A case study of ‘Knives Out’: how to create unique characters from scratch

Marketed as a classic whodunit by Rian Johnson, Knives Out is anything but predictable. This 2019 film will keep viewers hanging on the edge of their seats for two hours.

Yes, there’s the well-crafted murder mystery with lots of reveals and plot twists. But Knives Out is so captivating in large part thanks to its ensemble of characters.

They are carefully crafted and as complex as real people. This is what makes every dialogue and every action of theirs believable – and oh so entertaining.

Creating such characters may seem so effortless. But if you ever had to write a fictional work (with or without essay helper), you know it couldn’t be further from the truth.

So, whether you are determined to study in script writing or just curious as to why the characters in this movie feel so real, here are six tips you can learn from Knives Out.

Warning: Obviously, there will be spoilers for Knives Out, as well as a small one for Breaking Bad.

1. Find out what they have to lose

Marta has a lot to lose. She’s the daughter of an undocumented immigrant – which is exactly what Michael Shannon’s Walt uses against her. And of course, Marta could lose her freedom if charged with the murder of Harlan.

This is what drives her to cover her tracks and face some ethically complex choices along the way. It defines her journey, her goals and her motivation.

So, what does your character have to lose? Is it material, such as money or property? Or is it something intangible, such as reputation, freedom or autonomy?

2. Find out how they deal with challenges and pressures

Once you get that part, ask yourself: How would this character react to the perspective of losing something they value?

In Marta’s case, she must decide whether to save Fran, who has been drugged, since she may know of Marta’s involvement in Harlan’s death.

She is presented with the choice of Walter White (save Jane or do nothing and watch her die), as Rian Johnson described it in an interview.

Such situations – where all options are difficult but the character has to make a choice – are a litmus test for who they really are.

Aside from such drastic life or death decisions, it’s crucial to find out:

  • What small and big challenges they may face during the story;
  • What would make them feel like a fish in water;
  • How they feel and behave under pressure;
  • How well they handle and / or hide their anxiety, stress, etc.

3. Place their appearance and true colors side by side

Everyone wants to project a certain version of themselves into the world. Very few people would wear their hearts out. So, when it comes to creating a character, ask yourself:

  • What do they have to hide? What secrets do they have?
  • How would they react if their secret were revealed?
  • How good are they at lying?
  • What flaws do they have?
  • Are they trying to hide it? How well do they succeed in that?
  • What image do they want to project outwards?
  • Does it change based on the person they are communicating with?

Knives Out contrasts the characters’ appearance very well with their true colors.

At first glance, the Thrombeys don’t seem that bad. Then they slowly reveal their true nature after Harlan’s will is read. When they learn that the entire legacy would go to Marta, all the promises to take good care of her turn into resentment and even threats.

Marta, on the other hand, conveys an air of innocence with her wide eyes and her inability to lie. But then it turns out that she is willing to go to any lengths to cover her tracks.

Find their voice, idiosyncrasies and mannerisms

What comes to mind when you think of Chris Evans’ Ransom? You probably think about that scene where he eats cookies. What about Martha? Lying makes her throw up. Walt by Michael Shannon? Friemelen.

All people come with their idiosyncrasies, mannerisms and different voices. What is important is to keep these consistent throughout the story, weaving them into it repeatedly, and allowing them to be influenced as needed. Here’s what to consider:

  • Body language (fidgeting, posture, narration or calming gestures, running style);
  • Appearance (clothing, shoes, haircut, scars and other stains, make-up);
  • Verbal language (their vocabulary, how much they speak);
  • Voice (tonality, volume, dialects, accents).

Remember: the devil is in the details. That’s why some quirks are more subtle than others, like Tony Collette’s imitation color betraying her vanity.


5. Understand your characters’ purpose

The character of Marta was conceived as a protagonist, not on a whim. Rian Johnson wanted to explore the themes of privilege and class conflict in the film. So Marta served as a juxtaposition for the Thrombeys.

The lesson here is, don’t hesitate to create characters who can comment on a specific issue or point of view.

For a story to be meaningful and compelling, every character must have a place in it too. And it’s not just about responding to events around them. They have their place in the story when their actions influence its course.

6. Get inspired by real world events and personalities

The always-on-his-smartphone social media influencer (Jaeden Martell) got into Rian Johnson’s mind when he experienced the polarized Twitter response to Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc was initially heavily based on detective Poirot, especially when it came to his mannerisms. And if you’ve ever heard of Goop, you recognized Toni Collette’s Joni as a reference to Gwyneth Paltrow.

These inspirations don’t need to be hidden – sometimes you want the audience to recognize the reference and say “Aha!” moment. This would connect your characters to the real world and make your commentary on them easier to understand.

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