Ace Tropes: The Ace Explanation

This is part of a series on tropes in webcomics with ace characters. To link or follow this series, please use the “ace webcomic tropes” tag on this blog.

How do you know when a character is ace? If you’re a reader who doesn’t even know what asexuality is, then you can’t. At least, not until a character gives a full explanation. Thus, the Ace Explanation is the golden standard for identifying explicitly ace characters. And when the author wants to avoid the word “asexual” for one reason or another, the Explanation becomes ever more essential to clue us in.

The Ace Explanation is an example of truth in fiction. Coming out as ace simply involves a lot of explaining to a lot of people. You explain what it is, you explain what it means to you, you explain why all the misconceptions are wrong.

Of course, the Explanation won’t be there forever. At some point, people will invent some advanced technology that instantly retrieves information to their fingertips. It feels like the Explanation is becoming less of a thing in fiction too. People will soon simply recognize asexuality when they see it in a story, without the story explaining it to them. I must admit I’m looking forward to this.

Personally, I find the Explanation to be tedious. I know it’s an important part of the ace experience, being the ace equivalent of coming out. But where coming out scenes are dramatic and tense, Explanation scenes often kill the drama with an info dump. And I mean, I already knew all that stuff! The Explanation may be good for visibility and all, but it’s just not entertaining. I especially don’t like when a character explains asexuality, and then it never comes up in the story again. It’s like playing a video game that has nothing but tutorial.

Of course, there are ways to spice up the Explanation, or to skip it entirely. Good writers can make the Explanation scene feel dynamic and dramatic, more like a proper coming out scene. You can also make the Explanation really short, spread it out over multiple scenes, or skip it entirely, trusting the audience to figure out anything they don’t already know.

Another solution is to “show” rather than “tell. The problem with “showing” is that if done poorly it feels like a step backwards. We’re back to interpreting characters as asexual merely because they never express interest in sex, at least not on screen. Or else we’re looking for asexual representation in aliens or robots again.


14 Nights [nsfw, csa mention]
Supernormal Step

Discussion Questions

1. Do you like seeing Explanation scenes in fiction?
2. How might you “show” asexuality, rather than “telling” it?
3. How should writers approach explanations of demisexuality, gray-asexuality, or the aro-spectrum?

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.
This entry was posted in activism, Coming out, Media and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Ace Tropes: The Ace Explanation

  1. Laura says:

    I personally find explanation scenes sort of annoying, and they feel copy-pasted to me. I am particularly thinking about Every Heart a Doorway. I think a way to show rather than tell without taking a step back would be to show an asexual experience, then label it as oh, that’s because they’re asexual. So something like:

    “Character X and Character Y are arguing about which of the two celebrities is hotter. Character Z zones out, not really interested in the conversation. Being asexual, she can’t really relate to who might be hotter. Suddenly the other two characters look at Character Z to break the tie.” Etc. I am not really a writer, but that’s the idea.

  2. Carmilla DeWinter says:

    I’ve yet to see Explanation scenes outside fanfic, where they do get tedious fast. They’re info dumps, and those are rarely facinating enough to warrant reading.
    Internal coming-out stories, where you discover facts and identity with a character, struggle with them to let go of doubts etc. are way more interesting.

    What I’ve written in original fiction has been …
    – Character A propositions character B, B refuses because of asexuality, A accepts the short explanation as “uncommon, but not news”
    – Character C is reluctantly coming out to D as gay, D waves it off with “I’m ace/sex is boring, I don’t get why other people would make a fuss about you being gay, can we please talk about work now”
    – characters commenting on other people’s love lives or their ace-specific unhappy backstory (e.g. failed relationships)

    The last variety has endless possibilities for all ace-spectrum and aro-spectrum identities, obviously, even if your world-building doesn’t allow for the particular words. The trick is to actually make the character comment on stuff instead of just keeping them silent.

    • Siggy says:

      That second one kind of bothers me, because it seems to be making light of the coming out experience. When people say, “I don’t get why anyone would care about that”, it’s sort of in an uncanny valley, neither positive enough to be providing a model response, nor negative enough for it to be clear that readers should be critical of the interaction.

      In general I feel it’s difficult to navigate between making too big a deal out of it, and too little of a deal. In one webcomic I read (The Hues), one page had characters coming out in a very light-hearted way, and the very next page had a different character coming out in a much more serious and scared way. While the great variation is true to people’s experiences, it caused serious mood whiplash.

      • Carmilla DeWinter says:

        Hmm. Yeah, this is difficult, and also thanks for the feedback on my little list.
        Though, given that I usually write drama, I can at least avoid the mood whiplash.

  3. Jen says:

    This brings up a good point; finding that balance is really hard. I’m writing a fanfic where one of the main characters is ace and in a chapter or two she’s going to be in a relationship with a rather sex obsessed individual and I am really unsure how to go about that conversation. I have already mentioned a black ring on her finger which I know is something that the ace community would recognize and since its on AO3 I have a tag for asexual character. But that balancing of lecture explanation and not explaining it and just moving forward is really messing with me. I want to just show them moving forward and dealing with it that way but at the same time I feel like it would be doing their challenges a disservice.

    • Siggy says:

      I mean, I don’t think it’s a problem for a story to show very easy and positive coming out experiences. I’ve seen lots of webcomics where that’s the norm. It can be wishful and optimistic, but lots of fiction is wishful and optimistic. For example, nearly every romance story ends with a functioning relationship, how unrealistically positive!

      The issue I mentioned above with The Hues was the juxtaposition of light and heavy. Readers should feel sympathetic towards the character who, understandably, was afraid to come out to her friends. Instead I found myself irritated with her, for having a hard time with something that had just been portrayed as so easy.

      As for Carmilla DeWinter’s proposed scenario where character C comes out to D, and D waves it away, that also juxtaposes the light and heavy. C thinks it’s serious, and D doesn’t take it seriously. That just makes me irritated with D, and unsure whether the author intended me to feel that way.

      I’m not sure you could derive any general lesson from these examples. Whether you portray coming out in a heavy way or a light way, it might work, or it might not.

      For your fanfic, I would caution against using a lecture just to make the scene heavier. To make a scene heavier, you incorporate more emotions, not necessarily more words.

  4. Siggy says:

    Further comments on realistic portrayals of coming out:

    I think one of the big things the Explanation has going for it is that it’s realistic. But it’s one of those realistic things that often falls flat in a story (at least for me). I think it is often worthwhile to give up a bit of realism to skip the Explanation.

    But if we’re trying to maintain a strong degree of realism, while also keeping it dramatic, I think there are still a wealth of possibilities:
    1. When people come out to someone close to them, it usually doesn’t come down to a straightforward lecture. The interaction can be messy, and bring to the surface all kinds of preexisting friction between the characters.
    2. People who have already come out a bunch of times tend to treat it more casually. But there’s also often a period when they’re faking how easy it is for them.
    3. Sometimes aces have to come out to the same person multiple times. I guess they couldn’t process it the first time?
    4. Many aces say they don’t come out at all. It just doesn’t come up. So how does such a person react when it does come up? They’re probably not very well-practiced about it!
    5. The character might not ID as ace, but be in an extended period of questioning. They don’t know what to come out as.
    6. A friend of the ace might tell people about it. And how does the ace character feel about that?

    (#6 is the basis for a lot of the novel I have on my backburner.)

    • Jen says:

      I think thats where I’m coming from with it. Other than my one friend who knew of the phrase and actually introduced me to the concept of asexuality as a thing (although he still gets it wrong a lot but that besides the point) the explanation is my experience with coming out. I have never had a case where someone knew what I was talking about when I said the word asexual so I think that is why I am drawn to having that explanation. But Siggy you have a great point perhaps having that realism in fiction could also have some more of that more dramatic complicated realism that you just pointed out

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