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 in 35 exclusive video lessons.
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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.

I've learned something valuable in every single lesson. It's motivated me to write more and to identify important points in pitches. In a personal way I admire how humble and hard working he is. It's made the experience more enjoyable.

The only thing missing is a book adaptation breakdown. Thank you.

It is going on in an excellent way! Eager to learn more and more!!

Sorkin's honesty about the doldrums of everyday life as a writer was so refreshing to hear. I felt much less like a loser. Loved every lesson!


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?


Aaron is terrific. His style, his delivery is real. No acting going on here. He talks... like he talks.


It’s difficult to listen to um ah um ah ah ; over and over and over again.


A fellow student: Turn your HERO into an anti-hero of sorts. Take your hero to a place where he grapples with some serious moral dilemmas - what wouldn't a father do to save his son? What kind of sacrifices would he make, what moral lines would he cross, how far would he imperil his own soul to save his child? Would he take a life, an innocent life if it could somehow save his son? Explore those areas. Take the character to some dark places, and maybe he's startled to learn his own capacity for evil, or maybe he finds redemption in not saving his son. There's quite a lot of character development and growth that could come out of that.

A fellow student

Great Lessons so far! This has generated a question for me, perhaps others. Faced with his son's demise, The HERO character must find cure for his son's illness, at least outwardly this provides plenty of motivation and obstacles, in this situation how does one show character growth and transformation beyond the problem solving? It seems as though any of his flaws pail in comparison to the motivation.

Jeremy N.

I like the idea of arming a character with specific "tactics" before the writing process even begins. It seems a great way to allow the dialogue and character to develop organically.

April C.

Sorkin is downright brilliant with dialogue. It's interesting how his characters are "born from intention and obstacle", as I cannot relate to that order of development. For me, the characters come out of nowhere, typically inspired by music, casual conversation, or even a vivid dream. It's the character and an intention that show up first.