Neil Gaiman's Advice For Writing Strong Female Characters? Maybe Hang Out With Some Women
There is a lot of discussion of how the world can go about writing more awesome female characters. This often leads to the throwing around of the phrase "strong female characters" in the direction of any males who happen to pull off writing complex and/or kick-ass ladies who can also pass off as human (if that's their thing). And so this question of the strong female character was posed to very famous author Neil Gaiman, who suggested a rather brilliant, glaringly obvious but unfortunately still necessary piece of advice.
The occasion, for your frame of reference, was a radio special for BBC celebrating the tenth anniversary of when Buffy the Vampire Slayer first started airing in the UK. Given that Buffy was a hotbed of some truly legendary female characters, it was a fitting topic for the day, and so Gaiman was asked how one would go about writing a "Daughter of Buffy."
I always feel like the wrong person to be asked when I get asked that question because people say, ‘Well how do you write such good female characters?’ And I go, ‘Well I write people.’ Approximately half of the people I know are female and they’re cool, and they’re interesting, and so, why wouldn’t I? In the case of making the TARDIS a person, you make her the kind of person you’d like to meet.”
It is reminiscent of what Game Of Thrones/A Song Of Ice And Fire author George R. R. Martin said on the matter when he was asked: "Well, you see, I've always considered women to be people."
It also brings to mind Buffy creator Joss Whedon's now legendary reaction to someone asking him the similar question of why he writes such "Strong female characters": "Because you're still asking me that question."
Alas, we still live in a world where that question runs rampant. As the interviewer said next, "This gives me nothing to help people with who cannot write good female characters, and they do exist." Gaiman's response:
I think the big thing to point out to people is, you know, possibly they should go and hang around with some women. And also, it’s worth pointing out that people, unfortunately, misunderstand the phrase ‘strong women.’ The glory of Buffy is it was filled with strong women. Only one of those strong women had supernatural strength and an awful lot of sharpened stakes. And people sort of go ‘Well yes, of course Buffy was a strong woman. She could kick her way through a door.’ And you go ‘No, well that’s not actually what makes her a strong woman! You’re missing the point.’”
It is notable, in all three of these cases, that all of these inquiries are made to men. No one is asking female authors why they write such complex and realized women, or for that matter how they understand men enough to write them complexly as well. It's just assumed that of course they will, why wouldn't they? It's only the least a good writer could do — you know, work towards understanding how humans tick.
And so Gaiman's response, while not entirely original, is just the kind of shade any writer too chicken to write a complex woman needs to hear. "Possibly they should go and hang around with some women"? We are giving a giant bear hug to Neil Gaiman from here. That's how you do allyship.
Because the people who claim to be writers but who can't write complex women? Mainly what they seem to need is a giant eye-roll and a writing class.