Film & TV

Aaron Sorkin Discusses the Inspiration for the West Wing Characters

Written by MasterClass

Nov 15, 2018 • 3 min read

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Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting

Screenwriter, director, and executive producer Aaron Sorkin became a household name with the runaway success of his political drama The West Wing, which ran for seven seasons on NBC and garnered several awards, including multiple Emmys. The central character of The West Wing is President Josiah Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, who commands the Oval Office with wit, smarts, and grit. And, of course, President Bartlet could never be President Bartlet without the help of his fast-talking staffers, including Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Leo McGarry (John Spencer), C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), and Donna Moss (Janel Moloney).

How did Aaron Sorkin parlay his powers of research and observation into creating one of the most memorable television shows, with some of the most beloved characters, of all time? Read on to discover his path through Hollywood to the White House, and beyond.


Who is Aaron Sorkin?

Aaron Sorkin was born in 1961 and raised in New York City. As a youth, he discovered an early love for the theatre and dialogue. He devoted his life to stagecraft and studied acting at Syracuse University where he graduated with a degree in the subject.

While searching for work as an actor, Aaron’s fascination with dialogue boiled over, and he began to explore dramatic writing. After many misses, he wrote the stageplay, A Few Good Men, which became an instant hit on Broadway. He later adapted the story into a feature length screenplay. Upon the film’s release, Aaron’s Hollywood career exploded. He eventually turned to TV and created Sports Night, a critical hit.

Then, while working on a feature film script about the American president, Aaron had a chance lunch meeting in which he panic-pitched the idea, but as a television series, to a producer. That producer took the idea to NBC, and the cultural phenomenon The West Wing was born. More recently, Aaron penned The Social Network, which netted him an Oscar for best-adapted screenplay, as well as Moneyball, Steve Jobs, and the HBO series The Newsroom.

How Does Aaron Develop Characters?

While writing his American president screenplay, Aaron conducted extensive research on site visits to the White House. He took bits of this research to form the idea for The West Wing, then fleshed out the character of President Bartlet with deep-dives into historic documents.

“The one piece of research that really got me going with the American president was what is called the President’s Daily Diary,” Aaron says. “The President’s Daily Diary isn’t like, ‘Dear Diary, today she looked at me in geometry.’ It is a minute-by-minute accounting of what the president did that day.”

How to Use Research As Plot and Character Inspiration

Aaron used the President’s Daily Diary not only to get an understanding of what life is like in the White House, but also as inspiration for characters and plot lines. For example, in one diary he found a notation about a junior aide getting lost. Apparently, the president’s motorcade departed as soon as the president got in his car. If someone had left the group—say to go to the bathroom or buy a bottle of water—they could get left behind. Of tidbits like this, Aaron says: “I think great—there’s an episode.”

While The West Wing is a political drama, it’s primarily about the relationships between the characters. What goes on in the lives of the First Lady, the Vice President, the Deputy Chief of Staff? What’s important to them? What minutiae makes President Bartlet Jed Bartlet, or Charlie Young Charlie? It’s these questions—and their answers—that provide the seedlings of plotlines that can develop into entire season-long, or sometimes series-long, arcs.

How to Create Three-Dimensional Characters

The President’s Daily Diary also gave Aaron a sense of the president not as a figurehead and world leader, but as a person. That perspective helped him flesh out President Bartlet into the fully three dimensional character Martin Sheen went on to play.

“I was just suddenly struck by the fact that it was a human person in the White House,” Aaron says. “Because next to a meeting with the Treasury Secretary or with a king, he would go back to the East Wing for a 20-minute nap.”

The West Wing is a cultural phenomenon for many reasons, but the humanity of its characters—including Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet—is undoubtedly one of them. And Aaron’s process of deep research as well as his creative interpretation of the various tidbits he found, is to thank for that.

“I just got really interested in the president as a person,” Aaron says. “Like, when he runs out of toothpaste, what happens?”