by Agent Aletha

Hi, I’m Agent Aletha. I was kindly invited to write something for GayYA for Asexual Awareness Week! I read and review fiction with asexual spectrum characters on my tumblr Ace Reads and keep a database of all works with ace characters I can find on Tagpacker.

The first explicitly asexual (ace) character I ever encountered was Kevin, from Guardian of the Dead. Only a few months before I had found the term asexual and it caused an epiphany that shook up my ideas of myself and made many disparate, previously inexplicable pieces of my experience suddenly slide into place. I was working in a bookstore at the time and I bought it in hardcover the day it was released, terrified that my coworkers would question my eagerness over a random young adult book. I had spent all of my teenage years desperately avoiding the topics of crushes, hotness, and sex with a fear that made my heart race and my hands tremble. I knew I was different. I didn’t know how or why. Asexuality made the past ten years make sense.

Occasionally there had been other characters where I caught a glimpse of someone who thought and felt like me. Tarma, from the Vows and Honor series. Chandra, from the Fire’s Stone. Dexter, from the Dexter book series. But never had I seen someone like myself be openly asexual, contradicting society and everything in pop culture and every song on the radio and every book that I had read and every classmate and adult in my life who implied or outright stated that to be human is take part in this to me undecipherable dance of desire and sex.

Kevin was mind-blowing. Kevin was validation. If you’ve experienced it, you know how powerful it is first find yourself reflected in fiction, out there for the world to see. Many great writers have written recently about the importance of diversity and representation in fiction, and although it has been said more eloquently, this was my inspiration for writing about asexual representation in fiction.

A few years ago, when I first decided to try and read and review with ace characters because I was tired of waiting for someone else to do it, there wasn’t much to go on. The same five books or so books were always brought up when someone asked where oh where are the books with ace characters. Some of them are so unappealing I’ve still never found an a review from anyone in the ace community. But when I actually started investigating, the situation had changed. Awareness that asexuality exists has continued to increase. Ebooks had appeared and independent and self-publishing has opened the way for more diverse voices to tell their stories. Stories that might have been too niche or were not expected to be a commercial success can now be released to the world by their authors. This has had a huge effect on the frequency of ace characters. The number of books with ace characters has increased from maybe 1 or 2 a year to over 15 for the past couple of years. I’ve been reading through the lists and while I’ve been reading a couple of books each month, I still have so many to read!

Initially I was surprised at how hard it was to objectively judge if a character actually was asexual. There are many reasons why any particular character might not show any interest in sex in a particular story that aren’t necessarily due to them being asexual. In addition there still seems to be quite a bit of confusion over the difference between celibacy and asexuality, by both readers and authors. So many times I end up examining only two vague statements as the entire body of evidence that a character is asexual. And there are many different factors even beyond suggestive statements and levels of vagueness. What did the author mean? How much does what the author meant matter? What if they are ace by choice? By magic? What if they wouldn’t consider themselves ace? What if their society has no concept of sexual orientation? What counts? I try to not be a gatekeeper, but I’m also fairly critical about fictional representation. I think the ace community has been so desperate for representation that we have willing made possibilities into castles. Fan characterizations have their place but we shouldn’t need to rely on them. Especially since we now have a decent start in canon representation.

However, there are still tendencies for ace characters to be non-human, to use asexuality as a way to show their alienness, their otherness, their separation from “normal” society. Sometimes this just comes with the territory – science fiction especially, and fantasy as well have always tended to explore the boundaries of what it means to be human, even with non-human characters. Some authors make it clear that their character is ace entirely separately from them being non-human. But other authors reinforce the idea that to feel sexual attraction is essential to humanity and to be human is to feel sexual attraction.

I’ve also noticed that asexual characters tend to be intellectual instead of having physical strength. Aces are often depicted as geniuses or nerds, definitely people who live in their minds. This isn’t bad by itself but I think it points to a problematic underlying assumption that aces aren’t physical, that maybe we aren’t really comfortable with our bodies. I would like to see some deviation from this trend in the future.

Another frustrating trend I see is for authors to be so vague in making a character asexual that 98% of the audience has no idea and would deny it later if asked. Remember the uproar over Rue from The Hunger Games being black? And that happened even when readers know that black people exist. Audiences default characters to white and straight even when there is textual evidence saying otherwise. Asexual characters especially have the ability to invisible even when right in front of you. Take the Big Bang Theory. Sheldon has said something that sounds asexual about every third episode and not only is it treated as a joke, even fan fiction writers, who don’t even need a significant look to make two characters gay for each other, don’t see it. I just checked and there are over 1500 works of Big Bang fan fiction and less than ten are tagged asexual character. Ten! Imagine a character who said he liked guys every few episodes but everyone just continued writing him straight and homophobic without a second thought. Ace invisibility is an active force working to enforce compulsory sexuality.

An author can’t show-not-tell something that most readers don’t know how to recognize when they do see it. I hear that there is a concern that a book will become an “issue book” but good writers get around this all the time just by being good writers. Stating on social media later that a character is ace does avoid this issue – a work can claim to have representation while not actually making the audience confront the fact that a character they like and identify with is not straight – but it would be much better to see it explicitly in the text. Cassandra Clare has said that Raphael from her Mortal Instruments series is asexual, while Scott Westerfeld agreed in a tweet that Darcy, the main character from Afterworlds, is demisexual. Recognition after the fact is better than nothing, but while it still makes ace readers happy, it does little to increase visibility. However, it is encouraging to see ace awareness from established authors and shows some progress toward more ace representation in YA fiction.

In the books I have read, I have found more stories about characters who just happen to be ace. The argument between stories focusing on the asexual experience and stories that happen to have ace characters is a pointless one. We need both kinds. Some people need escape, a break from the world, others need to see that they are not alone in their experiences and their fears and struggles. Sometimes it just depends on mood or what happened that day, or whether someone is new to asexuality or identified as ace for years. Both need to exist.

Fiction is a powerful tool for understanding diverse experiences because of how it puts the reader directly in the life of someone different. I care about asexual representation not just for the sake of aces, but also to have a meaningful way to help non-aces understand the difficulties of navigating life in a sex obsessed society. People seem to find asexuality hard to comprehend, but sometimes stories can reveal and grow connection where a hundred facts cannot. Thankfully, representation is increasing by the month. We’re starting to see more variety on the ace and romantic spectrums, more diversity in who is ace, what types of books they’re in, and what type of stories they get. I am so happy to have so many works to read. Even if I don’t always agree that a character is ace, I’ve discovered a lot of lovely books. With more stories, more variety, more people will be able to see themselves in fiction and more people will understand not just asexuality, but the diversity of what it can mean to be ace.

There are many lists of books with asexual characters. But I’m ready to go beyond that and find books that really get to what if feels like to be ace, that embrace a variety of experiences of what it means to be ace. Books that don’t just mention asexuality, books that have ace characters that we love. That celebrate being ace. Books we can recommend to librarians wanting to reflect the diversity of their communities in their collections and friends or family who might understand better in story form. Stories that we wish we could go back and hand to our younger selves and say, “Read this. You’re not alone.”

We’re not quite there, but at least we have options these days. They have their flaws but I love every one of these ace characters.

If you’re looking for main characters, you have Tori, engineering genius on the run from enemies earth doesn’t even know they have, Carrie just trying to figure out how to connect to people, Niavin, an sidhe drug lord dealing with cutthroat politics, Darcy discovering romance and writing, and Clariel just wanting to be left alone after being dragged to a city on the verge of explosion with magic she doesn’t really know how to handle.

If you’re willing to expand to supporting characters, you have best friend Kevin, just starting to come out as ace and pulled into a battle of magic and mythology, best friend Nash, smart and sarcastic and learning magic on his own, and creative whimsical camp counselor Layla.

Please support works with asexual characters and ace authors!

Books recommended:
Quicksilver by R.J. Anderson (Tori) – teen action adventure
Carrie Pilby by Caren Lissner – teen fiction/romance
Sinners by Eka Waterfield (Niven) – action adventure
Clariel by Garth Nix – teen action adventure
Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey (Kevin) – teen action adventure with a bit of romance
Demonosity by Amanda Ashby (Nash) – teen paranormal romance
Lunaside by J.L Douglas (Layla) – teen romance
Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld (Darcy) – teen romance