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.

Designed for beginner through experienced, some material was obvious, some not so much. There are gems for those paying attention.

Atwood is brilliant. There are a lot of great Master Classes on writing plot, but Atwood and Blume are the best for character-focused narratives.

Fabulous, such a warm and honest lady. Loved it.

treasure island: an island...a palm tree, a pirate, a secret...a map that's all you need plus imagination/work/work/research/Work and talent. I just bought Handmaid's tale...on more reader thanks for a lovely journey


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!


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.

A fellow student

I loved this lesson. I'm working on my first novel which actually is written over a time period. I wrote the periods down in my diary and then wrote events and then on another page wrote the ages of the characters etc. But this idea of a table with months and years is great. I'm going to use it and see if my characters actually fit well into the table. Thank you for this very valuable tip.

Velma B.

Well, I need to totally go through these lessons on characters to be able to better define them through other ways than through dialogue. I will spend a lot of time with the charts. Thank you.

Velma B.

Going into this lesson I learned so much about the importance of studied viewpoints. In writing my novel, the first person viewpoint slipped into Chapter 1 almost unnoticed. I had always shied away from it in drafts of other projects to the point that they were shelved because I couldn't get with the program. Right now, in The Hours Before Forever, I'm writing in the first person like it's second nature and this chapter has given me the tools to continue. Thank you.

A fellow student

i liked the tip on asking someone who is like our characters to make us rewrite our characters..but i thought we were to have more tips about making characters come to life..the lesson somehow intersected with point of view..writers need to develop empathy and observation also to create their characters... and they also need research..


The lessons are easy to grasp in the straight forward way they are taught. I am fond of the examples.

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.