Film & TV

Developing Characters: Part 2

Aaron Sorkin

Lesson time 15:15 min

Your characters don't have to be like you—or even likeable. Drawing on examples from A Few Good Men and Steve Jobs, Aaron explains why he always empathizes with his characters even if he disagrees with them.

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 think that if you are writing long biographies of your characters, of fictional characters, and this character when they were five years old they did this and when they were six years old they did that, things that have nothing to do with the story you're telling, I think that you're getting involved with magical thinking and that it's not going to work. I think that especially when you're beginning to script, anything that isn't in tension an obstacle is going to mess you up. I don't say here's what this character would have eaten for breakfast when they were five years old. OK because it's not the character was never five years old. The character was born at the age that they are when the lights come up. The character was only gets to be five years old if the character says when I was five years old, I saw my father kill himself. It's then and only then that the character was five years old. I wouldn't take out a yellow legal pad and a pen and start writing down character traits. Let's see. He likes baseball and he likes creamy peanut butter, but not chunky peanut butter, and he likes this and he doesn't like that many parts his hair on the left side and that kind of thing. I don't think that any of that is going to come in handy. I don't think there is a use for any of that. I think that what it's doing I think you're doing it because you feel like you're supposed to do it. I think you're doing it because you feel like the more human character traits you write down on this legal pad, the more human the character is going to be. What's going to happen is you're going to have a scene where a guy or a girl needs to convince their parents to loan them money for something, and you've got the yellow legal pad next you and you're figuring out how to work in creamy peanut butter into the scene because these are the things that are going to make your character more human. Forget that, OK? Forget that stuff. Get this guy to get money from his parents. Obviously, if the parents if the first line of the scene is Mom, Dad, I need money, and the second line of the scene is no problem, how much? You've kind of overcome the obstacle a little quickly. But make him or her have to play their intention and things are going to come up. You might stumble across a joke about creamy peanut butter and that's when your character likes creamy peanut butter. Oh, it was because there's this joke about it. Put the yellow legal pad aside. Believe it or not, the properties of characters and the properties of people have very little to do with each other. I know it seems like the goal should be to have a character be as human as possible. And that's not the goal, or at least not my goal. That's something for critics to talk about. That's something for audiences to talk about. It was such a human moment when they did this. It was so human when they did that...

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.


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Henry W.

Would appreciate any feedback from the assessment:

Ken K.

Great lesson. For writers, actors, or anyone in fact, empathy is very different from sympathy.

Ed B.

Interesting and challenging exercise. Have read some authentic approaches to the scene here from classmates. Here's something that came to me after I initially drew a blank on how to approach. Download File: Feedback welcome... Ed

Freddy L R.

Truly enjoyed this lesson. Great points, especially about NOT adding things such as peanut butter that have nothing to do with character development. Like acting, I believe a writer must be true to the character they're developing. Moment to moment. AFGM was and is such a GREAT film, loaded with some of the strongest characters ever written, and seen in cinema. Kick ass acting, too, I must add!

Emmanuel C.

Hi All, I'm a newbie at writing, well I've written before but never actually taken a course on writing. I love Intention and Obstacle, it just makes it so much easier to write a scene, when you know what a character wants and what tactics they use to get around their obstacles. It makes writing dialogue so much easier. Here's the scene I wrote about two people, and one asking for money from the other. Let me know what you think.

Jordan L.

Hey everyone, I also wrote a scene around two brothers. Please let me know what you think! If the link doesn't work let me know and I will email you the PDF. Thanks!

Jordan L.

Lora N.

I feel like Aaron Sorkin has just set me free from the dreaded character biographies! Every other instructor I've ever encountered has given the impression that they are necessary, and I have always felt guilty that I could never complete them. Thank you Mr. Sorkin for giving me the permission I needed to forgo that ridiculous step.


I love the idea of using intention and obstacle. Such a simple but powerful piece of wisdom. Watching The West Wing was like hearing Shakespeare every week. I've sold two scripts (one produced, one in development with Paramount) but still am learning so much from Sorkin. I feel very lucky...

Jordan C.

For this assignment, I wrote a screenplay about two brothers. One's an ex-con looking for a fresh start that the other is skeptical about. I would love any and all feedback that anybody could provide. My apologies if the format is messy. I'm using Scenarist until I can afford decent script writing software.