Chapter 5 of 35 from Aaron Sorkin

Developing Characters: Part 2


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.

Topics include: Writing characters unlike yourself • Writing anti-heroes

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.

Topics include: Writing characters unlike yourself • Writing anti-heroes

Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting

Aaron Sorkin teaches you the craft of film and television screenwriting in 35 exclusive video lessons.

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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. You’ll learn his rules of storytelling, dialogue, character development, and what makes a script actually sell. By the end, you'll write unforgettable screenplays.

Watch, listen, and learn as Aaron teaches the essentials of writing for television and film.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Aaron will also critique select student work.


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

I loved it, at some degree I think I'll miss Aaron! The class was awesome, but I feel that de last lessons weren't as didactic as the other ones.

I wrote legal briefs for 25 years and did not have the benefit of a screenwriting or film course until I took early retirement to change careers. The writing room atmosphere is inspiring and let's me know what my next step has to be. As well, not being too hard on myself for the time it takes me to force myself to put on paper what I see in my mind's eye.

Overall this class was incredibly enjoyable. I love Aaron's teaching methods and all of his examples. I have learned so much from this class.

I've been an 'aspiring' screenwriter for years-the class lit a fire under me and I'm now pursuing actually being a screenwriter. Thanks for the kick!


A fellow student

How many times have teachers told me - "if you don't know what they had for breakfast, you don't know the character." How many times I would write these details down and found my self perplexed with how complex the story is becoming, and it serves no purpose in the long run. Yet, here is an experienced writer saying the truth, none of that matters until it matters. Intention and obstacles are the goals! Fantastic.

Dante P.

The PDF download links for chapters 4 and 5 aren't working. Please fix. Thank you.

Claire M.

I thought this was a fantastic class, and my interests are not in screenwriting/playwriting. But the way that he got me thinking about how to write characters who are different from myself, even very different, who have different points of view and different ways of expressing their points of view was extremely helpful. His examples were excellent and, for me, really helped to get the point across. Extremely useful. Thank you.


The topic in this session seems like he is directing the actor of how to play the character, rather then giving the character certain traits that lead to conflict depending upon the flow of the scene


Grated this Master Class is with a notable writer. And respect his knowledge. However it does take Mr, Sorkin tends to delay his point. Am distracted by his nervousness in his vocally bringing his point forward.

Judi P.

I am not sure what twirling he mustache means in this context? He is taking about the actor not knowing the character or he is talking about the writer not writing a more authentic character because the writer does not empathize with the anti-hero?


I love what he is saying about actors completing the characters. Being an actor as well, I have experienced way too many times, how (especially) directors will force their whole idea/construct of the character onto an actor instead of trusting the casting choice and that whatever the actor brings to the table with their creativity is going to flesh it out in a way that the writer/director/producer could never have come up with.

Tara Jade B.

Super interesting concept about empathising with characters even your villains. Otherwise, if you don't, it will be clear to views/ readers, you are putting "Xmas ornaments" on the character. Really good thought there, and also, something I need to constantly keep in mind. Thanks!

Anthony N.

Here's a scene I wrote where one person ask to borrow money and is met with opposition. My confidence as a writer is building and I wanna see what anyone who reads this will say with some constructive feedback. INT. APARTMENT - NIGHT Cell phone on a nearby stand reads 2:17am AARON, a disheveled looking man in his 20’s, is laying in his unkept bed, socks, shirts, gloves, you name it, it’s probably on this bed with him staring at the ceiling like he is. Obviously lots on his mind. He immediately sits up in his bed and scurries out of it. KITCHEN Draped over one of the 3 dining room chairs is a SECURITY SHIRT that has his ID BADGE attached. On the TABLE is an open LAPTOP computer and on the screen we can see the Uber payroll page which shows how much he made for the week. $156.45 Sounds like a guys who does what he needs to survive! A pile of BILLS, some read: THIRD NOTICE in bright red letters. Red is not good! IN THE FRIDGE Scraps. Hardly anything. Small carton of EGGS, half a loaf of bread that’s clearly been there for awhile. There’s one HOT DOG in a bowl and a few containers of different juices. This guy clearly needs some assistance! AARON This is ridiculous. He slams the fridge door and stops by the table and ponders looking at his bills for a second. He looks at his cell phone and notices it’s 2:23am and the look on his face says, “the hell with them bills”. He walks over to the bathroom and takes a whiz. Why close the door when you live alone right? 3:47am Aaron is sound asleep and is awaken by a loud knock at his door! Half sleep and confused, he shakes the sleep off and tip toes over to the peep hole presses his eye to it. AARON (CONT’D) Why are you knocking on my door this time of morning! Still looking through the peephole. A burly GUY with a DIRTY SHIRT, and DIRTY GLOVES on is staring right back at the peephole from the other side. EXT. AARON’S APARTMENT - SAME REPO GUY I’m here to take possession of your vehicle. If you wanna grab some of your belongings, you got two minutes pal. Don’t want no problems, just giving you a chance to grab some stuff. Back to Aaron Aaron hangs his head in defeat. AARON Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Give me a sec man! I/E. AARON’S APARTMENT - SAME TIME Moments later Aaron now stands in his door signing paperwork given to him by the repo guy. A BOX of stuff from his car at his feet. He signs the clip board and hands it back over. REPO GUY Thanks bud. Aaron’s demeanor is totally calm. He’s expecting this. Tonights the night. AARON I know you just doing your job. Have a good night. Be safe. REPO GUY Later dude. Hope things turn around for you. INT. AARON’S BEDROOM - EARLY MORNING 6am - Cell phone alarm fires off. Aaron swipes the snooze button and lays face down still with his eyes open just staring at nothing. 6:15am He sits up in his bed and dials a number. Starts ringing on the other end. A message on a voicemail can be heard faintly saying, “Thanks for calling Rosenfeld custom jewelry.....ya da ya da ya da... please leave a message. BEEP. AARON Hey it’s Aaron. May not make it in on time. Car issues. I’ll call and text you in a few hours. 7am Aaron still sitting in the same spot just staring. Most likely trying to make sense of his life. He clicks the end button and contemplates dialing another number and starts, hangs up, starts dialing again, hanging up again. Finally he dials all of the numbers. AARON (CONT’D) Yo. What’s up bro? INT. ERIKS HOUSE - MOMENTS LATER Clearly whoever lives here is doing well financially. On the other end is ERIK, clean cut guy who is ironing shirts for his work week. Next to his ironing board is a rod that has at least 10 nicely pressed SHIRTS and SLACKS with sharp creases on each of them. ERIK What do you want?? AARON Good morning back. ERIK What do you want?? AARON Look uh...kinda need to borrow a thousand bucks. Erik stops ironing and then silence. AARON (CONT’D) I know I still own you 4 thousand but I’ll pay you back somehow. They got my car this morning. Silence. And then Erik takes a deep breath AARON (CONT’D) Look man I know I said I’d pay you back last time but things got--- ERIK So you’re asking me to pay your bills again? Is that what I’m hearing again Aaron? The both grow silent. Aaron knew this wouldn’t be an easy conversation. Split Screen The both are still silent fora few seconds and then: ERIK (CONT’D) I can’t this time! I just can’t. I gave you 4 thousand dollars before-- AARON I know and-- ERIK 4 thousand dollars and you didn’t pay a dime back! So how does this look Aaron? Huh? AARON I know what it looks like. I just fell on hard times but this is my car bro! If I don’t pay them in a few days they’ll auction it off. ERIK Not my problem. I got bills and a life too! You think about that? AARON Look. What if I gave you my guitars as collateral? ERIK Why the hell would I do that? I don’t play instruments. AARON They’re worth a few thousand easily! ERIK I don’t want your guitars. What am I gonna have a yard sale with them! AARON Ok there’s gotta be something here I can come up with. Tell me what can I do? ERIK Nothing. I’m not giving you anymore of my money you won’t pay back. Why are we still talking about this. Answer is no. SILENCE AGAIN FOR A FEW SECONDS AARON If you’ll just hear me out for a minute. What about the painting you need done huh? You gotta pay somebody to do that anyway right? ERIK Sheila’s pregnant. Aaron freezes to take in what he just heard. AARON What’d you say? ERIK We’re expecting our first child. Aaron’s demeanor changes for the better. AARON Oh shit! Wow! Congrats bro! Why didn’t you say anything sooner? But really congrats big papa! He mouths the word: Fuck! Silently of course. Erik’s demeanor let’s up a little. ERIK Didn’t mean to bust your balls dude but yeah, she’s pregnant. Bout to get real over there ya know? AARON Hey man I’m around if I can do anything, build a crib or something. A little laughter. Not much. AARON (CONT’D) Seriously, if I can do anything. I’ll find a way to pay you back. I pinky swear. ERIK Whatever you can do. I know you will. Just keep in touch and don’t fall off the grid. AARON I’ll be in touch. Say congrats to Sheila for me huh? ERIK You betcha. They hang up. Aaron sits and stares at nothing, wheels turning in his head. AARON Gotta figure something out! FADE OUT

A fellow student

As the guy who used to have the yellow pad and pen, Sorkin's right. A bunch of quirks, likes, and dislikes are not going to benefit your character. Because nothing is more interesting in a protagonist on or off the script than their situation and their trials.


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...