By Valerie Kalfrin
Aaron Sorkin is known for intelligent, rapid-fire dialogue, but his characters’ voices are the last things he imagines when creating them.
The Oscar-winning screenwriter of 2010’s The Social Network fell in love with the sound of dialogue as a child because his parents often took him to the theater. He first broke into Hollywood with a 1992 screen adaptation of his play A Few Good Men and still thinks dialogue sounds “like music,” but he can’t form it until he has a plot—and characters.
“I consider a plot a necessary intrusion on what I want to do, which is write dialogue, but I can’t write dialogue unless there’s a plot,” Sorkin once said in a Q&A for the Aspen Institute.
Here are seven revealing tips on character creation straight from Sorkin himself.
1) Know what they want and what stops them from getting it.
Like another playwright turned screenwriter David Mamet, Sorkin turns to Aristotle for the basics of drama. But while Mamet says that he bases characters around their actions, Sorkin marinates on their wants.
“It all boils down to intention and obstacles. Somebody wants something; something’s standing in their way of getting it. They want the girl, they want the money, they want to get to Philadelphia—it doesn’t matter, but they have to want it bad. If they need it, that’s even better,” he states.
Thinking of a character’s physical characteristics “absolutely comes last, if it comes at all.” In fact, unless a scene involves gender, he sets even that aside. “I’m not thinking, you know, this is how a woman would do this; this is how a woman would talk. I just think that’s a generalization that’s impossible.”
2) Be empathetic.
Having empathy is essential, especially if you’re writing antiheroes, which is how Sorkin views his versions of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook played by Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, and Steve Jobs, the computing innovator played by Michael Fassbender in 2015’s eponymous biopic. “[Y]ou have to have empathy. You can’t judge the character,” he said. “Even outright antagonists like [Jack] Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men, you really want to write them like they’re making their case to God [about] why they should be allowed into heaven.”
3) Don’t hide what you like—but don’t preach.
Sorkin created the TV series The West Wing, Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and The Newsroom, but he says he never wants his work to lecture about how things should be. Rather, he has an idealistic streak and finds ambition romantic. “It all goes back to Don Quixote”—his favorite literary hero—“this guy who felt like he was living in a world that was just a little … had gone over the edge of incivility and crudeness, and he was a scrawny old man who was experiencing dementia, and he decided that you can be a knight if you just behave like one.” So Sorkin gravitates toward characters with idealistic intentions, even if their tactics are “loony,” like the protagonist in 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War.
4) Don’t confuse your characters with real people.
Even though he’s written about real-life characters, Sorkin views what he creates on the page as a construct. “The properties of people and the properties of character have almost nothing to do with each other,” he says. “I know it seems like they do, because we look alike, characters and people, but people don’t speak in dialogue, their lives don’t unfold in a series of scenes that form a narrative arc. The rules of drama are very much separate from the likes of the properties of life.”
5) Let your characters fail.
Sometimes we love our characters so much, we hate to put them through the wringer. But for an audience to love them and their story, characters must stay true to that struggle of intention and obstacle, he said. “They don’t have to succeed in their goal. They can fail. But they have to have tried as hard as they can possibly try. The intention has to be clear. The obstacle has to be formidable. They can fail. You won’t have a happy ending, but that’s OK.”
6) Give them a voice—yours.
You might try to make your characters sound distinct, but your writing voice ultimately makes your dialogue pop. So if you can’t get into the flow because you’re thinking a character needs a particular sound, just find your own voice.
Sorkin related how at first he couldn’t get the opening breakup scene of The Social Network to come out right because he’d never written two college students before. “When I finally sat down to write it, it finally occurred to me that these two characters were younger than any characters I had ever written before. And that suddenly I had to make them sound young, like they’re young today,” he states, “and I think I maybe wrote six lines before I said, ‘This is just god-awful. They’re gonna have to talk the way everybody talks in everything that I ever do,’ and they did. The characters that I write don’t really distinguish themselves by the way that they talk.”
7) Trust that others will serve them well.
Sorkin says he doesn’t let go of his characters as much as prepare himself for the ideas that an actor or director will bring to the process. “I don’t know if I’d be a good novelist or not. I suspect not because my powers of description just aren’t terrific. But I eagerly went toward a method of storytelling that is collaborative because I just think fantastic things can happen in that kind of environment. So I’m ready for the fact that things are going to change a little bit,” he says. “I get excited about that kind of collaboration. I really do.”