How to Ally: Writing Allo-Aro Characters, Part Two

Handdrawn illustration of a yellow pasture against a background of hills and sporadic trees. Scene is overlaid with the dark green/light green/white/yellow/gold stripes of the allo-aro pride flag. The text Aro Worlds Discussion Post sits across the image in a black, antique handdrawn type, separated by two ornate Victorian-style black dividers.

Yesterday, I began a two-part series on writing allo-aro characters as an ally. To conclude Aro Week, I’m going to examine fictional tropes in want of considerate handling, explain how to contextualise your work without contributing to allo-aro erasure, and discuss the vital role of ally in “writing allo-aro characters as an ally”.

Many tropes regarding romance, relationships, intimacy and love cause aromantics harm. Others erase our aromanticism when treated as universal to all. Some are obviously problematic, like settings in which all characters possess destined soulmates; others require analysing the ways fiction shapes amatonormativity and amatonormativity shapes fiction. Tropes like “friends to lovers” may be loathed by some aromantics but tolerated or even appreciated by other aros! To discuss the use and pitfalls of all these requires more words and time than I possess, so I’m (today) focusing on tropes that either specifically impact allo-aros or are overlooked in our conversations about representation.

Please, especially when writing aromantic-spectrum characters in intimate relationships, examine your story with an eye for the ways amatonormativity and antagonism may shape your character arcs and plot. Many of the tropes we take for granted in the fictional journey towards a happily-ever-after ignore aromantics’ existence at best–and aren’t covered in this already-long post.

As this is an exercise in continued verbosity, you may want to grab a drink before strapping in for another long read!

Fourth: Write These Carefully or Not at All

I loathe lists of character types, situations or tropes allies shouldn’t write or depict: I can always conjure exceptions. A loveless allo-aro antagonist can’t exist without reference to fiction’s history of allo-aro-coded antagonists … but this character doesn’t cause the same harms if you’ve written allo-aro protagonists and your narrative refuses to associate villainy with lovelessness or allosexual aromanticism. If you question allo-aro antagonistic and sex-negative beliefs, examine and mitigate any negative implications, and respect your characters’ allosexual aromanticism, allies can explore even potentially-problematic situations and characters.

If you’re unsure of your ability to do so with consideration and compassion for the real-life people your characters reflect, however, reconsider including these in your work.

Allo-aro characters who exist only to educate other characters.

Some interactions may need allo-aro characters providing education, explanation or correction. That’s fine: I’d rather have erasure or antagonism be corrected in narrative than go unaddressed! When educating others about allo-aro identity becomes the main or only reason your character exists, said allo-aro character no longer serves the cause of representation much as the needs of a non-allo-aro audience. In real life, allo-aros often interact with people who expect us to be ready educators about our identity regardless of circumstance, situation or even ability. (Having to explain my existence in the middle of a class discussion or during a trading card game is intensely othering.) When allies position allo-aro characters in story as nothing more than mouthpieces on antagonism, this reinforces real-life erasure … and makes our representation the tale of someone else’s education.

Instead:

One: Ensure that your allo-aro characters–even minor and side characters–exist in your plot for reasons beyond educating alloromantic characters.

Two: If your character must make frequent corrections or objections, show their discomfort and distress at having to defend themself against or provide information on allo-aro antagonism. Show their yearning to be regarded as an equal, ordinary participant in an activity or scene even as they speak up about their experiences.

Stories centring on allo-aro identity, feelings or experiences.

I would argue (albeit with a great deal of bias) that allo-aros suffer more from alloromantics’ lack of interest in supporting allo-aro creators, not from our own lack of creative talent or ability. In that light, do we need ally-authored stories focusing on being allo-aro as much as we need allies to celebrate the allo-aros telling–or wishing to tell–our own stories? Even should your story be faultlessly researched, the very act of your work’s centring on the allo-aro experience inherently pushes allo-aro creators aside while allies remain more likely to be heard and respected as authorities on allo-aro identity by the mainstream, LGBTQIA+ and a-spec communities.

Instead:

One: Stories where allo-aro identity is one facet of your characters’ experiences should and must exist. We don’t want all stories with allo-aro characters to focus on or be solely about being allo-aro. We also want incidentally allo-aro protagonists! We crave representation in dragon knights who find themselves in possession of world-breaking powers and jewel thieves struggling to come to terms with life after the big heist. Allies can do us a grave service in creating these longed-for fictional worlds, where allosexual aromanticism forms one part of your character and their story.

Two: Work with an allo-aro co-creator, especially those allo-aros who for reason of access, language or ability need support in bringing their tale to life. Use your storytelling skills to showcase allo-aro voices!

Allo-aro characters whose villainy reflects allo-aro stereotype.

Countless characters in narrative have been painted as evil through allo-aro coding. If an antagonist shows sexual desire absent romantic desire, especially if also regarded as rapacious? If they jump from bed to bed without forming lasting romantic relationships? If their lust for another character accompanies expressions of hatred, planned exploitation or mockery of love? If they only desire people for sexual gratification? If their sexual desires are positioned as dirty, corrupt, aggressive or violent? That’s an author’s use, consciously or unconsciously, of stereotypical traits and coding–based in sex negativity–to demonstrate or reinforce an antagonist’s evilness. Non-alloromantic sexual attraction is frequently associated with predation and abuse to contrast with the decency and love associated with a hero protagonist’s alloromantic allosexuality.

When you’re an allo-aro who “jumps from bed to bed” or only desires sexual relationships, seeing an ally intentionally make such an allo-aro character the story’s villain can reinforce the relationship between stereotype and antagonism. It teaches the audience that allo-aro traits must come paired with cruelty. It teaches allo-aros to loathe ourselves for the crimes of being sex favourable, allosexual and aromantic. It reminds us of a world bereft of allo-aro heroism.

Instead:

One: Also write allo-aro and alloromantic protagonists who “sleep around”! Construct a setting in which “sexual desire absent romantic desire” isn’t frowned upon. Never have other characters scorn the villain for being allo-aro. Lastly, reconsider making your allo-aro villain a rapist or violently aggressive, as this union of “allo-aro” and “predator” is the basis for allo-aro antagonism! Instead, give us well-rounded allo-aro antagonists who deserve condemnation for plotting world domination but garner sympathy for their struggles concerning amatonormativity-preaching parents.

Two: Don’t write allo-aros as the antagonists of traditional stories focusing on alloromantic protagonists unless you’re very, very sure that you can convey through the setting, side characters and narrative that allosexual aromanticism is no less “good” a way of being than the protagonist’s alloromanticism.

Stories employing allo-aro stereotypes or traits as a running joke.

One allo-aro character, no matter the time of day, answers calls to arms from a different person’s bed. Another greets their coworkers with stories about their absurd efforts to escape the horror of romantic entanglement. We well know these characters: television owns a long history of inviting the audience to laugh at stereotypical, allo-aro-coded characters’ grossness (via focus on bodily functions, sex acts and genitalia), misogyny or predation (via cis women as victims of an allo-aro character’s deceit in seeking sex). In most cases, the character’s “antics” are a source of shame, incredulity or embarrassment for the alloromantics around them. Audiences, meanwhile, laugh at the ridiculousness: no good person seeks so desperately to avoid romantic relationships!

The understanding that (stereotypical shapes of) allosexual aromanticism denies us human decency and dignity is what makes these characters’ non-romantic sexual exploits funny–even in stories where the character is well-liked or billed as the protagonist. In comedic narratives with a stereotypical allo-aro character, the humour relies upon the audience’s unquestioned sex negativity, amatonormativity and aro antagonism.

Instead:

You can rework this trope by focusing on the normative reactions of your alloromantic characters, especially if told from the allo-aro character’s perspective. Be sure that you understand the intersection of sex negativity, amatonormativity and aro antagonism such that you don’t merely reinforce the expected narrative. (This is all the more vital if you’re targeting your work at a general or mainstream audience.) If you fear that you can’t convey sufficient respect and sensitivity for the living allo-aros the stereotype describes, this running gag is best avoided.

Fifth: Things Good Allies Don’t Do

I do have a list of problematic actions for allies who write allo-aro characters. This isn’t about placing characters, plots or tropes beyond your creative purview; instead, I’m focusing on how contextualising and discussing your work may impact allo-aros. As with the prior examples of characters and tropes, missteps can cause harm through conveying misinformation, speaking over us or erasing some of us from what is promoted as desirable representation.

Don’t let your representation rest upon a single type of character.

If you’re writing more than one allo-aro character, be it in the same work or over several works, they should have varying experiences, desires and relationships to their allo-aro identity. Ideally, they occupy different roles in their respective stories. You don’t have to squeeze multiple allo-aro characters into a single work: in many cases, this just isn’t a reasonable goal! Rather, consider this when regarding your output as a whole. How many allo-aro characters have you written? How do they differ?

Diversity in character avoids implying the association of only stereotypical qualities with allo-aro identity if you write allo-aro characters who do fit them. If you only write allo-aro characters in queerplatonic partnerships, however, you’re still erasing our diversity in favour of a single shape of representation. Even though this example doesn’t reflect a negatively-wielded stereotype, your work may carry the suggestion that partnering makes for a “acceptable” allo-aro character (or person). You’re still conveying an artificially narrow view of allo-aro identity within your fictional worlds.

(Note: Allo-aro creators are–literally–narrating our own stories, even in fiction! Some of us wish only, though story, to validate our complex experiences. We may create more diverse representation, like our allies, to celebrate our wider allo-aro community; we may also focus on depicting, through our characters, how we specifically are allo-aro.)

Don’t avoid certain allo-aro characters from fear of confirming stereotypes.

Yes, you should be careful when assigning stereotypical allo-aro traits to your villains, considering that alloromantics often use stereotypes to harm us. Here’s a question, though: is a trait bad because its use in all your allo-aro characters simplifies the vastness that is “allo-aro”? Or is it bad because Western society teaches us that possessing such traits makes for a bad person … and you’ve only assigned these to allo-aro characters? Instead of regarding one’s only writing promiscuous allo-aros as a problem of limited character, we consider the characters’ promiscuity the problem. It isn’t.

Warning against the writing of characters who fit “bad”, weaponised stereotypes for their respective identities erases real-life members of said communities from story. It accepts without interrogation the argument that certain qualities are bad or harmful. Is it coincidental that what is commonly held up as “good” representation for allo-aros, like having a long-term partner, celebrates qualities that allosexual alloromantics are more likely to respect? Don’t humans own a tired history of referencing marginalised traits, qualities and experiences to condemn another identity group–where scorning allo-aros as “heartless” or “unfeeling” comes as much from parroting ableist, neuronormative beliefs about empathy and emotional performance as it does allo-aro antagonism?

Question your assumptions! Rebel against antagonism by celebrating the qualities society condemns in allo-aro and allo characters alike! Don’t throw allo-aros whose lives resemble negatively-wielded stereotypes under the bus by denying us, because of said stereotypes, a place in your stories. Don’t contort your allo-aro characters to fit only whatever it is the mainstream reckons “acceptable” when we know that reckoning comes burdened with privilege, erasure, ignorance and hatred. Please, don’t avoid depicting certain traits and behaviours in your characters solely because allo-aro antagonists use them in their efforts to dehumanise and vilify us.

Good allies don’t uphold those who despise allo-aros as the moral arbiters of what constitutes an acceptable allo-aro character.

Don’t contextualise your character’s allosexual aromanticism as asexuality.

Yes, some allo-aros are also asexual. (I’m one of them.) Yes, some allo-aros feel at home–or once felt at home, in the days before the aromantic community existed in its own right–in the asexual community. Yes, the line between “allosexual” and “asexual” is far more complex in actuality than in our fumbling attempts at language, and this fluidity must be acknowledged and celebrated. Yes, abrosexual and aceflux allo-aros deserve representation!

Most allo-aros, however, feel erased when our identity is by default classified as a form of asexuality. (My aromanticism doesn’t make me asexual. I’m asexual because I intermittently experience the absence of sexual attraction.) This isn’t an objection to mere terminology but a pain rooted in the a-spec community’s failure to honour allo-aros’ differences from asexuals in identity and experience. Treating allo-aros as asexual adjacent has only enabled the denial of our unique needs as allosexual aromantics. Too often, our aromanticism is celebrated at cost of our allosexuality: we are welcomed in general aromantic spaces if we can shove aside our sexual attraction. Allo-aros, irrespective of our personal comfort with the asexual community and label, are not yet reliably respected as equal members of the a-spec community–as allosexuals who are also aromantic.

We need aromantic representation occupying the many spaces between (and outside) asexuality and allosexuality. We need stories depicting allo-aros with closer ties to asexuals and the asexual community. Contextualising allosexual aromanticism as inherently asexual, close enough to asexual, or asexual adjacent isn’t needed to accomplish either … but it will alienate those allo-aros who know from painful experience that this only dismisses our allosexuality.

Don’t misrepresent or exaggerate your allo-aro representation.

It’s not unheard of for a creator to describe a work as “containing X representation” only for that representation to consist of a minor or background character. (Allies who review, recommend and signal boost works also do this.) It’s also not unreasonable for anyone reading the words “allo-aro representation” to think that the work in question should depict an allo-aro character significant to the story. When the word “representation” can be used, without technical falsehood, to refer to both narrating protagonists and background characters, representation-desiring allo-aros with limited money or time can’t filter out those stories that aren’t meaningfully about us.

A creator who promotes their inclusion of “allo-aro rep” only to give us a minor character feels like someone who, after plating up their own feast, expects praise for tossing us table scraps. At best, it’s a misunderstanding of what many people consider “representation” to mean; at worst, it’s a bait and switch.

If you label, reference or discuss your work as containing “allo-aro representation”, respect us by being upfront about the representation it contains (or will contain, in the case of a series in progress). Does it contain an allo-aro protagonist? Two major supporting characters? A character present in two short scenes without impact on the plot? A character only referenced in the first three comics but claims a prominent role in the fourth?

Or is it such a case of “blink and you’ll miss it” that you shouldn’t even mention it as representation?

Don’t use ally-authored materials in developing the allo-aro identity of your characters.

I’ve never seen an ally-authored guide about writing allo-aro characters that hasn’t told its readers to avoid writing allo-aro characters like me. Never. Nor have I seen one that doesn’t perpetrate and perpetuate sex negativity. Relying on ally-authored materials–even those written by other a-specs!–results in a game of telephone where allies state what they think allo-aros need or want based on the original misunderstandings and assumptions made by other allies. To say that this is harmful is a wild understatement. Furthermore, the use of ally-authored resources contributes to the problem where allo-aros aren’t first heard on the subject of being allo-aro, so the best thing you can do as an ally is listen to and learn from allo-aros. Not other allies.

(I yearn for the day in which “treat only allo-aros as authorities on being allo-aro” is so obvious a point folks wonder why I bothered to put fingers to keyboard.)

Using own-voices stories for your research and background reading/viewing, as discussed in the first post of this series, also lets you do the work of an ally by supporting allo-aro creators. What kind of ally are you, in your quest to write allo-aro characters, if you’re first purchasing works created by other allies over works by allo-aros?

Don’t use your experience as a creator to speak on allo-aro representation.

You can compile lists of helpful resources and the names of allo-aros who answer questions. You can create posts discussing sources of background information and public communities open to educating allies. You can link to posts where allo-aros discuss allo-aro characters, stories and representation. You can make it easier, in this way, for other allies to write their own allo-aro characters–by collating and sharing content you find useful.

You should never speak on what makes a good allo-aro character. You should never declare what types of allo-aro characters can’t be written, even if some allo-aros agree with you. You should never opine on what you think suitable, inclusive or acceptable allo-aro representation, even if allo-aros respond positively to your allo-aro characters. Too many allies have harmed allo-aros by voicing opinions burdened by unrecognised sex negativity, amatonormativity, erasure and antagonism. Too many allies talk over allo-aros as though their understanding of asexual or non-allosexual aromantic characters serve our needs. What makes you different from all the other well-meaning but harm-causing allies who believe that they know enough about allo-aros to discuss our representation?

This isn’t your conversation to have, so don’t. Promote allo-aro resources and conversations instead.

Sixth: Further Questions and Allyhood

You’ve perused allo-aro works and taken notes on how you’ll identify your characters. You’re confident in your ability to handle certain tropes. You’ve done as much background research as the internet permits … but you have questions our online posts haven’t answered or queries about issues you don’t quite grasp. You don’t want to make assumptions, and in your investigation of all things allo-aro online, you noted a few people or accounts who create resources, discuss character-relevant topics, collate themed content or accept questions. Should you ask? Yes!

There is an etiquette involved, however, when it comes to making contact for research purposes. Please remember that giving answers and explanations–especially on the subjects of erasure or antagonism–takes time and emotional energy: we may have to elaborate on triggering or alienating experiences. Never forget that existing as allo-aro online isn’t a declaration of willingness to provide unpaid labour for all those who come asking. This is true even when your questions are important–and even when you’re undertaking the beneficial-to-us work of including allo-aro characters in your stories.

To be a good asker of questions and requester of resources, you should:

  • Never ask questions of someone who hasn’t declared themselves open to providing answers.
  • Ask questions only of those allo-aros who have declared themselves open to such interaction with allies: some allo-aros direct their limited time or ability towards supporting other allo-aros.
  • Never intrude into private or closed allo-aro communities, online and off, for the sake of research or resources. We need spaces that exist for our self-expression, interaction and connection.
  • To the best of your ability, research your topic of interest before asking us questions.
  • To the best of your ability, search our own social media accounts or websites before asking us questions: people frequently request already-available content or ask already-answered questions. (Don’t forget to check description boxes, sidebars, footers and the “about” section of social media accounts for links!)
  • Don’t spam-ask the same question of multiple allo-aros unless the subject is something in which you need varying viewpoints. Requiring multiple allo-aros to unknowingly undertake this labour is beyond inconsiderate; do the decent thing of waiting a few days for any answers before asking someone else.
  • Support the allo-aros who answer your questions and provide you resources. Buy our art. Donate to our ko-fi accounts. Even if you only post links to the content you found useful on your social media accounts, do something to promote and support us as creators and educators.
  • Always pay (or trade/barter with) your sensitivity readers. No sensitivity reader should work for free given that the work inherently risks exposure to stress-provoking content in addition to the burdens of correcting and educating.

In my experience, people who ask well-meaning questions fail to recognise just how many other well-meaning people ask questions I’ve already answered and are searchable on my accounts (or have been discussed in posts linked on my allo-aro resource page). As a disabled writer with limitations in computer, keyboard and device usage, it’s overwhelming to have so many people–deserving of my help but disrespectful of my time–wanting me to short-cut them towards already-extant content. Even abled allo-aros struggle, because anyone who has provided resources or support online well knows this truth: the answering of one question will beget thrice as many new ones.

We’re not, in the vast majority of cases, paid for our work in answering questions or providing resources. (Yet we must survive beneath capitalism’s cruel yoke.) Educating others, while vital for our allies’ growth and the birth of a more-accepting world, is a tiring, draining experience that takes us away from things we enjoy doing. (This series, a seven-thousand-word resource, took me two and a half weeks to write, rewrite, edit and proof–a period in which I wrote no fiction and my desk accumulated monstrously-sized dust bunnies.) Please, be mindful of our time and labour. Support us that so we can keep providing you answers and resources. Be a good asker–a good ally.

Final: Opt In to Allyhood

If you haven’t quit this post out of text overload, you’ve likely concluded that allyhood is hard work. Yes! For many people, allyhood as I preach it demands too much time and research. Too much consideration. Too much effort. For countless reasons, however much you desire otherwise, you may not be able to undertake the work of an ally. As someone who struggles to undertake the work of talking about being allo-aro, and more often than not can’t help allo-aros and allies how and when they need it, I know the guilt that comes with recognising inability.

Thankfully, engaging in allyhood through representation isn’t compulsory.

You aren’t required to create allo-aro characters or include us in your fictional universes. You can concentrate your efforts on characters depicting your own identities and experiences. Marginalised creators deserve to focus foremost on their own quests for representation if they so choose! In a world that constantly demands more from us than we are able to give, you are allowed, without guilt or shame, to toss allyhood through representation into the too-hard basket. You can turn your limited efforts towards your own struggles.

(Please, though, give some time and thought to creating stories that don’t carelessly reinforce the harms of amatonormativity and sex negativity!)

If you’ve chosen to include allo-aro characters in your works, however, I need you to recognise a truth often forgotten when we discuss representation: allyhood to allo-aros via representation doesn’t stop with creating allo-aro characters. It shapes the story in which you place them, it shapes the ways in which you contextualise said story and it shapes the ways you share your story with the world. Most of all, it requires willingness to take action beyond putting word to page, because “ally” shouldn’t describe mere belief or attitude.

Creators who opt in to this work without resentment, holding compassion and consideration above all, deserve that crowning word’s weight–and our immense gratitude.

A Quick Note For Allo-Aro Creators

This series isn’t aimed at, and should never be taken as advice for, own voices writers of allo-aro characters. We’re the people who should–if we wish it–write stories solely about allo-aro identity, experiences and feelings! We should reclaim and repurpose villain stereotypes and running gags! We can, irrespective of what other allo-aro representation exists or should exist, create characters speaking foremost to our sense of being allo-aro.

One rule, I think, holds true irrespective of creator identity: we must reckon with the toxic trinary that is sex negativity, amatonormativity and aro antagonism, as few people escape internalising such teachings.

Otherwise, our need to create stories that centre us rests above any sense of good, ideal or broader representation. While we should acknowledge that our characters can’t and won’t represent all allo-aros, not much in this world celebrates our particular way of being allo-aro. Fictional narrative offers us the one place where we can engage in a glorious, validating selfishness, and I’ll never take that away from my fellow allo-aros. Not when I rely upon it myself.

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