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

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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.

The class was well paced for me, the lessons in nicely sized chunks to assimilate. The work sheets had great resources and invited me to do things that generally I would not consider. Ms. Atwood is a charming, engaging teacher. I am just beginning to take my writing seriously and she was a great start to doing so. I cannot thank her and MasterClass enough for the opportunity.

Quite so often I find myself blocked when I try to start a writing. The beginning that is. Taking this class brought me to learn to pass this stage and move forward. What I needed was a clear understanding of beginning, middle , and end. I also needed a complete understanding of where to look for research, and I got it. Thank you Margaret.

Thrilled to be here, grateful that she agreed to do this.

Good practical advice from a respected writer.


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!

Nancy R.

I love that she wrote a story about a con woman and has worked to break the good-female stereotype. I also liked her reminder that "the devil has all the good lines," and that the characters do not have to be likeable, but they need to be engaging.

Giorgia D.

The villain is the most important thing in a novel, for me. From my point of view, is the deepest part of ourselves; it can represent something that we'd like to be, but we know we'll never be; it can be the face of our greatest fear; or simply, someone that we really hate in our real life, but we are too afraid to tell him/her so! It's the funniest part of writing a novel.

Kathleen S.

Please fix the Chapter 8 download PDF. It is missing the middle pages. I only get the cover page and last page. (I want every little bit I can get from Margaret's tutelage.)

A fellow student

Character development is something I've been struggling with in the longer piece that I've been working on for the past year. These past two lessons have helped crack something open for me to move past some of the blocks that I had. I loved Ms. Atwood's suggestion to assign each character an astrological sign. It's such a practical tool that I'd never thought of before, and her discussion of gender added a layer of dimension that was truly helpful. How does you character perform gender during their time, and how does social status play into this? The villain in my story was a little too predictable. Her point that we've evolved to not want to turn our back on the wolf puts it so succinctly. Sometimes I can get so wrapped up in this story in my head, that I can all but forget the reader. It's a good reminder to bring them into the fold and surprise them. It sounds so obvious, but it's easy to forget when you're down in the muck.

Vangelis P.

I cannot not wonder what are those rights that women had before the 19th century...