Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week Series: Day 4 – Previous Posts: Introduction to Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week Series – The Excitement and Frustration of Being “Alone” – Actual Love – Being Surrounded by Something You’ve Never Quite Understood
by Denali Leone
Describing my fictional characters to people is often like coming out again.
While discussing my manuscript with a coworker, I mentioned my main character is on the aromantic spectrum. After explaining that aromantic individuals experience little or no romantic attraction, my coworker frowned and said, “I don’t give a damn. Readers want romance.”
I struggled with how to respond to that, wondering how much truth there was to my coworker’s statement. I agonized over how to make readers “give a damn” about my character’s identity, when I couldn’t even get people to respect me and my identity. I fall on the aromantic spectrum, and my coworker’s dismissal of my character felt like a dismissal of me.
So, where does this idea that romance is a requirement come from? It’s not difficult to figure out. Advertisements for everything from cars to perfume revolve around the concept of making yourself more romantically and/or sexually appealing. Countless films, TV shows, and books perpetuate the notion that life’s end-all goal is a romantic relationship with marriage and kids. And the thing is, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that type of happily ever after. The problem arises when that’s the only sort of happily ever after to which people are exposed, particularly children and teenagers.
If I’d had books that contained aro characters when I was a teenager, it would’ve saved me a great deal of trouble. YA is written for teens and about teens, so it’s vital here, of all places, to give aromantic individuals the proper representation. It shouldn’t be so laborious for me to find books with aro main characters, aro side characters, and aro authors.
So, what do I want to see from YA novels with aromantic characters?
Recognition that aromantic people are not a monolith:
The aromantic spectrum is wide, and it includes grayromantic people, demiromantic people, and more. Some occasionally feel romantic attraction, and some don’t. Some want relationships, including marriage, and some don’t. Some might develop romantic feelings only under specific circumstances.
Like sexuality and gender, romantic attraction can be fluid. Over the years, the frequency with which I experience romantic attraction has gone from sporadically to rarely to virtually never. And that’s okay. People change, as do the labels we use. Moreover, if an aromantic person does experience romantic attraction, the intensity might be anywhere from “Head over heels” to “Don’t even think about buying me flowers.”
Acknowledgement that romantic attraction and sexual attraction are different things:
An aromantic (aro) person might also consider themselves to be asexual (ace). The former refers to feeling little or no romantic attraction, whereas the latter refers to feeling little or no sexual attraction. (The definitions are more nuanced than that and can vary between individuals, but that’s the basic idea.)
I describe myself as aromantic and pansexual, so my relationships probably won’t resemble those of someone who identifies as aromantic and asexual. Just because two people are aromantic doesn’t necessarily mean their sexual preferences are similar.
Characters stated on the page as being aromantic:
I’ve heard arguments from people who prefer ambiguity, and they raise some good points. But from Charlie Weasley to Katniss Everdeen, it’s safe to say we currently have far more ambiguity than we do specificity.
A quick change from “You’ll find The One” to “You might be aromantic” can make an enormous difference to a teen. The words we read and write matter, and the print bleeds through the pages to punctuate our lives.
Happy/hopeful endings for aromantic characters:
What does a happy ending look like for an aromantic person? The possibilities are endless, so I suggest speaking to various individuals who self-identify as being on the aromantic spectrum.
It might mean being in a relationship that’s more about friendship and/or sex than romance. It might mean not being in a relationship at all. Perhaps it’s being content to focus on school, or a job, or family.
Books about coming out and books that have nothing to do with coming out:
This is an ongoing discussion in literary circles, and I’ve witnessed heavy debates surrounding the topic. It merits its own blog post, and plenty of well-written ones are already online. (T.S. Ferguson has an excellent one here.) So I won’t do any expounding, but to summarize my opinion:
We need both, end of story.
Characters who are marginalized in more than one way:
Explore intersectionality, a term that refers to the interconnectivity of oppressive institutions, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, and more.
For example, I don’t plan to have kids, and the reasons for that stem from both the aromantic part of me and my nonbinary gender (among other things). When someone denounces me for being childfree, they are also—whether intentionally or not—criticizing me for being aromantic and nonbinary.
Think about those things when writing marginalized characters. Intersectionality is a fact of existence, and books need to reflect that. Consider aromantic characters who aren’t white/straight/cisgender/able-bodied/neurotypical.
Novels that are #ownvoices qualified, in which aromantic authors are writing aromantic characters:
Elevate the voices of authors who identify the same way as their characters. This goes for any marginalized identity. Give #ownvoices authors space on book lists, discussion panels, and more. Recognize when to pass the mic and listen.
I want to read about aromantic characters who go on adventures, aromantic people of color, aromantic friends and girlfriends and parents and siblings and everyone in between. I also strive to write those characters, despite constantly having to justify their existence and my own. I suspect I’ll hear “Readers want romance” again. But next time, I know how I’ll respond:
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
Denali Leone is a queer writer from Alaska. She can be found on Twitter (@DenaliLeone), usually in the middle of the night when no one else is awake.