From Margaret Atwood's MasterClass

Creating Compelling Characters

Margaret teaches why the most compelling characters are often not very likeable, and delves into how gender plays into our expectations about character.

Topics include: "Defying Gender Norms With Your Characters • The Joys of a Devious Character in The Robber Bride • Villains and Unlikable Characters"


Margaret teaches why the most compelling characters are often not very likeable, and delves into how gender plays into our expectations about character.

Topics include: "Defying Gender Norms With Your Characters • The Joys of a Devious Character in The Robber Bride • Villains and Unlikable Characters"

Margaret Atwood

Teaches Creative Writing

Learn More


So the question that-- that people in books should be really nice people all the time and that women in particular ought to be very well-behaved, first of all it's not real life as we know. And second, women come in all shapes and sizes, ages and stages, heights and colors in different parts of the world. And to expect or demand that they be angelic and perfect is very Victorian. There is limited space on a pedestal. You don't get to move around a lot. So my view is that women are people, and that people are not perfect. And that there are many, many different kinds of them. And why should that not be reflected in fiction? When you're writing, you're going to be looking at how people in the world you're writing about, if it's the present age or if it's the 50's-- those are two very different periods-- how they are performing gender-- which is always to a certain extent a way of presenting yourself in society-- to other people. What am I conveying to other people about myself by this performance of gender? So gender is partly dependent on how it is performed in a historical period. So what does it mean, for instance, in the Tudor era to be a male person? What does it mean to be a female person? What do those things mean when they're at different social levels? Because that, too, varies from age to age. Women actually lost a lot of rights in the 19th century that they had had earlier. And some of the things that they've tried to regain in the 20th and 21st were things they had had before the 19th. One of the big offenders was Napoleon Bonaparte, by the way. And let us mention that in the French Revolution, they're very vague on the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But when a woman came along with the Declaration of the Rights of Women, they denounced her as a traitor and chopped off her head. So what does gender mean has been going on for a very long time. And in our age, we no longer think that there are only two packages, pink and blue. And science has backed that up. It's a bell curve, it's a continuum. And your character can be situated anywhere on that continuum. "The Robber Bride," the name comes from a gender switch on a Grimm's fairy tale called "The Robber Bridegroom." It's a female thief rather than a male thief, and it's structured like the opera, "Tales of Hoffman." That is, it has a prologue, then it has three stories embedded within it, one for each of the three other characters. And then it has an epilogue, just like "Tales of Hoffman," the opera. So there is Zenia, who is the eminance grise of the piece, who appears in all of the stories. And then there are the three friends, to whom these stories happen. And each one of them involves Zenia stealing their man but in very different ways. And she is the kind of character who can restructure her story and even her identity to conform with what might appeal to that particular woman. How does she get in the door? How does she gain their confidence and the...

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.

Loved Margaret Atwood's style. Relaxed, articulate, informative, and nuanced. After having written seven novels, I walked away wishing I had taken this course before I wrote the first. They no doubt would have turned out far better. Thank you.

Este curso me ha ayudado a notar muchos detalles que por mi misma no consideré; además, Margaret Atwood tiene una forma de explicar y expresarse cauti

What a wonderful teacher for my first Masterclass. Margaret Atwood is engaging, intelligent and charming. She is the teacher I always wish I had.

This was one of my favorites. I absolutely loved this class. Production well done!


John D.

Interesting lesson. The William Blake quote struck me, 'The devil has all the good lines.' Bad characters are good to read about. Make our characters unpredictable - surprise the reader. This has really helped me.


I like how you differentiate between likeable and compelling and the examples for stable and unstable you used with Mabel and Richard the Third. This is definitely helping me refine my own characters

Robert M.

Your delicate and defined insight is so powerful and rich. Your smile and smirk are both adorable and I love the way you find yourself amusing, ‘cause you are. I feel so touched about the craft and the possibilities of creating as I watch you. Margaret, you are a treasure.

G. S.

Ask the experts! There’s nothing to be ashamed of in asking for help, even from people who are LIKE your characters. “It’s often these small details that may trip you up because you’ve never thought about them.”

Gareth S.

I love this section on defying gender expectations. The most difficult thing is to write characters who have an ambiguous behaviour and have hard choices to make.

Andy B.

I can't download the work book from this class. I get a link to code. Any chance at getting a hand and some info on this? Thanks to whom it may concern! You Rock!

Melany M.

It makes me think of what I thought when I read 'A Little Life'. For a gay man, or a gay couple, the characterization was very unlikely in the sense that very, very few men identify as bisexual. Most either identify as gay or straight.

Noreen L.

Wait, where's that lovely red scarf? Ms. Atwood, I must have one like it. lol. This one is quite complimentary. I love this section on defying gender expectations. I'm working on a novel now in which all the characters defy stereotypes.

Marina F.

really liked this one, the most difficult thing is to write characters who have ambiguous behaviour and hard choices to make.

Stirling A.

i started this to learn her approach.... side benefit? a great reading list!