When I read Finding Your Feet by Cass Lennox, I was intrigued. Not only was it a good story, the concepts involved were fascinating to me. But I couldn’t find a satisfactory answer to a lot of my questions online. Thankfully, the author agreed to write this post to explain it to us all.
You want to write a character who’s asexual – awesome! We’re a cool group of people. But you’re not 100% sure about how to go about doing that, so you went looking and found these posts.
Well. When I wrote Blank Spaces and Finding Your Feet, I drew from my own lived experiences, and from conversations I’ve had with ace friends. Not easy, per se, but easy in that I was totally certain the feelings I was describing were accurate to me and to others I knew.
Even then, I didn’t come anywhere near what other aces have experienced. So I don’t know how much help this will be. Every time I attempted to write and rewrite this post, it either devolved into this massive explanation of the intricacies of asexual-spectrum identities, or it could be summed up with ‘write realistic people then make them asexual’. Which, yes, but also not quite enough. I’ll try to strike a balance somewhere in the middle.
Here’s what these posts cover:
- Basic terms and definitions used
- Research, and navigating the ace community’s vocabulary
- Splitting things up, aka how to separate out the layers of the sexual experience
- Love vs romance, because they’re not quite the same
- The stuff that makes your character realistic, ie Most Importantly
- Your tl;dr list of stuff to do and not to do
- Some resources to help your research
Terms and Definitions
Here are the words I use a lot below. Consider this an introduction, not an extensive list.
Asexual, ace – a person who does not experience sexual attraction
Allosexual – a person not on the ace spectrum, ie someone who experiences sexual attraction
Demisexual – a person on the asexual spectrum who experiences sexual attraction after a close emotional connection is made
Gray-asexual, gray-ace – a person on the asexual spectrum who sometimes or rarely experiences sexual attraction, or only in certain situations/circumstances
Sexuality – here defined as the combination of orientation, preferences, attitudes and behaviours that relate to sexual interactions (asexuality is included as a type of sexuality in this definition)
Spectrum – the world is a rich tapestry of experiences running from point to point to point in a 4D shape that I have no hope of representing. Wibbly-wobbly sexuality-humanity stuff. *gestures inadequately* get comfy with the idea of spectra if you’re not already familiar with it.
Romantic – in this context this term refers to a person who experiences romantic attraction (love feelings and stuff), and who may seek such a connection with someone else (I hear from close sources this is called “getting a girl/boyfriend/partner” *wide eyes*)
Demiromantic – a person who experiences romantic attraction only after a close emotional connection has developed
Grayromantic – a person who sometimes or rarely experiences romantic attraction, or only in certain situations/circumstances
Aromantic – a person who does not experience romantic attraction, and does not require a romantic connection with someone else
Research underpins every character who isn’t a direct copy of you and your life. There are a lot of asexuality resources out there, with plenty of first-hand experiences and explanations of the various identities under the ace umbrella. The ace spectrum is wide and varied, so at some point you will have to make decisions about your asexual character.
Some starting points:
- Are they romantic or aromantic (or somewhere in between – gray- or demiromantic)?
- If they’re romantic, who are they drawn to?
- Are they asexual, demisexual or gray-ace? How so?
- What stage in understanding and acceptance are they at? Are they oblivious, are they questioning themselves, are they loud and proud, are they quiet and proud?
Decide what speaks to you and then research perspectives within those limits.
The ace community has created this wonderful, extensive vocabulary around experiences in the ace spectrum, but it can be a little overwhelming.
What helped me wade through it was this: the understanding that none of the feelings that this vocabulary describes is new. None of it. Humanity has been gay, ace, straight, bi, and so on, ever since humanity has been a thing.
These words we use – gay, asexual, straight, bisexual, and so on – are relatively new, and are currently used to describe our modern ideas around those experiences; the experiences themselves are as old as humans.
The idea that someone needs to develop strong feelings for another person before feeling sexually attracted to them/wanting to have sex with them? That’s not new. What’s new is this word: demisexual. The vocabulary you find in ace discussions is a new, evolving break-down of the nuances of these experiences into something that’s readily identifiable and labelled, and thus understandable.
Example: there is evidence that suggests William Shakespeare was bisexual, so I’m going to run with that as if he definitely was. Shakespeare was bisexual, but given the word ‘bisexual’ didn’t exist in the 1500s, he didn’t call himself that, or consider himself in terms of that specific label, even though that’s effectively what he was. (I don’t know what label he would have used, if any. Perhaps a man of varied tastes.)
If you’re writing historical fiction set later than the 16th century, this still applies. Your characters are unlikely to use contemporary words like asexual or demiromantic to describe themselves, as people simply didn’t have those words in, say, the 1700s or 1800s. That said, if you’re researching a given time period, you should get a feel for how to convey a character’s sexuality to the reader in a way that’s consistent with the language, culture, and understanding of the time period, while still being an accurate reflection of the sexuality itself.
One example of this is Lord Richard Vane, a demisexual man in A Gentleman’s Position by KJ Charles. Another great example is the main couple in Alex Beecroft’s The Reluctant Berserker, which is set in Saxon England (about 900AD), a time when English was more like German than English, and definitely not in possession of the word “homosexual”.
Understanding the language your character may wish to apply to themselves is key to writing this part of them well. Even if your character’s orientation hardly affects the plot, your understanding will filter through in the way the character thinks, reacts and behaves.
Also key for background understanding is the breakdown of world view and sexual mores in society. I go into this in waaay more detail over at my blog, but the important takeaway is this: all of us are surrounded by messages about acceptable and unacceptable sexual behaviour in society.
Even in fantasy or sf settings, your society will have social norms around sex and relationships that your characters will navigate as they interact with other characters. Asexuality breaks or in some cases completely negates a lot of these very established and entrenched norms. It means, for some people, a dramatic shift in worldview. Get to grips with this and you’re a big step on the way to a realistic ace character.
Splitting things up
In discussing nuances of experiences, the asexual community separates the following things out:
– sexual behaviour (ie the physical acts of and around sex, however “sex” is defined by each individual)
– sexual attraction (you feel a desire to have sex with a person)
– sensual attraction (you feel a desire to touch a person)
– aesthetic attraction (you like a person’s appearance (and that’s it))
– physical arousal (your body is basic and instinctual, and reacts accordingly to someone it likes or to physical stimulation)
– psychological arousal (you’re aware of a person, and your awareness and interest latches onto them)
– libido (inherent sexual drive that is the core force behind sexual attraction)
In reality, these are intertwined in complex ways, but for the purposes of laying out nuance in a person’s experience, it may be helpful to isolate them.
For some people, these act independently of each other, or they seem to. For others, they interact in limited or complicated ways.
This is why you’ll see statements like “I masturbate, but I don’t think of anything – it’s more a comfort or a cleaning the pipes thing.” That’s physical arousal right there, without much psychological or sexual inspiration going on behind it (or someone else being there). There isn’t a sexual drive behind the act in this example, even though masturbation can be a sexual act.
Context is everything. (Worth saying that masturbation isn’t something to be generalised – some people like it and do it regularly, others don’t and don’t. I know this, incidentally, not just from forums but from a particularly enlightening game of Never Have I Ever with a group of aces.)