual: An umbrella term for sexual orientations that do not fall under the asexual umbrella.  Sometimes referred to as just “sexual.”

Grey-asexual: A sexual orientation that may experience sexual attraction, but infrequently or not intensely enough that they or their culture consider them to be allosexual.

Demisexual: Sometimes considered a sub-category of grey-asexual, demisexual refers to a person who cannot experience sexual attraction without first establishing a certain degree of emotional connection to their subject of potential attraction.

Ace: A slang abbreviation of “asexual.”

Aromantic: A romantic orientation determined by a lack of romantic attraction.  Aromanticsm thus operates on a different axis of interest than asexuality—they are neither mutually inclusive nor mutually exclusive.

Aro: A slang abbreviation of “aromantic.”

Sex-repulsed: A physical aversion to sexual contact. Sex-repulsion is often addressed in conversations about asexuality, however, sex-repulsion has no inherent connection to asexuality.  Not all asexual people are sex-repulsed, and many allosexual people are—it is not a trait that is indicative of sexual orientation.

Chastity/celibacy: Behaviors that include abstinence from sex. Completely unrelated to sexual orientation (which is a state of being, not a behavior).

Prude/frigid: Insults used to demonize people who do not have sex with the frequency that a heterosexist society expects—particularly asexual women/women-presenting people.  These are slurs and should not be used.

Now, that’s a lot, but with all the misinformation on asexuality out there, it’s good to be thorough when establishing a foundational understanding of the topic.  If you need help keeping track of it all, clarification, or a definition for terminology not listed above, there are many blogs on Tumblr focused on asexual education that likely can answer these questions with FAQs or asks (there are really too many resources for me to link, but they’re easy to find with a simple Google search of the terms you want to know more about).  Many of these blogs are run by asexual people themselves, but there are some phrases with contested definitions, so it’s good to browse through a few sources to understand where asexual communities don’t have a consensus on certain terms and get a sense of what those phrases mean in general, at least.

How Do I Write an Asexual Character Into My Story?

First, there is something important to understand about writing that is relevant to pretty much any character you might create.  I myself write almost exclusively secondary-world fantasy, so this point is particularly vital if you’re like me and write in a world outside your own:  The world you are writing from is just as important as the world you are writing in.

What this means in terms of asexual characters is essentially this:  Because of the lack of visibility that asexual people suffer, and because of Western society’s heterosexist notion of straightness as the default human sexuality, if you write a character without explicitly indicating their orientation, the audience will assume that they are heterosexual.  (And even when you specify, there are still some who will ignore the text and bend over backward to interpret a queer character as straight—but you can’t necessarily do anything about that, so don’t concern yourself with it.)  And because asexuality is defined by a lack of something, it’s difficult to display it via “Show, Don’t Tell,” and in many cases you’re just going to have to out-and-out Tell.

This doesn’t have to be as bland as writing your character saying, “Hello, I am asexual,” although if your story is set in a context where the term “asexual” is understood as a sexual orientation (say, if your story is set in the modern-day U.S.), then you do have the option to have them simply state it like that.  For example, your asexual character’s allosexual friend might ask them who they think the hottest Avenger is, and they might respond, “Well, I’m asexual, so I’m not really physically into any of them beyond pure aesthetics.”  You can also use asexual cultural symbols—such as pride buttons—to indicate that your character is asexual, but this suggestion comes with some caveats and warnings that I’ll get to later.

Of course, if your story isn’t set in The Here and Now, starring Someone With Internet Access, present-day Western asexual culture can’t really be used to label them as asexual.  How do you tell your audience that your character is asexual, then?  In this case, you’d have to use the definition of asexuality probably without applying the actual word.  There might be some contexts where it wouldn’t be unreasonable to still just say “asexual”, though, like a sci-fi or dystopian story set in the future where those kinds of Classical Greek/Latin neologisms wouldn’t be out of place, but that kind of language might be more jarring in high fantasy or historical fiction.

In my own experience, this can be a bit trickier to manage, as trying to establish a character as asexual without using the word itself can sometimes occur in bits and pieces, making it unclear what their actual orientation it.  Example: If a woman is flirting with an asexual man, and the narrative explains that he dismisses her interests because he is not attracted to women, but no commentary is made in regard to his attraction to men, then it may come off as stating that he’s gay rather than asexual.  In this example, it might be clearer for the narrative to confirm that he rejects the woman’s interest because he is not attracted to anyone, although sometimes (depending on the context and prose) this might not be the most natural writing choice.  If it is established in a later portion of the story that this man is also not attracted to other men, however, and anyone outside of the binary genders, then you can reasonably expect your audience to put the pieces together themselves.  For clarity’s sake, you’ll want to paint the whole picture for your asexual characters’ orientations, but you don’t necessarily have to paint it all at once.  The only thing to be wary of if you reveal your character’s asexuality bit-by-bit is to not treat their orientation as a shocking plot twist (other characters in the story can be surprised, but don’t invite the audience to gape in wonder and amazement at your character’s orientation).  These revelations should be presented as matter-of-fact, and they should arise in conversations or observations in ways that read naturally.  If you feel like your shoe-horning in dialogue that establishes a character as asexual but doesn’t make a lot of sense in its current context, find another conversation where those lines would flow better.

Similar problems arise for demisexual and grey-asexual characters, where any indication of attraction might appear to the audience to dispel any possibility of them being asexual, even though demisexual and grey-asexual people can, by definition, occasionally experience sexual attraction.  In these cases, it would have to be established that while the character might sometimes feel attraction, it is remarkably uncommon or only occurs under specific circumstances.  This is easier to accomplish (or at least less ambiguous to the audience) when you have your character outright state these sort of things rather than attempt to demonstrate it.  As before, though, you might have a difficult time finding a place in the dialogue where such a declaration comes off as a natural thing for your character to say.

Finally, it is of course possible to write a character who is asexual without ever addressing their orientation in your text.  There’s nothing wrong with this in itself, though English literature and media is in desperate need of more and better asexual representation.  Still, you might feel that there is no natural place in your story to address this, your story might be structured in such a way that addressing might be more problematic than ignoring it, you might not have realized your character was asexual until after the story was published, etc.—these things can occur, and if they do, it’s not a fault in your storytelling or disrespectful toward asexual people.  The thing to keep in mind in this case is that when it comes to canon, the text always overrides Word of God (and some branches of English theory believe that Word of God doesn’t count for anything at all), so if your character is not textually asexual, don’t be like J.K. Rowling and publicly pat yourself on the back for representation that you never actually provided.  You can tell people that your character is asexual as a Word of God statement without it being necessarily problematic, but so long as that asexuality is just a footnote that can be ignored, it doesn’t count as representation, and that’s something that you’ll need to acknowledge if you go this route.

Stay tuned for the next installment, which will cover how to navigate tropes and problematic stereotypes about asexuality.

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