How To Deeply Understand Your Characters – Christopher Riley

Christopher Riley, Screenwriter, Author, and Instructor: Individually we can have defining moments, families can have defining moments and certainly characters if they are lifelike, we’ll have moments that define them as well.

Film Courage: Can you tell us why the movie Ordinary People was a defining moment in your life?

Christopher: I think when I saw Ordinary People I was about 17-years-old and it was the first really serious movie I had seen after Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and it also really spoke to who I was as a kid. I was kind of a socially awkward lonely kid and so I felt whatever discomfort went with that. Ordinary People showed this main character who looked on the outside like he had everything together and like he didn’t experience the kind of pain that I experienced but then the film because it’s a beautifully told story reveals his secret life. In his secret life he’s actually just come out of treatment after a suicide attempt and he’s going to high school, he’s singing in the choir, he looks to everyone like he’s one of the ones who’s really got it all together and for the first time as I sat in the audience I realized Oh, it’s possible that what’s on the surface isn’t what’s really going on underneath? That’s I guess something adults know, I didn’t know that as a 17-year-old and so that film showed me that I wasn’t the only one. That was the first thing that made a huge difference to me and then the second thing was I realized Oh, so the people around me might actually be in pain even though it’s not obvious? I need to treat people differently and that is something that has continued to shape me decades later. I look at people differently because of what that film taught me about other human beings. Then the third thing for me was I saw for the first time what a movie could be and so I thought This is what I want to do. I want to tell these kinds of stories that reveal characters and that move people, that provide meaningful emotion. For me seeing Ordinary People became a dividing line in my own life on multiple levels and so for me that is a defining moment. 

Film Courage: I assume you saw it in the theater? 

Christopher: I did. I saw it in the theater. I owned the DVD. It’s still wrapped in cellophane because I can’t bear to go back and watch it. I’m afraid it either is not as good as I remember or it will be. I don’t know? I don’t want it to disappoint me and so I just keep it under wraps. 

Film Courage: I can agree with doing something like this. It’s almost like it’s frozen in time, there’s something special there. 

Christopher: That’s exactly right. I don’t want to disturb that memory because that memory is vivid and is kind of a bedrock of the person I’ve become…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).



Christopher Riley is a professional screenwriter who co-wrote with his wife Kathy Riley the award-winning German language courtroom thriller After the Truth. The Rileys have written scripts for Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Mandalay Television Pictures, the late Sean Connery’s Fountainbridge Films and Robert Cort Productions. Christopher produced the independent action-thriller Red Line and executive produced the web series Bump+. He is the author of the classic screenplay format guide The Hollywood Standard, now in its third edition, and teaches screenwriting at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The Riley’s latest book is The Defining Moment: How Writers and Actors Build Characters (through Michael Wiese Productions).

See it on Amazon here

BUY THE BOOK – THE DEFINING MOMENT: How Writers and Actors Build Characters (by Christopher and Kathy Riley)

See it on Amazon here

BUY THE BOOK – THE HOLLYWOOD STANDARD: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style






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