From Margaret Atwood's MasterClass

The Novel and the Shifting Sands of Genre

Margaret discusses the evolution of the novel and asserts that the writer’s objective should be to stay true to the foundational elements of storytelling, regardless of genre.

Topics include: Forget Genre, Make Me Believe It


Margaret discusses the evolution of the novel and asserts that the writer’s objective should be to stay true to the foundational elements of storytelling, regardless of genre.

Topics include: Forget Genre, Make Me Believe It

Margaret Atwood

Teaches Creative Writing

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What are novels if not stories? If all they were was ideas, they wouldn't be novels. They would be works of philosophy or something else like that, but they would not be novels. And novels are always about people, even if the people are rabbits. And "Watership Down", it's a novel. We have these characters. They're rabbits, but really they're people. They have emotions like people. They have conversations and they have activities that are people like. "Lord of the Rings", there are some human beings in them, but the other characters are talking trees or Nazguls, things like that. But essentially it's characters in a story, and that's what a novel is. The thing about the novel as a form ever since it has appeared is that it's been infinitely malleable. That is it's polymorphic. It's taken many forms. People are always coming up with new theories of the novel or new theories of new kinds of novel or doing things like writing a novel in which the letter A does not appear. People are always pulling it this way, pulling it that way, pulling it apart, experimenting with it, declaring that it's dead. It's been such a shape changer that we do not know what new form may emerge. And that is one of the great things about this thing we call the novel, namely long prose narratives that are not medieval poetic epics or whatever preceded them, the novel. They've all got characters and events, and within that just about anything has been possible. But the main rule is hold my attention. [MUSIC PLAYING] What is the value of knowing the genre or type of book you're writing before you start? Well, there may be a value in not knowing. And the value of not knowing may be that you may be able to do some genre bending that if you lock yourself in to a preconceived box, you might not be able to do. What your job is is to make your book whatever it may be, as plausible, as believable as possible. If you can make us believe in "Rosemary's Baby", it doesn't really matter what shelf down the line somebody is going to put you book on. It's more of a requirement for people writing literary criticism than it is for authors themselves. Your job as an author is to make your book real. Literary fiction, commercial fiction, these are decisions made by publishers. So as an author, your job remains to make your book as good a book of its kind as it can be. So some editor then may come across and say, this has really great commercial possibilities. We're going to put a lot behind this, major marketing campaign. That's not your decision. You have made your book the best of its kind that it can be. And how it is marketed, although you may scream and yell and protest and say they haven't done enough or they've done the wrong thing or all the rest of it, those are not your decisions. Character-driven novels and plot-driven novels, another false distinction. If you've made your book the best book that it can be, it's going to have both. That is it's goin...

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.

A GIANT! Margaret Atwood would be scary if she were not just so funny! Thank you, I learned a lot as well as picked up a few very useful tips

Atwood is brilliant! This class was exactly what I needed. Thank you ;)

What a gem. I binged this course and will return to it more methodically later... so good, what a character!

Thank you for creating this class! I am in the process of publishing my first novel on Wattpad all because I watched these lessons and was inspired by Margaret's words. Thank you!!!


Philip C.

I've wondered why other writers make the distinction between a "plot driven" story and a "character driven" story. So great to hear from Margaret that separating the two makes no sense.

J'nee H.

Interesting advice about the genre being the Publisher's problem. Love her teaching style!

Sara H.

Best lesson so far! In fact if I had to pick just one to recommend to someone who hasn't followed the course, it would be this one. Hold My Attention, and it's not your decision on marketing - with that you can get down to it.

Caetlin W.

I liked what Ms. Atwood said about genre being the publisher's problem and not the author's. I have often worried about being stuck in one genre simply because that's the genre I was published in first. It is nice to hear her say not to pay any attention to that. Just write whatever you are planning to write and let the publishers sort it out later.


This lesson was so great. My current WIP has evolved so much and I think that if I had started out with one genre in mind it may never have worked its way around to what it is now. Such excellent advice!

marilee S.

Whew - great lessons - just what I need, have needed for a long time. Margaret's classes ring true for me, especially, "Why are you afraid?" to ". . . being afraid to finish." Every time I visit my brother down in Kentucky, he is always teasing me about the stories I have to tell; and that he knows I will certainly tell them to him. Would like to send an attachment - alas, your page won't accept mine.


In writing my book, "Beyond the Blue Door" I had both plot and characters. I loved writing that book and developed a real love for my characters. When it came time to put it out there, I found I was hindered on all fronts by my inability to define the genre of the book. It didn't fit in any of the pigeon holes, whether for Kindle, contests, or marketing. Being a genre-bender was a real disadvantage, one I have yet to overcome. Unless you are a recognised author with the clout of a publisher behind you , identifying the genre is important if you want to sell any books.

A fellow student

I'll use the word others have used herein: "Refreshing"! I used to never worry about the genre in which I was writing; I thought, "If it's a good book, someone will publish it." Then I went back to college (after 15 years) for graduate study in English and I learned that literary criticism was a thing. It seemed it was more important to categorize an author's oeuvre than it was to actually read it cover to cover. My confidence faltered, and my writing stalled. Not that literary criticism doesn't have a place; it does. It's just that, as Margaret says, it's not a writer's problem. Nor is how the book is marketed or what shelf it lands on. It's our job to make the book as good as we can make it. Thank you, Margaret, for sharing your oh-so-practical advice and inspiring me to enjoy every aspect of writing.


So freeing to hear Ms.Atwood speak of how genre distinction is not the job of the writer. That we should focus on the development of the story and characters and that genre distinction is the decision of the publisher by means of where to stock the book on shelves. Also, love how she brings back the notion that a novel is just a story with characters in it. Writers can try to take a 'nouveaux' approach to writing a novel by taking it to another level. Be daring! No plot,no characters, writing a novel with no 'a's. But essentially what makes a good novel are all the elements of story telling that have been held true by great writers as we have read their stories throughout the course of time.

Maria S.

The trouble with writing your piece any way you want to without taking into consideration rules and metrics, is that when you are ready you might have to publish it yourself if it doesn't fit in with a particular genre.