How and Why Neil Gaiman’s Characters Work

Neil Gaiman

English fantasy writer Neil Gaiman has shown he can write in any medium. Comics, television, film, novel, you name it, he wrote it. Today he has developed somewhat of a cult following. His lasting fame is due to his ability to find magic in everyday life. The worlds he creates feel like they exist in our own world, hidden beneath a long forgotten grave or in our dreams. They concern young girls longing for attention, young boys wanting to grow up, and adult men looking for satisfaction. Anyone who has read Gaiman has come to expect certain character traits. This is not to say in any sense they are boring or unoriginal, rather they seem so normal that they are familiar.

I have narrowed it down to four basic recurring character traits that occur more than once. By implementing these character roles and traits again and again Gaiman has created a world we not only believe but believe we can exist in.

The Uninspired and/or Restless Hero

First and foremost I need to discuss our hero. Generally our hero will be male, aged between ten, give or take a billion years. They are polite, well-mannered, and dream more often than they live. Take for example, Nobody Owens of The Graveyard Book. Bod, as his friends and family call him, is pretty average. He likes to climb things, hates school, and has knack for being where he shouldn’t be. Oh by the way, he was raised by ghosts. Despite this you could easily put yourself in Bod’s shoes. He’s not so unique or special that we feel alienated by him. Bod feels like he lives in our world. By being the only living person in his family he’s a mediator between the living and dead, between dreaming and waking. Much like another Gaiman hero, Dream of the Endless.

Dream, the title character of the Sandman Series, is the King of Dreams. After being imprisoned for a very, very long time, he spends most of his narrative life trying to make up for past sins. He’s soft-spoken, kind on occasion, and has a strong sense of duty in his otherwise drifter lifestyle. Bod and Dream also share a sense of meaningless or restlessness. Bod longs to go beyond the graveyard. He longs to grab life by the horns. Unfortunately, life outside the graveyard is not possible for Bod, as long as the man who murdered his parents is still out there. Dream has spent so many years just existing that there is no real order to his life. He seeks to make meaning by making his job count, making his existence count.

Similarly, Shadow from American Gods also seeks meaning. Shadow, is a convicted burglar, who gets early release after the death of his wife. Much of the novel concerns Shadow traveling, just doing whatever his mysterious new boss tells him to do. There’s no motivation behind his journey through America. But through his dreams his narrative begins to take shape and reveal something about his heritage. All three characters I have mentioned find their path, their story, through their dreams. They find meaning in story. In that way they resemble us. At some point in our lives we will lose meaning. We forget who we are. But through story and myth we are able to find our footing again. We are able to find it in ourselves how we can get over life’s roadblocks.

The Dream Eater

If we talk about our heroes, we must talk about the other side of the coin. Gaiman’s villains are truly nasty pieces of work. The villain of The Graveyard Book is man known simply as The Man Jack. Jack was sent by to kill Bod’s parents, his sister, and Bod himself. Unable to find baby Bod, he had crawled to a nearby graveyard, Jack spends rest of the story trying to end Bod’s life. Murder is without a doubt an evil act. But what makes it truly evil? Silas, Bod’s guardian, tells him by murdering you’re taking away all that a person could ever be. Your dreams, hopes, ambitions mean nothing. Jack seeks to end those hopes and dreams. He doesn’t take life for granted but instead sees life as a dream he never wants to wake up from. By killing Jack believes he will gain immortality. Jack is a dream eater in a metaphorical sense.

While not the main villain of Sandman, the first Corinthian is a formidable opponent. Designed by Dream to be a nightmare, the first Corinthian devours the eyeballs of innocent people. By doing so it allows him to consume their consciousness, the fuel for dreaming. He is a dream eater in a much more literal sense. The Corinthian has a goal like Jack. He’s simply following the orders given to him by his creator. But he gets carried away. So carried away that Dream has to destroy him in order to protect the dreamers of the world.

These dream eaters have the ability to destroy the path to enlightenment for our heroes. They see the world differently from the hero. They have a goal, gain more power, and fulfill their duty. They see the world as their oyster while the hero is more unsure of the world. By defeating the villain or dream eater, the hero, finds their place and gains the courage to take on the world. The hero is able to face their dark side and is stronger for it. They serve as a reminder that darkness can be overtaken.

Sister, Sister

Onward to supporting characters! Gaiman’s heroes usually have a sister or sister-like relationship with another character. Death of the Endless is the elder sister of Dream. Like Dream she has a purpose. She brings the souls of the dead to their final resting place. Despite her purpose Death is fun, no-nonsense, and compassionate. She resembles friends we’ve had or sisters we grew up with. For much of Dream’s story, Death is there to remind him to stop being gloomy. She’s there to listen to him, even when he’s being an idiot. She’s not afraid to call him out on it. Dream needs her in order to grow and change.

Similarly, in American Gods, Shadow has a good friend named Sam. Sam is optimistic, non judgmental, and speaks her mind. She accompanies him on his journey several times. Throughout the journey she provides advice and support. She reminds Shadow of his infinite potential. Sam is more than a possible love interest. Her story is not necessarily tied to Shadow’s either. She has her own story but that does not take away from Shadow’s story in the slightest.

Liza Hempstock, of The Graveyard Book, keeps Bod in check. Liza first met Bod when stumbled into a forbidden part of the graveyard. She tells Bod the story of her death and heals his twisted ankle. Liza showed him a kindness and in return Bod seeks to get her a proper gravestone. Thus begins a long friendship. When Bod runs away from the graveyard, Liza is there to take him home. She calls him out from his selfishness. Bod believes he can never return home because he upset Silas. Liza simply says “If he didn’t care about you, you wouldn’t have upset him.”

These women embody sense, logic, and sensitivity. They tell us when we do wrong. And they don’t apologize for being honest. And our hero will need honesty on his journey. They resemble the people in our lives who we need and respect. Without these women our heroes would be lost. But they would be even more lost if it wasn’t for their guardian and/or mentor.

Dream and his elder sister Death
Dream and his elder sister Death


The moral center of Gaiman’s works is almost always an older gentlemen and by far the wisest of them all. Lucien, the bookkeeper of dreams, is Dream’s oldest and most trusted servant. In fact, he was the original raven, whom is Dream’s nearly constant companion. Although not the only moral compass, Lucien’s absence would indicate unbelievable anger and grief for the King of Dreams. It’s only through Lucien and Death that Dream is to fully unload. Silas is the person that Bod goes to for everything. And Silas almost always has the answer. He sets things straight for Bod in words he can understand. Silas embodies that which is in arguable and true. Silas and Lucien not only guide our heroes but us. the readers. They remind us of the truths of life in a way we as people can understand.

When someone utters the word “trope” there tends to be a negative connotation. Tropes don’t necessarily have to be bad thing. A similar character does not mean a predictable story. A predictable story does not indicate similar characters. In Gaiman’s case it’s never an issue. He uses familiar characters to bring out the magic within us. They remind us who we are as people. By doing so he opens up a world of possibility. All the while providing an interesting and entertaining read.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. The scope of gaiman’s creativity! Part of what makes his work so fascinating is his incredible word choice, tone, and characterization. his stories are like peering into self-contained worlds. as an avid reader and fan of the likes of Tolkien, CS Lewis, JK Rowling and other fantasy writers, i can honestly say i’ve never felt as though mr. gaiman reusued tired story lines. pan’s labyrinth comes the closest to something similar to mr. gaiman’s works.

  2. I love Neil’s work and Douglas Adams’ who has a similar style.

    • Darrell Turner

      I would also add Terry Pratchett to that. In fact Terry and Neil co-worte a book titled “Good Omens” that book made me a fan of both writers.

  3. I am listening to the audio book of M is for Magic, and I loved Troll Bridge.
    I highly recommend the audio book, Neil reads them and his voice is amazing, his way of speaking lends something to the stories that I think I would have missed if I had just read the book myself.

  4. I still need to see Stardust, but I think Mirrormask is great. I love the gothic themes and visuals.

    • Milagros Perales

      The one I like the most is Mirror Mask.
      Second to that I liked is Coraline, which is an animation.
      The other movie I liked is Stardust.

  5. Christina Cady

    I liked how you explored these recurring character roles in a way that is far more complex than a simple Jungian archetype. You really conveyed well how each character has their own story with differing stakes and motives while still taking action in a way that conveys the shared values and themes within the narrative of the world. Thank you!

  6. Phoenix Feather

    I love Neil Gaiman’s works, but I’m a bit disappointed you didn’t mention Neverwhere. The characters in that novel are beautifully done and you can’t help but love even the villains and the characters that are just a little shady because they’re so masterfully written.

    • Oh I love Neverwhere! You definitely have a point. I didn’t choose Neverwhere because I hadn’t read it more than once. But yes they are masterfully written.

  7. Tyler Coleman

    I highly recommend everyone The Sandman comics and American Gods to read original Gaiman.

  8. HenryHiggins

    I was in my teens when I started reading Neil Gaiman, starting with Sandman #8 (and then going back to get the original 7, which was still possible at that time). I then went back and picked up his biography of Douglas Adams (which is awesome), though I never did bother to track down his book on Duran Duran. I’ve been a big fan of his stuff for years.

  9. I agree. And I think Neil Gaiman is a master at disguising our real-life problems under the fantastical issues of his characters. There is something honest behind every one of his characters that resonates within us. Because we relate on these levels, we, as you say,”..not only believe but believe we can exist in [his worlds].”

  10. Good thoughts, especially your analysis of his villains. Characters like Mr. Wednesday are so interesting because of their thirst for power at any cost, and the devious means they use to obtain it.
    Great author, insightful article.

  11. ilovesaintpaul

    Someone PLEEEEASE tell me how to pronounce his last name though! Half the people say Guy-man and the other half say Gay-man. Dunno which it is! Help!!

  12. Erin Derwin
    Erin Derwin

    I really appreciate this structuralist approach to Gaiman’s works. He is doing something new but with the nostalgia of past fantasy and myths.

  13. PerkAlert

    Interesting article. I like the unique spin on Gaiman’s “stereotypes.” It’s more insightful than the usual tropes “Hero, Villain, Sidekick, Wise guy.” Now, I’m curious as to how Gaiman’s stereotypes compare specifically to other fantasy writers. For example, how is his “hero” different from say JK Rowling’s or CS Lewis’s typical “hero”? I think a comparison would really drive home how and why Neil Gaiman’s characters work better than “normal” stereotypes. Overall though, good job and great focus!

  14. amandaperrin

    I’m new to Gaiman’s work, but I cannot recommend him enough to anyone I meet. I’m currently working my way through American Gods. I really enjoy how clear cut these “tropes” that you write about are able to be understood. I do believe that what makes Gaiman’s character “tropes” different from others is that he is a poetic writer that builds fantastical worlds in which these characters can fulfill their predestined roles, but his language and poetic elements create a buffer between who the characters truly are and which “trope” they represent. This makes Gaiman’s writings multidimensional and, more importantly, original.

  15. He’s a great inspiration to me. I love reading these articles so interesting and surprising.

  16. Monique

    I didn’t realize it until this article, but “The Love Interest” is not a common character type in Gaiman’s books. One may exist, like the Star in Stardust, but not usually as a goal in and of itself.

  17. This is a good analyses. His movies aren’t so great but his books are brilliant.

  18. You hit the nail on the head with the “trope” comment. Authors can work with tropes so long as they do it well. Gaiman’s characters overturn the negative connotation because of the immense world building Gaiman does. We all love to see the familiar undertaking an unfamiliar endeavor. It could be argued that where Gaiman’s real skill as an author lies in his creation of unique environments.

  19. Donna Margara

    Strong characterization is such a vital piece of any creative work. I don’t write fiction very often anymore, and when I do I stay away from genre elements such as supernatural/fantasy/science fiction etc. That being said, I admire writers who can work in genre AND produce real, believable characters. I particularly enjoyed the uninspired hero portion of your analysis. It reminds me of the power of an anti-hero; one who is perhaps morally ambiguous. That’s always fun.

  20. Susanna Princivalle

    Totally agree with this article. I love Neil Gaiman, he is literally one of the few authentic contemporary storytellers that we have. Many of his stories remind me of the fabula narrative structure.

  21. Emily Deibler

    Excellent article. Gaiman is certainly an accomplished writer, and his believable characters and relationship dynamics prove that.

  22. There seems to be an ethereal quality here.

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