Dialogue and Character

Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 25:17 min

Neil teaches you how to write realistic dialogue, how to listen to and trust your characters, and techniques to help readers remember your characters.

Neil Gaiman
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So people talk, when writing fiction, about character. And they talk about dialogue. And they talk about them as if they're two different things. And they are two different things, but they're two different things that actually amount to the same thing. And they're like the two legs the character needs in order to walk. So in the next class, we're going to talk about character and dialogue and what they are and how incredibly tightly interwoven they can be. When I started out, the most terrifying thing for me was the idea of character creation and who were characters. I didn't really get characters. I didn't understand what characters were. And it took a while for me to learn really how to write good characters, characters who were three-dimensional, characters who felt real, characters who felt real to me. A lot of the key to it-- people say, well, do you do those sort of books and things before you start? Do you list stuff lots of things about your characters, and I say no. Mostly what I do is try and figure out what they sound like, how they talk. Sometimes what they look like but mostly how they talk because dialogue is character. The way that somebody talks, what they say, how they say it is character. And dialogue has to show character. It also has to show plot, and maybe it can be funny along the way. And good dialogue is doing all three of those things at the same time. It's making you smile or making you see things you've never seen before. It's moving the story along. And more than anything it's telling you things about the people who are saying it and who they're saying it to. And so for me the key to writing good dialogue, which was the key to character were the years that I spent as a journalist doing interviews. I would meet somebody that I wanted to talk to-- writers, creators. I'd have my little tape recorder. I would talk to them for two or three hours. I would transcribe the tape. And then having transcribed the tape, which would give me 10,000 words of transcription, my task would be to turn that into a 2,000- to 3,000-word interview. So I learned a lot at that point about economy. How do you make somebody sound like themselves without ever necessarily using the exact words that they used because now you're compressing? And people don't talk like themselves. People don't use semicolons. People don't speak grammatically. People-- instead they start sentences. They leave words dangling. A few seconds ago, I said people and then I hesitated and then I changed course because that's how people talk, and you can't do that. Or you can't do exactly that in writing. But you can figure out where the rhythms are. You can figure out how to make somebody sound like the person who was talking to you. And you learn compression. You learn more than anything else economy. And it was that economy that actually I think looking back on it that was the most useful thing for going out there and writing fiction because I l...

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

Love it. So engaging. Excellent graphics and music too.

THANK YOU -- this was one of the best of the many Masterclasses I've taken. Great information and examples, honest advice, more than a bit of humor, and a sharing of the wonderful talent that is Neil Gaiman.

Not to give up, and live a full life to tell a story!!!


Mary-Anne P.

... or maybe I think I know my characters but I need to do some work to hear them and become them before my reader has a chance of investing in them!

Mary-Anne P.

Neil Gaiman, who I was totally unaware of as an author, although I've watched Coraline many many times, has tapped into so many of my feelings around my writing. I am currently watching Character & Dialogue and as soon as he said the idea of character creation terrified him relief flooded over me. I know my characters but somehow getting my reader to know them is quite a different thing. He started his tutorials talking about using the toolbox in the shed, which I loved, and this is exactly what he teaches - how to dip in and reach for a tool whenever the going gets tough. I knew this was working for me when I started writing copious notes for stories that were just that - ideas.


Am I ever stuck in that "vortex of research"! I think dialogue is my current stumbling block with my novel. It's historical fiction and takes places during the Civil War, and I feel like I don't have a firm grasp on how different dialogue was then.


This was an excellent lesson. A lot of this is stuff I've discovered throughout my writing journey, but hearing someone else explain these things in their own words helps me understand what exactly it is I'm doing when I'm breathing life into the characters of my stories :)

Andri Pétur D.

It's nice to hear all of this stated in a different way from how you perceive it yourself, even if it's the exact same information. This method of writing, where you trust your characters to do things, where they come alive and almost write the story for you, I have a feeling this all comes from the brain's need to simulate other people in real life. We all have other people living in our head, people we meet every day, every week, the ones close to us; and our brains learn their patterns and their behavior for us to simulate their reaction to decisions and situations. It's how we get to know people. We evolved to do this as social creatures. Caring about our characters and imagining them as real people must activate this section of our brain, allowing us to create accurate simulacrums of those characters, creating patterns of behavior that we can learn to trust in, learn to listen to. I think this is also why you sometimes run into the situation where the character is silent, because you put them into a situation by a way they would never have taken or been able to take. Go back, see where it happened, where it went wrong, and see if you can't fix it. Great lesson.

Maribel V.

"The Vortex of Research" indeed. I spend so much time in it that I'm starting to think of buying a little cottage there. He's so right, though. It must be liberating not to be so scared of getting everything wrong! :)

Maribel V.

I keep getting lost in these lessons and listening face to face to him talking feels almost like entering a trance :D. I do agree, characters feel right or wrong and it doesn't matter how much we try doing something with them, sometimes they are just there, they exist on their own right and there's nothing we can do but listening to them. I struggle a lot to hear them, to see them, but seriously, listening to Neil talking about it makes me feel like I can do it, I just have to find them. His story about Terry and him meeting their dead characters made me tear up a bit, somehow. He really is one of the greatest storytellers.

Sufren P.

In my opinion, listen to your character means you must listen to your inner voices honestly. Listen to your ideas, listen to your brain, listen to your mind. Don't judge. Don't let inner critics harm your ideas. Just listen to your voices and type.

Arjun I.

"Talk to people", I think that's the scariest piece of advice that I've received from Neil thus far. It's not that I don't like people....well, Okay, I have a hard time liking people because I seem to run into the type that either have nothing to say, or what they say inspires me to contemplate the virtues of murder. Be that as it may, it is sound advice. And I suppose that I will have to start listening not only to characters but also the world around me. The biggest moment of happiness for me was the knowledge that I possess the same edition of Neverwhere as Neil did in this video. So now that I know that I have the same Neverwhere, hopefully I'll find my way to a good 'somewhere'.

Em S.

Thank you for this! I've had a character, and a plot and very much wanted the story to "happen". But as I wrote it out... The character did none of the things he was supposed to. He was quite honestly moving away from what I had planned for him. But if I pushed him in the other direction, it wouldn't have been HIM. I felt I would've been betraying him, and ripping out that little spark of life, that independence, and turn him into lifeless Pinocchio...