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Arts & Entertainment

Developing Characters: Part 2

Aaron Sorkin

Lesson time 15:21 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.


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.


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

Loving them and feeling thankfull for Aaron's lecture.

I can say without question that my writing has increased 50% and the quality of that writing 100%, thank you Mr. Sorkin.

I'm always amazed to learn anything at my age, and this class has surpassed my expectations.

Excellent teacher. Enjoyed the brilliant insights provided.



Gonna be coming back to this lesson to review a few times. A LOT of nuggets and gems to take in and divulge - one of which in my now other way of thinking would be obvious for preparation. From this lesson however, it is thought as counterproductive in Sorkin's opinion. I guess I could see his point. Does anyone on here disagree with him?

Tolga C.

These implicite hints help. When I wrote my money-dialogue, I saw, that I don´t do it correctly. First step I guess. :-)


This was such an a-ha session for me because I'm reading Syd Field concurrently and his advice is - write a biography of your main character birth to their entrance onscreen so you know them inside out. But it felt so artificial to be coming up with stuff about my character's childhood because I couldn't care less and was dragging my feet coming up with nonsense that has little to do with where they are today.

Dmitry R.

I don't quite understand what Aaron is trying to say in the "Writing characters unlike yourself" section. Without the benefit of a diverse writer's room, how can you write characters that think and act out of circumstances and history that you're not familiar with? Should you just not go that deep into them? How do you then avoid making them one-dimensional and superficial?

Le Roux F.

Aaron's point on not trying to emulate real life is interesting. I suppose it also influences the types of stories he chooses to tell and how he tells them, which he clearly outlined in earlier lessons as telling stories involving high drama/conflict created by the clash of Intentions & Obstacles. Contrary to his point, I do believe there is a very important role for realism to play in film in an effort to tell stories that expose a world or people that the audience may not have encountered otherwise, and in these cases it's the responsibility of the filmmaker to present these in an accurate and realistic manner. Interesting to hear his take on the matter nonetheless, as it seems to give us some insight into his perspective of drama as an art form and its role in entertainment.

Vince B.

Oh, snap. He totally nailed me with the creamy peanut butter and yellow pads. I am so guilty of assigning traits to characters with no consideration of intention or obstacle. I'd even take words from random Scrabble games to assign traits in an effort to make them more human and well-rounded. No wonder they failed as characters more often than I'd like.

A fellow student

Phenomenal! And I love the actual references he is able to jump on his show.

A fellow student

Absolutely brilliant! That's how I imagine a Masterclass. No bla bla, a lot of information, great tipps. Bravo, Aaron Sorkin!

Siddharth S.

This is brilliant. Answers most of my questions from Part 1. I always knew what actors are bringing to the table but never really realised they are the ones completing a character.

Alejandro O.

Este es el episodio que más me ha impresionado hasta el momento. Básicamente porque plantea una forma de construir el personaje totalmente opuesta de la que he venido utilizando hasta el momento. Siempre he construido largas biografías de los personajes que intervenían en mis guiones y, tal y como Sorkin dice, llegaba un punto en el que me parecía demasiado. Demasiado tiempo empleado para el uso que le daba posteriormente. Aún así, pienso que algo sí que hay que escribir o pensar sobre los personajes antes de ponerte a dialogar con ellos, pero quizás no sea necesario saber cómo era su infancia si la primera vez que le vemos tiene 50 años.