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NOTE: This post was written as part of the November 2012 Carnival of Aces, with the subject of Fiction. It contains some unavoidable plot and characterization SPOILERS for the novels mentioned, so click the cut-tag at your own risk. 

Hi. I'm R.J. Anderson, a Canadian-born, US-published, UK-bestselling author for children and teens whose sixth novel, Quicksilver, is coming out in early 2013. And if you're an asexual reader who loves YA fiction but wishes there were more characters like you, there's someone I'd like you to meet.

Once upon a time there was a girl who was special. Her hair flowed like honey and her eyes were blue as music. She grew up bright and beautiful, with deft fingers, a quick mind, and a charm that impressed everyone she met. Her parents adored her, her teachers praised her, and her schoolmates admired her many talents. Even the oddly shaped birthmark on her upper arm seemed like a sign of some great destiny.

This is not her story.

Unless you count the part where I killed her.
Her name is Tori Beaugrand and she's the maddeningly perfect-seeming girl described in that first paragraph, the girl that Alison, the narrator of Ultraviolet, believes herself to have murdered. But Alison is mistaken about that, and a lot of other assumptions she's made about Tori as well.
"When you came in, I’d just broken up with Brendan because he kept pressuring me to have sex with him. It wasn’t my fault he threw a tantrum like a freaking two-year-old—"
When I wrote Tori speaking those words in Ultraviolet, I wasn't consciously aware of their significance. I just knew that despite the cliches about pretty, popular girls, Tori had only ever dated one boy, and she hadn't enjoyed it much. It wasn't until I sat down to write Quicksilver, the sequel/companion novel where Tori gets to tell her own story in her own words, that I understood the reason why.
“Milo,” I said, “I’m going to tell you something I’ve only ever told one other person. And when I do, I . . . I hope you’ll understand.” Passionately hoped, in fact. Because if he said any of the things Lara had said to me when I told her, it would be hard to forgive him for it.

“I know,” he said. “You’re gay, right?”

“No,” I said. “I’m not sexually attracted to anyone. At all. Ever.”
Before I started writing Tori's story, I had a vague notion about writing a conventional romance for her -- perhaps a story where she falls for the wrong guy only to realize that the right one was there by her side all along. But the more I thought about it, the more wrong and unnatural that idea seemed. I simply couldn't envision Tori being swept away on a tide of sexual attraction for anyone, and I couldn't imagine a single person who would make her feel that way. I went so far as to type out a preliminary scene where Tori meets a cute boy in an electronics store, but Tori flat-out refused to be charmed and the boy just came off as an arrogant, condescending jerk who wouldn't let her shop for the parts she needed. It was a disaster.

And yet I knew that Tori wasn't a cold or unloving person. I knew she was capable of passionate feeling and deep loyalty, and that she wouldn't hesitate to hug a friend in need or offer them a shoulder to cry on. I just couldn't imagine her in any kind of typical romantic or sexual relationship, and I wondered why… until the answer came to me one night as I was on the verge of sleep, and I leaped up and grabbed a pen to jot down the following note:

Once I'd written those words, I couldn't believe I hadn't figured it out sooner. It made sense of everything I'd ever known about Tori, including all the hints I'd dropped about her relationship with Brendan in Ultraviolet. And it also excited me from a creative standpoint, because I had never read a novel -- YA or otherwise -- with an asexual main character before.

Yet I didn't want the book to be about Tori's asexuality, in an After School Special kind of way. I had far too many resourceful, butt-kicking, stone-cold awesome things I wanted Tori to do in the book for that. Quicksilver, like Ultraviolet, is a psychological thriller with science fiction elements, and there's a lot of action and mystery and suspense going on as Tori fights to make an independent life for herself and escape the people who want to control her. Her being asexual adds a layer of complication and delicacy to her relationships with her parents and her best (male) friend, and explains some of the choices she makes and the struggles she has in getting others to understand her, but it's not the central element in the story.

On the other hand, I also didn't want to fall into the trap of treating asexuality in a careless, superficial way, or allowing the non-ace reader to mistake it for a symptom of Tori's abnormal biology (a key plot point of the story). So I spent a lot of time reading ace blogs and Tumblrs to find out what cliches and myths about asexuals to avoid and if possible, to directly address and counter them. I also made an effort to clarify that Tori's asexuality was not the result of trauma or scientific experimentation or her unusual background, by directly contrasting her with another character with a similar background and experiences who was demonstrably not asexual. As she observes in one of the book's flashback sequences:

And now he was kissing [her], and she was kissing him back. Not a gentle let-me-comfort-you kiss, either. It was the kind of kiss that looked like it was going to end up horizontal, and [he] didn’t seem to have any reservations about going there. So obviously my apathy toward sex wasn’t a [spoiler redacted] Thing, any more than it had been a Chip-in-the-Arm thing. It was just me.
Do I expect that Tori's portrayal is going to satisfy every asexual reader? I'd love it if that were true (I certainly tried my best), but I'm not banking on it. There's a broad range of perspectives on the aromantic - romantic asexual spectrum, and plenty of differences of opinion about what a healthy relationship between an asexual and a sexual person (and there is such a relationship in the story, though no sex is involved) should look like. But I was keeping in mind that most of my audience may not even have heard of asexuality and might have a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea, and I wanted to portray Tori and her non-sexual relationships in a way that would seem sympathetic and satisfying to the majority of readers. Baby steps, as they say.

To me the representation of asexual characters in books is important because it runs counter to modern society's obsession with sex as the be-all and end-all, the warped perception that sex somehow "completes" or "matures" a person (I always loathed this trope when it came up in fantasy novels I read as a kid) and that people who aren't interested in sex and don't make it a regular part of their lives are damaged in some way. With Quicksilver, I wanted to show how the satisfaction that Tori feels when working on a mechanical project, or spending quality time with a trusted friend, is every bit as fulfilling and meaningful to her as good sex is supposed to be for other people, or even more so. She isn't missing out on anything, and she's nobody's object of pity. If my non-asexual readers get that when they read Quicksilver, I'll have done what I set out to accomplish. And if an asexual person can read this book and feel a little less alone, or hand this book to a friend or family member to help them understand -- that would be the best reward that I as an author could wish for.

-- R.J. Anderson, November 2012

Quicksilver will be in bookstores mid-to-late February 2013 in North America, early May 2013 in the UK. You can see the cover, read the jacket copy and check out some advance reviews on GoodReads, or preorder the novel via Amazon (US / Can / UK), Chapters Indigo or Book Depository.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 3rd, 2012 05:58 pm (UTC)
Hope you have better luck than I did! Of course I might be a crap writer, but wow, the people who went out of their way to tell me that they hated Banner of the Damned for its asexual narrator!
Dec. 3rd, 2012 06:59 pm (UTC)
I certainly do not think you are a crap writer! I haven't read Banner of the Damned so I don't know what those people are reacting to in that particular story (other than their own prejudices, possibly). But I think that in Quicksilver it helps (or at least it seems to have helped so far, judging by the advance reviews) that Tori drives her own story in a dynamic way and stands at the center of all the action, and that we also see her interacting warmly (both physically and emotionally) with people she cares about and experiencing passionate engagement with the non-sexual pleasures in her life. So it's hard to slot her into the "asexual = unfeeling" or "asexual = boring" stereotypes. (Or so one hopes, anyway.)
Dec. 3rd, 2012 07:02 pm (UTC)
That is what I had thought, too, but either I just don't have the chops to carry it off, or many readers (of adult fantasy?) do want that physical component.

Anyway, I look forward to reading Quicksilver!!!
Dec. 3rd, 2012 07:07 pm (UTC)
I suspect I've been remarkably fortunate in my ARC reviews so far; when the book actually comes out it'll start getting reviewed by people who didn't love ULTRAVIOLET (or possibly have never heard of it) and then we'll see a clearer picture...

And thank you!
Dec. 3rd, 2012 07:16 pm (UTC)
So, I have a thinky-thought that I hope I can make comprehensible.

I 100% agree with you that it's important to write things counter to modern society's obsession with sex as the be-all and end-all. And particularly this idea that sex completes a person. (See Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy... ugh!) HOWEVER, I wonder if it's not buying into that to use the term "asexual."

My argument is as follows:

A person (generally speaking, I'm sure that there are congenital defects, etc.) who is "asexual" is not missing any of the component parts to be sexual. They have no desire to act sexually/are not as pleased by it/etc. Asexual in an animal speaks of capability, rather than desire. So, it seems a bit off

Furthermore, it defines a human being by how they choose to use or not use their ability to have sex. I like chocolate but don't like peas, but would never speak of myself as chocophagyal or a-pea-phagyal. I think to use that as a definition is to emphasize sexuality -- even if it is as unnecessary -- seems to emphasize the issue too much,

So, to portray a character who gets more satisfaction out of working with her hands than romance, or who just plain isn't interested is counter-cultural. But isn't it buying into the obsession to say a person is asexual?


Anyway, it's something I've thought about a lot. I appreciated A Scandal in Belgravia in part because I thought it was clear that Sherlock was not immune to sexual desire. He's not interested in sex like John is. He'd rather be thinking or working or playing his violin. But he's making a choice.

Dunno if that makes sense or not...
Dec. 3rd, 2012 08:13 pm (UTC)
But there's a genuine difference between celibacy, which is the choice not to have sex even if one desires it, and asexuality, which is the lack of sexual attraction.

You can nitpick the term asexuality if you like and say it isn't etymologically accurate* and we should use some other term to describe the lack of sexual attraction in humans, but we are still going to need a word to distinguish the 1% of the population who have never looked at another person and felt a desire to have sex with them.** And there are other words for people who are biologically missing the component parts or otherwise physically incapable of having sex, so there's no need to change the terminology for that reason.

And I agree with you that sexual preference (or lack of sexual preference) should not be considered to be the defining characteristic of any human being, which is why I didn't make the book "about" Tori being asexual. Her lack of sexual attraction comes up in the story because she's placed in a situation where she feels she has to explain herself, and so she does. And then the book moves on.

I don't think using the term "asexual" somehow suggests that Tori's sexual status is the defining factor in her life. It just happens to be a useful descriptive word. I could have described her as a "coffeephile", and written an essay about how people who really love coffee will appreciate that aspect of Tori's character. But there's no shortage of coffee lovers in literature, and coffee lovers are not berated and chastised for loving coffee, so that aspect of her personality doesn't seem worth talking about to me. Whereas there are scarcely any examples of characters in literature who don't feel sexual attraction (whether the text calls them "asexual" or not), and asexuality legitimately exists in the human population, and asexuals ARE frequently belittled, criticized and disbelieved by others who consider sexual attraction to be a defining attribute of humanity and can't imagine not feeling such an impulse, so I thought it worth talking about.

(As a tangent, I believe a fair number of famous celibates in history may well have been asexual, and not merely heroically making an effort to abstain from sex for the sake of their beliefs or their life's work. Nikola Tesla, for instance, was notoriously uninterested in sex or marriage, and he was one of the inspirations for Tori's character in the book. And if you're going to tell me Tesla would have been a more interesting person if he hadn't been "immune to sexual desire" but simply made a choice to be celibate and channel his frustrated sexual energies into electricity and invention, I'm going to disagree with you.

And I don't think it makes any difference with Sherlock either. I think Moffat just made Sherlock celibate rather than asexual because he assumed the audience wouldn't be able to identify or sympathize with Sherlock unless they thought he was capable of feeling sexual desire, and frankly I think he's wrong about that. Asexual does not mean incapable of romantic feeling or attraction; it doesn't mean a person is incapable of having sex for pragmatic or emotional reasons. It just means they don't feel the urge or pressure or temptation to have sex the way that most people do. I think Sherlock could very well be asexual and still do and say all the things he does in "Belgravia".)

*Though if you do that, prepare for a lot of eyerolling, or outright fury, from people who are sick of hearing this argument or variations thereof from sexual people -- "Asexual? Does that mean you reproduce by budding or fragmentation? HUR HUR!"

**Although some of asexuals have had sex anyway, either because they were pressured into it or were curious or what-have-you -- but the experience didn't change their lack of innate desire, any more than eating a food you're not fond of out of politeness would magically make you crave that food thereafter.
Dec. 3rd, 2012 08:29 pm (UTC)
I definitely see what you're saying. I guess I still take issue with the term "asexual". Maybe it's just because I feel like it takes me into the world of discussion of sex that assumes a lot of lack of will. I believe some people are fairly uninterested in sex just as much as some people are uninterested in their opposite gender just as much as some people are uninterested in monogamy but that doesn't mean they can't with an act of will do something else. (Don't get me wrong -- I don't think a person uninterested in sex ought to "get over it" (unless they're married, but hopefully they wouldn't get themselves into such a situation except, perhaps, with a like-minded individual) but just that they could.) In my mind the [insert greek prefix here]-sexual terms carry the connotation of biological determinism that I take issue with.

And again, I don't know that I am explaining myself well. I am not in the debate much because I have some very clear views on sexuality that would only get me in trouble most of the time, so perhaps I read more into the terminology than is justified?

PS: I didn't think your book was only about asexuality. :-)
Dec. 3rd, 2012 08:48 pm (UTC)
I do actually know where you're coming from on this (probably more than anybody else who's likely to enter this debate!) and I think I may already have addressed your questions and concerns as part of another post -- see here.

Does that help at all?
Dec. 3rd, 2012 09:46 pm (UTC)
Yes, that does help. It shows me for one thing that we're on pretty much the same page. I particularly liked this line:

"I genuinely don’t believe that the idea of “orientation” poses any threat to Christian belief. Because sexual desire or attraction is not the same as sexual behavior, and it is sexual behaviour that the Bible approves or condemns."

I think I am trying to draw a line in the sand via terminology.

Because I absolutely believe people are born heterosexual or homosexual or asexual or other things. But that doesn't mean they should act on it. (But to reiterate, I agree that the Bible (or rather, God) is absolutely fine with not engaging in sex, provided the person is not denying their spouse.) I do think that the second of those orientations is definitely a result of the fall, and I'm actually inclined to say the third is as well. But while I think acting on the second is sinful, acting (not acting?) on the second is not. Our God accepts, us single or married for whatever reasons, as individuals, and that is a beautiful and comforting truth.

But now that I'm reading your well-thought-out essay, I'm wondering if I should be more happy to use the terminology that so often goes with the "my body made me do it" attitude toward sexuality that I so often see around me so as to not be alienating. As well as to indicate that I DO know the difference between celibacy and asexuality.

Thank you for the discussion! (And especially that essay.) It's an issue I think is important, but not one I have the opportunity to discuss for reasons of the internet not always being a very nice place...

Edited at 2012-12-03 09:49 pm (UTC)
Dec. 3rd, 2012 08:36 pm (UTC)
Re: Sherlock. I agree that it really didn't matter. I think the point of Belgravia was "WHY ARE YOU GUYS SO CONCERNED ABOUT WHAT EVERYONE DOES IN HIS BEDROOM? CAN YOU THINK ABOUT ANYTHING ELSE?" So I thought that undermining the idea of asexuality helped. We're not supposed to be thinking what Sherlock is OR what he isn't doing in his bedroom.

Ack! This is not my favorite topic of discussion, but sometimes I wish I participated in these discussions a BIT more frequently so I knew if I was using terminology correctly...
Dec. 3rd, 2012 11:27 pm (UTC)
Then I have another reason to look forward to Quicksilver! What an interesting idea!

I've read this post and the other post about Christianity and asexuality with great interest, though I haven't had time to post until now. I really think it is a topic that's not addressed at all by the modern church and a character like Tori might get some helpful conversations going.

It's funny, but after reading your posts I realize I've actually written an asexual side-character in some of my own stuff, but I never actually had the revelation that you had. It was more of a "hmm, I can't really picture him with anyone so I guess I won't write anyone for him."

I always pictured Dumbledore as asexual too.

Anyway. Looking forward to Quicksilver!
Dec. 4th, 2012 12:46 am (UTC)
Thanks! I'm glad the essay(s) intrigued you, and appreciate you weighing in with your own thoughts.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )