Film & TV

Developing Characters: Part 1

Aaron Sorkin

Lesson time 11:43 min

Aaron shares some of the decisions he made to develop some of his most unforgettable characters—like The Social Network's Mark Zuckerberg and The West Wing's Toby and Leo.

Aaron Sorkin
Teaches Screenwriting
Aaron Sorkin teaches you the craft of film and television screenwriting.
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I don't have characters in my head. It's not like that. The character is born from the intention and obstacle. They're born from the intention and obstacle. And then the tactics that the character uses to overcome that obstacle, that's what the character is going to be. With "The Social Network" what I had was Mark Zuckerberg's blog post from the Tuesday night when he was a sophomore at Harvard, from the Tuesday night that he invented what they called Facemash. And it's a very angry blog post. He's very angry at a woman. I changed her name in the movie. I called her Erica. So he's very angry at Erica because he's just, in his opinion, been treated badly on a date. He's kind of been broken up with, or blown off, or something like that. And he writes a blog post where he narrates the rest of the night. He narrates that he's drinking and that he's drinking to get drunk. He narrates that he needs some kind of act of revenge to rid himself of this anger that he feels toward this girl. So he's just had a great idea. I'm going to create a website that compares women to farm animals. You get to vote who is hotter, this woman or this farm animal. That morphed into, wait a second, we'll put actual two women up there, two Harvard undergrads, and you get to vote who's hotter. One is only slightly less misogynistic than the other. I'm not even sure which though. But so I had that whole blog post. I wanted to start the movie by imagining the scene that came before that blog post. And in that scene we see what Mark wants, OK. And it's something we can all identify with. He wants to be one of the cool kids. OK, he wants to be socially accepted. He wants to date girls. And he wants to get into the exclusive clubs as a way of doing all that. So his sort of macro intention, his I want is I want to be accepted. I want a social life. What he ended up doing was building a virtual one, an artificial one that he was sort of the mayor of this world. The obstacles to doing that, there are a lot. What's the obstacle toward building the most successful website in the world? There are a ton of them. Toby gets around obstacles. For Toby if the obstacle is the president, Toby is a lot more direct with the president than most of the other characters, if not all of the other characters, save his wife, Stockard Channing. Toby is the one very early on, it's in the episodes The Crackpots and These Women, which I think was episode four or five of the series, Toby is the one who basically said-- Well, actually, now that I think about it, it's in a number of episodes, where Toby says you are not fulfilling your potential. You don't pretend to be dumber than you are to pander to all of the dumb people in America. You are the smartest person in the room. Be the smartest person in the room. Toby dresses down the president, whi...

Your script starts here.

Aaron Sorkin wrote his first movie on cocktail napkins. Those napkins turned into A Few Good Men, starring Jack Nicholson. Now, the Academy Award-winning writer of The West Wing and The Social Network is teaching screenwriting. In this class, you’ll learn his rules of storytelling, dialogue, character development, and what makes a script actually sell. By the end, you’ll write screenplays that capture your audience’s attention.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

It gave me great insight as to how Sorkin approaches story, characters, and dialogue. It also helped me understand how his writer's rooms work.

Having no previous experience with screenwriting, Aaron Sorkin's class has been a brilliant introduction to the craft. His insights helped me to fine tune my first screenplay, and now I've sent it out, and will keep writing until one of my screenplays sell.... Thank you Mr. Sorkin!

Aaron Sorkin is just an incredible writer and the opportunity to learn from him is wonderful. Shame Studio 60 was barely mentioned.

The course gives clarity to the process and Mr. Sorkin presented the information in digestible, understandable language.


Scott A.

This is liberating. I'm a lawyer and never get to write for fun, but always wanted to take published cases and unfold the imagined client or events that made a difference in their intention to resolve a dispute, get out of a mess, and the personal and professional obstacles they had to grapple with. Or even better write about my second passion, being a professional jazz tenor saxophonist and dramatize the obstacles some of the greats had to overcome. I was disappointed in "Bird" the movie. Clint Eastwood is a hero for producing it, but there were so many more intense stories that could have been told about, that maybe only kids who grew up listening to bop are aware of. Thanks for sharing these trade secrets. I have to write.

William C.

That's very interesting! When I first started to write stories or screenplays, I didn't think too much about "what kind of character they are" before I start to "dream" about what kind of situations they are facing or what they want to do. Then I begin to learn some theory and I felt guilty if I don't write down who they are first. I wanna try to do it in this way!


I loved it! Great information. Some things I hadn't thought of. I particularly enjoyed the examples.

Franny Alicia R.

Yes, I agree with Mitch! The clothesline analogy is very helpful and as a visual learner it makes me feel at ease. These simple but inspiring words truly makes a world of difference for a new screen writer.

A fellow student

I love the clothesline analogy. It really helps to visualize the storytelling process.


Hi everyone! Message from the MC Community team -- make sure you join Aaron Sorkin's Class Community! There you can discuss writing techniques and other class material, network with other students, trade tips and reviews, and stay up to date on class contests & activities. Link here: Also, FYI! We recently launched a contest to win 2 tix to Sorkin's latest screenplay adaptation on Broadway, To Kill A Mockingbird. Learn more and enter here: Contest closes this Sunday, Nov 24 at 10pm PT. Can't wait to see your submissions!

Juergen T.

Just I was thinking it would be helpful to see a clip of the scene he is referring to, the scene pops up! It really helps as I am a visual learner.


Another great lesson! The anti-heroes are a lot of the times just as interesting, or even more interesting than the heroes.


To challenge others by reminding them of the universal and invisible traps of our egos that bind and lock the human in us, can be devastating, destabilizing and life-saving at the same time : the money; the power; the profession; awareness; beauty; the diplomas Social and ethnic affiliation; the color The sex Nationality

Matt K.

This interview set up is awesome, I can't help but wonder what focal length lens and aperture this is shot at. Any guesses?