Film & TV

How Aaron Sorkin Created the West Wing Characters

Written by MasterClass

Nov 15, 2018 • 3 min read

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Screenwriter, director, and executive producer Aaron Sorkin became a household name with the runaway success of his political drama The West Wing. The Emmy-award winning TV series ran for seven seasons on NBC and garnered several awards.

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Who Are the West Wing Characters? West Wing Character List

The central character of The West Wing is Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, who plays the role of President of the United States and 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 communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff); deputy communications director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe); chief of staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer); deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford); press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney); and senior assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney).

How did Sorkin parlay his powers of research and observation into creating one of the most memorable TV 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.

How Aaron Sorkin Developed Characters on The West Wing

While writing his American president screenplay, Sorkin 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,” Sorkin 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 Aaron Sorkin Used Research to Inspire the Characters on The West Wing

Sorkin used the President’s Daily Diary not only to get an understanding of what life is like in the White House but also as an inspiration for plotlines and characters in the Bartlet administration. 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, Sorkin says: “I think great—there’s an episode.”

While The West Wing is a political drama that explores plenty of storylines and tense moments between Republicans and Democrats, 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 Did Sorkin Create Three-Dimensional Characters on The West Wing?

The President’s Daily Diary also gave Sorkin 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,” Sorkin 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 Sorkin’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,” Sorkin says. “Like, when he runs out of toothpaste, what happens?”

Find more screenwriting inspiration in Aaron Sorkin’s MasterClass.