Bringing Characters to Life Through Detail

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 11:14 min

Actions and reactions reveal character, but so do details the writer thoughtfully weaves into the story. Margaret offers concrete tools to help you create nuanced, well-developed characters you know by heart.

Margaret Atwood
Teaches Creative Writing
Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.
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Which comes first, the character or the story? There is no such thing as first. Because a person is what happens to them. So a novel is characters interacting with events. Characters don't just exist in isolation. You're finding out who they are through how they interact, through the decisions they make, through how other people treat them, through how they react to how other people treat them, all of these interactions that change us, that reveal us to ourselves, that reveal us to other people and therefore to the reader. So somebody-- let me see, let's give them an automobile accident. They run over their neighbor's cat. Do they tell? Do they pretend somebody else did it? Do they dispose of the body? Or here's a real live thing. A person we know is bothered by a skunk. So they set a live trap-- a live trap for a skunk, you can't see in. And they caught the skunk. They could hear it inside the trap. So they put it into their car. They're going to drive it far, far away out into the country. They took the trap out, they put it in a field. They stood well back. They pulled the string and out shot their neighbor's prize Persian and disappeared into the woods. What do they do? Do they confess? Do they pretend it never happened? Well, if you're like most other people, you will pretend it never happened. Because you'd be so embarrassed. You don't know, necessarily, what new facets of your character are going to reveal themselves until you put them in new situations. When the Titanic is going down, would you have jumped into the lifeboat first? How do we know what we know about characters anyway? How do we know what we know about people? There's the impression you have of them, and then there's the impression that you feel they are trying to create. And then there's the impression that other people have of them in the book, within the book. So you may think they're quite charming. And another character, someone in the book, may have a jaundiced view of that person. So their actions, what other people say about them-- which may or may not be true-- and what they themselves say-- which may or may not be true-- and then our own ruminations and thoughts about them. We're going to want to know how old they are. We're going to want to know how frowny or smiley they are. We're going to want to know what gender they are at that moment. We're going to want to know if they are dressing to impress. We're going to want to know if they are dressing in a way that is too young or too old for the age that they are. So when is their birthday? What are their friends like? What are their hobbies? Have they had any traumatic experiences? Do they have maybe some obsessions? Are they in love? So all of these things can be part of building your character. Here is something that I like to do when I have a novel that's taking place over time and therefore is set in the past and involves a number of characters....

The art of powerful storytelling

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online writing class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction, that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I thought hearing her perspective as a seasoned writer was very helpful.

Margaret Atwood! Thank you. I have learnt so much from your class.

The classes were too short and I'm still not satisfied with the quality of the video, I had problems once every two classes. M. Atwood is inspiring

I have loved this class. Margaret is charming and I enjoy how she teaches and presents herself. She has given me much insight and great information that will encourage me as a writer.


Linda F.

This lesson is very useful. I can see how my characters fills, get shape at te time i am answering the quiestionary. Also the character chart is very helpful. Thank you Margaret, very very much. There is a lot of work to do.

Valerie R.

I love how Ms. Atwood has a sense of humor about the lessons she teaches. I think the memory absorbs this more deeply than when it is straight forward and dry.

Katherine R.

This lesson explains to me why I feel like I know the characters better in some books than I do others. I also noticed that I prefer character driven stories to plot driven stories. I think this has to do with the level of character development. I need to specifically pay more attention to this in the stories I read; rather than just allowing myself to be transported, I need to pay attention to the method.

Rich C.

I ran roleplaying games in the 80's and 90's, which means you're the one who creates the contents of the world the players' characters are going to explore. It's a big job you (and the players) do over time, and one of the most important, and fun, tasks is creating the non-player characters met and interacted with in the game world. Details are absolutely what it's all about, especially noteworthy mannerisms, modes of speaking or modes of dress, quirks, negative traits, etc. One of the things I liked best was how events in the story/game world would be interpreted differently by different inhabitants, just as in life. Part of the players' figuring out those world-inhabitants ways of thinking, agendas, etc., was by those differences.


The time & event chart, what a brilliant idea! Even though I've never written anything with a time span large enough for this to be particularly relevant it still appeals to me. Clear, visual and accurate.


Margaret Atwood's male character, in draft: "What in the fuck?" Male reader: "Nope. 'What the fuck.'" Priceless!


"... so I put in some more thinness. Because people will leap to their own conclusions." !!!

Janna S.

Does anyone know where you may hand in assignments and get feedback or is it just from discussion board? Thanks in advance. I liked her comment about liars. Prolific liars tell the truth sometimes, hmmm... and something close to madness throbs and bangs against the flesh and edges of the mind and heart, trying to decide what is true and what isn't, dropping the soul frequently into hell if you have the misfortune to count one family or friend. Trying too hard, reaching to far? Maybe, but I'm just searching right now.

Nina T.

Great session! She said something very similar to what David Mamet said in one of his sessions and that is - you know a character by what they do. All of her insights and wisdom in creative writing is very helpful whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay.

Jane G.

Good ideas re getting expert advice! Also re giving the reader close about characters