Chapter 8 of 23 from Margaret Atwood

Creating Compelling Characters

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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

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 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.

Analyzing literary classics and her own work, Margaret demonstrates her approach to crafting complex dystopias.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps, assignments, and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Margaret will also critique select student work.

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Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing