Ask: Character Tropes and Identity

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An anon asks on Tumblr:

I realized my ace character fell into some Aro/Ace tropes like being emotionless and callous. So now they’re a snarky jerk but with a heart underneath it all. Is that better or should I do away with the character entirely? On top of that, technically the character is aroace but I only plan to call them asexual since they don’t have split attraction. Is this acceptable?

I would enjoy reading a snarky a-spec character, anon, especially when the pure and innocent a-spec character is another awkward trope and I have been known to be a snarky jerk myself. I don’t think I’ve written any character without at least a slight undercurrent of snark, and at times it’s a whole lot more than an undercurrent. Besides, these sorts of characters are so much fun to write…

The thing with representation is that almost any character in isolation will possess elements that can be read as bad or problematic representation, because it’s those elements of not being a perfect human that make for real characterisation.

To be brutally honest with you and the world, any character that successfully avoids every possible element of problematic characterisation for their marginalised identity will be a character that  bores me to tears. In many ways I am problematic representation for an aro (autistic, familial and sexual abuse likely being partial reasons for my aromanticism, iffy on the subject of love, mentally ill, so not good at human interaction, shy) on first glance and if taken in isolation. Why shouldn’t my characters be the same?

I don’t believe I’ve written any character that can’t be accused of being terrible rep in some way. In particular, I’ve got an allosexual aro character who is slightly notorious for working his way through handsome male guards, sometimes as a distraction from his personal life, sometimes because they’re pretty and he doesn’t want anything more. (Although, since he’s a magician and prone to disaster, most of his guards don’t want to stay that long…) In isolation, I’m the first to admit that it looks like I’m writing the fantasy equivalent of Chad the (Gay) Aro Frat Boy!

This said, I’ve also got a pansexual polyam aro who is only intimate with people who have become close friends first, and a pansexual aro who slept around to frighten off prospective marriage partners but wouldn’t have chosen to do this elsewise, and a bisexual aro who can’t be bothered with their sexual attraction because dragons and artefacts are so much more interesting, and a lesbian aro in a long-term QPR with a lesbian ace, and…

Do you see what I’m getting at, anon? In isolation, I can tell you why any one of these characters are sending a terrible message about any one (and often all) of their marginalised identities. They’re not in isolation, though. Even though some of these stories are short, my characters are often not the only aro/disabled/autistic/trans/mentally-ill person on that small stage, and against the backdrop of multiple short stories set in this same world, I’m building a universe of aro-spec and ace-spec and autistic and trans/NB characters who can be all sorts of things, flawed and real and human amongst them.

So often when we of marginalised identities are finally given space in stories, we’re One Character. The protagonist or the love interest to a more privileged character (hello, amatonormativity). Sometimes we’re just a side character. Sometimes, in stories trying to provide All The Representation, you get One Black Character and One Trans Woman and One Demiboy and One Aro-Ace and One Bisexual, and sometimes One Autistic Non-Binary Lesbian if we’re very lucky! This is better, but it’s still telling a story where we’re often just One Character in a cast that’s diverse broadly. It still means creators feel the pressure to make that One Character idealised representation because there’s only one story told about that identity.

Anon, I’d disregard the ace/aromisia of society and pack that story full of a-spec characters, freeing you to give your characters qualities that may be read as damaging or stereotypical. The best character I’m drafting for a web serial is a hateful and arrogant non-binary autistic whose internalised ableism towards other autistics is brutal and their overweening self-confidence even more obnoxious; they are in some ways shades of Sheldon Cooper at his most judgemental. It’s just that they’re one narrating protagonist out of six in which four other characters are explicitly autistic and the last is a mentally-ill man raised by two autistic fathers who isn’t too fussed about where he is on the spectrum. One character, against that kind of backdrop, isn’t sending a message about how autism is. It’s sending a message that autistics are as diverse and human as anyone else.

The trick is to just go all out in your cast. Make everybody a-spec in addition to their other marginalisations. Give us lots of different a-specs with a wealth of different backgrounds, personalities and challenges. Ignore society’s yammering that you can’t have a cast full of a-spec, because that’s just ace/aromisia telling us we don’t exist in number. We do, you can, and you should. Even if they’re only side characters, the message you’re sending is that a-specs can be any type of character, and in that kind of world, a snarky-jerk ace is just one way of being a-spec amongst many.

The majority of stereotypes relating to representation and character-coding are problems in isolation and number: for example, every aro-ace-coded character from multiple authors fitting stereotypes (usually ableist, too) on the subject of emotionlessness. Stereotypes, in the main, aren’t a problem because they say something bad about a marginalised person; they’re a problem because that’s the only story privileged people are telling about that shape of marginalisation. It’s the context of the stereotype more often than the stereotype itself that damages, and if you change the context, the stereotype loses fangs.

Stories that normalise multiple a-specs in all their human diversity is better representation by far than one completely perfect and completely safe a-spec character.

On the subject of your character’s ace identity: I do not ever want to deny aces who don’t use the SAM (split-attraction model) representation. That’d be a spectacularly awful thing, and I’m not here for it. Anon, give the world a character who IDs only as ace, because that’s a perfectly valid way to be. A-specs who don’t use the SAM need thoughtful representation just as much as those of us who live by it.

(Yes, there’s plenty of aro-ace-coded characters who have no recognition of the SAM, but let’s be real: they’re awful representation written by ignorant allo writers. There is not a glut of well-written ace characters who don’t use the SAM for non-SAM-using aces to enjoy.)

I suggest, though, your taking the time to show (opposed to telling) the character’s lack of romantic attraction as much as their lack of sexual attraction. So often, aro-ace or aro-ace-coded characters are shown to the audience through focus on their lack of sexual attraction with no depiction of their lack of romantic attraction. This, and not the fact that a character doesn’t use the SAM, is why a lot of us aro-specs get so damn frustrated–because “just ace with no romantic attraction” often becomes “ace with no exploring of said lack of romantic attraction as if it’s irrelevant to their asexuality”, meaning aro-aces who identify strongly as aro find connection to the character difficult. Showing that this character also doesn’t experience romantic attraction and this is an important part of how they identify as an ace who doesn’t need to use the SAM will do a lot to bring aro-aces on board with your character.

(I think you are attentive to the frustrations felt by aro-aces in the aro-spec camp, anon, or you wouldn’t have asked about this. The fact you’re keeping this in mind is something I consider a good sign that your ace character isn’t going to alienate aro-specs while still being proudly ace.)

If you can tell us your character is ace and show us they are a non-SAM-using ace who lacks romantic attraction and this is part of their experience, that’d go a fair way to soothe over a few wounds while portraying one awesome way of being ace. If the language/setting of your story is up to it, a slight touch of author on board in explaining that some aces don’t use the SAM and some aro-aces do and both approaches are awesome probably wouldn’t go amiss in hanging a lantern here. This said, if explanations don’t work in your story, don’t worry about it. Storytelling can come before educating your readers, and showing the character’s breadth of experience and feeling can often mean a great deal more than any educational explanation.

Pertinent to the cast of a-spec I mentioned above, I’d look at including a SAM-using minor aro-ace character, too. Or a minor aro character who doesn’t use the SAM, to disrupt any assumption in the audience that this only goes one way! (Oh, this would be amazing!) This is just for showing the reader–particularly fellow a-spec readers–that there’s so many ways and shades of being a-spec, and being an ace who doesn’t use the SAM is just one of them. I can’t be upset about an ace who doesn’t use the SAM–even though it’s not an experience I feel or relate to–when the author has gone to pains to show me a world populated with diverse a-spec characters.

Does this all make sense, anon? I can see that you’re genuinely thinking about potential issues, and I absolutely understand worrying about how readers will interpret your characters (especially on Tumblr, where failing to provide idealised, perfect representation gets you, to put it delicately, roasted). I do appreciate your compassion in thinking about potential aro-ace erasure, but the world needs aces who don’t use the SAM, too! My opinion is that the best solution to most problems lies in providing the reader a cast full of diverse a-spec characters (diverse in personality as well as in experience and identity). Best of all, this means you can have fun with your characters!

This also has the delicious side-effect of being exactly the kind of story with flawed, interesting characters for which I’ll trade my soul…

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