Aro-Spec Artist Profile: Sebastian

Handdrawn watercolour-style image of a sparse forest of redwood trees growing among grassy hills, with a white and orange fox sitting in the grass at the base of a tree on the viewer's right-hand side of the image. Scene is overlaid with the dark green/light green/white/grey/black stripes of the aro pride flag. The text Aro Worlds Artist Profiles sits across the image in a black, antique handdrawn type, separated by two ornate Victorian-style black dividers.

Our next aro-spec creator is Sebastian, better known on Tumblr as @gloriousmonsters and @mangledmouth!

Sebastian is a bisexual, autistic, aromantic trans man who is single-handedly covering many literary bases in producing original aro and queer short stories, novels and poetry. Aside from his Tumblr blogs, you can find and support more of his work at his Patreon. If you have a dollar or two you’re wanting to invest in worthy aro-spec talent on a less-regular basis, please take a look at Sebastian’s Ko-Fi!

With us Sebastian talks about identifying with the role of villainy in narrative as an aro creative, aromantic characters and grand emotional gesture, the divide between representation and self-expression, and some spectacular-sounding work-in-progress book titles! His investment in aromantic characters and characterisation shapes every word, so please let’s give him all our love, encouragement, gratitude, kudos and follows for taking the time to explore what it is to be aromantic and creative.

Can you share with us your story in being aro-spec?

It took me a while to realize I was aromantic, but it was one of the things that made me go ‘oh, that makes … a lot of sense’ when I looked back at my childhood. I was a weird, isolated kid, so I didn’t learn from bouncing off other children; I learned through stories.

One of my strongest early memories is of watching a poorly made Red Riding Hood film over and over again, belting out the lyrics to the (poorly written) villain’s song, called ‘Man Without A Heart’. Cut to a year or so later, watching the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella (still the best Cinderella, IMO), I was utterly fascinated by the villainess singing: ‘Falling in love with love is falling for make-believe…’

I didn’t know, that early, that I didn’t feel romantic love. Not consciously. But there was something utterly, obsessively interesting about villains that sneered at love, who were called heartless, who challenged the narrative that there must always be a love story and it must come out right no matter what. I felt, on a deep level, that these people were like me somehow. The additional queercoding and common side-helping of mental illness helped – or didn’t help, depending on your perspective. I grew up knowing, deep down, what my part in life was: I was the villain.

When I hit my rebellious age, it first came out by my saying, ‘But being a villain doesn’t mean you have to be wrong or unhappy’. I began collecting villains like nobody’s business, and writing stories that more and more often centered people whose character types I’d only ever seen as villains. And from there we arrive at today!

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Ask: Aromantic Characters Without the Word

Handdrawn illustration of a yellow pasture against a background of hills and sparodic trees. Scene is overlaid with the dark green/light green/white/grey/black stripes of the aro pride flag. The text Aro Worlds Discussion Post sits across the image in a black, antique handdrawn type, separated by two ornate Victorian-style black dividers.

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.

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Ask: Character Tropes and Identity

Handdrawn illustration of a yellow pasture against a background of hills and sparodic trees. Scene is overlaid with the dark green/light green/white/grey/black stripes of the aro pride flag. The text Aro Worlds Discussion Post sits across the image in a black, antique handdrawn type, separated by two ornate Victorian-style black dividers.

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?

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Ask: Characters and Absence of Love

Handdrawn illustration of a yellow pasture against a background of hills and sparodic trees. Scene is overlaid with the dark green/light green/white/grey/black stripes of the aro pride flag. The text Aro Worlds Discussion Post sits across the image in a black, antique handdrawn type, separated by two ornate Victorian-style black dividers.

An anon asks on Tumblr:

What is your opinion on characters who have no love at all (not just romantic love, but all kinds)? Obviously, they’re often demonized (*cough*Voldemort*cough*), but if they aren’t could they work without being inherently arophobic? I (an aro) am thinking of writing a story where a character loses their ability to love and Doesn’t React Well, but eventually learns to accept it. Should I go through with that? If so, are there particular arophobic tropes to avoid?

I am somewhat biased in that I’ve written an aro character who means “all love” when he says he doesn’t love (and this is explored further and more explicitly in his future stories) so, as someone who has a complicated relationship to love myself, bring them on.

I am so tired of seeing “love” billed as the ultimate indicator of a “good” character while “inability to love” is the ultimate indicator of “evil”–despite the fact that some of the most difficult things I have endured came about from someone else’s love. If relatives bullied me and friends-who-wanted-to-be-boyfriends stalked me despite and because of their ability to love, why should an inability to love mean anything  when love just as often motivates cruelty? In my opinion, there is nothing inherently misrepresentative of aro-specs in a character’s inability to love–just the social tangle of ableism and aromisia and amatonormativity from other people in unquestioned assumptions that ability to love makes a protagonist. Why should it?

Continue reading “Ask: Characters and Absence of Love”