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Arts & Entertainment

Developing Characters: Part 1

Aaron Sorkin

Lesson time 11:46 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.

Talk about bad ideas and SO much more ... loved this class.

Mr. Sorkin is an amazing writer. I was happy that he took the time to share his knowledge. I can see movies and television so differently.

The greatest value in this Masterclass was learning how an industry professional approaches his craft and what a Writer's Room looks like. Thanks!

Honest and to the point. Exactly what I was looking for.


Michael O.

This is my third round with Aaron's MasterClass. I'm in a bind writing coverage for a play by a friend. Well, it's more like a Gordian Knot. Listening (eyes closed) while doing yoga, I was deeply moved by the scene with Bartlett and Toby - tears came, streaming down my cheeks. Of course it's a good scene, well written, well acted and directed. Yes that's all true, but the feeling welling up in me now is how much we've lost politically and morally in the "real" West Wing of the last 3 years. Lost since the inaugural season of Aaron's "West Wing."

Gary K.

I'm so enjoying these. It took me an episode or two to get used to Mr Sorkin's way of "conveying" an idea (he weaves and bobs a lot while talking--lol).


This is the first time I have had an opportunity to share. I like the Masterclass approach and the people who do it, not just Aaron Sorkin. I got a couple of things under my belt for something quite timely. It’s from an event that happened over the weekend, where a load of brick were brought by some large conveyance to the places where rioting was likely to occur. What a set sup. /// Intention: The desire to create armed violence upon seeing the opportunity arise in the midst of a sensitive political climate /// Obstacles: 1. Difficulty due to the nature of the load (sz/wt), 2. Blabbing subordinates, 3. Two US Virgin Islands ex-police officers acting to save a boy’s life.

Lilia G.

This was a good lesson using a simple concept with a lot of creative writing storytelling power.

Vince B.

I never thought of building a character around intention and obstacle. I always do it the opposite way: take a character I know and love (often based on a memorable friend or relative) and find the right conflict to torment him. Since story is all about "conflict, conflict conflict," it makes sense to start with intention and obstacle. That way you wind up with behavior that is consistent with the character, because you designed the behavior first. Wow. Who knew?

Le Roux F.

I love the practical example Aaron uses of how he developed The Social Network. It makes the content relatable in a way that we've seen translated to the screen.

Siddharth S.

It's wonderful how one can craft and develop characters with intention and obstacles and tactics. That makes me wonder did all of the screenplays of biographies, (as the focus and story as I believed were stemmed from the character itself) were approached from this philosophy as opposed to from the person himself/herself.

Alan S.

Very good. Mr Sorkin is a compelling presenter and the material is well illustrated with his stories..


So far, I love this Masterclass! Sorkin is great, his words are so vivid! The instruction is so clear and beneficial!


Interesting that Sorkin raised the idea of a "macro intention." I think I have made the mistake of not examining this deeply enough--which doesn't properly motivate the (micro?) intentions that support that big, overriding "want." So sometimes a character's actions in pursuit of that goal or in overcoming the obstacle seem muddy. If an obstacle is created just to be entertaining or just for the sake of providing an obstacle--then the method in which the character overcomes it can feel "out of character" or disjointed and jarring. This thought provided me with a big A-HA! moment.