For Screenwriters: How to Define Characters

Aaron Sorkin -

Aaron Sorkin -

(according to Arthur Miller, Henry James, Robert McKee, and Aaron Sorkin)

In fiction, characters are not what they say but what they do.

Action defines character. Some even say that action = character.

Let’s check first what a couple of giants of drama had to say about what defines characters.

Arthur Miller, the author of plays such as All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953), and A View from the Bridge (1955, revised 1956), had a strong opinion about it.

Arthur Miller

“A character is defined by the kinds of challenges he cannot walk away from. And by those he has walked away from that cause him remorse.”

― Arthur Miller

Henry James. renowned author of books like The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers, had an opinion on the subject as well.

Henry James

“What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”

― Henry James, The Art of Fiction

One of the main screenwriting gurus, Robert McKee, discusses the subject in his book Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting.

Robert McKee

“TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure–the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

Let’s see and hear now how Aaron Sorkin, the writer behind A Few Good Men (1992), The Social Network (2010), and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), defines characters in very simple and direct words:

If you want to see the whole thing, go here.

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