A Case Study of ‘Knives Out’: How to Create Unique Characters from the Ground Up

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Marketed as a classic whodunit by Rian Johnson, Knives Out is anything but predictable. This 2019 film makes viewers hang at the edge of their seats for the whole two hours of its runtime.

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

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

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

So, whether you’re determined to major in scriptwriting or just curious why this film’s characters feel so real, here are six tips you can learn from Knives Out.

Warning: obviously, there’ll be spoilers for Knives Out, as well as a minor one for Breaking Bad.

1. Figure Out What They’ve Got to Lose

Marta has a lot to lose. She’s a daughter of an undocumented immigrant – and that’s exactly what Michael Shannon’s Walt uses against her. And, of course, Marta could lose her freedom if she was 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, like money or property? Or is it something intangible, like reputation, freedom, or autonomy?

2. Explore How They Deal with Challenges & Pressure

Once you figure that part out, ask yourself: How would this character react to the perspective of losing something they find valuable?

In the case of Marta, she has to decide whether or not to save Fran who was drugged, considering she might know about Marta’s involvement in Harlan’s death.

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

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

Apart from such drastic life-or-death decisions, it’s crucial to figure out:

  • What minor and major challenges they might have to deal with throughout the story;
  • What would make them feel like a fish out of water;
  • How they feel and behave under pressure;
  • How well they manage and/or hide their anxiety, stress, etc.

3. Juxtapose Their Appearances & True Colors

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

  • What do they have to hide? What secrets do they have?
  • How would they react if their secret was brought to light?
  • How good are they at lying?
  • What flaws do they have?
  • Do they try to conceal them? How well do they manage to do so?
  • What image do they want to project externally?
  • Does it change based on the person they interact with?

Knives Out juxtaposes characters’ appearances versus their true colors very well.

For example, the Thrombeys don’t seem so bad at first. Then, they slowly reveal their true colors after Harlan’s will is read. When they learn that all the inheritance would go to Marta, all the promises to take good care of her turn into resentment and even threats.

Marta, on the other hand, gives a vibe of innocence with her wide eyes and inability to lie. But then it turns out she’s willing to go to great lengths to cover her tracks.

4. Find Their Voice, Quirks & Mannerisms

What comes to your mind when you think of Chris Evans’ Ransom? Probably, you think about that scene where he eats cookies. What about Marta? Lying makes her vomit. Michael Shannon’s Walt? Fidgeting.

All people come with their quirks, mannerisms, and distinct voices. What’s important is to keep those consistent throughout the story, weave them into it repeatedly and make them impact it if needed. Here’s what to consider:

  • Body language (fidgeting, posture, tells or self-soothing gestures, walking style);
  • Appearance (clothes, shoes, hairstyle, scars and other marks, makeup);
  • 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 subtler than others, like Tony Collette’s imitation tan that gives away her vanity.

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5. Understand the Purpose of Your Characters

The character of Marta was conceived as a protagonist not on a pure 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 would serve as a commentary on a specific issue or standpoint.

For a story to make sense and be compelling, every character has to have a place in it, too. And it’s not just about reacting to events unfolding around them. They have their place in the story if they impact its course with their actions.

6. Get Inspired by Real-World Events & Personalities

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

Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc was at first 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 have to be concealed – sometimes, what you want is the audience recognizing the reference, having this “Aha!” moment. This would connect your characters to the real world and make your commentary on it easier to grasp.

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