Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week Series: Day 5
by Ben “Books” Schwartz
Let’s be honest: there’s not a lot of aromantic representation out there in the world of fiction. Here and there, though, on the fringes, aro characters are starting to show up, and every time I encounter one, my soul does a little dance of joy. As aro characters do appear, hopefully they’ll be good ones, represented thoughtfully, in ways that reflect the fullness and complexity of what it’s like to be aromantic.
Aromantic representation is hugely, wildly important. I myself am agender and aromantic, but it took me a lot longer to figure out the latter than the former. The idea of being aromantic just never really crossed my mind as an option. I was lucky enough to encounter a few good agender and nonbinary characters as a young person who helped me figure myself out (shoutout to Haruhi Fujioka from Ouran High School Host Club), but romance is every bit as constant a presence in fiction as gender. Just about every adventure novel, movie, comic, or game includes a love interest of some kind, in ways that often bored or irritated me as a young reader.
But it was insistently a standard part of life, so I took it as assumed that I too would eventually have those romance feelings show up. I’d just grow into them! Well, a dozen failed attempts at romance later, I can tell you that they sure never did. If I had had even one good aromantic character to see in fiction, perhaps I would have realized earlier I had another option. Hopefully this next generation of young reader will have that chance, as aromantic characters begin to appear in YA books and comics.
As it happens, one of the few explicitly aromantic characters I have encountered provides a fantastic model of how to do it just right. Emerene, one of the main characters of Aatmaja Pandya’s delightful fantasy webcomic Travelogue, is established as aromantic from his first introduction in the comic. A close reading of that introductory page gives a whole ton of pointers on the hows and whys of handling aromantic characters. So buckle in, readers–we’re taking a journey through a Travelogue page.
A bit of background: Travelogue is a short-form meandering webcomic telling the stories of a trio of travelers as they go… somewhere. The destination isn’t important, nor is the reason for their journey. Each page, narrated by the childlike Nana (whose gender is never specified, but uses they/them pronouns), focuses on a single idyllic moment, like finding a particularly nice stick in the wood, or watching the sunrise over the hills. Pandya’s ability to capture the magic of discovery calls to mind Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&!, or Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic novels.
As an aside, it is perhaps not surprising that webcomics should be host to one of the first clearly and beautifully represented aromantic characters out there. Webcomics have long been far ahead of the curve on diversity representation, both in terms of characters and creators. Without the specter of mainstream publication to guide or limit their content, webcomics are free to include genuine representation in ways that even the most progressive major publishers would consider too radical for mainstream consumption. The print world is starting to catch up, but very slowly.
The first three pages of the comic are each dedicated to introducing one of the traveling companions–Nana, Emerene, and Adi (plus Princess the Goat). Emerene’s introductory page shows him climbing a tree to bring down a nest full of eggs, which he and his companions eat for dinner. Nana is delighted with the eggs, and first says that Emerene is kind. Then they note that they “think he looks nice, too.” So okay, we’ve already established two things about Emerene–he’s a good dude, and he’s totally cute (and the artwork backs up Nana’s observation). Nana maybe has a bit of a crush going on here, and really, who can blame them. Emerene’s great.
The fifth panel is a shot of Nana looking up at Emerene, with two separate narration boxes. “But he is not interested in romance,” reads the first, followed by, “in the very least.” There it is, laid out clear and simple. Emerene is not interested in romance. It is not something to be questioned, not something odd or curious. It’s just a simple statement of fact. There’s not a lot of room for ambiguity, either. The first box on its own could be taken several ways, sure. Emerene isn’t interested in romance, but maybe that just means not interested in romance with Nana! But no, the second box of narration makes it clear that Emerene flat-out isn’t interested in romance “in the very least.” This isn’t a coming out story, either, nor one of self-discovery. Emerene clearly already knows that they’re aromantic, and has already told Nana this. Coming out stories are well and good, but we’re so much more than that, and fiction about us should reflect that.
In just two narration boxes, Pandya makes all that look easy. A common idea that comes up both as a complaint from writers and a critique from readers in the fantasy genre is that it’s hard to have characters who aren’t cis and straight, because those fantasy settings don’t have those ideas or words. To be clear, this is an absurd argument–if you’re willing to accept dragons and magic, surely readers can accept the presence of queer people. But I’ll acknowledge that the word “aromantic” wouldn’t fit with Nana’s simplistic vocabulary and syntax. Pandya doesn’t need to use it, though, and the idea comes across clearly and unambiguously. Fantasy writers, take note!
Pandya’s not done, though. There are still two more panels on the page, each very important! The penultimate panel focuses on the eggs cooking over a fire. Nana’s narration notes that Emerene “likes swords and cooking and sleeping.” The second block of narration leads into the last panel, of the trio eating together. Taken together, Nana’s narration ends, “It doesn’t bother me, though. I like all those things as well. So we are great friends.”
Ending on this note is hugely important, and serves two very distinct functions. First, it expands Emerene beyond his feelings on romance. He has hobbies and interests (and what excellent ones they are), even if they aren’t gone into in detail on this page. Pandya makes it clear to the readers that Emerene has a life beyond the page, and is more than just his lack of romantic interest. Second, the phrasing establishes Nana and Emerene’s friendship in a way that does not feel secondary, or like a consolation prize. Their friendship is not an abstract thing, either. It comes from their shared interests, and is shown through them happily sharing a meal together. In just these few panels, Pandya shows the reader just how and why Nana and Emerene are friends.
That foregrounding of friendship as not being lesser to romance is hugely important, and should be highlighted as a vital element of any aromantic representation that seeks to be positive and respectful. Many aro folk know the pain of being made to feel like our friendships are lesser than our friends’ romantic relationships. We get used to being set aside by friends when they find a romantic partner, or having our own non-romantic partnerships dismissed as not being “real” relationships. Pandya avoids that danger entirely, as Nana and Emerene’s friendship is emphasized immediately.
Alright, that’s a whole lot about a single page (and I feel like I could probably write that much about any single page of Travelogue). The big lessons to take away from Pandya’s elegant inclusion of Emerene are, in short:
- Be explicit about your aro characters
- Your stories about them don’t have to be coming out stories
- You can make it clear without using the word aro!
- Have them be more than just their identity
- Highlight their friendships instead of diminishing them
Writers, if you keep these things in mind as you craft your aromantic characters, you should be off to a pretty great start. And if you’re not sure how you’re doing, ask an aromantic person for advice and sensitivity reading! It’ll make your story better, and make you happier. Trust me–it’s worth pushing through that awkwardness you have now so that you don’t wind up hurting people with your writing later. The world needs more aro characters like Emerene.
In conclusion, do yourself a favor and read Travelogue, and then find some friends and get pleasantly lost in the woods with them. Emerene, Nana, and Adi have the right idea of it, if you ask me.
Ben “Books” Schwartz lies to children professionally. They work as a storyteller, larp designer, and summer camp director, and have a Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children from Simmons College. You can check out their roleplaying summer camps for kids and teens in California, Pennsylvania, and New York, or if you’re an adult, go explore space with them near San Francisco. When they’re not colonizing other worlds or teaching at wizard school, Books can be found on Twitter at @SunshineDuk, having a lot of feelings about webcomics.