Ask: Aromantic Characters Without the Word

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An anon asks on Tumblr:

Do you have any advice for writing aromantic characters without explicitly using the word “aromantic?” I’m personally an aro person, but I am writing a fictional story that uses language that does not yet have words for “aromantic” (furthermore, “bisexual” or “demiboy” or other LGBTQ+ labels that have been around for a while). I have tried a few different methods of getting orientation and identity across but I’m curious about your thoughts. I want my representation to be explicit as possible.

For me, anon, it boils down to showing. Getting a good handle on the difference between showing and telling is essential in my opinion, both for good writing generally and for good writing of marginalised characters. There are times when it is appropriate to tell the reader something while never showing it, of course–factual information and scene transitions, like the passing of time or quick observations, are often best told. Identity and identity-related experiences, though, should be shown as much if not more than they are told.

Done right, folks familiar with “aromantic” as a concept will label your characters themselves without your using the word in-text. If they don’t already know the word, your showing will still contextualize that experience when they happen across it. Readers, even some alloromantic readers, will go “oh, that’s that character in X-book!” in the same way aro-specs related to Keladry of Mindelan and Jughead long before anyone got to naming them as aro. If this happens with characters who are not intentionally written as aro, I promise you it will happen with your characters, anon. Readers are smart and you know what you’re writing about. You do not have to worry about this.

Remember that an alloromantic’s inability to see an aro character is amatonormativity, not a lack in authorial depiction.

With regards telling and the use of the word “aromantic”, the idea that we have to go to extremes to explain or clarify a character’s aromanticism for an unknowing audience is in itself an amatonormative one. (Consider, for contrast, how narratives treat heterosexuality!) While it is difficult for us to let go of the need to explain, especially when aromanticism is not well understood, it’s important to recognise that need to explain and label is another shade of marginalisation. Furthermore, a culture that doesn’t have such history of marginalisation might not have any need to label at all. In a setting absent amatonormativity, telling the reader within the narrative that your character is something that doesn’t need to be identified in-universe can feel intrusive, so it may be that telling as a tool for communicating aromanticism is not in your current toolbox, anon.

How much telling you require also means considering the needs of your audience, because your intended audience will determine the amount of telling, explanation and exposition required. You’ll label and explain aromanticism for a mainstream audience very differently than for an a-spec or aro-spec one. Decide who’ll get the best from your work and target your degree of explanation and exposition at that audience. The more exposition, the reduced chance of misinterpretation, yes, but too much can alienate an aro-spec readership who just wants to see an aro knight slay dragons over another 101 tutorial.

(I’ll say that this sort of exposition rings more true in dialogue than it does in narrative: where possible, let your character themself explain the aro 101 content, even if it is awkward or lacking in detail because it’s dialogue. It is easier to frame this as a natural occurrence, in that often we do have to explain our aromanticism, so putting related exposition in dialogue feels less like an author interrupting the story to explain and more another experience of being aromantic. However, be sure to support this exposition-in-dialogue by showing your character’s emotional and physical reactions at having to provide it. Showing a character’s response puts this back in character development territory and is less likely to alienate readers.)

Once you know how much you plan to show, what you can’t tell and to whom you plan to direct your narrative, the next step is consider how you’ll show. Don’t forget that your character is aromantic or experiences their aromanticism in the context of situation, setting, experience, personality and history. Show their experiences and emotional responses to situations where being aromantic is relevant–show how they react to being asked about marriage or dating, parenthood, relationships, expressions of intimacy or connection with other people. Show your character trying to explain, in response to questions and assumptions that they naturally fit into an amatonormative framework, or the feeling that they cannot speak about this at all (if amatonormativity is part of your setting). Show their discomfort, alienation or withdrawal. Or, if there’s no amatonormativity in your setting, show your character’s voicing the experiences and needs of their aromanticism and this being treated as normal by the character and those around them. This can be indicated by thoughts, body language, expressions, tone of voice. Seeing a character say they’re single or not interested in romance, seeing a character navigate the forming of a QPR, seeing a character’s shaking hands and quickening voice when handed a bunch of roses and a love poem and then have to explain to the well-intended lover–this is more meaningful to me than the word “aromantic” in-text.

(Perhaps your character is sighing because they’ve had to explain this fifteen times this week, all short words and terseness in their frustration; perhaps they’re all grinning delight and relief when someone understands or doesn’t make a big deal out of their lack of romantic attraction; perhaps they’re quiet reflection that they don’t feel attraction but cherish the warmth and comfort in the romantic love given them by their partner; perhaps amatonormativity isn’t a thing and nobody cares, so let’s go kill those dragons!)

Much of how you do this will depend on your character’s shape and form of aromanticism alongside anything else about their identities, histories and experiences: my aro-ace crown prince, with court and family and nation expecting him to wed, has a different experience of amatonormativity than my pan-aro magician who freely travelled the world to escape (in part) his family. Because there’s so many ways of being aro and aro-spec with so many different experiences of romance and amatonormativity, I can’t tell how you might show aromanticism in specific terms. Get to know your character’s personality, identities, experiences and privileges, because they’ll shape their aromantic experiences.

If you need to practice showing, I’d take your character and sketch out rough scenes with them in response to a range of amatonormative and commonly romantic situations: being asked on a date, being asked about getting married, seeing other people date, losing connection with friends as they date/wed, feeling a lack of narrative that depicts their experiences, etc. How do they respond to love songs or poetry? How do they feel about other people dating? How do they feel about marriage? How do they navigate conversations in which these things are mentioned? Sketch out what they feel, how they’d react emotionally and physically, and what they say and think in response. This isn’t for the story (although you may use some of it); this is just to get you thinking about your character’s unique shape of aromanticism and how you might show it in their responses and behaviours.

If this still doesn’t feel clear enough, anon, you can invent language terms to use instead, if this is appropriate to the setting. One of my soldier characters identifies as “singular” to mean “non-amorous aromantic asexual” because that’s an academic-sounding mouthful: singular conveys the meaning better in casual conversation of the “Married, mate? Nah, I’m singular” sort. You can explain it a little or you can leave the words on their own to let the reader figure it out via context, but if you’re really feeling the lack of an identity term (especially if your setting normalises aromanticism as a specific identity) this can help you get around the absence. I’d look at how “asexual” became “ace” and “aromantic” became “aro”: humans, at least in English/Western societies, take academic-sounding words and shorten/simplify them. The words we LGBTQIA+ folks tend to build communities around, and use in our conversations with each other, are more often these more casual derivatives, and this will likely apply here as well.

There are other ways to use the word “aromantic” to let your audience know about your character, particularly in the work’s tags and the work’s summary or blurb. The blurb is how you communicate the nature of the work to readers; it isn’t meant to be a sample of the work itself and isn’t constrained by the same linguistic limitations. It’s acceptable to stray from the language inside the book in discussing it and tagging it, and here is where I use current identity terms in describing my content. (The blurb for The Wind and the Stars uses “aro-ace fairy tale” even though I never refer to my aro-ace character with any identity words in-story.) You do not and should not refrain from using “aromantic” in blurb, description or tags just because it isn’t used inside the work itself. Treat blurb and tags as authorial communication about the book, not an extension of the work, and use all appropriate identity terms here. Same goes for discussion/advertising posts and other promotional media.

This has the advantage of showing the reader that you’re not afraid of using the word “aromantic”. You’re not avoiding the word. It just doesn’t fit your setting.

(This said: in fantasy, we call horses “horses” and women “women” and clothing “clothing”, and I often see tomatoes and pumpkins abound, so if you want to use modern terms despite the anachronism, do it. We’re taught that our identity terms are too modern, but let’s be real and admit that our grammar and many non-terminology words are too modern for the standard “European middle-ages-ish” fantasy novel. If I’m not writing in Middle English and that’s not only an acceptable but also desirable deviation from historical accuracy, the idea that I can’t call a trans person in that setting “trans” is cissexism. You do not have to use modern terms if you don’t wish to, anon, but you can use them. I use a blend of modern terms and invented terms in my work depending on the character’s culture, history, neurotype and political leanings! So don’t hesitate to use, play with and twist modern terminology if you wish to do so, especially in speculative fiction.)

I’ll also say that the experience of being a thing while not knowing the word for it is, until relatively recently, common LGBTQIA+ reality, so I don’t want to erase that from our storytelling. Part of our history, especially for those of identities absent social or historical visibility, is the experience of trying to figure out who we are while lacking terminology. I think it does us a injustice to not portray this by always insisting on using modern naming terms or invented terms. Sometimes, our storytelling is most profound because it doesn’t name.

I think for you, anon, using “aromantic” in blurb and tags will be a comfort as it clarifies your character to the reader, and I’d recommend doing this to make your work findable. I also think, though, that as an aro author of an aro character, your character is going to be more than readable as aro without the word in-text. Folks who don’t see it are, simply, caught up in amatonormativity.

Ask yourself this question: why are you writing this story? Are you writing to educate the world? Then maybe you want to throw in more telling, more explanation of the “lack of attraction” sort to make your character’s identities clear absent the word. Are you writing to give long-suffering marginalised people a character that represents us? Then just write an aro character being awesome and show their experience as an aromantic without the identity terms, because your tags and blurb will do the job of directing aro readers to your work. Knowing your audience, knowing why you’re putting words to page and knowing what you hope to say with this character will shape the direction you choose.

I apologise for this having a lack of detailed “how to make my character obviously aro without the word” information here, but lacking any specifics on the character and setting, I don’t think I can answer save in generalities. I don’t doubt, though, that your own aromanticism won’t show through. It will.

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