Being Yourself On Purpose

It’s Ace Week! It’s also French publication day for The Butterfly Assassin, which is super appropriate, because Isabel is asexual, so this is her week.

I’ve talked before about asexual “representation” in The Butterfly Assassin, and how there arguably… isn’t any — not if you define representation as explicit labels and discussion of a certain identity. This is a balance I’ve grappled with over the past year, wondering how much to emphasise that element of the book. The fact of the matter is, this is a book that’s all murder, no sex — an upper YA book where the most important, intense relationship is a platonic one, and where opportunities for that relationship to develop into a romantic or sexual relationship are deliberately avoided in favour of taking the narrative another path — and that, much more than labels, is what matters to me, and it’s what my younger self needed.

That doesn’t mean labels aren’t important, though, nor that Isabel’s identity will never be discussed in more depth in the series. I’m a little over halfway through the editing process for the sequel to The Butterfly Assassin at the moment, having finished structural edits and with line edits coming rapidly over the horizon, and one of the things I love about this book is how it gives Isabel more space to explore who she is.

Some spoilers for book one ahead, so if you haven’t read it yet, might I suggest you go grab a copy before venturing further? (Unless you like spoilers, in which case, you do you!)

In The Butterfly Assassin, a major source of tension and conflict is the fact that Isabel has been poisoned. As such, she spends the majority of the book trying hard not to die, focused solely on survival. It is not a narrative that gives her a lot of time to start worrying about whether or not she feels sexual attraction, because it would be deeply unnecessary to her current situation.

Now. I have been told, and have gradually come to observe from my own reading, that this in itself is a pretty ace perspective. Turns out, allosexual people and characters do start thinking about sexual attraction at deeply inconvenient moments, up to and including while Trying Not To Die. Who knew! And I know from personal experience that identity crises do tend to assert themselves at times when you should really be focusing on other things; that’s why I had a gender crisis in the middle of my A-Levels, because I no longer had the brainspace to repress it.

But the fact of the matter is that Isabel is very, very good at repressing things, and not particularly prone to navel-gazing, and as such, it would never occur to her to try and put a label on an absence of certain feelings. She’s so convinced she’s messed up by her childhood that if she recognised a difference in her own behaviour compared to anyone else’s, she’d simply chalk it up to that and move on.

I think this is a common story. I think there are a lot of people whose experiences resonate with ace experiences, and might plausibly fall under that umbrella, but they will never seek out that label. They don’t need to. It isn’t relevant. Some might think the rest of the world is exaggerating about their sexual attraction; others are aware that they’re different, but have chalked it up to some other factor in their life or upbringing or current experiences.

And that’s fine. Nobody is ever obliged to use any label for anything. I find my own sexuality increasingly slippery and hard to pin down, particularly as my sense of gender shifts and matures. I still find it resonates most strongly with ace experiences, but I’m also very aware that asexuality is a spectrum, and that not everybody who sees themselves as belonging to that spectrum is in the No Attraction Ever category, nor is attraction synonymous with interest in sex.

I’m also increasingly aware that romantic attraction can be a slippery thing. To my mind, there is no objective, concrete, identifiable difference between romantic and platonic affection in terms of its expression and what it looks like to an outside observer. The difference is in what it means to the people in that relationship, and how they label it, and what it means to them. One person’s queerplatonic relationship might look identical from the outside to another person’s romantic one, but that doesn’t mean it is identical, if that’s not how those people experience it.

This … dislocation, almost, or at least separation of Objective External Perception from Concrete Labels And Terminology has been freeing. Imagine the possibilities if I say, “It doesn’t matter what you think this relationship is, to me it’s X, and that’s what matters.” Some people kiss their friends. Some people don’t kiss their romantic partners. Why are we assuming that to qualify as one thing or another, certain behaviours or actions have to be exhibited?

I’ve got sidetracked. I’m sorry. At one point I had an actual purpose in writing this post, but at this point it’s purely, “Finn muses on what asexuality and aromanticism mean to them,” and that is probably not why you’re here. Back to TBA…

Except it’s not really a sidetrack. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about seeing reader reactions to The Butterfly Assassin is how several people have said they don’t normally read books without romance, but that they didn’t feel anything was missing from mine. One person even said that it felt like the friendship hit the same beats as a romantic relationship would have done, in terms of how it grows and develops. That’s deliberate. I’d read a lot of books growing up where the cold, “emotionless” character was “humanised” by sexual attraction and romantic feelings, and I wanted to explore the possibility of platonic affection serving the same purpose, breaking through their shell. There are a lot of ways to love people; why was only one being valued?

It makes me think a lot about what people are looking for when they prioritise reading books with strong romantic elements. I know what I’m looking for when I pick up a romance novel; I’m rarely looking for it when I pick up a fantasy or sci-fi book. But maybe what others are seeking, when they say they want strong romance subplots, is actually just human connection, intensity of feeling, those moments when a character realises their feelings for another have broken through their walls and rules and intentions and changed how they respond to having plot happen to them. And I see no reason why you can’t get those feelings from an intense platonic friendship.

(NB: An ace protagonist doesn’t, of course, preclude the possibility of romance, because asexuality and aromanticism are not synonymous. However, as Isabel is ace/aro and those aspects of her identity are significantly entwined, in this specific case, there’s a lot of overlap, and I will sometimes use one as shorthand for another. This is not intended to erase the identities of those who are ace and not aro, or aro and not ace, but I know that my terminology sometimes blurs in ways that could seem careless, hence the clarification.)

Book two once again has one of those intense friendships at the heart of it, but there’s a difference, because it’s no longer the only friendship that Isabel has, and there is a lot more space for Isabel to start reflecting more on her place in the world around her and how she relates to the people she’s surrounded with. In book one, she’s isolated, with very few friends of her own age, almost all of whom she’s lying to. She’s only just escaped from a traumatic upbringing that, in particular, has left her isolated for the past eighteen months, forbidden to see anyone except her parents and one other person. This is not the case in the sequel.

Without wanting to give too much away before the title and cover and blurb are revealed, one of the things I like about book two is that although the narrative voice is still very much in Isabel’s head — it’s in third person, but it’s such a close third person it sometimes feels closer than first, to me — the scope of the story is broader. It’s like the camera has stepped back, and we get to see more of the city, because Isabel is living in it, engaging with it, experiencing it.

Book two gives us an Isabel who has friends, or at least colleagues — a day job, putting her in a position of interacting daily with civilians who challenge her sense of self and open her mind to new possibilities. And, yes, they are mostly queer. Again, this wasn’t a deliberate choice, or a box-ticking exercise (“okay, we need a character who uses they/them pronouns, and a character who’s gay, and a character who’s bi…”). I have very few straight cis friends, and when I come to write, I write characters who feel real to me, who look like the world I see around me. So, inevitably, they end up mostly being queer, because that’s the world I live in.

In a queernorm environment, there’s no need for anyone to come out, because nobody is ever assumed to be straight. But still, in many queernorm settings, there’s an expectation that characters will be interested in someone, even if options are less circumscribed. I didn’t want to fall into that trap, either, but I wanted to see Isabel realising for the first time that her experiences might not be Default Setting. Not to alienate her, or make her feel different, but to allow her to be herself more consciously.

One of the ways I’ve done this — and I’m excited for you to read this part — is to show Isabel picking up some of the terrible romance novels we encountered in book one, when Emma was collecting them. I hope that nobody takes this detail as me mocking Romance as a genre. I have been very public about the fact that queer historical romance novels got me through the pandemic, and if I poke fun at clichĂ© Mills & Boon style romance novels here, it’s done with love. I had a lot of fun coming up with awful in-universe premises (an assassin who falls for their target! two assassins from rival guilds who have a meet-cute over a dead body!) and I knew, as soon as they showed up in book one, that I would want to come back to them properly.

(Psst. If anyone wants to write one of these as fanfic, it would delight me. Or, you know, if anyone wants to pay me to write one of these, I will do so with glee and gusto. Just know that it would be intentionally Extremely Cringe.)

So. Isabel reads terrible in-universe romance novels. (Her friends and colleagues are quick to assure her that good romance novels do exist; she continues to stubbornly read the terrible ones, because Emma collected them, so they mean something.) And she doesn’t get it. And she turns to her flatmate, to her friends, and is like, “Explain this to me.”

The thing I love about this is that it gives us space for Isabel to examine her feelings in a hypothetical situation — but it also lets her explore them with others who, unexpectedly, share some of those feelings. One of the characters she talks to is aro, but bisexual. One of them is ace/aro. Neither of them use labels, because they don’t exist within the setting in the same way that they do in our world, but they’re able to give Isabel perspectives that help her understand herself.

That is representation, for me. Not necessarily specific labels that map directly onto real-world experiences, although these can be helpful for some, life-saving for others. But to have those perspectives, those new ways of seeing the world that allow you to understand your place in a continuum and then explore it deliberately and consciously… I think that’s what really matters, when it comes down to it. And whether readers relate to Isabel’s place in that continuum or not, I think seeing it is part of what allows us all to be ourselves more consciously.

In fact, some of the characters that were the most helpful to me in figuring out I was trans were not trans characters. It was those who made me say, Oh, that’s NOT me, that really helped solidify things. Experiences that I couldn’t relate to that made me prod and poke for the reasons why. But it was also characters in settings where they didn’t have words for things, because I wasn’t ready to put labels on things, and I wasn’t willing to commit to a label. There’s something gentler about seeing yourself reflected without necessarily acknowledging first what that would mean.

In the end, what is any coming out process, what is any exploration of gender or sexuality, but learning who we are and starting to do it on purpose?

Book two shows Isabel learning a lot more about who she is, and doing some of it on purpose — even the parts she doesn’t necessarily like about herself. And her purposeful self is ace/aro, and feels platonic affection so intensely that it can break through all her walls and repression, because there’s never been only one kind of love.

I’m very much looking forward to sharing that with you.

In the meantime, you can grab The Butterfly Assassin now. In English or in French. Which is super exciting to me, even though my French is appalling.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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