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
Teaches the Art of Storytelling
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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.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

The advice of experience, given with poetic analogy and a magical wisdom, imparted by someone "successful" and "respected" who doesn't place commercial concerns before creative ones. Priceless.

I got better, now the thing to do is write and finish things!

Very good class. I love Neil´s writings and his readings and his stories. Now I know, he is a magnificent teacher as well! Thank you!

I respect the volume of work Neil Gaiman has created and his words mean more to me than a person publishing a book on how to write.


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?)

Tia F.

Just joined MC in lieu of in person writing class to hone my craft as I just don’t have the time. After the first course I was ready for refund but then I stumbled upon Neil’s course and I’ve picked up so many nuggets. When I accepted MC as an intimate concert vs a traditional class things clicked and I’m looking forward to the rest of the writing courses.

Annamaria F.

I've loved ever class in this course to date, but everything about this particular class seemed delightful to me. I will have to get that story for my collection. It's one I would read many times over both for pleasure and for learning.


This example was really helpful for me. I tend to use people's names a lot when I'm writing due to the fact I use them a lot in every day dialogue, which is uncommon. Hearing this story and realizing that names were hardly a part of it reminded me that there's often more important things to a character than their name.

Arjun I.

Gaiman's wisdom about the wisdom he received from Robert Heinlein was the big takeaway for me. The three basic themes around which a writer may construct their story. Also, bringing to light a more useful definition of the word 'conflict' which doesn't necessarily mean anything violent or elaborate. Even the slightest deviation can lead a character into a situation where they might feel conflicted.

Bruce S.

Hmm, found a blind spot in my short stories that I never thought about. I almost always start with my characters name first, now it has become a habit. Not meeting Hazel until the middle, made me stop and think. Thank you Mr. Gaiman for pointing out a blind spot in my writing.