In my opinion, “The West Wing” is the best television series ever written and Aaron Sorkin is the best screenwriter that ever lived. Given that I write scripts for a hobby, it’s probably not surprising that I would look online to see what tidbits of advice he might have offered.
I found an interview in which he gave a few insights on how he develops characters. Among those insights was the observation that, although his characters seem remarkably well developed, he doesn’t specify characteristics. Rather, he starts by giving a character a set of wants and then creates conflict by placing obstacles in their way of achieving them. The personality develops out of the methods the character uses to overcome the obstacles. By recognizing that a script is just the starting point in a play or screenplay, he leaves much of how the character develops to the actor and director.
To some extent, I’ve used that approach. I create a situation, toss in the characters and it isn’t until I start writing that I learn how the characters will behave. I thought I was just being lazy. It’s good to know that I have company.
Another key thing he said was that characters are not people. As he explained, the rules of drama are different from the rules of life. We see a character in a sequence of well-defined vignettes that allow us to follow a story and learn the important parts of the character as they relate to that story. People are not so well defined and there is a lot going on in their lives that has nothing to do with the story. In that sense, people are more complex than characters.
“The West Wing” succeeded, in part, because it took us behind the scenes at the pinnacle of executive government, a place most of us have never been. And it developed stories and characters to elucidate that environment. We currently have a different viewport into that environment, provided in large part by a president who tweets continuously. But somehow watching it doesn’t offer up the same warm excitement as did “The West Wing.” Why?
Sorkin’s advice that characters are not people is a good starting point. In a scripted narrative, such as “The West Wing,” characters are developed according to the rules of drama. We see only the key scenes that elucidate the character or that drive the story. We’re not distracted by petty fits of venality, brand management of a retail empire, or casual disregard of classic roles by disenfranchised family members.
The real west wing drama is more like a reality show. In unscripted television, the conflicts are given, but people deal with them in more or less natural ways and their performances are later edited to develop the characters.
Editing is key. In a reality show, it’s good to have players who are over the top in some sense and can be characterized as heroes or villains. And where real history is written by the winners, the story in a reality show is written by the editors.
President Trump is a marvelous reality show actor. He comes with an enormous set of wants and the environment provides plenty of obstacles to his achieving them. At times it seems he has adopted the playbook of his former star, Omarosa Manigault. And if the show we were editing was The Real West Wing, he would be at least as famous as she was.
But therein lies a problem. “Reality” in a reality show seldom extends beyond the show’s description. At the heart has to be a good story that’s easy to follow. Otherwise, the audience will lose interest. Extracting a good story is the job of the editors.
The Real West Wing is reality in truth. Editing has to be objective. If a character is chaotically unpredictable and both a hero and a villain, depending on your point of view, the reality can’t be clarified in editing just to make a good story. To do so would create what has been called fake news.
“The West Wing” has been referred to as government the way we wanted it to be. It was full of characters who were not people and story arcs that were intended to fit into a 45-minute time slot. But we identified with and cared for the characters. We bought into their motivations and shared their struggles. We were happy to be along for the ride.
“The West Wing” concluded with Season 7 and I now watch The Real West Wing as a surrogate. But, I’ll have to confess: I really miss Jed Bartlet.
David Vale is an amateur playwright and screenwriter. He envies Sorkin’s talent but, given his own late start, acknowledges that he may never be quite as good.