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 just loved listening to Margaret Atwood. Thank you!

Good lecture overall. My only critique was that there were multiple instances of digression from Mrs. Atwood. I got lost on what she was talking about because she went off topic in several lectures. Other than that, I also enjoyed the pdf download of the course. Very useful for me to reference.

Amazing! So many useful jewels of information and wisdom.



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! ;)

Andrea P.

If you've ever worried about being liked by everyone, this lesson is truly wonderful. People might not be likeable, but they can be compelling and interesting. On many current TV shows, some of the most despicable people keep us entertained and hooked (Frank and Claire Underwood for instance). No one is perfect, and no good character can be flawless. It is often our flaws and how we deal with crisis that say more about who we are.

Dan U.

Brilliantly educated author. Knows what to do and when to do it. Complete package. Stay tuned.

Joyce B.

The video just get stuck and kept lagging but does not continue no way to watch it at all

Cassie A.

i am taking in all that Margaret Atwood has to say which is so entertaining and enjoyable especially since i read CATS EYE recently, and was crazy about it.I had not read anything of hers before that, even Handmaiden... i will go back and listen to the whole masterclass again I'm sure because there is a lot of information and her presentation is absolutely unique and engaging. i would like to avoid making the masterclasses into work of any kind for myself at this time. i am here to listen...I think that i may sample another speaker before even finishing Margaret Atwood's class just to step back and get more perspective on what you are offering in these classes. . I find myself in mode of wanting to absorb from these lessons from experts across the spectrum. It is enlightening to listen to anyone speak from his/her expertise even if I do not think I'm interested in their topic in particular. vis: poker. I am taking these classes to feed my mind and learn all I can from the people who speak from their mastery. I hope I'm making sense. At this time, I am recovering from a major surgery and so on pain medication which makes me a bit foggy. yet, I still write every day. thank you.

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.