I Wrote A Rom-Com With An Autistic Heroine & Asian Hero Because I Wanted To See People Like Me In Romance

ByHelen Hoang
Photo courtesy of Eric Kieu

This year, Bustle is celebrating Rule Breakers — the women and non-binary individuals among us who dare to be themselves no matter what. In the lead-up to our list of Bustle's Rule Breakers of 2018 going live in late August, we are featuring stories from an array of individuals about critical moments when they didn't do as they were told. In a world that encourages us to conform unquestioningly, they refused to look or act the part, and we're all better for it. Click here to buy tickets for the event.

When I conceptualized The Kiss Quotient, a lighthearted story about an autistic woman who hires a half-Asian male escort to help her with sex and relationships, I was filled with delicious excitement. The story felt new — like something I hadn’t quite seen before — yet so very real, to me at least. But I didn’t set out to break any rules when I wrote it. In fact, I followed the two key rules of romance: First, I made the love story central to the plot, and second, I gave my characters a Happily Ever After.

However, through the framework of a traditional romance novel, I was able to tell a unique story. You could say I broke the rules while following the rules, and I did this by making "unconventional" character choices — in other words, characters you don't see too often in romance novels, or books in general. The ironic thing is that while my character choices may seem wild, they are completely natural to me. I am on the spectrum, and I am half-Asian, but only recently have I begun to see these parts of myself reflected positively and realistically in popular media. The work of authors like Christine Feehan, Tracey Livesay, Courtney Milan, Sherry Thomas, and Sonali Dev and my recent diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder gave me the courage to speak up and write myself onto the page.

I am on the spectrum, and I am half-Asian, but only recently have I begun to see these parts of myself reflected positively and realistically in popular media.

In my past work (and in my real life), I continually found myself trying to blend in with others, because I believed that "being the same" was the only way to be accepted. I got very good at mimicking my peers. But that was just a mask; it wasn’t real. Readers didn’t connect with it, and the friendships didn't last. Lately, I’ve discovered that there’s value in standing out and opening up. When you tell a secret, people lean close and listen. When it’s personal, stories resonate, and we connect.

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, $9.15, Amazon

For this book, I shared a mostly unseen side of autism — a woman’s autism, from the inside, complete with the insecurities and hopes and fears. People’s responses to Stella, my autistic heroine, have been largely positive. Stella is different from many people, but she is relatable. And suddenly, the gap between autistic people and non-autistic people doesn’t seem so wide. Maybe this can help foster empathy.

Similarly, through my half-Asian hero Michael, I shared my culture and the family dynamics that come with it. I didn’t want readers to feel like they were outsiders looking in. I wanted them to see people whom I modeled after my own family members and love them along with me, regardless of differences in backgrounds. I wanted to eliminate the language of “us” and “them” and replace it with “we all.”

I wanted to eliminate the language of “us” and “them” and replace it with “we all.”

I took unconventional choices a step further by writing my heroine as an independent and financially successful economist and my hero as a down-on-his-luck fashion designer/escort, thereby exploring alternatives to traditional gender roles and careers. A woman can be ambitious and enough romantically at the same time. A man doesn’t have to be a provider in the traditional sense. How people fit with societal norms doesn’t matter as much as how they fit together.

Because romance is about love, naturally it is also about idealism. The main characters in a romance aren’t necessarily the most perfect individuals in the world, but they are perfect to each other. They are each other’s fantasy. Through unconventional character choices, you can make nontraditional characters beautiful and desirable, something that some have rarely seen in literature or film and because of that, have come to believe the opposite—that they aren’t beautiful, that they aren’t desirable. In a romance, you can give them that. You can make them worthy of love.

Because romance is about love, naturally it is also about idealism. The main characters in a romance aren’t necessarily the most perfect individuals in the world, but they are perfect to each other.

Perhaps the greatest thing about romance is the Happily Ever After. Some people find it formulaic and predictable, but the guaranteed happy ending inspires trust in the reader and allows the writer to provide a richer emotional experience. Not only that, but romance is intrinsically optimistic. It provides hope. And I think this is exceptionally meaningful when you give this hope to people who might not have it. We’ve all seen stories where marginalized characters suffer, where they die tragically, where the bittersweet endings leave them unfulfilled or alone, etc., but in a romance, where they are the main characters, they overcome their struggles, they grow as individuals, they find true love, and they win the Happily Ever After.

Not only that, but romance is intrinsically optimistic. It provides hope. And I think this is exceptionally meaningful when you give this hope to people who might not have it.

I think that is the main rule I broke, even as I followed the rules of romance: I treated unconventional characters the same as I would any romance hero or heroine. I let them be someone’s fantasy, I let them succeed, and I let them have a happy ending, in an inclusive and personal manner meant to connect people as opposed to divide them. When you lift someone up, that doesn’t necessarily mean you push others down. Sometimes we all rise.