9

In a fantasy series that I’ve been working on for some time now, there is a character that I’ve always kind of seen as not having sexual or romantic attraction. Originally, I did have a love interest planned for him, but it always felt extremely forced to me, or like I was trying to incorporate a storyline that didn’t fit him just for the sake of having more romance in the plot.

I eventually made the decision to write him as ace/aro (aromantic/asexual), and this is what I’m sticking to at this point because it feels right for him and it feels like who he is, but the problem lies in how I go about communicating his asexuality to the readers, or writing it in a way that doesn’t feel contrived.

For example, one of the main characters is a lesbian, and this is obviously very easy to show as she harbors romantic feelings for and eventually ends up with the female protagonist. And writing bisexual characters is not difficult either (especially for me considering I am bisexual myself) as you can show them being attracted to members of both sexes. But a lack of sexuality?

I don’t know if he could possibly just say something along the lines of “I just don’t feel that way about people.” If so, how would I work this into a natural conversation? I would just like some pointers so that I can do this right, especially since I am not ace/aro myself.

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    Welcome to Writing.SE obrague. Please check out our tour and help center. Your question is certainly something you need to resolve before working on this character, but it's not really a writing question. You're asking more about asexual and aromantic people. Which is about doing your research. Research is vital to writing, but we focus here on the how to research, not the facts that the research will uncover. Please feel free to read, answer questions, and ask questions specifically about writing. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jul 6 at 5:35
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    @Cyn I'm not sure it's about research. The way I understand the question, it's about how to hint/show that the character is asexual/aromantic, as opposed to the character just not having a romantic plotline. The latter is quire common in fiction, especially for secondary characters: think Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir... But in the absence of any information, we just presume they're straight. Obrague, do I understand your intent correctly? – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jul 6 at 7:09
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    similar to How to keep romance out of my novel – wetcircuit Jul 6 at 7:24
8

I don’t know if he could possibly just say something along the lines of “I just don’t feel that way about people.” If so, how would I work this into a natural conversation?

Show, don't Tell

How does this character's orientation effect the story? Are they pressured into a sexual or romantic situation? Why would they need to say this to another person?

If it's not part of the story, treat it like the 90% of the iceberg that is hidden under water, it's "there" buoying him up but we don't see it directly.

If it is part of the story, look for a way to present it through a series of actions or reveals, rather than the character just saying so. A character blurting out "I'm not interested in anyone romantically…" early in a novel could read as a Chekov's gun, signaling this is a "problem" he will need to solve by the end. We tend to expect a payoff when characters tell us stuff too easily.

It's also a little weird, which is the point of this question – it doesn't really sound natural. Why explain this to anyone? If he has a romantic obligation to them, like a spouse, I'd expect some narrative build up, soul searching, guilt, something. If it's all settled for him and he feels confident about it, then he would be a little older and wiser and experienced – again I'm wondering why he'd need to put it into words, who does he need to understand this truth about himself?

exposition from a sexpert

If you want a scene that wraps this all up on-the-nose, send him to a brothel with his mates. While they're all upstairs banging he can be drinking and singing songs with the brothel's procuress, an older refined woman. Two new girls can ask about the gentlemen's needs and the older experienced woman shoos them away with a curt explanation from authority.

It's as contrived as any other idea but the information doesn't come out of his mouth, confession-style.

He wouldn't (necessarily) see himself as alternative

Is casual sex the norm (or compulsory) in your fantasy setting?

When you say fantasy I can't help but picture something vaguely Euro-medieval where marriage is about property not passion, and there are euphemisms for not breeding, like going on a crusade for 20 years or joining a nunnery.

There was actually a fine word for it back then: celibacy. It was wrapped up in concepts of purity, religious devotion, and non-passionate chivalry. It meant you were better because you had your urges under control and devoted yourself to higher concepts. (Click the link for cultural information.)

One culture didn't see celibacy as a good, and that was the Romans (and maybe teen-sex movies from the 1980s). Most other cultures on Earth have had an honored and noble concept of the rejection of carnal lust.

After comments from @Galastel and some research, celibacy was potentially a crime against god in Judaism. This is procreative sex within marriage of course. According to the link a 20yo male could be forced to marry – it's really not the same as forcing women to marry and bare children – women died in childbirth, often.

There's less urgency to declare it

An asexual or aromantic person can have sex for purposes of procreation and pleasure, just as many gay people have children using the traditional (heterosex) method. Arranged marriages would be the norm, and not based on sexual attraction. Our modern ideas of sexual orientation are not deterministic. Your character may have children and (several) spouses and still consider themselves celibate.

Where a gay-identified person may experience revulsion at the idea of heterosex (as straight-people may about homosex), it's usually not such a polarity with ace/aro. Instead they typically feel indifferent, unfulfilled, meh it's not worth the effort. Anticlimactic. It's the same way I feel about sportsball games, religion, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – I see other people are passionate about this stuff but it's like a marketing hoax: they have fallen for hype and are worked up about nothing.

There's not the same urgency for self-defense, to be acknoledged, or the desire to seek others and form a community together. There's also much less urge to rally against romance than, say, someone who has a recently-broken heart, or is nursing an unrequited fixation, or is steeped in anti-sex ideology. Your character will have encountered these and felt indifferent to their rantings too.

A young Hamlet-esque character might sit around contemplating the fear of missing out. But a grown up will accept that the world is littered with drama you can walk away from, and will find a comfortable balance navigating their boundaries. More important, they will have the time and freedom to pursue other interests, so give your character something extra they do enjoy. They may feel out of step with society, but they won't feel as if they've lost anything.

Your fantasy setting may vary. You might need some Margaret Atwood-level social-engineering for societal pressures to impact the character. A meddling matchmaker, parents who demand grandchildren, or an overtly sexual social environment might be necessary before it would even come up.

  • "Joining a nunnery" is actually a euphemism for becoming a prostitute. ;) – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jul 6 at 10:15
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    @Galastel, LOL, let's just say some nunneries were more exciting than others. – wetcircuit Jul 6 at 10:16
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    Also, Romans weren't the only culture that didn't see celibacy as good. Judaism never did either. Not only is procreation a commandment, but sexual pleasure is one of the husband's duties to his wife. In fact it's a duty independent from procreation. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jul 6 at 10:17
  • When Shakespeare uses "Get thee to a nunnery" in Hamlet, he specifically plays on both meanings. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jul 6 at 10:18
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    I'm confused about your meaning of 'celibacy' here - in modern day English, this means to 'not have sex/get married', which is very different to 'lacking a desire for sex' - the former by definition won't have children (outside of adoption etc.), while the latter could, so could you clarify what you mean here? I'd also add that being 'sex repulsed' is possible and the "There's not the same urgency for self-defense, to be acknowledged, or the desire to seek others and form a community together" sounds like a bit of a (not necessarily correct) overgeneralisation – Mithrandir24601 Jul 7 at 21:19
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The obvious way is to simply not have the character enter any relationship (or harboring any feelings for anyone, if your POV gives insight into the character's mind). However, the default assumption will probably be "straight, but not dating right now".

If you want to highlight the aro/ace aspect of your character, you could explicitly raise the topic via a very close friend or a trusted family member.

For example, a well-meaning friend might suggest they try dating another friend, which could be an opportunity for your aro character to "come out" and say that as much as they value the other person's friendship they're not interested in a relationship at all.

Alternatively, a close friend might at some point outright ask or drop a hint, and your character's reaction could be very telling. (For example, my mother once slipped me a newspaper article about people in the aro/ace spectrum, which was her way of telling me "it's okay if you are", which I thought was very sweet, no matter whether that's actually how I see myself or not.)

You could even combine the two options and have the well-meaning friend assume the aro/ace character to be gay and show their support in some way. The character could then gently point out that, actually, they're not interested in either gender.

6

I'm aro/ace myself, so my advice comes from that perspective.

Before trying to write your character, there are three things you should consider. First, how does he feel about the act of sex itself?

Asexuality is the absence of sexual attraction, and aces can be sex positive with high libidos, sex-repulsed with no libidos, or anywhere in between. A high-libido sex-positive ace could happily participate in a sexual relationship to fulfil their own physical needs; they simply wouldn't feel that urge allos have to have sex with a specific person. A no-libido, sex-repulsed ace will avoid sex and sexual situations, and likely express disgust with them.

Second, how is sexuality represented and viewed in your setting?

Depending on your answer to the first question, an aro/ace character may not participate in society in a way that's distinguishable from an allosexual. For example, I appear to be allo and straight because I'm in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex. But I'm incredible aro/ace and my partner is aro/demi. I know at least one other couple for whom that's true. If asexuality/aromanticism are viewed negatively (or even simply unknown) in your setting, aros and aces are likely to keep their heads down and blend in, by participating in "normal"-appearing relationships (either with other aros/aces or with unsuspecting allos), or by finding socially-acceptable reasons to avoid sex (such as by joining a religious order which idolizes celibacy).

If, on the other hand, aro/aces are viewed positively, aro/aces may have their own subcultures and group language which your character might participate in. A squish-based relationship might be as common and socially acceptable as a sex-based one. Your character will have language to describe how he approaches sexual attraction, and won't (necessarily) be shy about using it.

Third, is your character aware he's aro/ace?

This one seems like an odd question, but if you spend any time on /r/asexuality (I recommend doing so, by the way, if you're writing an aro/ace character), a common thread that you'll see in most posts/comments is how we often don't realize we're different. Most aces have an appreciation for aesthetic beauty and it usually takes us a long time to realize that it's not the same thing as sexual attraction, especially given the way modern society conflates the two. It wasn't until I was well into my 20s that I realized people were being literal when they talked about wanting to jump someone's bones - I thought it just meant they found the person aesthetically pleasing.

A decent analogy would be thinking about how someone feels about vegemite (or if you're Australian, then pick an exotic food of your choice). For most non-Australians, vegemite simply isn't part of their daily routine. Someone might seek it out to try it, but most people go about their lives without thinking about it one way or another. If you've never had vegemite, you probably don't spend much time wondering what it would be like to have it, or thinking about how you've never had it. You do not feel an instinctive, uncontrollable urge to go out and have it. If your friends start talking about how excited they were to go eat vegemite, you nod and smile politely.

Once you know the answer to these three questions, you'll have a better idea of how (and whether) to show your character's aro/ace-ness.

If your character is aware he's aro/ace and the setting allows him to be open about it, it'll be much easier to find natural ways of bringing it up: your character might talk about squishes or aesthetic attraction, or he might have reason to outright state he's aro/ace, such as if someone asks if he has a wife back home.

If your character isn't aware he's aro/ace, or has social pressure to not reveal it, then it likely becomes, as @wetcircuit said, part of the hidden 80% of the iceberg of his personality. You know about it, and it may be visible in how he reacts to certain situations, but unless those situations are relevant to your plot, it may simply not come up.

And that's okay! Building a character who never openly says they're ace, but demonstrates it via their actions (or lack thereof), is totally fine. Representation is good, but forced representation via a stilted, showy conversation about how aro/ace your character is, can feel like the bad kind of token representation. Write your character authentically, even if that means simply not addressing the question of sexuality.

Specific tips for how your character may demonstrate his aro/ace-ness

  1. As mentioned above, aces often don't realize the rest of the world views sex differently than we do. Your character may respond to discussions about sex or lust with "wait, people actually do that?" This isn't necessarily kinkshaming - it's genuine bafflement, the same kind of disbelief as a colorblind person being told there's a difference between red and green.
  2. He is likely to have difficulty understanding why someone would do something for love or lust. Romance stories will fall flat to him because it seems weird to do increasingly bizarre things to try to "win" someone's love. He may have trouble beliving someone would put themselves at risk to have sex. Romeo and Juliet-style antics make no sense to him; he'll likely respond with "but why?"
  3. He will react differently to displays of open sexuality, such as strip clubs (or your fantasy setting's equivalent). How differently he reacts depends on your answer to the first question above: if he has a libido and/or is sex-positive, he may enjoy it simply on a personal level, but will feel no desire to interact with the people doing the show, nor with anyone else. If he has no libido and/or is sex-repulsed, he may openly dislike the display and try to avoid it.
2

A Master for your Student

I would solve this issue by creating a Master for your Student. Either a new character, or re-purpose an existing character.

In The Karate Kid, Daniel (Student) is a new kid in town, and getting picked on, escaping a few fights. But he gets cornered by six teens taking Karate, and gets beat up -- but saved by Mr. Miyagi (Master), that defeats all six teens at once and sends them running. Then the Master agrees to teach the Student to fight. They become friends, with zero sexual or romantic overtones.

I'll name the ace/aro male Danny (Student). Danny is put in an uncomfortable situation at a party. He is fumbling the refusal of advances by a drunk girl. Another girl he doesn't know (Alison, ace/aro Master) steps in to "save" him; she says, "get off my guy," and points the drunk girl to another guy that will be more accommodating.

Danny said, "Thanks, I guess. What's your name?"

"Alison. I think we're going to be friends. What's your name?"

"Danny. I'm not great at being 'friends', as you saw," Danny said, putting air quotes around the word.

Alison laughed. "Okay, I don't mean 'friends'," she said, mimicking his air quotes, "I mean friends, like you must be friends with the guy that gave you that haircut, cause I can't imagine any other reason you'd let somebody do that to you. So, no flowers, no kissing, no hook ups. Cause I don't do any of that, and I think you don't either. Wanna be friends?"

Daniel looked up in surprise. No flowers, no kissing, no hook ups. He'd never heard anyone just ... say it. "My uncle cuts my hair. He's been a barber for forty years."

Alison squinted at his head in mock puzzlement. "Oh yeah, I could see that. Third grader cut with a retro vibe."

She opened her eyes wide with a big grin. "Bold choice, Danny!"

Danny shook his head. "So are we going to insult each other, in this friendship?"

"Maybe. We will tell each other the truth, how about that?"

This doesn't have to be the whole story. You already have your story. You just need another ace/aro, so you can demonstrate a true ace/aro male/female friendship that won't go any further. Alison has experience and the personality to help Danny navigate being an ace/aro without hurting anybody's feelings. In whatever way you see fit; e.g. they could attend parties together, and let people assume what they will, even enjoy each other's company alone without having to worry about sexual or romantic pressures, and so on.

2

A good example of this IMO is the book rendition of Brynden 'the Blackfish' Tully, from A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones. He's the younger brother of Lord Hoster Tully, who by all means seems like a man who was obsessed with uniting the realm through strategic marriages. He arranged a Stark marriage for his eldest daughter, an Arryn marriage for his youngest, and pestered Brynden time and time again to get married to someone strategic.

While his nieces went along with marriages dutifully, Brynden flat out refused to. It didn't matter that his older brother was his lord and patriarch, to him, being unmarried was important enough to become the black sheep of the family over it (hence his nickname, the Blackfish).

Hence, without him sitting down and telling the reader he's ace/aro, there's a clear depiction of a man who has no interest in performing feudal duties expected of him if it involves marriage. He's a loyal general, a strong protector of his niece Lysa, and very much takes other duties seriously. But marriage is clearly a bridge too far, making it obvious what the situation is without being unsubtle.

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    By this description, his "situation" could be that he is homosexual in society where he sees no route our outlet to express those feelings. But then definitely would not want to be married to a woman he doesn't believe he could mate with, much less impregnate. Nor could he trust an arranged wife to keep this a secret should inquiries be made about his lack of children. So he would be outed by a marriage. Many ace/aro males in real life are capable of having sex and impregnating women, so a homosexual man repelled by sex with a woman and fearful of being outed fits the scenario better. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jul 6 at 18:55
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    @Amadeus I always figured it could be either or, but generally those who are gay in aSoIaF have rumours surrounding them beyond 'what a dick, he won't get married to help out his brother/patriarch'. Blackfish, on the other hand, just doesn't seem to get involved at all. – Matthew Dave Jul 6 at 20:18
2

Create a culture that recognizes aro/ace as valid sexual identities

The easiest way to show that a character is aro/ace, is for the character to explicitly identify as such. This is tricky if your culture doesn't recognize aro/ace as valid identities. If there's no word for it, how do you put a name to what you are?

But just because there wasn't a name for these identities back in medieval Europe doesn't mean there can't be a name for it in your fantasy world. Many cultures in the past recognized more than two gender identities (e.g. the fa'afafine, hijra, khanith, and two-spirits, which I just all pulled from Wikipedia), and as other answers have pointed out even Europe had alternative routes (such as nunneries and monasteries) that people with no interest in pairing off could take. Third genders aren't quite the same as an asexual identity, but it's still not out of the question that your fantasy culture has a word that your character can identify as.

Heck, it might even make more sense for them to have it than not. I'm currently reading a webcomic (Aerial Magic) who recognize a third gender in part because of humanity's frequent interactions with non-gendered spirits. The presence of beings who are unequivocally separate from the binary sexual system has helped them recognize the non-binary members of humanity as well.

2

Why is it important that the reader know this fact about this character? This isn't just a rhetorical or a frame challenge question. If it's going to make it into the book, it needs to be for some reason, and what that reason is will determine how it is presented.

  • (a) This is an important and recognized identity for this culture and world: And why not? You're making up this world. Perhaps it has its own role and term for what contemporary culture is now calling "ace/aro." For instance, in many places and times, being (officially) asexual has been an important part of the identity of a monk or priest.

  • (b) It adds diversity to the cast. I think this is a great reason, but not one that demands a label. Just depict your character living a fulfilled life without a romantic partner.

  • (c) Learning/accepting this identity is part of this character's story arc: This is probably the most organic and interesting way to approach this. Again, however, it doesn't require a label, unless (a) also applies.

"Ace/aro" is a conceptual shorthand that has been adopted in some segments of contemporary society to quickly and clearly convey a range of complex ideas, as contextualized by modern conceptions of human sexuality. It probably doesn't make sense to use that shorthand in a different setting. However, that doesn't mean the underlying issues and conditions won't exist.

2

thatgirldm had a great answer - when writing about minority groups you are not apart of, it is best to take advice from those who are actually apart of those groups because they are usually the ones who know about what kinds of stereotypes and other problematic tropes to avoid.

However, I would like to add that implying he is aro/ace can be tricky because too often members of the LGBTQ+ community are implied. By being too subtle, people could easily over look those hints. By being more direct, it makes it clearer that he is apart of the aro/ace community, a group of people who have very little representation to begin with.

Also, while it is better to show and not tell, people who are apart of the LGBTQ+ community can be quite vocal about their identities. I, personally, have heard and said "I'm too ace for this." And, if there is not a word for it in this world, it can be as simple as saying "I'm not interested [...]"

1

Social innocence

As has already been said, there is a large variation in what it means to be ace/aro. So this feature (based on my own experience) will not be exhibited by all ace characters.

Put simply, such a person's reasons for socialising are driven by curiosity and friendliness rather than attraction or sexual motives, and they have difficulty comprehending or detecting such motives. Some might call it cluelessness or naïvety, but I personally see it as an honourable trait and would describe it as innocence; a lack of game-playing.

In my experience when ace person A interacts with sexual person B, person B is often aware on some level, and dials themselves down to some degree. Sometimes it can even be a relief for person B to enjoy interacting without sexual overtones. However, it is particularly an outside observer X that will misunderstand, be confused, or try to "teach" person A. (Which could either be portrayed as personal growth for A, or as a kind of corruption; something about A that shouldn't be changed.) X may set A up with people, getting confused when things initially look great but don't go anywhere.

Friendliness without motives:

Jordan's eyes wandered away from the page, and he chewed on his pen trying to remember that cross product formula. He couldn't help but notice the bright red "Оде́сса" on the T-shirt of a slim, blonde girl across the desk.

He hadn't gotten very far learning Cyrillic, but he gave it a stab. "Odessa?"

"Yes," she smiled.

He paused in thought. "What does that mean again?"

"It is in Ukraine," she said, with a noticeable accent. "It is where I am coming from."

[ ... they chat, then study more, then she leaves ... ]

Hamish scooted over from his desk. "Mate, how did you do that?"

Jordan shrugged. "I know a bit of Russian. Well, some letters."

"She looked pretty interested. When are you gonna meet her?"

Confused, Jordan said "I just did...?" After a pause, his face went white. "Oh — oh!  No!  I wasn't — we were just talking."

Then there's enjoying or initiating somewhat intimate activities oblivious to romantic or sexual overtones:

Martin leafed through his cash, counting out the right amount for the boat rental. Cherise felt like being more active than the others, so she pulled Dan aside and said, "Hey, do you think a kayak would be more fun?" Dan enthusiastically agreed.

"Marty!" Dan shouted, "Count us out! We're going to get a kayak." Martin winked at them and started putting back some of the money.

The gorge was really something. They spent the next two hours paddling upstream, not too far behind their motorboating friends, and chatting about childhood memories. After a while, Cherise said "Hey, thanks for coming out with me. This is such an amazing experience."

"Thanks! Yeah, it's been great," Dan responded. And then, mischievously, "So... why have you been sleeping by yourself?"

"Because I've got the one-man tent?" she said, wondering why the answer wasn't obvious.

"You know, I like you."

Cherise thought about it for a while. She imagined being someone else. Would she like what she saw in herself? "Yeah, I like myself. I like you too. I like all our friends. We're good people. I think that's what counts."

Dan gave up. He could tell that she wasn't rejecting him; she really had no idea what was going on. Which meant she had no motive behind her invitation. He suddenly felt even more attracted.

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