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.

As a perfectionist, and someone who tends to hold onto things as apposed to finish them, this class has been extraordinarily helpful and inspring. Thank you Neil.

I now look at story another way. I'm going to take a short story in draft and retake this class with the goal of making the story I have better. Knowing it will never be perfect.

i ve learned a lot. Neil is an amazing teacher.

Learned a lot of great information and about a lot of other resources.


Cj T.

I loved this lesson. Reading over my pages I could see in my mind the characters and their differences but had failed to put it on the page. Niel opened up another door for me.

Rich G.

Economy of language. I love that. Taking a page of words and cutting absolutely everything out that's not needed. And defining characters. I am one of those Neil describes as "turning back pages to remind oneself 'who is this?'"

Kerry S

The research tip rings very true for me. I realized that I have for years been procrastinating doing my writing via research. I have bought and listened to and read dozens of books on writing, and didn't write a word during those years. It is only in the last few months that I came to the realization that I had used my 'research' as a tool for procrastination, and I forced myself to just sit down and write, to do the work.

Rachel M.

I just read "Neverwhere!" I couldn't put it down! So good! The dialogue WAS certainly engaging in that one.

Jan B.

Fascinating once again. Character and dialogue that was thoughtfully created by the author is wonderful mental exercise. I love breathing life onto the pages and watching them come alive. The characters can become so real, a writer finds oneself less lonely.

A fellow student

I am very impressed and this class has not only opened my eyes to moving my ideas around, but turning on the light to see that my readers will want to read on. I've been telling my readers the ending at the beginning and therefore they need not read further. Now, How to begin...


I feel like some characters have to be researched because there is no way to know what hillbillies who live in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia are like unless you have lived around them and gotten drunk and high with them. You may think you know, but you won't unless you have experienced that lifestyle. The same thing goes for people who are water men. Until you have spent time around those people, you will not understand them or what their life is like on the water. In short, white people can't rap, so don't even try if you are white because you will just end up looking like an idiot. However, some white people can play the blues, or more like a form of southern rock blues. Further, I think that writers can benefit by taking some journalism courses because it does help with writing dialog. At the same time, writers do live in their stories, as they should, but it can be difficult for a writer to tell the difference between the every day world and the story world that the writer lives in, which may or may not be a problem, a blessing or a curse, so far nobody knows for sure. And characters do start to take on a soul and life of their own after awhile. Right, today's Tom Sawyer, mean, mean, pride. This is one of the reasons that writing is really of form of spellcraft and magic. We also, as people, put on different masks during the day, and become different people, different characters, mask of parent, mask of writer, mask of business person, mask of teacher, mask of student, until we wonder who we really are as actors in the play of life. The great stage of the globe is what we all step onto. And behind the scene are the writers, basing characters on people we have come across, mixtures of different personalities, some who have hurt us, some who have inspired us. So, let the awen flow. Best William Taliesin St Clair

A fellow student

Neil Gaiman's explanation and description about dialogue and character are, for me, a new way to think and implement these significant aspects of writing. I sense that I will be exploring how to best implement them in my writing.

Marjohn L.

'You write the line before and then you listen.' I tried writing that (rage) and it felt wrong. Speaking as a child speaks, finding that part of you mind that is gloriously unhinged. ... allowed to say incredibly wise things. WOW Listening and watching, what happenes when they stop talking? I wrote half a book about this mad search for the beloved character who faded away. Thank you Neil.

Andrea P.

I love the idea of listening to your characters and giving them something different. Something that sets them apart and allows the reader to get to know them.