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Arts & Entertainment

Creating Memorable Characters: Part 1

Shonda Rhimes

Lesson time 18:08 min

Meredith Grey, Olivia Pope, Cristina Yang - Shonda has created some of the most memorable characters to grace television. In this chapter, Shonda breaks down how she approaches the character development process.

Shonda Rhimes
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I hope what people find in the characters that I write is that they feel truthful, that the vulnerability that they display feels like honest vulnerability-- like it doesn't feel mannered and it doesn't feel fake, and that they say the things that people seem to be afraid to say in public so that you actually feel like you're watching the private lives of actual people. That's the goal for me anyway-- to have characters who seem brave enough to live their lives in front of you so that you think you're getting a peek inside someone's personal life. Otherwise, you're just watching a commercial, almost. Not that there's anything wrong with commercials. We all love them. But you know what I mean. You want to really feel like you're getting an intimate look at someone's personal story. People always ask the question, how do you write such strong, smart women? Which I think is kind of an amazing question, mainly because the alternative is weak, stupid, women. And I don't know any of those. So I don't know. I don't even understand why that question is a question. But I suppose it's a question because people have seen a lot of weak, stupid women on television, which is disturbing. Don't be one of those people who is writing weak, stupid women, please, so that strong, smart women-- those adjectives stop being used-- and it just becomes women. That would be helpful. [MUSIC PLAYING] I think when I'm beginning the character development process, usually I'm thinking about who my character is in terms of first, it's the really basic things. How old are they? What do they do? Where do they live? What's their income level? What's their education level? What kind of family situation are they in and did they come from? And then it becomes things a little bit more interesting, like, if they went to therapy, what would be found? Do you know what I mean? Like, what's their pathos? And also just what don't they know about themselves? What do they need? What do they want? Who are their friends? You know, I try to fill up their lives in a way. There's a little bit of-- I don't know, people probably didn't do this as much as I did, but I spent a lot of time playing imaginary friends when I was little. I played with the cans in my pantry, and I made them little people in little kingdoms. I played with the dolls. Me and my Barbie dolls. And they all had very full rich lives. It's a little bit like that. Like, take somebody and fill up their world. Because otherwise, you just have these sort of stick figures that you're moving around from plot point to plot point, and that's useless and very uninteresting for people to watch. You really want your characters to feel human, to really feel actually human, for people to be so invested in them that they forget that they're not real. You know, I find that it be the biggest com...

Make Great Television

When Shonda Rhimes pitched Grey’s Anatomy she got so nervous she had to start over. Twice. Since then, she has created and produced TV’s biggest hits. In her screenwriting class, Shonda teaches you how to create compelling characters, write a pilot, pitch your idea, and stand out in the writers’ room. You’ll also get original pilot scripts, pitch notes, and series bibles from her shows. Welcome to Shondaland.


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

It's funny, I hesitated to take this class for no other reason than I had no interest in television but something made me take it and I am so very glad I did. Shonda is wonderful in so many ways, you won't regret a single minute.

Excellent!! Great advice. Learned things that I never would have thought of on my own.

PRICELESS! I've learned so much from this class. Also, my writing method was confirmed.

Great class to have available and affordable


A fellow student

I liked this class quite a bit. Talking about Papa Pope and Ms. Rhimes saying she wrote his character from a more positive place than seeing him "just as a monster." Compassion is really important and will give writing so much more depth. Thank you for this.

Marina P.

You just showed us how to write 'depth' in an 18-minute discussion. I've always had a vague sense of these things, but hearing these concepts of character articulated so clearly really gives me a much clearer perspective of what I'm doing. Thank you! :)


I was struggling with character development - so many learning moments in this for me as I create my character list.

Clint H.

Shonda Rhimes is so well spoken it makes grasping the concepts she speaks about and her examples of them easy to understand and assimilate.

Jennise H.

Very interesting. There were some elements that I'd never considered before. Very useful in looking at my own work.


It is interesting to hear Ms. Rhimes discuss what she did not know about the characters she created. How their personalities evolved over a number of episodes and throughout the writing process. When Mary Poppins, author P. L. Travers, said she didn't write the characters in her novels, how they evolved on their own, some thought she was out of her mind, but this lesson tends to explain what Travers meant.


I was able to create a story bible for my characters because they were originally inspired by real people, but their individual situation were inspired by my personal experiences or by something I may have wanted to do but did not have the talent or opportunity to do myself. Afterward they began branching off into different personalities based on their responses to various situations.

A fellow student

It's a great note about not describing characters purely on visual, but what do you write? How do you distill a character's essence in a line and keep the momentum of the script going? How do you visually communicate a character trait? (Let's say I want to introducer a character with a chip on their shoulder?)

Felix G.

I really enjoy the passion you have for your storrytelling. Creating characters and the storry before the title actually makes sense to me now. thank you for teaching me through your video sessions.

Natalie F.

What a great lesson! This has definitely been something that will help me tremendously when attempting to create memorable characters. I especially love when she says to have compassion for them. Beautiful. Thank you!