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
In his first-ever online class, Neil Gaiman teaches you how he conjures up new ideas, convincing characters, and vivid fictional worlds.
Get All-Access


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.

I've learned to continue writing & submitting. To view short stories as the last chapter of a novel I didn't write, and to view everything that happens and everyone I meet as things I will need in my stories.

I feel inspired to finish my stories. I have always had great stories to tell, but had never let myself finish any of them. This year, I will finish a story...for the first time.

I have absolutely adored this Masterclass! I am so sad that I don’t have any more lessons in this series. Neil Gaiman has made me laugh at myself and take myself more seriously at the same time.

I actually cried through some of these lessons. Filled my notebook with gold ! Thank you Neil.


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.

David B.

Mr Gaiman, magnificent in getting his point across. He is charming and his videos are effortless to watch. * * * * *


What an amazing story! It was a love tale with a sensible woman and a genie with an attitude. She softened him. Who saw that coming?? I love this. This class keeps getting better and better.

Rapha R.

Loved this story. Can't stop coming back here over and over to hear it again. :)

Alexandria S.

I need to find those month short stories, the October tale was a very sweet story. It’s great advice to place characters in situations they are unfamiliar with, I’ll try that with my stories when I start to write them down.

Tauna S.

My favorite from "Trigger Warning" is the Sherlock Holmes tale. I always knew he went on forever. After all, my ex-pat nannies, Frank and Alice Murphy taught me to read with Sir Conan Doyle, Shakespeare, and added Ian Fleming, when my father suggested they read something more modern to me. James Bond was just coming to life. Aside from learning to speak with a British accent while growing up in Chicago, it gave me a life long love of mysteries. Every good story is a mystery to be solved. It's okay, I'm fine.


The way Neil narrates his own stories is so pleasant and captivating, and made me forget that I was even watching an educational lesson because I got so lost in his short story and the unique characters. October Tale is such a good example of character building and how the protagonist must learn something important about themselves in order for the story to develop. That’s one of my favorite things to read about, and I was so happy that this was one of the main focal points of the lesson. Definitely one of my favorites so far!