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Writing

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.

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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.



Reviews

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

I loved listening to Margaret Atwood's words of wisdom and instruction. I will no doubt go back and listen to the entire lecture series again.

I have created dozens of ideas for my set of stories. Thanks so much, Ms Margaret.

I wasn't sure what to expect, but found her curiously interesting and easy to listen to.

That the most fundamental lessons are very down to Earth. Also that maps are great for stories!


Comments

Dana Jae L.

I am so thankful to find the ways to flesh out my characters beyond the usual completeness of every character detail. How do these details work their way into the structure of the story? SO many great ponderings after a few lessons from Margaret. THANK YOU!

Liz L.

This lesson was very helpful for telling or showing readers who your characters are. Thank you for this.

A fellow student

All her classes are amazing but this one was particularly inspiring. I am in rewrites right now she helped me look at my work from a different perspective. I needed this not only for character direction and development but for the pace of the story. Thanks Margaret

A fellow student

I liked this lesson, however, when it came to the years and events, I will have to make a chart for years that are made up because the novels I am working on don't take place in the past, but the far future. I found this lesson to be quite useful and inspiring. I wrote a chapter in one of my fanfiction and I was told that I list what the characters are wearing and one of the readers didn't like it. I was trying to find a new way of describing clothing, but hearing successful authors do the same, I am going to keep doing me.

Maria Rosa

I am eating the chapters, literally. Love her great experience and the way she shares it. The workbook is beautiful and there are a lot of references, too.

MARISA D.

I am thoroughly enjoying listening and learning from Margaret Atwood - she is just fantastic - and, her workbook is beautiful. I’ll be giving my students all her hints, especially - as, we are studying ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.

A fellow student

This is why I always have a few people read my books and I ask for their complete honesty. It helps a lot.

A fellow student

I am amazed, every single chapter Mrs. Atwood gives away us excellent and useful tips. I am loving this course! (and I love Margaret Atwood's personality too)

Cagla A.

Oh my god, she has the most organized mind I have ever seen! Everything is so to the point and clear that it is mindblowing! I am loving this class! And every passing second I am more in love with this incredible woman and her intellect!

Colleen

She truly brings the importance of understanding our characters by way of how their actions define values and such. It is in this arena our readers connect on a deeper level.