Writing Excuses 15.17: Asexual Representation
Key points: Asexuality is a sexual orientation that is not interested in sex. Not celibacy, not due to something that happened, it’s just the orientation. There are a number of sub-identities. To write such a character, first, remember it is not celibacy, it is not a choice. Do your research! Be aware of the love hierarchy encouraged by Western culture, and understand that asexuals probably don’t order people that way. To flag a secondary character as ace so that readers recognize it, probably the best is to have the characters talk about it, probably in a moment of recognition that this person is ace. To avoid harm, watch out for the stereotypes. Don’t magically “cure” your asexuals! Also, don’t portray your asexuals as totally solitary, give them a community and support. When writing historicals or other books where the term asexual would be anachronistic, just have the character explain what they are, without using the label.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 17.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Writing the Other: Asexuality.
[Tempest] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Robinette] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Tempest] I’m Tempest.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Dan] One of the questions that we had come in this year was about specifically asexual characters and asexual representation. The person asking the question made the good point that that’s not an identity that gets a lot of coverage. Even we, on our show, we’ve tried to cover a lot of different topics, this is one we’ve never hit before.
[Tempest] Oh my.
[Dan] So, Tempest, what… Start us off. Tell us what that identity is, and what it’s about.
[Tempest] Okay. So this is the very short version. Because once you start actually looking into asexuals and asexual identities, you will discover that there is, like, some sort of deep well from which these identities have emerged. So it’s, like, very complicated and there’s lots of different names and labels. But that’s okay, because hey, everybody loves some names and labels, they help us. So, at its base, asexuality is a sexual orientation that means that you are just not interested in sex. It’s not celibacy, it’s not like the choice to, like, not have sex. It is that that is your orientation. So, think of it in the way that, like, with homosexuals, they enjoy having sex with people who are the same gender as them. Bisexuals enjoy having sex with people who are the same gender or different genders, and heterosexuals enjoy having sex with people who are the opposite gender or across from them. But asexuals, they don’t want to have sex with anyone, and that’s okay. But then, within the asexual identity, there are lots of sub-identities that basically explain exactly, like, where you fall on this whole, like, I don’t want to have sex with people thing. As I said, there are a lot of them, I’m not going to go into all of them. But some of it’s, like, there’s a name for people who… They don’t necessarily want to have sex with people unless they form a very strong connection with, like, one person. Then they’re like, “I could enjoy having sex with you. I want to have sex with you because I have made this connection with you.” But they… But, in general, they don’t walk around the world being like, “I could have sex with them.” No. They’re only interested in that one person they’ve made a connection with. Then there’s also, under the heading of asexuality, what your romantic status is. Because some asexual people also are not romantic, they’re not interested in romantic relationships at all. That’s called aromantic. But then there are some asexual people who do want to be in romantic relationships that just do not involve sex. So, as I said, it’s pretty complicated, there are a lot of levels, and that’s just a really basic explanation.
[Mary Robinette] I just want to clarify that when you’re talking about writing an asexual character, that the reason that they’re asexual is not because of something that happened in their back story.
[Mary Robinette] It is their orientation.
[Tempest] Right. Right. So, like, again, it’s different from celibacy, and celibacy may be like someone did have something happen, and they’re not interested in having sex because of something that happened in their background. They’re just like, “Nope. I’m no longer making that a part of my life.” But that wasn’t how they were born, that’s not the orientation that they are, that’s just like their reaction to a thing, or in the case of some people, a choice.
[Dan] Okay. So, we’re a writing podcast. For our listen… We do this for our listeners out there. If you want to write a character with an asexual orientation, we want to give you tools to do that. If you don’t, if you have no interest in this topic whatsoever, you have our permission and our blessing to not listen.
[Dan] That’s fine. Then go yell at us on Facebook which is what you always do.
[Dan] If you are, however, interested, Tempest, what are some things that people can do to write characters who are asexual?
[Tempest] The first, biggest thing often is just recognizing that asexuality is not celibacy. That is a big mistake a lot of authors make. This mistake is made, like, in a lot of places and media where the two are conflated. But they’re two very different things. So that’s like the first big thing. If you start from there, you’re already like a good 25% of the way to doing it like super well. Another thing is, like, obviously with anything, do a lot of research about the asexual identity. There is a lot of stuff out there about it, because of the fact that in the past 10 years, there has just been a lot of discussion of asexuality and a lot of people who are realizing that they might be asexual so they have forums and they have Tumblr communities and there are websites that have lots of good information. So, like, getting into there and respectfully looking up on some of these things. If there are private spaces, don’t go in them. But if, like… There are a lot of Tumblrs, actually, that are public, that are for making sure that people understand, like, the many, many differences and all the different labels that I was talking about. So, do that kind of research. The other big thing is just to think about the fact that asexuals, they do not have a love hierarchy the way that our mainstream Western culture encourages us to have a love hierarchy. What I mean by that is, like, there’s… You know, okay, the hierarchy of love. At the top is, like, your romantic partner, or your kids. Then, under them, it’s, like, maybe other family in there, with some cousins that you like, maybe. Then, under that is, like, your friends. Then, under them, is acquaintances. Maybe up here, with your friends, maybe your dog above them, because we all know we like our dogs better than our friends, right? So, like, this is the way that our culture sort of…
[Mary Robinette] Just to be clear, this is a hierarchy of love, not attraction.
[Tempest] Right. Love. Like actual…
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Howard] With apologies to my cousins, you’ve put them on the wrong side of my friends.
[Tempest] I was just… Some people… Because some cousins are above friends, some aren’t. They’re below the friends, right? But our culture encourages this. It encourages us to put love on a hierarchy and be like, “These people you love more than these other people.” But many asexuals don’t… They’re not here for the love hierarchy, because they’re like, “But I…” They don’t order their people that they love in that way. This is like… If it’s romantic love, it’s not romantic love, this is familiar love, this is friendship love. They’re like, “It’s all love to us.” So, understanding that, understanding what the love hierarchy is, and, like, how to, like, bust out of it. Then that again, that’s like another long way towards going… Writing a good asexual character, because chances are, they’re not going to be down with that hierarchy.
[Dan] Cool. I want to pause right now for our book of the week, which, once again, is from Tempest. You get to talk this whole episode.
[Tempest] So, the book this week I want to suggest… Or recommend is Let’s Talk about Love by Claire Kann. This is a YA novel. It’s contemporary. The protagonist is black, bi-romantic, and asexual. Bi-romantic is similar to bisexual in that she wants to have romantic relationships with people as her same gender or people of other genders. But she only wants romance, she doesn’t want sex. She’s asexual. So, in this… Like I said, she’s working out what she wants from life. But really, it’s all about, like, just her being a fabulous black girl and also being asexual. And, like, getting other people to get on board with her fabulous self. It just deals with a lot… It goes through a lot of things that asexual people, but I think, like, especially young people, go through in, like, figuring out, like, how to have relationships as an asexual, and how to basically inform the people who might be into you what asexuality is and how it works, and some of the heartbreak that sometimes comes from that. So this is just a… It’s just a really good book, a really good story anyway, but it’s also a really great asexual representation.
[Mary Robinette] And the name of that was?
[Tempest] Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann.
[Mary Robinette] So, I have a followup question. I think that most of our listeners are probably going to be approaching this as writing a secondary character. That most of them are not going to be writing a primary character who is ace. So, one of the… I recently wrote an ace character into the Lady Astronaut. It’s in the second book, Fated Sky. I have an ace character. The challenge that I had was figuring out how to write the character in such a way that she was recognizable by readers, that they would recognize themselves in her, but not have it be a plot point. So, what I guess I’m wondering is, like, what… When I’m thinking about that, are there tools that you can suggest to… When you’re thinking, “Ah. I think that that person is ace.” Which is a tricky thing, because everybody expresses differently. But what are some of the things that… Like, this is a thing that if you want to nail it and help people recognize themselves, this is something you can include with your secondary character?
[Tempest] Yeah. It’s sometimes hard because… Especially if the book is not necessarily about that character having a relationship. Then, like saying, “By the way, everybody, I’m asexual. Okay, let’s go, like, kill that dragon.”
[Tempest] But that’s…
[Mary Robinette] No, right.
[Tempest] Not a thing that you can do necessarily that works. But, the way that I have seen it done in a couple books is that the characters have a conversation about it, not necessarily because they sit down and go, “Okay. Tell me about your sex life. Tell me about your sexuality.” But it will come up in some way, or it’ll be like a moment, where they’re just like, “Okay. But, like, maybe you could go do that thing. Like, perhaps go seduce that man.” And the person will be like, “I don’t know how to do that. Because I don’t do that.” They’ll be like, “You don’t do that?” Then… Like, then it becomes a conversation about, “Wait a minute. Oh, I didn’t know this about you.” Like… When it comes up, if it comes up, sometimes it can come up in the other characters are like, “What?” Or it comes up in the other characters say, “Oh, that’s really interesting. I didn’t know. Okay. We’re going to have to come up with a different plan. You can’t seduce that person. All right. Like, plan B.” But, yeah, like… At this point, because asexual representation is not as large as the representation of other people on the LGBTQ spectrum, sometimes it means that, like, characters need to just like actually just have a conversation about it, or say it. But the trick is finding a good place to put that without it being like, “As you know, Bob, as an asexual, I feel etc., etc.”
[Mary Robinette] Isn’t that the way all conversations start, though?
[Tempest] I’m doing that all the time. Like, as you know, as a lady…
[Howard] I’m going through my manuscript right now and removing all references to as you know, Bob.
[Howard] I will freely admit to a massive level of ignorance on this matter. Not for want of… Not because I haven’t been trying to learn, but I haven’t spent enough time at it. I haven’t learned enough. I feel like the thing that I’ve come away with from the Writing the Other episodes that we’ve done in general is the guiding principle of do no harm. What are the things that I should watch out for or that our listeners should watch out for when writing asexual… Ace characters, as the shorthand goes? What are the things they should watch out for so that they’re not damaging that community, or members of that community?
[Tempest] The stereotypes definitely. Some of the biggest stereotypes that I have encountered about asexuals is you’ll see, if they’re included in a book, then somehow during the course of the book, they magically become not asexual because they meet the right person.
[Tempest] Which is just as bad as… Like, for instance, you have a character who’s a lesbian, and then she meets some dude who’s just so great, and then by the end of the book, she’s no longer a lesbian. It’s like, “Wait a minute. No. That’s not okay.” So, yeah, like, doing that. Having… Or as Mary Robinette mentioned earlier, having a character who is asexual because something bad happened to them. For instance, like, they say, “I was molested as a child, so therefore I don’t like sex.” Like, that’s… First of all, that’s not how that works. Also, that’s a very damaging stereotype. Basically, also only showing asexual’s as like individual persons in a sea of… Like, there are no asexual’s anywhere ever. That’s also just the thing that I’m always telling people, like, folks don’t exist in a vacuum. Like, they have a community. There is an asexual community and often people will seek it out. So, showing asexuals as being people in a community, and as having some support, that’s usually good. The other thing that is a question I often get is, like, how you talk about asexuals when you’re, like, writing something where, like, that word wouldn’t be used. Because that is actually a fairly recent word in the lexicon. In that case, again, more talking and having them sort of explain this is how I am, this is how I feel. I don’t want this, I don’t want that. In doing that, making sure that, again, you don’t fall into those particular stereotypes.
[Dan] Cool. That is all the time that we have. Thank you very much, Tempest, for being on the show, to talk about this. We are going to try to put… I mean, you mentioned some… Looking at Instagram, and some things like that. Do you have any specific resources that we could put into the liner notes?
[Tempest] I do. We actually, at Writing the Other, we have a Master Class on How to Write Asexuals. It is taught by Lauren Jankowski, who is an amazing writer who is also ace and she does a lot of… Talks about asexual representation. You can take the Master Class you go to writingtheother.com. It’s listed with our Master Classes. With that class, you also get, like, a ton of resources that Lauren herself has collected. Another great resource is another one that Lauren runs. It’s called Asexual Artists. Actually, it’s just like conversations with people who are artists who also happen to be asexual, talking about their art and talking about how their sexual identity informs their art, if it does. So, those are like some really great places to start if you are interested in trying to get that representation right.
[Dan] That’s fantastic. Thank you very much.
[Dan] Now, once again, we’re handing it back to you for our homework.
[Tempest] The homework is to go to the Master Class. Oh, no.
[Tempest] Oops. No, the homework actually is to take two characters from your current work in progress who are either in a relationship… Romantic relationship, or like stepping toward a romantic relationship, but to write a meet cute. A scene where they’re meeting and that spark is happening for the first time. But, instead of them having whatever sexuality they already have, whether it’s heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, whatever it is, have them be asexual but romantic. So, now, it’s like, how does that spark happen? How does one of them perceive the other as a potential partner? But without them wanting to have sex with that person?
[Dan] All right. There you go. You are out of excuses, now go write.