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December 29, 2022

Breaking Down Citizen Kane Using Save the Cat

It’s the big one. Chances are if you’ve even grazed the film world you’ve heard of Citizen Kane, often cited as one of the greatest films ever made.

Directed and starring the one and only Orson Welles and written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, the film has been championed by critics and fans for decades as an example of total mastery of the form and early example of auteur theory

Needless to say, if Citizen Kane is frequently described as the greatest film of all time, we should try and learn something from it.

Let's break down Citizen Kane using Save the Cat and explore some of the 5 major characters in Citizen Kane.

What is Citizen Kane about?

Citizen Kane tells the story of Charles Foster Kane, a child who through good luck inherited a massive fortune and used it to buy a down-and-out newspaper company. 

Kane soon becomes a media mogul with tremendous influence both in the US and abroad, with ambitions to run for president.

However, Orson Welles was steeped in the literature of Shakespeare and, as you might know, ambition in a Shakespearean tragedy rarely goes unpunished. This is part of the idea of a cathartic character where characters must be balanced. 

Kane’s ambitions slowly start to consume him over the film as his humanity dwindles and his life turns into an empty shell on account of his own actions.

Startlingly prescient for modernity as it was in 1941, Kane’s story is a quintessentially American film with a preoccupation and desire to interrogate ideas of the American Dream, the effects of capitalism and the power money brings.

If you’re a fan of Succession, any of Shakespeare’s works, or Scorcese films like The Wolf of Wall Street and Goodfellas, then you’re bound to love Citizen Kane. Indeed, Citizen Kane is often cited as one of the most influential films of all time, so it’s a lot of fun to watch and see where some of your favorite stories in movies find their source.

The characters of Citizen Kane

For such a sprawling story, the cast is surprisingly restrained. Here are the key players and how they work in the story.

Here are the 5 major characters in Citizen Kane and more.

Charles Foster Kane

The titular Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane is an intelligent, ruthless, and witty newspaperman whose childhood was interrupted by the discovery of gold on his mother’s farm. 

Charles Foster Kane as an older man is seen from a side angle, we can also see his reflection in the mirror.
As an old man Charles Foster Kane becomes consumed by power and paranoia

He doesn’t have many friends and generally treats the women in his life with disdain after the honeymoon period has waned. Because of this, he becomes an incredibly lonely figure as the film tracks the final years of his life. 

Kane’s childhood was deeply traumatic. Most of his actions for the rest of the film can be read as him trying to resolve this ghost of his past. This is symbolized by his final words, “Rosebud”, the name of the sled he played with on the day he was taken from his family, symbolizing his childhood innocence lost. 

Jebediah Leland

Jebediah Leland is one of Kane’s only close friends and is the dramatic editor of his newspaper, writing reviews and comments on the theater. Jebediah is clear-eyed and has a prescient sense for the downfall awaiting Kane, willing to tell his oldest friend the truth, even if it’s not a kind one. 

Emily Kane

Emily Kane is Charles’ first wife. She is frequently referred to as the niece of the president and has a son with Charles. However, despite her best efforts, Charles becomes distant from her over time. It is implied that the only reason Charles cared about Emily was due to her proximity to political power, and not her as a human being. 

Susan Kane

Susan Kane is Charles’ second wife. She’s much younger than him and is an enthusiastic, if not overly talented, singer and musician. Susan seems to represent a youthful exuberance Charles never had, but Charles pressures her into an opera career even though she’s not a good singer, humiliating her for no reason other than his pride.

Walter Parks Thatcher

Thatcher is the banker that became the guardian of Kane. Kane’s mother would only sell her land to Thatcher (which had gold) if Thatcher provided a wealthy and good life for her child. True to his word, Thatcher raised Kane in moneyed circles which set him up for power, but it’s clear that Thatcher’s money and influence never provided as much happiness for Kane as the innocence of playing with Rosebud in the snow. 

Mary Kane

Mary Kane, Charles’ mother, appears briefly but is a very important character, for her understandable actions cause Charles’ lifelong trauma. Her husband beats Charles, and Mary believes that with money Charles will live a much happier life than living in a rural and poor house in rural Colorado, so she agrees to send Charles off with Thatcher in exchange for selling her land to the bank. 

Jerry Thompson

Jerry Thompson is a small character, but very important. A lot of Citizen Kane is told through the perspective of people telling Jerry about Kane. His job as a reporter drives the central dramatic question of the story: What is “rosebud”? 

Breaking down Citizen Kane using Save the Cat

Yep, that’s right, even the greatest film of all time can be understood through the simple story structure proposed in Save the Cat.

As well as our article on Save the Cat be sure to check out our free template by clicking here.

Now let's dive in.


The film opens on Xanadu, a gothic building built deep in the Florida everglades that cost an incredible amount of money to build. We learn that it used to belong to the now dead Charles Foster Kane. 


Told in the form of a newsreel, we learn the broad strokes of Charles’ life. How he left Colorado when he was a child, used his money to purchase a newspaper company, built up an empire, a failed political gambit, then attempts to influence world leaders (including badly aged comments on whether WW2 would happen or not). 

Inciting incident

We see a bunch of journalists watching the newsreel and meet Jerry Thompson, one of the journalists responsible. They like it, but Jerry’s editor says they need something more. He tells Jerry to investigate Kane’s life to see if he can figure out the meaning of his final words: “Rosebud”. 

Turn to two

Thomspon talks his way into the private archive of Walter Parks Thatcher, a now deceased incredibly rich banker, where he is allowed to read those memoirs that pertain to Kane. 

Promise of the premise 

Thompson learns about Kane’s prosperous life. Kane was a poor, but happy child in rural Colorado when Thatcher arrived to try and buy the gold under the land. Kane’s mother Mary uses the opportunity to get Kane away from an abusive father and to give him a life of plenty under the tutelage and guardianship of Thatcher. 

Much later when he’s 25, Kane gains control of the trust fund set up in his name, and he uses the money to purchase the Inquirer, a New York newspaper.

He focuses on trashy tabloid stories to increase readership, as well as hiring the best journalists in town as well as manipulating the public over the Spanish-American war. Kane’s rise to power and influence was immense, even marrying the niece of the president, Emily Norton. 


That’s as much as Thatcher’s memoir tell, so Thompson follows a lead and finds Jebediah Leland, one of Kane’s oldest friends, and interviews him in a retirement home.

Jebediah tells Thompson about how Kane and Emily were enamored with each other initially, but we see their relationship grow distant until they barely speak to each other, even with a child. Kane grew ever more hungry for power, with designs on the presidency, and runs for the governorship of New York. 

Citizen Kane (1941) - IMDb
Charles Foster Kane, his wife and young child who don't make him as happy as he appears in public

Things are going fantastically, and he even meets Susan, a woman he becomes enamored with. However, after a successful rally in Madison Square Gardens, Kane’s affair with Susan is revealed to the world. He divorces Emily and gives up his political ambitions.


Kane marries Susan and supports her goal of being an opera singer, but it soon turns into a sick power play. Kane builds Susan an entire opera house so that she might perform, but it becomes clear in the lead up to the first performance that Susan isn’t a good signer. Regardless, Kane forces her to sing, humiliating her in the process. 

Jebediah in turn was tasked with reviewing the performance and he is brutally honest, writing a scathing review. Kane fires him, but still publishes the negative review, further humiliating Susan and launching headlong into a loveless and depressing marriage.

Turn to three

Thompson tracks down Susan who now owns her own nightclub. Susan tells Thompson how she hated being an opera singer now that Kane was forcing her into it, and at one point she attempted to commit suicide. This finally prompted Kane to let her stop, but it did nothing to save their marriage.

Kane’s toxic anger towards Susan grows, and when he hits her she leaves him for good. Kane is at his lowest point, alone and angry in the palace of Xanadu he built for himself. 


Thompson feels like he’s getting close to figuring out what “rosebud” means, so he finally makes his way to Xanadu where he interviews Kane’s old butler. The butler tells Thompson that after Susan had left, Kane completely destroyed a room in fury and rage, but stopped when he saw a small snowglobe and whispered “rosebud”. 

Thompson is disappointed that this is the end of the line. He concludes that it must have been nothing, and consigns himself to releasing newsreel footage of a deeply flawed man.

Closing image

However, in the final moments of the film, we see Kane’s staff destroying his property and clutter. One man chucks in a sled into the fire, upon which we can see the name Rosebud. It turns out Rosebud was the sled that Kane played with before he was taken away by Thatcher all those years ago, symbolizing his lost childhood that resulted in the man he had become.

What can we learn from Citizen Kane for our own writing? 

What’s remarkable about Citizen Kane is how everything comes back to that central trauma of Kane being taken away from his family's home. This film shows the power of a protagonist who has a ghost so large and unresolved that it informs everything they do afterward, whether they’re conscious of it or not. 

The film has at it's heart, the 5 major characters in Citizen Kane but we can strip away everyone else and the story would still make sense even if it was just about Kane, himself.

Most protagonists need this traumatic event in their past (sometimes called “the ghost”) to contextualize who they are and why they do what they do. If you’re writing a tragic character like Kane as your protagonist, keep thinking back to this traumatic event in their past and how that can affect their actions and behavior in the present.


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Breaking Down Citizen Kane Using Save the Cat
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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