I’ve always liked making up stories. Even more so, I’ve always liked making up story worlds. Be they fantastic or science-fictional, I enjoy giving them histories, populating them with creatures, creating religious systems, etc. And, as every good writer of imaginative fiction knows, language is a big piece of that process. Even if I’m not working out a whole new language for the characters to use, I’m thinking about how they use language, how their language differs from ours, and how that might affect their worldviews.
One topic I’m particularly interested in is how they talk about sex and romance.
When creating the world for the twelve-part high fantasy epic I will never actually write, I decided one thing I wanted to give it was a different way of talking about romantic relationships. Not necessarily better, just different.
One difference is that there is no vocabulary for talking about romantic love. There are words for sexual feelings, attraction, and behaviour. There is also a word for “love”, but, unlike in English, it does not carry any romantic or sexual connotations. A person may love their spouse or their lover, but there is no presumed difference between that love and the love of parents, siblings, or friends. Nor is it assumed that all sexual relationships must involve love.
The result is that this culture is less amatonormative than ours. How does that affect the heroes, most of whom are asexual?
First, why write a story about mostly asexual characters? Partly because there aren’t enough asexuals in fiction and I wanted to create more. Partly because it’s easier for me to put myself in an asexual’s headspace than an allosexual’s. But perhaps the best reason is that writing about asexual characters gives me an excuse to write about a wide variety of relationships. Since the characters are mostly ace, they aren’t that interested in dating and sex. But they do form friendships, some of which are very close. Are any of them romantic? I don’t know. As a platoniromantic person, I find the whole concept of “romance” difficult to understand. Combine that with the fact that there is no word for “romance” in this world, and it’s very difficult to say which relationships are “romantic” and which aren’t.
What I can say is that friendship plays a big part in the characters’ lives and their stories – as big a role as romance plays in other stories. Focusing on ace characters allows me to imagine a community where close friendships are commonplace and are granted the same importance and respect as “romantic relationships”.
Some of them are staples of the adventure-fantasy genre, like the farm kid and her wise old mentor, or the hero and her faithful animal companion.
There’s the boy and girl who are best friends through high school. They eventually become travelling companions, wandering all over the world and having adventures. They are not especially affectionate, but occasionally hug, hold hands, or share a bed. They make other friends, but it is clear to everyone that they are the most important people in each other’s lives.
There’s the sex-favourable ace who gets into a sexual relationship with one of her best friends. We would say they are more like best-friends-with-benefits than romantic partners, but since the world they live in has no word for “romantic”, they are viewed as just another sexual couple.
There’s the sex-repulsed ace who falls in love with an allosexual. This is one of the situations where not having a vocabulary of romance presents a problem, because the asexual character has no language to explain her feelings or the kind of relationship she wants.
There’s the teenaged boy who forms a close, affectionate relationship with a younger boy. Both of them are estranged from their families, so their friendship becomes a protective, sibling-type bond.
And there are various other bonds among the characters already listed. Most of the characters have multiple close relationships; the ones I’ve mentioned are just some of the most important.
Honestly, the series is more of a soap opera than an adventure story, in that it has a lot of characters and a lot of the focus is on those characters’ relationships. But writing about mostly asexual characters in platonic relationships allows me to avoid some of the conventions of the soap opera genre.
One of these is jealousy. The characters may have multiple love-interests, but they’re not jealous, suspicious, or possessive of each other; they value and respect their friends’ other friendships. And, since many of these friendships are shared, they tend to bring the friends closer together rather than driving them apart.
Less jealousy means less relationship conflict. The characters don’t spend much time fighting with, or over, their friends. There are moments of relationship drama, yes, but they usually result from some outside threat to the relationship, and usually become an occasion for the characters to reaffirm their devotion to one another.
I guess I prefer this dynamic, in part, because it puts more focus on the secure, loving side of the relationships. In too many “romantic” stories, the characters seem to spend more time fighting each other than getting along, which could make one question the sincerity of their love. In my stories, even the drama moments tend to bring the characters closer together. And happy moments, like making a new friend, are happy for everyone.
The culture is still very erotonormative, and that does present a problem for the characters. There’s an expectation for many of them that they will eventually settle down, get married, and have children. But this expectation exists because of the importance their society places on sex. It’s not that marriage is considered the only path to love; it’s that love is considered a secondary concern, with sex viewed as a higher priority. In many ways, this leads to a society that is similar to ours, in that sexual attachments are valued more than non-sexual ones. But I like to think it’s at least a bit more honest. Both our society and the made-up one devalue love, but we often do it by separating love into “romantic love”, which is treated as greater or more real, and “platonic love”, which is treated as lesser or less real. In other words, we devalue certain forms of love by denying that they are even love!
The made-up society doesn’t do that. They may treat platonic love as a secondary concern, but at least they don’t deny that it is love. They don’t treat romantic love as inherently better, and they don’t assume that sexual relationships will always involve love. I’m not saying that makes their society better than ours. But it does offer a different perspective on things that our society takes for granted.
Like I said, not better. Just different.