A Rose by Any Other Name… On Using Identity Labels vs Using Descriptions

Hi, everyone! I hope your week is off to a fantastic start! I know. I know. No one likes Mondays because the week's off to a new start. But you know what Mondays also mean? It's time for Monday Musings! Wherein I ramble about various and sundry depending on my whim or Patreon requests/suggestions. Posts are somewhere below 2,500 words at most and consist of short personal essays and discussions.

A Rose by Any Other Name… On Using Identity Labels vs Using Descriptions

The title of this post may seem a little glib. After all, an easy solution to the question of “should I use labels for identities or should I describe the way these identities manifest themselves” is to just… do both. You can’t go wrong with writing both, right?

Well, not quite. If you get them right, sure, but you may not. And, regardless, “just use both” is a tangential solution to what I want to talk about in this post. What I want to talk about is something that I’ve noticed since I began writing ace fiction deliberately: the idea that using labels (and nothing else) is the best and greatest form of representation there is. It’s something that, as a budding published author, I was told I should do if I wanted to be a ‘good ace author’. I bucked against it for reasons that, honestly, are not as great as I thought at the time, but also for reasons that I couldn’t articulate until I’d read enough books with asexual characters to start noticing patterns in how they handle the representation. It’s something I’ve talked about before and will, undoubtedly, talk about again. My understanding of asexuality and how to write it grows with every book I read and every story I write, after all.

So, in the interest of full disclosure, my initial argument against using the terms in my works was the expected “The tone is too modern and it doesn’t fit in fantasy settings” which, while a fair linguistic argument in isolation, is only true up to a point. And I kind of wish that, instead of arguing about it, someone had told me what I’m about to tell you because it would have kept me from digging my heels in. But, here, let me put what I’ve learned as plainly as possible.

When we use arguments like this to exclude certain words from the stories we tell, we need to remember that, in this context, not all words are equal. You see, we don’t apply this general rule solely to someone saying ‘okay’ or using a bit of clearly modern slang in a period setting. We also apply this argument when marginalised people are using words to describe their experiences. And, at that point, we’re not engaging in a discussion about when a word feels to modern for a setting (which is a subjective note anyway); we’re engaging in telling a marginalised person they can’t use words that describe themselves. No matter how good or noble our intentions may be, that means we’re telling marginalised people they don’t get to use the words to describe their experiences and, frankly, there’s a very good chance they’re told that anyway. And if we can’t use them in fiction, where the heck can we use them and when is it okay to use them?

Fantasy and science fiction give us a little leeway there by allowing us to create a conlang term for it, though that can result in marginalised people feeling Othered and hurt by the fact that their existence needed to be, ah, relegated to a made up language rather than using perfectly good (if potentially ‘too modern’) terms. As a writer, that’s something you’ll have to consider and you’ll have to ask yourself what’s most important to you.

It’s perfectly fine to consider the words too modern and unfitting for your own work. They’re your stories. You get to tell them how you want. (But reviewers may want to keep in mind that when they say “But these terms are too modern”, they may be inadvertently engaging in gatekeeping marginalised communities when those terms aren’t accepted or denied in a social context outside of the pages of a book.)

Anyway! Leaving aside that words that come from marginalised communities to describe their own lived experiences, let’s consider the words that don’t have such a loaded meaning. There are many phrases and words that set a tone that’s linguistically too modern to fit the period we’re writing and we use them anyway. We use them because they’re just as worn and comfortable to us as words that are older, that fit the period but may have fallen out of favour or have gained a wholly new meaning that creates images you rather don’t want. Think, for example, of the word ‘gay’ and the way that’s shifted meaning over the years. One day, these words that we deem too modern now will fit right in with that fantasy setting because these words too will be all worn and comfy like a favourite sweater in winter time. So why not use them? It’s not expected and it may throw readers, but readers are smart. They’ll adapt and sometimes, some stories, just desperately need them to make the points you want to make with it. Maybe that’s all your stories. Maybe it’s not.

For me, and I’m circling back now to the part where the “But it’s too modern” argument fitted my perception of my own work, underlying the arguments I could make in my case was something that I didn’t really know how to articulate and it’s one that goes against the grain of that particular ‘advice’ I received. That argument was, quite simply, that just slapping a label into your story with no clear follow-through doesn’t work for me. A label is just a word. The first few times I saw labels that fit me used in fiction, that’s what they were to me: just words. They were just words because the author didn’t give me the visceral descriptions of anything that resembled my lived experience with those labels.

To give you some background on this: as a demisexual the majority of the time I’ve seen my label explicitly mentioned in fiction it occurs in the following situation: it’s an m/m story relying heavily on Gay For You, where the main character has never heard of demisexuality, learns about it from their allosexual love interest (or an allosexual friend) in a conversation that doesn’t even begin to cover that anyone who’s heard of demisexuality will have heard of asexuality and is not going to jump straight to the conclusion ‘Oh, you must be demisexual’ over ‘Maybe you’re ace spec’, cuts any discussion of this aspect of their sexuality off with some variant of ‘labels don’t matter’ and then spends the rest of the story embracing their gayness. (Because bisexuality doesn’t exist. Or something.)

I couldn’t have begun to explain this to people when I was just stepping into online life as a visible asexual spectrum author. I didn’t have the background. I didn’t have the words. But, having them now, I suspect you’ll find it easy to tell where I find issue with the argument that using the labels is the Holy Grail Of Ace Rep.

Don’t get me wrong, here. Using the labels is incredibly important because so many people have never heard of asexuality (or, for that matter, aromanticism) before and our books may be the first time they heard about it. It helps to normalise the word and gain acceptance and use. It’s a good part of why so many of the books that use the label tend to pair that label with a definition. It’s not always a good definition, but that’s another topic. But simply using the label and saying “My work here is done”, to me, just isn’t good enough, and it was just… kind of always implied that yes, it was.

The work is just beginning. Personally, I would much rather have a book that relies solely on descriptions of asexuality and that makes a person feel less broken because here is a character that isn’t presented as broken than I would a story that includes a label and maybe a description and nothing else for me to hold on to.

Ideally, of course, we have both. Maybe not in the same book at the same time. That’s up to the writer to decide and there’s room for all sorts of stories. The best part? All of them matter. It matters when you write a book that uses the label and gives people a handhold to learn more about themselves. It matters when you write a story that includes a description that resonates, marrow-deep, with a reader because the experience is just that spot-on. It matters when you combine the two into a story that offers readers both.

And it kills me that the first, ah, advice I ever got, as a writer and reader looking for representation, was to prize above all else something that didn’t – couldn’t – work for me. If I’d been a less experienced author, I would have tried to internalise that idea, not spent years trying to puzzle out why my reaction was to balk against it so strongly. I whole-heartedly believe that my writing would have suffered for it because descriptions matter far more to me, have always mattered far more to me, than labels ever could.

So, here is my advice for writing marginalised characters and you’re not sure if you should (or want to) include identity labels: you get to decide what works best for your story and for yourself. You’re the only person who can decide what works for you and what matters most to you. Maybe, like the people who gave that advise, you’re someone who thrives on hearing and using the words in fiction. Include them. Relish them. Celebrate them. Maybe, like me, you’re someone who desperately needs to see the way these experiences shape the characters. Make your descriptions of them as powerful as you can. Delight in them. Celebrate them too. Maybe, like many writers, you’re someone who needs stories to contain both. Don’t let anyone stop you from adding both.

Because in the end not only is there room for all these approaches, there is a need for all these approaches. Write the story true, in the matter you feel it needs to be told. (But please, for the love of everything, make sure your description/definition and your label use match because getting that wrong will do more harm than anything else you could possibly do.)