I love romance. I like it light and fluffy, I like it hot and heavy, I like it cute, I like it dark, I like it with big-ass ballgowns, and I like it with a side of magic. I. Love. Romance. But romance doesn’t love me. Romance is a hard (pun intended) genre. It’s hard to write—you probably know that already. But for me, it’s hard to read.
I am asexual and aromantic. These labels mean a lot of different things for a lot of different people, but for me it means:
- I don’t experience romantic attraction or sexual attraction
- I don’t want to fall in love or get married
- I don’t need sex
But it doesn’t mean I don’t read romance novels. Lots of us do. There are lots of people who might not like dating or sex or romantic gestures in real life but like to read about it in fiction. We exist and we read your books—we even buy your books, so I hope I don’t need to convince you that we’re a valuable part of your readership and you should want to make your books a hospitable place for us to spend our time.
To be honest, romance novels are often extremely inhospitable to people like me. Romance as a genre is sometimes built on tropes or stereotypes that are actually part of a bigger cultural bias that contributes to the violence we experience in real life. A romance novel that doesn’t alienate us or downright deny our existence is a rare gem. But it shouldn’t be.
3 Ways to Make Your Romance Novel Welcoming for Asexual and Aromantic Readers
Writing romance that doesn’t alienate aro/ace spectrum people isn’t actually that hard! Here are three easy things that will help you make your romance novels welcoming to the aro/ace community.
Acknowledge and understand that we exist in a variety of ways.
Avoid romance/sex-universal language.
Create and highlight strong relationships other than the main romantic pairing.
1. Acknowledge and Understand That We Exist in a Variety of Ways
We’re not a monolith, and not every a-spectrum person is the same. There will be some people who are asexual but not aromantic, people who are aromantic but not asexual, people who are demisexual, demiromantic, gray-ace, or gray-aro (it’s a spectrum, folks!).
There are no absolutes with a-spec existence. Some a-spec people like sex. Some don’t. Some want marriage and kids. Some don’t. We’re a diverse community, and not every a-spec person experiences their a-spec-ness in the same way.
This means it’s best to avoid generalizations. If you’re actually writing about an asexual or aromantic spectrum character, it helps to identify how their aceness or aroness impacts their relationship and the behaviors/expectations that sometimes come with them. Consider how they feel about physical touch, how they feel about romantic gestures, and how certain they are about what they’re comfortable with. They should be an individual who experiences their a-spectrum identity uniquely. And if you’re not writing about us (that’s okay!) it helps to remember that we are real and not ever ever ever broken simply because of our sexuality.
2. Avoid Romance/Sex-Universal Language
Not everyone wants romance and not everyone wants sex, so when a romance novel asserts as much, I drop right out of it. Things like “It was only natural” or “She was human after all” about a character experiencing sexual attraction or romantic attraction are some of the big offenders. Statements like this imply that anyone who wouldn’t experience attraction is somehow not human.
Dehumanizing a-spec people is the oldest trick in the book.
Asexual characters are often cast as aliens or robots instead of people because somewhere along the line the idea that we could exist as whole human people got left by the wayside.
There are a lot of romance-specific tropes or phrases that play on this universal human need for love and sex. Other common ones include assertions that a character is broken because they’ve never fallen in love or the phrase “just friends,” which implies that friends is somehow less than romantic or sexual partners. (Try things like “Oh, no, we’re not a couple” instead. See how that says exactly the same thing but without devaluing friendship?) Keep an eye out for these turns of phrase–they might just be built into your vocabulary and you might have to spend some time unlearning them.
3. Create and Highlight Strong Relationships Other Than the Main Romantic Pairing
This might be some general overall good advice and not just about aro/ace inclusive writing, but seriously… give your characters friends! And family! And coworkers! Give them a community outside their romantic life. Write about those relationships too. How does the new relationship impact the old ones? How does the character’s other life stuff impact their romance? These things should have interplay and they should impact one another.
Including strong relationships that aren’t romantic will make your book feel more real (and I mean, come on, isn’t half the fun of Tinder talking about the atrocious profiles you see with your friends?).
It will add dimension to your characters and depth to your story, but it will also subvert the trope that romance is the only thing that makes a happily ever after. Allowing your characters to pursue a career, deepen a relationship with a family member, or repair a friendship while they fall in love means that happily ever after means more than one thing.
Additional Advice from Asexual and Aromantic Authors
In the spirit of practicing what I preach, I surveyed some of my fellow aro/ace spec authors to get a more varied set of perspectives and advice.
Claudie Arseneault (she/her), an arospec and asexual author who spent some time analyzing romance structures and how to translate them onto a wider variety of relationships, in parts as research for Baker Thief, her queerplatonic fantasy novel, said:
“Often romance characters will gravitate towards one another because of their romantic or sexual attraction to the other. They want a relationship. What exactly goes into that relationship, however, is frequently left unstated–it is assumed that these two characters have the same end goal, the same desires, the same vision of what Happily Ever After means. Look at your main pairing. What makes them stay together? What do they have, in addition to attraction, that gives them chemistry? What shared goals, relationship-wise, are they working towards?
“Similarly, think about your romantic and sexual milestones. Why is that first kiss so important to your characters? Sometimes these milestones feel preordained rather than the natural result of the characters’ progression, because we’re used to thinking of them as “proof” of the feelings experienced. Usually, when these moments clash, it is because they feel less like they naturally flow from the relationship the characters have built so far, and more like an element added for its own sake, to complete the picture.
“Specificity will save you from the pitfalls of generalization. It highlights the needs of your characters as unique to them, rather than requirements for meaningful relationships, allowing your ace and aro readers to enjoy the story fully while knowing they can build their own relationships, be they romance or friendships, upon entirely different foundations.”
Taylor B. Barton (they/she) is a non-binary, demisexual and demiromantic author writing Queer books for teens and adults. Their YA debut THE UNFORGETTABLE LIVES OF AUSTIN PRICE releases in Fall 2020, and they had this to say:
“Something helpful to keep in mind while you’re writing romance is to avoid assumptions. Relying on the reader to assume a character is attracted to someone in a certain way sets both creator and consumer up for disappointment. Instead of using language that utilizes assumption, be specific! Claudie talked about this, too, and I think it’s a wonderful tip. Leaning on assumption can lead to a relationship that doesn’t look or feel earned to your aro-spec, ace-spec, and frankly, allo readership.
“It’s easy to borrow themes and story-framing from well-loved tropes without realizing that those same tropes can be potentially damaging to a large pool of your readership. Rather than writing the first kiss as an obvious want from one or both characters, specify why they want to be kissed or to kiss each other. Is it physical? Great! But write that down. Is it something else? Personality? Curiosity? Good! But we need to know. Closing these gaps between reader and character won’t just help you be more inclusive to ace and aro readers, but it will make you a better romance writer in the long run.
“Specify, always. Show don’t tell, unless telling is the only way to convey a want, need, maybe or hope.”
Lynn E O’Connacht (she/they) is a demi SFF author and independent literary critic in asexuality and aromantic studies. They’re currently hard at work at a slow-burn demi/allo fantasy romance, and they’ve said:
“As you can probably see from Rosiee’s lovely post and Claudie and Taylor’s comments: when you’re writing ace and/or aro characters, one of the biggest things you need to learn is to let go of your assumptions. This can be hard, so don’t be discouraged if you find it takes you a while!
“They’ve covered the general bases incredibly eloquently, so allow me to swerve away from that a little and remind you that the definitions for a-spectrum identities exist for a reason and as diverse as our experiences are, you can’t just throw those definitions out. At least not if your goal is to tell a great story. They’re your baseline to build those varied experiences on. Start with figuring out roughly where your character falls on the spectrums and then use that to fill in the specifics.
“So, for example, say you want to write an alloromantic acespec character who experiences lust-at-first-sight. If you look at the definition for a-spec identities, you’ll find that grey-ace is a much better base description for their sexuality than, say, demisexual. From there, you’ve got a good angle for research and answering questions about your character’s experiences that will make the character come to life and allow readers to connect with them. It doesn’t mean you’ve got to write your a-spectrum character one way and one way only, after all. Only that now, when you’re working out the specifics everyone mentioned, you’ve got an idea which way you’re headed. You’ll dive into your characters head and what makes their particular side of the (a)romance you’re telling tick that much deeper and isn’t creating that connection to the characters, their emotions and experiences what we’re all about?”
Finally, I would encourage anyone who wants to broaden their horizons and understand aromantic/asexual spectrum people better to read about us! My favorite resource for finding books about aromantic and asexual spectrum characters is the aro/ace database cultivated by Claudie Arseneault. You can search and sort books with aro and ace spectrum characters to find something to your tastes and learn more about a-spec identities.