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
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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.


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

This class was extremely informative. It was definitely worth my time!

I am not a pro writer - I am a musician - but I do have a musical theater piece I've written that I continue to polish. Always liked Aaron's work and I'm pretty sure I played his bar mitzvah.

Amazing and insightful information from a veteran in the field. You can always tell if a teacher is just teaching to earn a check, throwing out random information without working to make sure it is received. Compare this to Mr. Sorkin, an artist, who is carefully crafting the delivery of his wisdom so that a new generation will be inspired. I believe his stated intention. Thank you.

This class is great. I don't like when they spent too much time with the students. The brainstorm should have been faster. To have more of Sorkin.


A fellow student

The anti-hero section reminded me a lot of Joaquin Phoenix in JOKER. He commits some horrific acts, but it's difficult for us to hate the character, as we've spent 3/4 of the film empathizing with him. As great a performance as Heath Ledger gave in The Dark Knight, it was easy to hate that version of the Joker. Phoenix's rendition was much more complicated.

Joshua J.

I agree with him about making irrelevant the differences between people groups when it comes to writing characters different from you. I would like to know more about the technical process in writing those characters.

Scott A.

Sorkin really breaks things down and makes you understand why decisions are made in writing.


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!

Marco P.

This lesson was enlightening. There is no only one way to do things, creation is not a standard process. Everyone have to find there own process. I love this.


Great lesson! It's a good idea to surround yourself with a variety of people with different backgrounds and cultures. You can learn so much from them and their experiences. And as for anti-heroes, I can think of many times when I didn't agree with what they were saying, but I could feel what they were saying.

Jade S.

I loved the anti-heroes section. I may not agree with what my character is saying, but I have to believe in it... And you can totally feel that in Jack Nicholson's speech! Amazing lesson.

Julian D.

Perhaps even more than the actor (though any suggestions he/she has for the role will be taken into consideration), the director will most usually decide on a character's depth. In much the same way that the writer rarely goes into detail about location. The screenplay, after all, is just the (bare-bones) blueprint for a movie which needs to be brought to "life" visually through character actions, settings etc. which is the director's job.

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.