Ask: Characters and Absence of Love

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An anon asks on Tumblr:

What is your opinion on characters who have no love at all (not just romantic love, but all kinds)? Obviously, they’re often demonized (*cough*Voldemort*cough*), but if they aren’t could they work without being inherently arophobic? I (an aro) am thinking of writing a story where a character loses their ability to love and Doesn’t React Well, but eventually learns to accept it. Should I go through with that? If so, are there particular arophobic tropes to avoid?

I am somewhat biased in that I’ve written an aro character who means “all love” when he says he doesn’t love (and this is explored further and more explicitly in his future stories) so, as someone who has a complicated relationship to love myself, bring them on.

I am so tired of seeing “love” billed as the ultimate indicator of a “good” character while “inability to love” is the ultimate indicator of “evil”–despite the fact that some of the most difficult things I have endured came about from someone else’s love. If relatives bullied me and friends-who-wanted-to-be-boyfriends stalked me despite and because of their ability to love, why should an inability to love mean anything  when love just as often motivates cruelty? In my opinion, there is nothing inherently misrepresentative of aro-specs in a character’s inability to love–just the social tangle of ableism and aromisia and amatonormativity from other people in unquestioned assumptions that ability to love makes a protagonist. Why should it?

I talk more about autism-coding than aromisia in the following, but a lot of negative/stereotypical autism-coding is applied to aro-specs (or characters coded as aromantic) because Western society in its unquestioned ableism deems autistics as a handy pre-existing representation of “heartless” and “inhuman”. I’ve also got a second ask on a similar subject that talks about idealised representation in writing a single character versus writing multiple characters of that identity, anon, so please consider this the first half of my response as opposed to the entirety. Everything I say in response to the second ask will be relevant to you as well.

Ableism is an element here: autistic folks are often deemed unable to love, often just from an inability to perform love to allistic (non-autistic) expressive standards. There’s also an unchallenged, subtle antagonism towards survivors of abuse from family members/close partners, in that our possible questioning or dismissal of love can be a sign we haven’t “recovered” enough or are even resisting “recovery”–only when we “learn to love again” do stories award us our happy ending. Love, tied to very narrow experiences/performances (and so often amatonormative ones), is seen as the end goal of being or becoming a non-monstrous human, and while society needs to question romantic love as being the marker of a worthy hero, it also needs to question all forms and expressions of love as being said marker. If love has the capability to be as damaging and violent as anything else, why do we persist under the illusion that it still makes those who can more human than those who can’t?

I do agree with you that, if this loss of ability is sudden, your character shouldn’t react well, unless they live in a world where love just isn’t socially prized. They shouldn’t, because we’re exposed to millions of narratives that say an inability to love (or perform love to appropriate allistic standards) is to make us monstrous, and that’s a hard thing to bear. (How many aros do we see insisting that they still love platonically? That they still have close friends and adore their family? That their love makes them human and undeserving of hate, not any other quality?) I would make sure your character has a sense of these narratives and show their responses to them, because I can tell you that they’re constantly running through my head! They’re going to have a hell of an internalised tangle of what makes a good person to work through, and I’d try as much as possible to show this process as your character’s arc to acceptance. Even kind, considerate friends and relatives, used to love as a marker of being human, may treat your character’s inability as monstrous (especially if they attempt to talk about it). The more you can show this, the more you can challenge this idea of love as universal.

(For example, your character might try even harder to be empathic or supportive or compassionate, absolutely breaking themselves on their service to other people to prove they’re not a hateful person, because there’s no narrative about love not being a requirement for decency. Their character arc might be learning to look after themself, to accept that they don’t need to hurt themself by excessively performing compassion for others to “make up” for their lack of love. Acceptance, for this character, could be allowing themself to withdraw to a better balance of compassion that also acknowledges and values their own needs and limitations.)

I would be cautious in how you show this lack of love in your character, especially if you’re leaning towards indicating it by flat effect, lack of facial expressions, difficulty connecting with others, a tendency to withdrawal or isolation, difficulty with empathy, monotone voice, etc. All of this, of course, is stereotypical autism-coding (in addition to stereotypical aro/ace-coding) because that is the unquestioned, unchallenged ableist narrative we are taught–that we autistics cannot love because we don’t perform it same way allistics do. (I would argue that autistics have the same potential for love as anyone else; we just show it in very different ways.) There really is no reason to assume that any of these behaviours inherently indicate a lack of love besides ableism. You may not be thinking of this at all, but it’s such an unquestioned assumption in Western society that autistic-coded, robotic, distant behaviours are symptomatic of inability to love, so I mention this just in case.

I’d recommend taking the time to ask yourself: how does love impact our behaviours and relationships? Does love drive us to drop a few dollars into a homeless man’s hat? Does love drive us to modify how we speak and behave for the comfort of strangers or acquaintances? Does love make us laugh at a work mate’s not-funny joke or praise a casual friend’s creativity? Because I will posit, as I have for a long time, that love is (and should be) less important in driving us than compassion, and that is vital to recognise in writing a sympathetic character who does not/cannot love.

In antagonists like Voldemort, love isn’t the only thing thrown out the window in determining his villainy. A whole tangle of things like compassion, sympathy, empathy, kindness, consideration, acceptance, an unwillingness to violence, an unwillingness to hatred, tolerance, respect and appreciation are tossed out with it, all unthinkingly bundled together under the one word. In sympathetic characters or protagonists, we need to be aware of all the things usually and erroneously associated with love, because we can’t throw all of them out the window.

I suspect that a carefully-written sympathetic character who doesn’t love will show this inability less through actions and behaviours readable to onlookers and more through internal narrative and responses to other characters’ assumptions that love drives us all. I am looking at writing a character who comes to acknowledge that he doesn’t love but still acts through compassion or respect so, from the outside, it’s difficult to tell the difference. Inside, though, there may be a mess of pain and self-hate at losing something we’re supposed to have to be (according to the stories) a non-monstrous human. This approach, especially for allistic/non-autistic characters, will avoid any unfortunate implications or coding.

When or if other characters find out, you can show how they differently treat the character before knowing they’re unable to love and after, because I suspect a stated inability to love may go far, in the eyes of some characters, to erase the protagonist’s acts of compassion and respect. Conversely, I’m also having side characters tell my protagonist that he does love because he’s helping his brother remake the world, which is another cross he’ll have to bear despite his position that love isn’t something he feels or desires. One approach is to dismiss a character’s humanity even though their behaviour proves it; the other dismisses a character’s right to understand and identify their own feelings and experiences.

If your character is autistic, the approach will be different in terms of how allistics read them and associate behaviours with capability of love, but this will need careful handling. I will also say if a sudden inability to love is related to enduring sexual or familial violence, this too should be handled carefully. Even without either element, there is a good chance that readers who have not questioned the idea that “love is what makes us human” may take a non-magical/futuristic reason for abruptly losing love to be sending a bad message (and even more so if your story does reference either). I’d be sure to communicate the fact that society’s assumptions about love being the marker of a good person make it easy to excuse a whole lot of violence wrought in its name–in other words, break down the assumptions about love for your readers so they can contextualise your character in this light.

(When I start specifically talking about my protagonist’s pondering of love, there’s a lot of reflection on the damaging acts he and his family wrought in love, where love for him drove his people and whether it is something he should desire or value going forwards.)

If you keep all that in mind, though? I think you’ll be okay, because I do not believe that writing a character who doesn’t love is any expression of aromisia if we discuss and discard the assumption that we must love to be human.

I have a desperate want to see characters more like me in fiction, anon. If you hold tight to the ways your character expresses compassion, respect and tolerance, and keep an eye on the risk of autistic-coding (and consequent negative aro-coding) in how their behaviours may express their lack of love, and work to break down your readers’ assumptions about love as primary, I don’t think you’ll have a problem. We definitely need narratives that end with acceptance–that show a character’s realisation that we are not monstrous because we cannot love.

This is an important, valuable message, and in this area I do love without complication or hesitation: I’d love to read it in a story, anon.

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