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This One Aaron Sorkin Quote Taught Me Everything I Need to Know About Characterization

By Britton Perelman · September 1, 2021

No matter how interesting your story is, it won’t matter if audiences can’t connect with the characters.  

Characters are the lifeblood of movies and television, and good screenwriting is utterly dependent on a writer’s ability to develop compelling ones. 

That strange and frustrating process is called characterization

What is Characterization?

Characterization is one of those writing terms that gets thrown around willy-nilly as though it’s simple and straightforward. 

It’s not. 

Mostly because it’s a term that actually refers to several things.

Overall, characterization is the process of constructing fictional characters. It’s the development process, the act of constructing a fictional person that feels just as complex and interesting as a real one. 

But characterization is more than just developing the idea of a character, it’s also about how a writer represents that character. It’s the ways in which a character’s personality, motives, and beliefs are shown in the story itself. 

In novels, characterization is easier because a writer can get right inside a character’s head and express their innermost thoughts, opinions, and secrets. 

But it doesn’t really work that way with on-screen stories, so how are you supposed to develop and represent a character that audiences will truly connect with? 

You learn from award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin

How Aaron Sorkin Views Characterization

Aaron Sorkin is the monologue-loving scribe behind MoneyballThe Social Network, and The Trial of the Chicago 7, just to name a few. He’s known for lengthy dialogue, complicated characters, and combining both of those elements into the “walk-and-talk.” 

There’s a Sorkin quote I love because it perfectly explains how screenwriters should tackle characterization. 

“What your character does reveals who they are. What they say reveals who they see themselves as.”

If you break down this quote, you’ll see that Sorkin is basically describing the two main items in a screenwriter’s toolbox — action and dialogue. 

Of the main elements of screenwriting — sluglines, action paragraphs, and dialogue — the latter two are where the writer really has the opportunity to layer in characterization. 

Using Action and Dialogue

“What your character does” refers to action, while “what they say” refers to dialogue. 

While on the surface, the action paragraphs in a screenplay explain what characters do and the dialogue lines state what they say aloud, there’s much more happening with each element. 

With characterization, it’s critical to think about how to represent a character’s personality and beliefs. If you follow Aaron Sorkin’s thinking, you do that through the basics — action and dialogue.  

As human beings, what we say (dialogue) reveals what we believe. It expresses how we view ourselves and the world around us. And what we do (action) is a physical embodiment of our person, a concrete, outward manifestation of our personalities and beliefs. 

Oftentimes the meaning we find within stories — and the connection we feel to characters — comes from those two elements being in conflict with one another. 

For example, look at Sorkin’s protagonist in Moneyball.

Case Study: Characterization in Moneyball

After failing to make the playoffs and losing several of his best players, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane is desperate to create a winning team. But he doesn’t have the money to compete with big-budget clubs and is unenthused by his head scout’s traditional way of thinking. 

So Billy partners up with Peter Brand, a recent economics grad who believes that the predominant thinking in baseball is medieval and it’s possible for the A’s to build a championship team on a small budget if they simply utilize the mathematics of baseball statistics. 

The main conflict of Moneyball is between Billy and head coach Art Howe, who thinks that Billy is destroying the team with his numbers-based tactics. Art refuses to field the players in the way Billy intended, and the A’s lose game after game after game, which frustrates the hell out of Billy.

But Billy takes action. He trades a few players to other teams, leaving Art with no other choice but to field the remaining players the way Billy wants. 

It works and the A’s start to win. 

Now, Billy doesn’t ever watch the games in person. He believes that he’s bad luck, so he chooses to work out in the players’ exercise room or drive along industrial California highways instead.

But when the A’s have an 11-run lead in a potentially record-setting game, Billy’s daughter begs him to go back to the stadium… and he does. 

As he watches, the A’s give up their 11-run lead and end up tied. So Billy turns away from the game and leaves the stadium. 

The A’s eventually pull it together and win, setting a historic record but leaving Billy to celebrate alone in the exercise room. 

And after the almost disastrous game, Billy wonders what the point of it all is. He says to Peter: “It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball. This kind of thing, it’s fun for the fans. It sells tickets and hot dogs. Doesn’t mean anything.”

Billy’s dogged attempt to build a winning team, his decision to trade players and force Art’s hand, his hopeful choice to return to the stadium and watch the game — all of these actions show that Billy steadfastly believes that his numbers-based strategy can truly change the landscape of baseball. 

But what he says in this scene reveals that he’s feeling the exact opposite. In fact, he’s struggling to find any meaning in what he and Peter are doing. 

Through his action, we are shown that Billy truly believes he can change the game. But in his dialogue, we are shown that on the inside, he’s constantly doubting and second-guessing himself. 

His actions and dialogue often contradict each other, but that contradiction provides the greatest meaning in the movie. 

After the A’s fail to make the playoffs again and the season is over, the Boston Red Sox make Billy an offer. An offer that would make him the highest-paid GM in the history of sports.

He talks it over with Peter, concerned that he’d be taking the job just because of the money. Peter explains that he’d be doing it for what the money represents. “It says what it says to any player that makes big money. That they’re worth it.” 

Peter shows him a clip of a minor league player they recruited earlier that season — Jeremy Brown, an overweight catcher who is afraid to run to second base. But this time he hits the ball and decides to round first. 

And when he does, he stumbles and falls. Billy watches Jeremy fumble to get back to first base, lamenting that the other players are laughing at him. But Peter explains that they’re laughing because Jeremy hit a home run. He hit a home run and didn’t even realize it. 

Moved, Billy says: “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” 

This line reveals that, even though he went through a crisis and lost sight for a while, he’s back to being a romantic about baseball. He believes in the game again. 

Ultimately, Billy turns down Boston’s incredible offer and decides to stay with Oakland, a move that tells the audience everything we need to know about who he is at his core.

Download the 'Moneyball' Script!

Action and dialogue: the only things you need for exceptional characterization. 

“What your character does reveals who they are. What they say reveals who they see themselves as.”

Keep Sorkin’s quote in mind when developing and writing, and you’ll create characters audiences won’t be able to stop thinking about. 


Want to read Sorkin scripts? Download them for free at the TSL Script Library!

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