Character Case Study: “October Tale”

Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 15:53 min

Neil explains the technique of bringing a character to life by putting them in an unfamiliar situation that creates tension.

Neil Gaiman
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There are two ways you can introduce a character. They can be static or they can be on the move. And it can be really fun if you want to meet somebody, if you want to encounter somebody, if you're bringing on a character, to just throw them into an unfamiliar setting to make the reader do a lot of the work. But by the same token, you're making people immediately have to figure out what's going on. Here we go. This is a book called "Trigger Warning." And it contains in it a short story that I wrote a set of 12 short stories called "Calendar of Tales." Here's the October tale. And I'll go through the whole thing. Because it's fairly short, and it does a whole bunch of stuff with character. And then I'll tell you what I did and I'll tell you why I did it. "'That feels good,' I said. And I stretched my neck to get out the last of the cramp. It didn't just feel good, it felt great, actually. I'd been squashed up inside that lamp for so long. You start to think that nobody's ever going to rub it again. 'You're a genie,' said the young lady with a polishing cloth in her hand. 'I am. You're a smart girl, toots. What gave me away?' 'The appearing in a puff of smoke,' she said. 'And you look like a genie. You've got the turban and the pointy shoes.' I folded my arms and blinked. Now I was wearing blue jeans, gray sneakers, and a faded gray sweater-- the male uniform of this time and this place. I raised a hand to my forehead and I bowed deeply. 'I am the genie of the lamp,' I told her. 'Rejoice, O fortunate one. I have it in my power to grant you three wishes. And don't try the "I wish for more wishes" thing. I won't play and you'll lose a wish. Right, go for it.' I folded my arms again. 'No,' she said. 'I mean, thanks and all that. But it's fine. I'm good.' 'Honey, I said. 'Toots, Sweetie. Perhaps you misheard me. I'm a genie. And the three wishes? We're talking anything you want. You ever dreamed of flying? I can give you wings. You want to be wealthy, richer than Croesus? You want power? Just say it. Three wishes. Whatever you want.' 'Like I said,' she said. 'Thanks. I'm fine. Would you like something to drink? You must be parched after spending so much time in that lamp? Wine? Water? Tea?' Uh, actually, now she came to mention it, I was thirsty. 'Do you have any mint tea?' She made me some mint tea in a tea pot that was almost a twin to the lamp in which I'd spent the greater part of the last 1,000 years. 'Thank you for the tea.' 'No problem.' 'But, I don't get it. Everyone I've ever met, they start asking for things, a fancy house, a harem of gorgeous women, not that you'd want that, of course.' 'I might,' she said. 'You can't just make assumptions about people. Oh, and don't call me toots or sweetie or any of those things. My name's Hazel.' 'Ah!' I understood. 'You want a beautiful woman then? My apologies. You have but to wish.' I folded my arms. 'No,' she said. 'I'm good. No wishes. How's the tea?' I told her that th...

Unleash your imagination

Award-winning author Neil Gaiman has spent more than a quarter of a century crafting vivid, absorbing fiction. Now, the author of Stardust, Coraline, and The Sandman teaches his approach to imaginative storytelling in his online writing class. Learn how to find your unique voice, develop original ideas, and breathe life into your characters. Discover Neil’s philosophy on what drives a story—and open new windows to the stories inside you.


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Do these stories make anyone else feel like they're in a waking dream? Lost in time, emerging with tears running down their cheeks?

Rich G.

Wow! What a wonderful story how the characters unfolded in their actions and words to become real.

Lisa P.

Enjoyed this lesson illustrating how to jump right in and within minutes create curiosity in what would happen next.


Ok, I will keep that in mind about the last chapter, still, there is some kind of magic with Bradbury short stories. Ray just takes a reader into another world. There really are no other stories like his. I am always in amazement and wonder when I read a Bradbury short story, and when I go back to them years afterwards, the stories still seem fresh. I am not sure that what Ray does can be taught. It may have something to do with the way he sees the world, or it may not. I do know that there was a lot of bad sci fi short stories during the pulp magazine era. A short story writer must have a sense of wonder beyond the normal person. It really is not a what if, what if, what if, that makes a good short story. There is something wonderful in a good short story that cannot be canned. And I wonder, now that the pulp era is over, will we really see good short stories again? The whole economic model for writing them is gone. And are people even reading anymore? Also, I am really tired of these authors who write a great first 60 pages, and then just fizz out, and don't give a dam about the rest of their book. And I think this comes from the fact that so many readers just read about 60 pages and then the airplane ride is over, so the book never gets picked up again. So, maybe a good short story is about quality. Taking the time it would have take to write a novel but only writing a short story in that time. Less is more. Oh yeah, there was that ray show where he said he put Exactly on half exhilaration, exactly on half terror into each short story. Perhaps writing a short story is a short trip that a writer goes on, and like ray said, he never knows where the journey will take him.


Starting in Medias res, in the middle of things, This is why we might love Sci-Fi, because we are putting characters in unfamiliar situations, and taking readers to unfamiliar surroundings, I will have to try this with a short story. Neil I think you love sci-fi. Let's go over the three stories from the stranger in the strange land, One, poor to rich, boy meets girl, and there is a person who learns a lesson--see the world differently, that is the lesson, And out of element, the mundane more magical. However, I think there are possibly more than three types of stories. Now you know that notion of possibility just crossed my mind. Further, I really would like to hear some stories told by real ET's, and when the world governments finally acknowledge that they are here on earth, I think we are all in for some grand stories from the extraterrestrials about their travels around the universe. Or, maybe I will get invited onboard a UFO. I have seen them, as many many many other people have also. I really think that you have to be really really brainwashed to think that the UFO people are not now here on earth and that there is not a base on the dark side of the moon. Well, at least as writers, we can say the UFO people are here and if we get in any trouble from the UFO police, we can just say, Hey, we are writers, and we made the whole thing up. But, I do think it would be wonderful if some extraterrestrials wrote some books, or have they already done that?

Andrea P.

What a beautiful but simple story. I enjoy the way Neil explains his work and how the characters change and the things they reveal to us through their dialogue.

Rawan S.

Beautiful class, I am loving this course. The stories told about the Djinn's youth are actual stories from the Islamic faith, explaining Djinn behavior thousands of years ago. Even the small details about Solomon trapping the Djinn in small pottery vases. I am so impressed he went that far in research for such a short tale. I love Neil Gaiman, thank you for taking the time to do this!

Tania M.

Loving this course but find it frustrating to listen to text being read out when I can do that in my own time (this applies to all author courses on MasterClass). Wishing this time was used on process and insights instead - or at least the readings were a lot shorter.


This lesson was amazing! I'd never heard October Tale before, but it was magical and it was eye opening to hear Mr. Gaiman explain the characters and things to do with them. I've loved this entire series so far, but this episode was especially great for me. Thank you!

Maribel V.

One of my favourite lessons so far. I am glad I had not heard the story before, so I got the full impact, as a reader and as a writer. As a reader, I was almost emotional at the end! What a beautiful little piece. As someone who wants to learn to dissect stories, with a writer's eye and a writer's mind, like he said earlier, it was quite eye opening. I almost feel that the more I listen to him dissecting stories, the more I can do it too (which is probably not true, but that's how it makes me feel, isn't that magic in itself?)