MasterClass: Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling (2019): Season 1, Episode 9 - Dialogue and Character - full transcript

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

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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

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.

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.

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

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,

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,

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.

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

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 learned
how to compress

and I'd learned how to show
character, show who somebody

and I'd learned how to show
character, show who somebody

was by what they said.

The process of
writing good dialogue

is the listening process.

It's the process of you
write the line before

and then you listen and find
out what comes back at you.

What is the person saying?

What is the person saying?

Sometimes for me, I need to
know what a person that I'm

writing about looks like.

When I was writing
Sandman, I decided

that the title
character, the Sandman,

who's also known as
Dream, would be part

of a family called The Endless.

And very rapidly, I
figured out for myself

who the first six
of The Endless were.

who the first six
of The Endless were.

And then there was
a young one, and I

knew there were seven of them.

And I wasn't quite
sure about that one.

And then I thought Delirium.

Delirium seems right.

And I saw a photograph
of a girl at a nightclub

wearing ripped fishnet
sort of all over herself

and just looking very, very
sweet but kind of out of it.

and just looking very, very
sweet but kind of out of it.

I thought OK, her,
that kind of look.

There's something very
fragile and very young.

And that was where I began.

But I thought that
when she came on

in contrast to the
slightly out of it look,

she was going to be angry.

She was going to be in control.

She was going to be--

She was going to be--

there was going to be rage.

And I tried writing
that, and it felt wrong.

And I wrote about a page of this
dialogue, and it felt forced.

It didn't really feel like
the character I had in mind.

So I thought, OK.

Let's listen to that character.

Let's see what we get?

And I thought actually let's
go for something much more

gentle and bemused and speaking
in sentences in the same way

gentle and bemused and speaking
in sentences in the same way

that a small child can speak in
sentences that is slightly off

from whatever you're expecting.

And suddenly the
character came to life.

And she would say
the strangest things,

and it was like finding
that part of your mind

that is gloriously,
perfectly unhinged.

that is gloriously,
perfectly unhinged.

And every now and again, she
would just say things like,

you know, have you ever
spent days and days

making up flavors of ice cream
that nobody's ever eaten?

Chicken and telephone ice cream
and green mouse ice cream.

I didn't like that either.

And you're going,
oh, I didn't even

know that could
come out of my head.

But once you have a character
who can say that kind of thing,

then you also have
a character who

then you also have
a character who

is allowed to say incredibly
wise things as well.

And so I could sneak
huge and important things

into Delirium's mouth and know
that they could be taken hugely

seriously along with just
the weird, lovely, odd, funny

little comments
she'd make, you know.

Somebody talks
about losing time,

Somebody talks
about losing time,

and she says I lost
some time once.

It's always in the last
place you look for it.

So you have to train yourself
as a writer to listen.

Characters if you are writing
them become part of you

and become separate from
you at the same time.

You have to know your
characters well enough

You have to know your
characters well enough

to know would they do this.

And sometimes they won't.

And at that point,
mostly I'll trust them.

I have known writers
who are like,

well, you know,
they have no choice.

If I have written my outline
and I have the character going

from here to here and they
don't want to or they do,

I tend to listen
to my characters.

It's like a kind of
controlled insanity

It's like a kind of
controlled insanity

because on the one hand, I
am perfectly aware that I'm

creating the characters.

I made them up.

They start with me.

Everything they say
came out of my head.

And on the other hand, the
moment that they are alive,

the moment that they
are doing things,

the moment that they are real,
I am imbuing them with life.

the moment that they are real,
I am imbuing them with life.

I'm imbuing them with my belief.

I care about them.

I'm interested in them.

And it's almost as if I'm
watching them and listening

to them.

And the problem
then comes when they

stop, when they don't say
anything, when they don't move.

And instead of writing
down what they're doing,

you have to figure it out.

You have to figure out
where you went wrong.

You have to figure out
why the character isn't

You have to figure out
why the character isn't

saying anything.

And that-- it's always a
slightly strange process

because there is something
genuinely mad about it.

If you are writing
good characters,

believable characters, glorious,
larger than life characters,

they do take on a sort
of a life, you know.

they do take on a sort
of a life, you know.

Terry Pratchett
and I used to joke

that we talk about, you know,
going to meet our maker.

And if we kill characters
in our fiction,

maybe one day there'll
be a knock at the door

and we'd open the
door and there would

be some of our
characters looking up

at us sadly saying why did
I have to suffer and die.

And you want to say, well,
for the entertainment

and enlightenment
of other people.

And they look up at us
and go is that enough.

And they look up at us
and go is that enough.

And you go it has to be enough.

If I'm doing my job as a
writer, if I'm giving it

everything I've
got, my characters

are going to be believable
because I believe in them

and I believe them.

They are going to
be separate from me,

They are going to
be separate from me,

and they're going
to be part of me.

And some of that is
simply having come up

with a character knowing
what kind of person

that character is going
to be at the point

where you start writing them.

You are going into
yourself, and you have

to not be afraid of yourself.

You have to be
willing, if you're

writing a murderer, if
you're writing a bad person,

to go and find that part of you
that is the bad person, that

to go and find that part of you
that is the bad person, that

is the murderer, that would
take pleasure in this thing

and go, OK, what would you say?

What would you do?

Who are you?

By the same token,
you go and find

the part of you that is female.

You go and find the
part of you that is old.

You go and find that part.

And then you don't think
of it as the part of you

And then you don't think
of it as the part of you

that's female, the
part of you that's old,

the part of you that's bad.

You think of it as that
person, and you trust them.

You listen to them.

While you're writing a
character named Caroline,

you are always--

if you are me anyway--

asking yourself,
well, what would I do?

What would I have done?

What would I have done
if instead of being me

What would I have done
if instead of being me

in my childhood, I was
7, 8, maybe 9 years old

and this was
happening to me now?

What would I do?

And that question, finding
that part of yourself

that is an eight- or
nine-year-old girl

and feels right is important.

and feels right is important.

It's vital.

On the one hand, if you
are an adult writer,

you know a lot of people.

You have encountered a lot
of people in your lifetime.

You encountered them at school.

You've encountered them at home.

You've encountered
them in the streets.

You have met good people.

You have met bad people.

You have met bullies.

You have met angels.

You have met angels.

You have met complex
and interesting people.

You can-- and those
people filtered down,

flavored differently
are going to start

showing up in your fiction.

But you're also going
to need to write

about people you don't know.

You're going to need to write
about people from cultures

you don't know.

You're going to write about
people with professions

you do not understand.

You may need to
write about types

of people who you do not know.

of people who you do not know.

And for them, my advice
to anybody starting out

is just go find them,
go talk to them.

Talk to people.

Talk to people with
different sexual orientations

to yours if you're going
to be writing them.

Talk to people from
different cultures.

Go in, do your research,
do it with respect.

Know that there are
things to be known.

Know that there are
things to be known.

So I think if you were a
starting out writer, probably

even if you're an
experienced writer,

I have two pieces
of advice for you

if you want to channel a
character, a time period,

anything, one of which is--

and they're kind of
opposite and contradictory

and they're both true--

one of which is trust yourself.

one of which is trust yourself.

Do it.

You do it by doing it.

Just do it.

And the other is
do your research.

But I've known too
many writers starting

out who would get trapped
in a vortex of research.

And you can't.

You have to do enough research.

It's like you're a
smash and grab robber.

It's like you're a
smash and grab robber.

You are going to put that
brick through the window,

then you're going to reach
in and grab everything

that you need and run away and
use it because honestly you

don't want to spend 10
years researching manners

and mores in British
public schools of the 1870s

in order to get
your story perfect.

There may be some stories
that you have spent your life

There may be some stories
that you have spent your life

unconsciously researching.

You know what a heartbreak is.

You know what it's
like to work in a bank.

You know what it's like to have
to walk a long way in the rain.

Whatever it is the thing that
your writing is you're going,

OK, well, I have that.

I have that already.

That's there.

And if you don't know
what it's like to walk

for 10 days in the
rain, you might

know what it's like to walk
for a few hours in the rain.

know what it's like to walk
for a few hours in the rain.

And you can extrapolate
and go, OK, well,

it's going to be
like that only worse,

and what's it going to
be like on day three?

And now you have to
sleep in wet clothes

and OK, and everybody--
and everything's

going to hurt to now
you're getting sore.

And now you're getting the
athlete's foot in the trench.

This is-- but imagination plays
a huge amount, putting yourself

in the place of somebody.

But then there will
be places and times

But then there will
be places and times

where you go I don't know this.

And I need to find out.

Go and learn because that's what
will make your fiction good.

And that's what will also
make your fiction feel

honest and true.

Characters in a book,
there are lots of them.

And one of the
things I learned--

think I may have
learned it from Dickens,

or I may have learned
it from Jack Kirby.

But whoever I learned
it from, possibly even

from AA Milne, when you have
a lot of characters wandering

around, you need to
help your reader.

You need to just give
your reader a hand.

You need to just give
your reader a hand.

And one of the ways that
I've always liked to do that

is what I call funny hats.

And by funny hats,
I don't actually

literally mean you have a
character wear a funny hat.

What I do mean is you give
your character something

that makes that character
different from every other

character in the book.

And it's sort of--

And it's sort of--

it's something that reading
the work of young writers,

they tend to hesitate to do.

And the trouble with that is
you can read a short story,

occasionally even read
a novel, with a number

of people who are
indistinguishable

from each other except
for their names,

which means you have to
remember their names.

You have to remember who they
are and when they show up.

You have to remember who they
are and when they show up.

You have to thumb back
and go, OK, hang on.

Is this Simon, or is
this Jack, or is--

oh, no hang on.

This is the other-- this is the
other one who they met before.

This is Peter and--

What's lovely is just--

and you do this as an author out
of kindness for your reader--

is give them funny hats.

Give them that point--

you know, Simon where's
the bright red bowler hat,

you know, Simon where's
the bright red bowler hat,

and Peter wears the top hat.

And, of course, all of
these hats a metaphorical.

You just make sure that
when somebody comes on,

they don't look
like anyone else.

They don't sound
like anybody else.

You can do it in
realistic fiction.

You can do it in
children's fiction.

You can do it in--

you can do it in fiction
aimed at the lowest

you can do it in fiction
aimed at the lowest

common denominator.

You can do it fiction that
is elegant and beautiful,

but either way, you just
write characters who

are different from each other.

They look different
from each other.

They feel different
from each other.

There is something
about them that means

that the reader is being--

you're holding the
reader's hand a little bit,

and you're just making sure
that they're never confused.

So in a book like
"Neverwhere," we

begin with Mr. Croup
and Mr. Vandermar.

And you immediately realize
how different they are.

"Mr. Croup had hired Ross at the
last floating market, which had

been held in Westminster Abbey.

'Think of him,' he told Mr.
Vandemar, 'as a canary.'

'Sings,' asked Mr.
Vandermar. 'I doubt it.

'Sings,' asked Mr.
Vandermar. 'I doubt it.

I sincerely and
utterly doubt it.

Mr. Croup ran a hand through
his lank orange hair.

'No, my fine friend.

I was thinking metaphorically,
more along the lines

of the birds they
take down mines.'

Mr. Vandemar nodded,
comprehension dawning slowly.

'Yes, a canary.'

Mr. Ross had no other
resemblance to a canary.

'There are four simple
ways for the observant

to tell Mr. Croup and
Mr. Vandermar apart.

to tell Mr. Croup and
Mr. Vandermar apart.

First Mr. Vandemar is 2 and 1/2
heads taller than Mr. Croup.

Second, Mr. Croup has
eyes of a faded China blue

while Mr. Vandemar's
eyes are brown.

Third, while Mr.
Vandemar fashioned

the rings he wears
on his right hand out

of the skulls of four
ravens, Mr. Croup

has no obvious jewelry.

Fourth, Mr. Croup likes words
while Mr. Vandemar is always

hungry.

Also they look
nothing at all alike."

Also they look
nothing at all alike."

And so we immediately
have a couple of killers.

They are very, very dangerous,
and they do not talk in any way

alike.

They do not look alike.

One of them is monosyllabic.

The other is multi-syllabic,
enjoys words,

is going to have a relationship
with things where the only

is going to have a relationship
with things where the only

thing we ever see him eat is a
piece of very fine Tang Dynasty

China whereas Mr. Vandermar
is always hungry as we have

learned and just eats
things as he goes--

frogs and rats and bits
of dead puppy and anything

that he happens to
find along the way.

And they are the assassiniest
assassins I could come up with.

And they are the assassiniest
assassins I could come up with.

Some of the other
characters in "Neverwhere"

also are funny hat characters.

The Marquis De Carabas,
who deals in favors,

wears a huge and glorious coat
and is always wearing the coat

until he is murdered and
the coat gets stolen,

and things in the plot get
very difficult for him.

Old Bailey lives on the top of
roofs and up on the rooftops.

Old Bailey lives on the top of
roofs and up on the rooftops.

He's dressed and in
a cape of feathers.

He's described as
looking like what

Robinson Crusoe in the
popular imagination

would look like if you were cast
away on the rooftops of London

with nothing but birds to
create his world out of.

So you take these
characters and--

secure in the knowledge
that none of them

could be confused for
any of the others.

could be confused for
any of the others.

None of them talk the same.

And when they turn up, they--

you know who they are.

The reader does not have
to work at that thing.