Some thoughts on writing asexual characters

As a few people know, a few months ago I finally started on my long-time ambition to write a novel.  It would be premature to get excited about it, since no one knows if I write decent fiction, or if I’ll ever publish.  But I might as well say that one of the characters is asexual.  So I’m starting to get more of a first-person perspective on writing asexual characters, and I’d like to share a few of my thoughts.

First I should note that I am not writing genre fiction.  No tentacle aliens or space wizards here, just Characters and Relationships.  And so instead of having tentacle-alien-fighting space wizards who just happen to be asexual, I have relationship-having literary characters who just happen to be asexual.  But it’s pretty hard to pretend that asexuality isn’t relevant to relationships so hey I guess asexuality is sorta central to the plot, huh.

I’ve already told you a lie about my book.  I said one of the characters is asexual, but there are two.  This is one of my ideas about how to do representation right, is to have at least two characters.  For someone like me, who worries too much about what particular groups and traits are represented in media, this is great for peace of mind.  One is white and male, which could be a representation problem.  But the other is non-white and female, so that makes me feel better.  I also get to represent multiple points in the spectrum.  One is openly asexual, while the other believes they’re straight.  One is romantic, the other is unknown.

This is easy to do if you have a large cast of characters, which I do.  But even so, I can’t make two characters representing every group.  I don’t have two major bi characters, for instance.  Oh well.

Another nice thing about having two asexual characters is that they can date each other.  It doesn’t work out though, because I like destroying relationships.

Actually, that’s sort of the book’s theme.  There are many breakups, and the breakups are Good because those relationships were Bad.  I am trying to subvert the idea that happy endings = successful relationships.  I think this is an uncommon idea: I couldn’t find it on TV Tropes.  Although I keep on wondering if it’s uncommon because it doesn’t work…

My last wacky idea comes from someone I met at an ace meetup.  He noted that fiction has the power to throw all this made-up stuff at us, and have us simply accept it, and it could do that for asexuality too.  So I decided to make a lot of things in my story from whole cloth.  I invented a city, which will raise no eyebrows.  I invented a religion, which is also normal novel material.  I invented an ethnic group, and as a reader you just deal.  I invented a sexual orientation, and you have to accept that too.  Wait no that last one’s real.  Tricked ya!

I’m hoping this will make less awkward the obligatory exposition on asexuality.  I really hate having to embed a lecture on asexuality within a story.  I don’t like reading it, and I don’t like writing it.  But I understand why people do it, because how else will you make sure your readers are up to speed?  How can we make the exposition more subtle?  I hope to do it by placing it alongside an exposition of Invented Ethnic Group, and its invented history with colonialism.  Do you think that will work?

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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15 Responses to Some thoughts on writing asexual characters

  1. acetheist says:

    Hmm, I’m generally not keen on fictional religions or fictional ethnicities, but I what I wanted to respond to was this:

    “Actually, that’s sort of the book’s theme. There are many breakups, and the breakups are Good because those relationships were Bad.”

    I like this. Terminating unhealthy relationships as part of someone’s “happy ending”? That’s really important to celebrate, actually. More of this please.

  2. This sounds great! Exploring how asexuals can navigate relationships / relationships from an ace perspective are a very interesting concept for a novel. My novel idea also has an ace character (the protagonist), but I haven’t started writing yet and it’s an historical novel, so that’s going to open a whole different can of worms. Like, how am I going to present her as asexual in a world without an asexual identity and community?

    “One is white and male, which could be a representation problem.” How is that a representation problem? Of all the confirmed asexual characters in fiction (13 – 14 in total) (lists that to my knowledge are complete: and there are only 4 men. And if you’re only looking at the medium of a novel, there’s only one male character (Kevin from Guardian of the Dead).

    All others: women. More specifically: white women. And I suspect the reason for that is sexism, which presumes white women don’t have any sexual desires anyway. So making an asexual character a white woman is a logical step in that context. And instead of once again enforcing the idea that all asexuals are white women / that all white women are asexual (unsurprisingly, people who make these assumptions don’t distinguish between these two statements. Which pisses me (white woman, asexual, feminist) off to no end), you’ve got two characters whose gender or ethnicity don’t carry that presumption of lack of desire. These are very interesting dynamics to explore!

    • Siggy says:

      Asexuality in a world without asexual identity or asexual community can be tough. But then, many of us have had that experience, of navigating the world without that identity or community. Perhaps you can tap into that experience. One of the ace characters in my novel does not identify as ace for most of the novel, and that’s sort of what I’m trying to do.

      I think white male asexual characters could be a problem if everyone does it, as tends to happen with these things. But I keep on forgetting that most people who are writing asexual characters *at the moment* are extremely representation-conscious, like I am, so they avoid using white/male as default. Perhaps that means it’s not a problem at all.

  3. Carmilla DeWinter says:

    Well, if you ever need a beta … I’m volunteering. Apparently, I’m semi-decent at picking fiction apart.
    As to representation: You never can have one of each subgroup of whatever in one novel. You’d need an infinite number of pages. However, if all writers strive for some diversity, in the end we may eventually be able to cover the actual full spectrum of human experience instead of the straight white part.

    • Siggy says:

      I would actually really appreciate another test reader. I’ll put you on my list and send you something when I complete the next chapter.

  4. swankivy says:

    You can let me know if you decide to approach mainstream publishing and I can give you pointers on querying agents or small publishers. 😉

  5. maralaurey says:

    I was just wondering how the idea of creating all these imaginary things and having asexuality as a kind of ‘tricked you!’ thing would work (I’m super-hyped otherwise though; fiction is the best thing ever and asexual representation is even better)? Because if you want to keep the validity of the world you’ve created, you can’t say ‘oh yes the city is fake and the religion is fake but this bit here is a real concept’ within the story itself, and not everyone is as nerdy as I am and reads every single acknowledgements and copyright page so adding it in as a note outside of the story isn’t the greatest idea, but of course there are going to be people who would dismiss asexuality as another bit of the fiction without bothering to do more research. So how would you kind of combat that?

    • Siggy says:

      Well first I should say that if you’re super-hyped, you’ve already been misled about the greatness of my writing. I have been stuck on the second chapter forever. 😛

      I wouldn’t say that I am literally trying to trick audiences into believing asexuality. Rather, I am priming people to accept things that are unfamiliar. How to say… I want to write a story where inserting asexuality isn’t awkward or gimmicky. It’s not necessarily about representing asexuality in the best possible way, it’s about presenting my story in the best possible way.

      And really, it’s the story I have to worry about first, not the representation. My novel is in more imminent danger of not being written or not being good than it is in danger of becoming popular and spreading misconceptions.

      • maralaurey says:

        Fair enough 🙂 Although it makes me wonder whether there is a kind of simpler way to add asexuality in. I can’t think of one, but I could swear that writers are putting new and complex ideas into their stories in a way that could be a helpful template for adding asexuality (other than the Twilight-esque Google scene of course).

        If you’d like a hand with becoming un-stuck from chapter two, I can always try to help? I’m always getting stuck when I’m writing and I’ve become an expert in hitting my head against a desk until I get some words down. 🙂

        • Siggy says:

          I feel like the problem isn’t just the specific mechanics of how the exposition is done. The larger problem is that it’s too topical. I feel like for the kind of fiction I’m writing (literary fiction), you’re not supposed to write things that are too topical. As Le Guin said, “The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.” To deal with a specific topic feels like something that can be said with words. Put another way, it’s saying something that I could say better with nonfiction (a very realistic scenario considering that I’m a blogger).

          On the other hand, this seems to defeat the transformative power of fiction. Are the only allowable topics those which have been so established that they’re no longer “topical”?

          I’m having trouble explaining, but these are the complex feelings I have when I think of works of fiction that do the whole awkward exposition of asexuality.

          • maralaurey says:

            Oh I didn’t realise you were writing literary fiction. That definitely makes it harder to address. I think often (for me at least) when reading literary fiction, there seems to be a theme you can’t quite grasp at but understand — it’s all the ‘show not tell’ stuff but on a thematic level — and it’s probably hard to write about something a lot of people won’t relate to without actually speaking about it, or not having it as a main theme and actually using words, but it being a difficult topic to explain and everything getting side-tracked away from that main unspoken idea… yeah, I can see where that gets complicated. I have a real admiration for literary fiction writers because that is just a difficult thing to write.

            I think I lost my point somewhere in there. But I think what I was trying to get at is that perhaps literary fiction is about ideas that transcend all boundaries (for the majority of people, at least), so perhaps it isn’t that asexuality’s topical but that it isn’t relatable; it’s not something that Average Joe would be able to look inside of himself and see after reading a book that resonated in the space it dwelt.

          • Siggy says:

            There aren’t going to be any easy solutions, but I’m glad you get what I’m saying. 🙂 Part of the problem with literary fiction is that it’s not very popular, and it’s seen as something only great writers do. So hardly anyone talks about it in the context of new writers, and I don’t even have the tools to talk about it.

  6. Pingback: Notes from my experience of writing an asexual character – cinderace blogs

  7. sherlyton says:

    I love this idea! I’ll be following as well to see how it all pans out and look forward to you reaching the publication phase! I look forward to reading it. I wish you the best.

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