The Pitfalls of Writing Asexual Characters

After being prompted by a discussion in January’s Writer’s Support Thread, I figure this might be a good resource for the community.

There are general tips on writing Asexual and Aromantic characters found here:

…which also provides individual links for further exploration.

This thread’s purpose is to help identify potential pitfalls to avoid, rather than explore the generalities found in the other thread. I’d like to thank @AletheiaKnights for beginning this in the support thread.

Aletheia’s fear is an author who sets out to write “sexually/romantically inexperienced heroines” can’t imagine what it’s like to fall in love with the absence of sexual interest.

I’d like to take this a bit further… one of the pitfalls here is that these inexperienced authors (or authors unable to imagine a relationship without sexual interest) substitute purity culture concepts.

What is purity culture?

In the religious context, purity culture is: saving oneself or remaining “pure” by not having sex, or taking part in certain sexual acts until marriage.

In a broader writing context, the goals of celibacy, and abstinence are driven by some moral or ethical reason (not necessarily religious) and that sexual urges are resisted to achieve these goals.

When writing asexual characters, there is an absence of these urges to fight, and so many of the related concepts found within purity culture just do not apply. For the asexual, the lack of attraction has nothing to do with moral, ethical nor religious beliefs.

Asexual characters will not need to fight sexual urges, because they do not exist in the first place.

This means that the concepts of celibacy and abstinence can be pitfalls for writers. When these concepts are tied up with the idea of sexual urges, that is where the danger lays.

There are other pitfalls, but there is a lot to unpack here already.

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I think an important caveat is that asexual people are not necessarily sex-repulsed or even sex-indifferent. There are also sex-favorable asexual people, and it’s entirely possible they could have high sex drive. Asexuality refers to a type of attraction, not so much a category of behavior.

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@geldar I think you might be confusing aromantic people with asexual.

Time for definitions:

Source: General FAQ The Asexual Network

For this thread, please adhere to these definitions.

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No, I am definitely not.

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@geldar is refering to libido, not sexual attraction

As per the same organization I quote for definitions:

This is going off topic. Please post on-topic.

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If I could throw a personal take into the mix on this:

I’ve said it many times, people are probably getting sick of me saying it, but I identify as asexual and aromatic, which I’m sure some would see as “the worst possible outcome” (this is NOT an opinion I’ve seen on display here, but I’ve been hit by it elsewhere).

My take on romance is very lukewarm to the point of being nearly nonexistent (I let my characters have romances because it makes them happy, but it doesn’t mean anything to me), and while I can think something is sexy, the act of sex, or any sex-adjacent activities, physically disgusts me. The closest I can get to anything like that is seeing someone in their underwear, maybe.

(Edit: in fact, Eiwynn just posted a comment which pretty succinctly sums up what I’m getting at!)

However, as I’ve just noted, my lack of interest in either is not a full absence, or lack of empathy. It simply means that my attention is not held by these things. The kind of love I feel is for someone as a friend, or as family. If I were to ever somehow hook up, my hope is that I would find someone who’s alright with platonic side-hugs and cheek kisses, because anything more intimate than that is firmly off the table.

I’ve seen some stories and WIPs which try and take this angle into consideration, which is cool, but it’s usually just a “no romance for this guy” flag with some flavor text that is then never built upon. No real attempts to explore ace/aro relationships, really, the story just removes all the romance text and otherwise plays exactly the same. It’s kind of a bummer, because I’d like to think that I’m more complex a person than that.

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@Zyrios

So, the pitfall that concerns you is how writers neuter relationships… is this correct?

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More or less, yeah. It oftentimes feels like the expectation is that readers will fall into expected avenues of romantic interest, and any who don’t, like myself, kind of get the shaft. I get that it’s unfeasible to write for every possible orientation, so I try not to be too bothered by it, but it is noticeable.

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I feel the same way as Zyrios. I’m aromantic, but in these games that frequently ends up as either 1) “cool, set that variable to aromantic and ignore it” or 2) “well ok no relationships at all for you.”

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No problems, I read geldar’s response as being about sexual attraction given most COG/HG relate to the MC’s relationships with RO others, rather than libido. You are correct they are not necessarily one and the same.

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I think this is a huge pitfall… most authors do not differentiate between sexual attraction and libido.

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It’s one of the reasons why I think its so important to have some meaningful friendships in these things as an option, rather than a game where most main characters fall into a RO or nothing territory. It can cover anyone (ace or not) for whom the particular RO’s in a specific game just don’t appeal to them that way, or if they really like a character as a friend and want to hang out, but not as a RO (ie wrong gender perhaps) or if they want to play something romance free and focus on other aspects for some variation.

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There are also aplatonic people, but that’s probably too far outside the scope of this thread.

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Yeah, I think the focus here is pretty strictly asexual, and its variations. Aplatonic is its own can of worms, and equally as complex a matter to unpack that would require its own thread, methinks.

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Before I begin, I’m going to ask some pointed questions. I’m in the process of developing a game with a friend of mine and it will be very relationship-focused (romantic, if the player wants, but forging friendships or at least cordial working relationships will be necessary to succeed). We intend to offer at least two options for ace/aro MCs, but I’m beginning to wonder if what we’re doing will work.

So my intent is not to offend with annoying questions but, rather, to learn, so if my phrasing bothers you, let me know and I’ll try to rephrase in a less direct way.

Can you elaborate on this? From what you said in a previous post, you aren’t interested in romance or sex, so I don’t understand what you mean about getting the shaft. Do you feel the friendships are undeveloped in games?

From what I’ve seen from most of the CoG games I play, the romances are, for lack of a better word, grossly undeveloped and kind of shallow. Actually, the same applies to most friendships. There are only, perhaps, half a dozen games that I feel actually delve deeply into relationships with NPCs, be they romantic or platonic. Those are the games I keep going back to play. Thankfully, more are popping up each day that show great promise in this. Anyway…

Do you mean you feel there are no friendships? I’ve read through the links @Eiwynn put up and, though I get that there is a huge spectrum for ace/aro, the way I understood it is that aromantic specifically means no romance or romantic relationships, which just leaves friendships, correct?

May I ask what this is?

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(Interestingly, the kind of character I was talking about - the romance heroine who has never had so much as a sexual thought or impulse in her life, until she meets the hero and immediately begins panting with lust - probably springs from societal ideals implanted by what you call “purity culture,” but she’s no more accurate a portrayal of abstinence than she is of demisexuality.)

I think the biggest potential pitfall in writing asexual characters (or just existing around asexual people without being that guy) is that there are multiple layers involved in attraction that most people seldom, if ever, have to think about separately. I could write a whole essay on this, but I’ll just use primary and secondary sexual attraction as an example.

Primary sexual attraction is the kind of lust it’s possible to feel at first sight. If pictures of scantily clad models in magazines give you tingly feelings, that’s primary sexual attraction. If seeing a stranger across a crowded room makes your evening somehow enchanting, that’s primary sexual attraction. The one thing all asexuals have in common is that they rarely or never experience primary sexual attraction.

Secondary sexual attraction is something that develops over time and is based on a person’s individual qualities and often a history of shared experiences. Ever met a couple who have been married for decades and still have the hots for each other? Ever known someone who fell head over heels for someone who wasn’t their “type” after getting to know them as a friend? That’s secondary sexual attraction. Demisexuals experience secondary sexual attraction, but not primary.

Most allosexuals have never had to consider primary and secondary sexual attraction separately, beyond a general idea that it’s essential for “lust” to mature into “love” for a relationship to last. When I try to explain demisexuality, I get a lot of responses like, “So what’s so unusual about not jumping into bed with people until you get to know them first? Most people are like that!” So I could definitely see a writer creating a character who wants to wait longer than most people would to bring sexual intimacy into a relationship and saying that’s a demisexual character. And they haven’t had to imagine beyond that what it’s like to live in a world where 99% of the people you meet experience a powerful phenomenon that’s completely alien to your nature, or to be a thirteen-year-old who gets misty-eyed reading about fiftieth wedding anniversaries and can’t understand why her mom seems to want her to think Leonardo DiCaprio is “cute.” I would honestly be grateful to that writer for making an effort and not completely botching it, but it falls short of the kind of representation that makes a person feel seen.

And that’s just one example. I could parse the phenomenon of human sexuality further into romantic attraction, libido, and the act of intercourse itself, but I’ve probably rambled on too much already. :joy:

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In my game, I took a bold approach by never asking the player about their sexuality and only letting the code tracks everything.

I also provide choices. lol the game is literally called choice of game so it’s up to the player to choose what they want to do.

When the situation presents itself, I make sure that in addition to the kissing choice that is clearly marked with a little red heart :heart: to trigger romance, there is also the choice of holding hands or a simple hug or cuddle also mark with a red heart to trigger romance.

Then, later in the game when you’ve met and spent time with all ROs/Friends I ask the question of who you want to romance or if you just want a friendly connection. A friendly connection still doesn’t lock you out of a hug or a kiss on the forehead if you wish to do so.

Playing a game where you can cuddle your way up all the way, and still have the same romance point is the goal.

To be clear, I’m not Ace or Aro, but the thought of my MC intertwining fingers with a RO, or a kiss on the forehead, or cuddling up on the sofa with My MC’s head on the RO’s lap is peak romance for me, and the same romance point should apply to those gestures.

Also… level of comfort checks, by that I mean, you can play the game and gradually do things up to a certain point and there will always be that choice of “Please stop, I don’t want to continue this.”

Is it a lot of work, yes. Is it worth it? Also yes.

That’s my two cents.

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I don’t mean for this to be a call-out, but my prime suspect in this case is the first Wayhaven Chronicles book, which is all about introducing Unit Bravo in what, to me, is a really mishandled way to try and spark romance: two members are openly antagonistic towards you, one is flirtatious to the point of crossing boundaries, the fourth is left scrambling to keep the peace, and all four of them are actively trying to step on your toes. Granted, that’s what they were ordered to do, but still. And even when the blinders come off, the personalities don’t really shift in any way to demonstrate that they don’t have to keep up the facade anymore - if anything, the two antagonists seem to get more annoyed about you being in the loop, now.

So, one could see how a player might not be terribly interested in Unit Bravo as romance options. Then at around the midway point of the story, the narrative hits the brakes and goes, “So! Which one are you interested in?” And if you choose nobody - because, say, they didn’t appeal to you in a romantic manner - then the story, like I said before, plays exactly the same, sans romance bits. You’re either into them, or you’re not, and there is no in-between. Even the boundary-crossing flirt just, stops flirting. It’s never touched on how it makes them feel that their affections are unwanted and pointless, or whether the adjustment period was bumpy for them, they just kind of seamlessly transition to the new reality. Like, even keeping in mind that F is from another world altogether, that just doesn’t read as very realistic to me, I’m sorry.

At this point, Sera is two, about to be three books deep, so we can’t exactly expect her to go back and radically change everything she’s written up to now, that’s just insanity. All I can do at this point is grit my teeth and bear it. But it does make for a very keen example of my earlier point of feeling like stories are often written with strict audiences in mind, and anybody who fails to meet the metric gets left high and dry. I’m sure that’s not what Sera intended to do, but, probably because nobody ever brought it up as an issue until right just now, and not to her, directly, she never had cause to take it under consideration, and thus, the situation is what it is.

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Incidentally, this also serves as at reply to your question, now that I’ve seen it. XD

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