Neil Gaiman and Voice

I’ve signed up for Neil Gaiman’s writing course on Masterclass. If you’re a writer, I recommend it. Just hearing his plummy voice roll over you is enough to help you ‘mode shift’ into the Writing Mind. He teaches writing up at Bard College, and so all they really had to do was point the camera at him and let him start talking. What you get is the condensed, juicy version of what his elite private college students pay thousands to get. It’s a bargain. You want to know what a writer thinks, and how he thinks about it? Here it is.

(Besides that you’ll get James Patterson, Margaret Atwood, and many other writers. These are the folks you want to hear from. And don’t give me any snark about James Patterson — when you’ve written the number of books he’s written, and created the writing studio/business he’s created, and you have several books in every airport rack in the world, then I’ll be interested in hearing your opinion. Until then, share it over tea at the dorm with your post-modern literature professor. I just want to know how he does what he does.)

Today I was listening to the section on Character and Dialogue, and Gaiman made the point that he doesn’t put together complex bios for his characters: he’s far more interested in how they talk. This made me think about some of the questions to ask yourself about how your character’s speak. Try these out and see if they help.

People talk in a certain way, repeating phrases, words and reenforcing patterns of looking at the world.

How do they talk? Where did they learn to talk that why? In school, or from their friends and family? Did they start off consciously imitating someone or did they just pick it up naturally — in other words, do they always carry around a divided consciousness and a ‘real’ way of speaking that they are avoiding or disguising? If they are hiding a real voice, are they hiding it from themselves or others? What happens if that real voice is discovered? Are they attacked? Does the socially recognizable self they’ve constructed become more visible, or invisible? What does their voice say about their friends? About their city or country? About their society? Is their voice the voice of a generous soul or a stingy one? The voice or a murderer or a martyr? The voice of God or the voice of the Devil?

People have a psychological attachment to the way they speak. It’s how they comport themselves in the world, it’s the billboard advertising who they are.

Why do they talk that way? What are they trying to make other people think about them and why? What do they think about themselves, that they need to think to stay together psychologically and not disintegrate? If they don’t keep thinking the same way, what are they afraid will happen to them? Would they be expelled from a group? Would they lose track of who they are and become lost?

What narrative is your character making up about themselves that gets them through the day and how does their voice relate to that?

Who influenced your character? Does their voice come from their parents or from friends or from heroes in pop culture or from their preacher or from a politician?

What false beliefs does your character have that they try to support with their speech? That they try to attack with their speech? What true beliefs?

People are often trying to control others actions and thoughts and speech by the way they talk.

What happened to the character that made them want to control the speech of others? What benefit do the believe they’ll gain if they can control everyone’s speech? What happens to them when they try to live that way? What are they afraid others will say? What will it do to them? What are they afraid they will say that will betray themselves? Are they trying to force everyone to a standard of morality because they’re fanatics, because they are social justice warriors, or because they are concerned about specific individuals being hurt?

Are they trying to protect others besides themselves? If they act as if they are protectors of a community, are they deluding themselves? Is their really a community or is that just their training, and there is no real community?

Is their voice more a performance, a dance, or is it an attempt to dive into someone’s soul and connect with them? Do they make appropriate judgements about social distance and intimacy with their voice? Are they too familiar with strangers, or do they treat lovers and family as if they were only speaking in public?


I just finished Howard Zinn’s People’s History for the first time. It’s something to have cold detail after cold detail spill out, bloody year after bloody year, in the history of the United States. Every country in the world is built on murder; what makes ours difference is the denial (thanks, Andre), saying either that these things didn’t happen, or they happened in a different way, or that they happened didn’t matter. If you want the bad news, here it is. There’s some good news, too, but it’s not in this book. Remind me to tell you my idea of American History as the DC Comics pocket universe, as it’s usually taught.

I am Audibling The Bible, the whole thing, the New King James Version. The title of the production is The Word of Promise. Fun sounds effects and good acting throughout. Narrated by the pudding voiced Michael York with Richard Dreyfuss as Moses, giving the anti-Charlton Heston performance of Moses as a religious fanatic with very little regard for human life and very great regard for gold, spices, fine cloths. Meet the pattern for every televangelist who came after. It’s a living.

I just finished Numbers, so I’ve a ways to go. The good news is, most of the long books are at the beginning the anthology that is The Bible. The bad news is that the Good News is at the end of the book, so you have to wade through a lot of tribal history that’s pretty grim and, if you read it without the soft rosy glow of religion, is often distasteful, and you often wonder, why are these people considered heroes again? And God, as a character in the book, reminds you of Sleeping with the Enemy: he’ll kill you if you hang the towels the wrong way, but he might kill you anyway if you hang them the right way but leave a fork in the sink. Neil Gaiman could have written this character, if you know what I mean. But this set of stories of the bad old days is a cornerstone of the culture that is human culture, the only culture we have, currently, and you’re missing where a lot of our deep insanity comes from if you haven’t engaged with this set of myths and legends. I’ve been running from the Bible, after overexposure as a boy, all my life, and I decided to stop, turn around and face the thing. It’s like facing your worst abuser. When my jaw isn’t hitting the ground with disbelief and horror at what I’m hearing, I’m reminded how great some of the English is and how beautiful some of the lines are. Let’s say this: it’s poetry at a high price. It’s like someone is beating you up while singing the most beautiful song in the world.

Also reading Stamped from the Beginning, a history by an African American author of the history of the production of racist ideas in Western culture. Where did we get the crazy idea that Blacks, Asians, Indians, and so on, weren’t people in the first place? And how were those ideas used to justify making them slaves? I’m looking at you, fellow white people. Yes, I still love you in all your craziness, but, you know, come on.

Anyway, a very good book. I’m wading through a lot of this stuff, feeling a sort of duty to face it. I can’t pretend I’m not getting a little tired of the writing on the web, because most of it is so bad, and most of it just amplification and bullhorn writing by elite college students, and most of it is full of undifferentiated rage, hatred, anger, resentment, which it’s hard to make a steady diet of. I avoid any idiotic article that starts with Dear White People. You’ve already lost me. Living in this American culture right now is like watching, and acting in, the most exciting television show of all time. The boat is headed toward the waterfall but the crew is fighting with each other because they don’t like the captain. Will the crew overcome the captain and pull the boat back from the waterfall? Or will the boat go over the waterfall because they were fighting the right fight at the wrong time? Or will they win the fight with the captain, and it won’t matter because there was no hope of pulling the boat back in the first place.

I can’t wait for the next episode. I hope you and I are not starring in it.

More Neanderthal DNA markers than 95 % of 23andMe customers. Don’t give me your pro-Cro-Magnon propaganda.