Writing Asexual Characters

Hwaet! I was on Twitter the other day when I intercepted a tweet from Dvorah saying “My next book is going to feature an asexual character, so if anyone has suggestions for what to do/not to do, I’d love to talk about it!”

My first thought was “I am an asexual and I have written a novel featuring an asexual character, which several people have told me represented the ace experience recognizably well. I could probably help!” So I said as much. Dvorah said “I’m mainly trying to get a sense of any big Nonos for writing ace, and the commonalities among differing experiences,” which struck me as something I could do, so I started typing out my first thoughts on the subject.

But then my second thoughts were “but I already know that I can’t speak for all aces any more than one person could speak for all straight people.” I’ve been in enough inter-ace disputes by now to know that we’re really diverse as a grouping.

So then I thought “Well, perhaps what I should do is type up my own thoughts, and then put the whole thing on my blog so that other aces could join in and speak up for themselves.” And that’s where I find myself now.

Below is my response to the initial query, unfiltered through my second thoughts, but I invite any other aces who might be reading to weigh in with their own takes, and either correct me, back me up, or add things I’ve overlooked, as necessary.

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Off the top of my head I would say the things to avoid were any assumption that an ace character must be inhuman in some way – where we are depicted at all it’s often as robots or aliens or childlike innocent beings whose understanding of the complexities of life are poor. We’re not cold and unemotional. We’re not incapable of having crushes and starry eyed romantic feelings (unless we’re also aromantic, which presumably isn’t the case for your character.)

On the other side of things we are missing that orientation towards sex with other people that other orientations have. So we’re unlikely to ever be checking anyone out, sexually. We’re usually going to be completely unaware of how others react to us sexually. We’ll put on nice clothes to look smart and well dressed, and be surprised when that equates to other people as ‘trying to look sexy’ – because sexiness is just not on our minds as a thing to be aware of.

If someone else is wearing a ‘sexy’ outfit, I would probably be like ‘are you sure you’re comfortable in that? Doesn’t all that leather kind of chafe?’ And they’ll be ‘but look at my butt!’ and I’ll be ‘Yeah, it’s a butt. It holds up your legs. So?’ Because to me there’s nothing sexy about sexy clothes or sexy body parts. They’re neutral, like pieces of furnature. They might be pretty, like a particularly nice carpet or lawn chair, but they’re not something to get sexually worked up about.

I personally don’t like dirty jokes or innuendo. It jolts me, because every time it happens it reminds me that human life is driven by this big dumb stupid factor that isn’t even all that important. Every time, it smacks me in the face with the fact that I’m abnormal because I’m missing something that everyone else has. (But I don’t feel like I’m missing out. I don’t want it for myself, I just wish people would stop rubbing my face in it all the time.)

On the other hand, I know there are aces out there who are fascinated by dirty jokes. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s in a spirit of research or something. You’d have to ask them.

When I wrote Aidan from Blue Steel Chain, I wrote him without a sexual fantasy life, because I didn’t want readers who were unaware of things like autochorissexualism to get confused about how someone who was asexual could have fantasies that involved other people boning. But surveys of slash writers and queer romance writers seem to indicate there’s a large number of aces for whom sharing the sexuality of imaginary characters is – I can’t think of a better way to put this – is the closest thing they come to having a sexuality of their own. (I’m only allowing myself to say this, because I’m in this group, so I’m talking about myself.)

It still doesn’t mean we find actual people sexually attractive, mind you. If offered the chance to somehow become part of that fictional world and join in, I would go “ew, no!” Because I’m not actually attracted to either of those people. I’m just imaginatively sharing an experience that I personally don’t have and can’t have in any other way.

So what I’m saying here is that there are aces who have a sexual fantasy life, and there are aces who don’t. It’s just their sexual fantasy life almost certainly doesn’t feature themself having sex with anyone.

Equally, there are aces who masturbate and aces who don’t. Masturbation doesn’t involve finding another person sexually attractive, so your character wouldn’t have to turn in his ace card at the door if it’s something that he did. He just probably wouldn’t be thinking about any real life people – not even his lover – while he was doing it.

However, I’d also say that a level of sex-revulsion is quite common. It’s normal for a person to have a cycle of responsiveness from “we could do sex if you wanted” to “don’t even talk about that gross stuff in the same room as me,” in the same way that presumably allosexual people are not equally up for it all the time.

This is one reason why we insist that it’s an orientation rather than a behaviour, btw, because it’s not about what you do, it’s about the way you think and the things you notice and value in the world. Some aces can actually enjoy the act of sex – because an orgasm will happen if sex is done well and all your bits are in working order, and an orgasm is… nice. It’s enjoyable. But the drive to have sex is not there. It’s entirely possible for an ace to have great sex with someone they love the night before, and still wake up in the morning with no feeling that sex is important or valuable or that they particularly want to have it again. There are many more important things to be concentrating on.

We’re also no more a group-think than any other orientation, so you’ll have aces who are outgoing and bubbly and cuddly and fascinated with everyone’s relationships and great at giving advice, through to aces who are introverted and touch-averse and really love Star Wars. The second sort are the stereotype at present, so if your character is like that, you may get accused of writing a stereotype. However, I am the second sort, so you wouldn’t actually be wrong.

In a similar way, you’re going to get stick whether or not you show the ace character having sex with the non-ace character. A lot of aces will be “oh, fuck it, why are we always the ones who have to compromise? Why can’t the allo-sexual character give up sex for the ace instead?!” And a lot of other ones will be “I’ve had a happy 20 year relationship with my partner. Sex is not that important so why wouldn’t I occasionally do it to please the one I love?”

I am also the second sort in this hypothesis, but I can see the first people’s point. It is vanishingly rare to see a love story where the ace doesn’t have to consent to sex. I think ace readers would find it immensely liberating to read a story where it was the allosexual partner who had to conform their expectations to what the ace character wanted rather than the other way around. OTOH, your allosexual readers are going to find that very challenging!

I think it’s interesting to write a romance where sex is the main conflict rather than a force pulling the characters together. You can’t just have the characters gravitating together by sexual chemistry – there have to be other reasons for why they would fall in love. Shared goals and perils, genuine admiration for each other’s characters, that kind of thing. And that kind of thing has to be compelling enough to counteract the fact that they have mismatched sexual needs. Also the mismatched sexual needs will need to be negotiated and renegotiated every time with continuing respect and love. That problem will never go away. It will always have to be managed and lived with, but it can be done successfully if the love is enough.

Heh. I don’t know if that helps. Now I read it back it sounds angrier than I expected. I thought I was very chill about it, but it turns out it can be quite alienating, living in a world where you just don’t get, at all, that one big thing that everyone else claims is a basic human drive.

Notice on Brighton beach

And with that I throw open the comments for anyone else who wants to weigh in or ask more questions ๐Ÿ™‚

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26 Comments on "Writing Asexual Characters"

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JJ
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JJ
2 months 5 days ago

The big trope of ace characters is that they have a sexual abuse backstory. I get asked loads if Im ace cos of sexual abuse, and even once after someone had read your BSC. I’m sure that wasnt the intention and I’ve never read it so IDK how accurate their reading was but it certainly gave them that impression. So for me, that is the single biggest frustration in portrayals of ace people and it’s gutting to see it done over and over.

Ami
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2 months 5 days ago
Hi Alex, thanks for this — I am an ACE reader, so this is definitely a good article (or tips) for authors out there. I don’t know whether there is like a must/must not do list, considering that one opinion of ACES don’t really speak for the whole group isn’t it? Like you said, some ACES enjoy sex some don’t. Some ACES can fantasize about other people doing sex but some don’t. I agree with this “itโ€™s not about what you do, itโ€™s about the way you think and the things you notice and value in the world”. I definitely… Read more »
A.M. Arthur
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A.M. Arthur
2 months 5 days ago
This is a great post, Alex. I’m a female m/m author, and I only discovered and embraced that I was ace about four years ago, while in the early weeks of my first sexual relationship (that happened at age 32, go figure), and it was a bit of a roller coaster to understand myself. I’m an ace who does enjoy the physical aspect of sex, but I can also take it or leave it, so it was incredibly frustrating to be in a relationship with a sexual person who wanted to bone every time we got together. When I told… Read more »
Chris Muldoon
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Chris Muldoon
2 months 5 days ago
Alex, this was a lovely idea. I’ve struggled for the same reason when asked for advice on writing ace charactersโ€”we’re so very different. My experience is only one small sliver of a much larger spectrum. And frankly, the usefulness of my experience as an aromatic asexual is probably pretty limited for someone writing a romance. What’s kind of interesting is that all romances with allosexual MCs read as a kind of fantasy to me, right? And I would be interested in hearing from other aces if they have the same reaction. Because I don’t experience sexual attraction, I can’t really… Read more »
Alex Whitehall
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2 months 5 days ago
Warning: I tend to ramble in an unfocused manner. Also this isn’t necessarily applicable to aromantics, but I assumed asexuals for this. I pretty much agree with everything you said (to some degree or another), and want to triple stress the “everyone’s different” thing. I think the hard thing for allosexuals to connect with sometimes is that asexuality has a larger involvement in the thought processes of the person rather than necessarily actions (in most cases that I’ve found, obviously YMMV). To use your “isn’t my leather-encased butt sexy” as an example: I would say “yep, that’s a sexy ass”… Read more »
Zeborah
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Zeborah
2 months 3 days ago
So as another datapoint: I’m asexual and aromantic. When I was in my late teens early twenties, sometimes trying to figure out what I was but mostly just getting on with the interesting things in life, there’d be occasional moments where I’d be in an intense conversation with a guy and it’d suddenly pop into my head “Oh, this is one of those situations where it’d be socially expected for me to be/get attracted to him I guess? Hm, *am* I attracted to him? How would I know?” And then it’d turn out he’d have a girlfriend and I’d think… Read more »
A.M. Arthur
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A.M. Arthur
2 months 3 days ago
Alex, I wouldn’t say I’m sex-repulsed exactly. I don’t mind the idea of it, but I think because of the lack of sexual attraction, it’s something I do simply for the fact that it feels good. Not because I desperately need to be intimate with my partner, or because it makes me feel closer to them–not in the same way it seemed to make him feel about me. It’s very difficult for an ace person to be in a romantic relationship with a sexual person who doesn’t listen and respect what the ace is saying about how they feel about… Read more »
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[…] Yeah, thatโ€™s there. So probably I have some element of autochorissexualism (thanks for the word, Alex B!) mixed into my lesbianism.) When I really look at the world and listen to myself, there are an […]

willaful
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2 months 2 days ago

What a fascinating post. I’m definitely not ACE, but I relate to so much of this… and am very pleased to have a word for “has fantasties I am not in,” which is something my husband has never been able to grok. ๐Ÿ™‚

hrj
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hrj
2 months 2 days ago
Saw this linked on Twitter and found the discussion refreshing. Tossing in some additional comments on two topics: Figuring out my asexuality took a very long time (I first articulated it out loud last year at age 57) in part because of a number of other confounding personality factors. If you mix being asexual with being shy and introverted, it can be hard to disentangle “not wanting” with “not having the context for figuring out what you want”. And on top of that, there was the issue of being a lesbian in a social context where I never fit in… Read more »
willaful
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2 months 2 days ago

Holy crap. The more I read, the more I’m starting to wonder if I *am* ACE.

Lisa
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Lisa
2 months 2 days ago

Autochorissexual is a term I only recently heard about. But it ticks a lot of boxes for me, that’s for sure! Sometimes I don’t know whether it’s hilarious or rather sad that I’ve gotten this far though life without knowing, or even wondering, if there’s something about me that’s not “typical”. I guess I just always figured that everyone fantasised about situations involving other people, and excluded themselves?

You live and learn!

Thanks for the great article!

Chris Scully
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Chris Scully
2 months 2 days ago
Great post and I find some of the comments fascinating. As someone who knew from an early age that I was asexual–long before I knew there was a word for it–I’ve never really struggled with it. It’s who I am, just like I have blue eyes and am short. Fortunately while I do feel different from others, I’ve never felt singled out or “defective”, except for the embarrassment of the annual physical when you have to repeatedly tell your doctor “No, I’m not sexually active.” I’ve never felt the need to delve into the spectrum because I know who I… Read more »
Haldis
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Haldis
1 month 30 days ago
Beneath this cold exterior beats a heart of pure stone: I bought that button because that is how I come across to many people. I am an introvert (most of the time), I am touch-averse, and I realy love Star Wars. I do get dirty jokes (I think, lol), and even engage in innuendos, though I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have as much meaning to me as to an allosexual. I realised I was asexual about two years ago. I have been in a relationship for 15 years. And yes, we have sex. In the beginning, I was mostly curious… Read more »
Haldis
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Haldis
1 month 29 days ago
The above comment was posted originally on Goodreads, until I realized this is where the action was. Love everyone sharing their stories and their various insights to their being. It would be wonderful to have more asexual characters in stories with this great diversity of feelings and experience. I do have to say that I have not noticed any kind of abusive background trope for asexual characters. I can see someone becoming sex repulsed from abuse which is different, or even having a asexual character being abused if hooking up with the wrong person, but it was not the abuse… Read more »
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