From Margaret Atwood's MasterClass

Bringing Characters to Life Through Detail

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.

Topics include: Actions Reveal Character • What You Should Know About Your Characters • A Tool for Character Development • Clues for Your Readers • Get Expert Advice on Character Accuracy


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.

Topics include: Actions Reveal Character • What You Should Know About Your Characters • A Tool for Character Development • Clues for Your Readers • Get Expert Advice on Character Accuracy

Margaret Atwood

Teaches Creative Writing

Learn More


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. [CHUCKLING] 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 think it has. Hearing how other writers work and what they have experienced is always so inspirational. I loved this class because it was not only inspirational but it was also specific

This was a wonderful class with very thoughtful discussions. Margaret Atwood is one of the best authors to feature in a MasterClass. She knows the business more than most. The class was intellectual, engaging, and it was a wonderful experience to listen to the accomplished author offer her advice. Thank you for this excellent class! I look forward to taking another class very soon in the future.

Thank you for creating this class! I am in the process of publishing my first novel on Wattpad all because I watched these lessons and was inspired by Margaret's words. Thank you!!!

Ms. Atwood has made me feel relaxed about the process of writing and brought enjoyment of the work again


Tricia K.

I loved this lesson! So many of my stories would have flowed so much better if I had thought about whether or not I was using the right narrator. Such an easy fix! I'd love to know where she gets her ideas from. Does she ever discuss that? Tricia

Bronwyn W.

Lessons 1-6 went without a hitch. Lesson 7 is continuously stopping and then replaying.


Why am I unable to download the pdf files? I just get a page expired error message.

Seval A.

This isn't about the lesson, but some of you might be wondering the same. I saw a link to 'office hours' at some point on this website and got the impression we could get feedback straight from Atwood on some of our writing. Now I can't find that link any more. Has anyone tried that link? How do we access it?

Kathryn W.

Really good resources and practical advice on knowing your characters inside out. I wish I had had the date chart before I started writing my current piece: the dates and times and characters' ages have been really tricky to get my head round. I wrote timelines and family trees, but I think this would have helped a great deal. I am going to have a go at completing the character questionnaire retrospectively, with the hope of filling out/warming up my characters. Where I have had feedback on my writing, it has generally taken the line of 'the characters are too unpleasant to be believable' (cast based on my own family) or 'not compelling enough'. So I will be watching and re-watching lessons 7 and 8.


I tried using the timeline for writing a character that I'm working on. It's really cool! It really helps place the character in an historical moment in a way that I hadn't thought of before, and it prompted me to consider how historical events affected the character's life or people in his life. It's a great exercise, IMO. Thank you!

Giorgia D.

The first thought that comes through my mind at the end of this lesson is the "Hereditary Defect", a theory elaborated by Emile Zola, a French poet that took part of the "Scapigliatura movement" (a post-Risorgimento Italian movement). With his theory, Zola tries to explain how all the past events of our lives influence our present and make us who we are now. That's why, I definitely agree with Margaret about the importance of giving an accurate description of our novel's characters, to make the reader understand why our characters take some decisions rather than others and to help us (writers) going on with our story! PS: I'm not sure about the accuracy of my "Hereditary Defect" translation from my Italian studies but I'll leave you the Italian name of it --> "Teoria delle Tare Ereditarie" Emile Zola (this is not a book but it's a THEORY).

Michele P.

Took a break from this class for personal reason, serious ones, and am now attempting to see my story and characters as they relate to this lesson. i need to go back to the matrix she attaches to the Ch. 7 assignment to see it completed in the video lesson. I remember catching a glimpse of it and wanting to stop the video, but I did not. Now the form is not making sense to me, so I must go back. Writing at this point in my life will be good for me, all-told, because it will slow me down. I fear that if I go too slow, however, I will lose interest. Writing a piece and analyzing my characters once they are on a page or pages is very different from knowing them and considering all their facets before they go down in writing/on paper. It's like subtraction, when I mentally lay the two versions--before and after questionnaire analysis--of each character on top of each other and can see what I haven't included or considered when I wrote each down. The question now becomes one of knowing what I must include to please my reader or to make my characters full enough to make sense to my reader.

Hanne B.

Every time I watch one of these lessons I think 'That was the most useful one so far!' And then I watch the next one!! I am so impressed with these lessons! I have a question to all you lovely writers though - I do use a timeline similar to Margaret's because I write family sagas that span over generations - (although the idea about adding world events rather than just fictional events is beyond genius!) - do any of you use timelines in your writing that span several decades? I find that I get lost in all the detail - do you have a method that works for you - and that you would care to share?

Blaine P.

Hmm. People are what happen to them. Now trying to figure out where to begin the story!