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Arts & Entertainment

Creating Compelling Characters

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 08:45 min

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

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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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.

Wonderful! I don't think it's going to make me the next Atwood, but I think it will serve to make me satisfied with my own first effort. I got confirmation that I have done many things correctly, and the course gave me ideas on how to improve. Ms Atwood is an excellent presenter. Her relaxed demeanor made me relax and enjoy the ride.

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.

This class stands out above all the others for me. Margaret isn't just a master of her craft but a wise old student of humanity. That deep seated understand of the human condition richly woven into storytelling makes her not only a wonder to spend an evening with but the embodiment of why we write at all. Thank you Ms Atwood.

Margaret Atwood delivers a comprehensive and witty series of lectures of relevance to all kinds of writers


Samantha S.

I need to put this out to the world as I can't hold it back anymore pls tell me your thoughts on my idea. So picture this, the tense is past the POV is the third person until the end of the bok when it turns out it is first-person observing someone through the whole book and is the bad guy... thoughts, I need ur help cause I want to put it in my book would it be a good plot twist??


I am loving these questions for our characters. They are so interesting to me, because often at first I don't know the answer. In thinking about them and answering these 'silly' questions like what they are embarrassed by or do they have pets, I am fleshing out my characters to be so much more human. I understand my characters now more than ever, and it is easier to make them make decisions that are true to them and not just what I myself would do. Thank you, Margaret!


I was fascinated. I started writing a book about female journalist in the 1950's and Margaret was able to verify the research I was doing. I guess I started taking this class at the right time.

Federico D.

Me ha gustado mucho su mención a la importancia de elegir qué elemento descriptivo ponemos de relieve en un personaje; vestimenta, comida, gestos, etc. Creo que si pretendemos abarcar todo de un personaje, puede resultar una descripción opaca. Sus clases son iluminadoras. ¡Gracias Margaret!


As a transgender person who doesn't identify with male or female, I really appreciated what you said about gender norms. It was also very interesting to think about in the context of my story! I had decided to exclude sexism and gender roles because, in my mind, even though it was historical fantasy, if there was monsters and magic (and the setting is medieval America, which not much is known about) , why have things that are badly handled most of the time? What you said made me reconsider how the characters would act in that kind of environment, and how it would make them change who they are, versus a modern setting. I think I might add back in and reconsider some things about gender in my setting, and include the main character's thoughts on their own gender more! (They are also trans and nonbinary, because I feel like there should be more of that kind of thing).

A fellow student

Margaret is simply amazing with the way she gives practical and relatable examples. The little things in the characters you develop are very important, from their quirks to what cutlery they use to eat their food.


I enjoyed the way she prompts questions about the use of my characters. How will they behave and will they be believable? As with Hannibal, he changes strategy many times, but is still in character and believable. I understand the importance now of the depth I will need to go in creating my characters. If my twists and turns are not in sync, I will break the bond I created with my reader.

Cláudio B.

I am loving Margaret classes. She is an amazing lady. Very polite and wise.

C.N. S.

I mean, the really took any excuse to chop off a head in the French Revolution. I'm pretty sure being born on a Tuesday was justification to send someone to the guillotine. "Francois, did you pour the milk in before the cereal? Quick, fetch the Committee of Public Safety."

Jordan J.

"Are you interested in hearing more about Mabel? No. Not Particularly." and then that smile . . U