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.

I really like her class - she was the reason I joined Masterclass' annual subscription in the first place. I like her style of presenting her work - very witty. I also like how she writes about speculative fiction and utopian/dystopian stories.

Margaret Atwood! Thank you. I have learnt so much from your class.

What a bright woman. I'm in awe. Thank you Margaret Atwood

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


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

A fellow student

I love the videos. Margaret is quite inspiring, I enjoy her lessons because she's very easy to listen to and uses good examples for stuff. I tried the character chart with a side character that I've been developing for a short while, but it's a little hard because I have an annoying tendency to make my characters exactly like me... which proves problematic when trying to create diversity. Also, I'm writing a fantasy novel and the years are called 'cycles,' so I'm not sure how to incorporate that into the year-chart-thingamajig. Any suggestions?

Linda F.

Once, a novel writter that was reading a draft of a novel of mine, told me -I would never a girl like your Character-. I could not believe his comment!!!! . One could think - XXI century that is not happening- but yes it is. Thank you Margaret.

Katherine R.

I think that "bad" characters are important in the development of drama. I think we use them as a measuring stick between "good" and "evil." Maybe it is cathartic for us to get to know a "bad" character, especially a well-developed one. We can compare how we react to the situations in our lives and feel better about ourselves because (we think) that we would react differently to life's challenges than they did. This lesson was great food for thought for me. I'm much less squeamish now about creating "bad" characters after thinking this through.


There's "teach" and there's "discuss." I found this episode quite boring as Atwood spends the majority of her time discussing women characters in literature and why she likes Hannibal Lecter. There was very little "teaching." No suggestions as to how to develop compelling characters. No tips on how to determine if your main character is engaging or interesting. No exercises on how to improve your characters. Only a high-brow discussion on literature and history. Quite disappointing.

A fellow student

As a Mabel, I have to respecfually disagree that we're always sweet. I'm inspired to created a devious Mabel character! ;)