Thursday, October 6, 2011


Cricket McRae

1321074_paint_splatter You would think on a blog written by mystery authors, I’d be talking blood spatter with a title like that.

Nope. Sorry.

Lately I’ve been refining my workshop on getting to know your characters better. It consists of nine ways to dig deeper when developing protagonists, antagonists and the secondary folks who populate fiction. The last time I taught this workshop I was reminded of a screenwriting intensive I took from Stewart Stern in 2006.

Stern is the soul-sounding writer of, among other things, Rebel Without a Cause, Rachel Rachel and the teleplay for Sybil. He wrote old-school style – no Vogler or McKee outlining how stories ought to work (though I bet he was familiar with Aristotle’s Poetics). In the intensive, he shared with us the impetus behind his genius.

He called it going through splat.

In fact, there is a documentary about his life, writing, and war (he fought in the Battle of the Bulge), called Going Through Splat: The Life and Work of Stewart Stern.

And here is an interview with him.

Splat was his way of talking about the difficult, psyche-scraping process of discovering something about ourselves that we have always avoided facing. In doing so, we are able to give that same gift to our characters. Protagonists in particular need to do that which they have always avoided in order to grow. 

Splat comes from wounds in the back story of a character. They do not have to be huge dramatic wounds – abuse, death of a parent, or great tragedy. But Stern maintained that there needs to be a point of connection between our protagonists’ back stories and our own. That connection may not be obvious to others, but we know it’s there.

Splat is facing the thing that stands in our way in our lives. Facing that thing creates hope. We may deprive ourselves, or hurt ourselves to avoid dealing with it, but in the end it is necessary. Stern maintained, “Courage is the price that life charges for peace.”

Splat is “being skinless in order to communicate,” to really tell the story. Your art lies in your own experience. Your fantasy about facing something you want to avoid is nourishing to others.

Do the thing you don’t want to do, to understand what that’s like, so you can pass that knowledge on. The mission of an artist “is to give to their audience one single moment in which they can glimpse their own capacity for greatness.”

So does all that sound like a bunch of hooey to you? While it resonates deeply with me, I think it does depend on what kind of story you’re telling. Applying the idea of splat to the lighter fare some of us write could defeat the purpose of providing, say, humorous escape. On the other hand, having that dimension of character even in a cozy provides a welcome depth – as long as it’s applied with a feather touch.

As a writer, do you dig deep, uncomfortably deep, to grant your characters life? As a reader, do you enjoy it when a writer does this?


Darrell James said...

Cricket- I like the idea that "splat" is "wounds in the back story". Before I start a new novel, I spend a good dealing of time writing the backstory for it. In this way I'm forced to dig into and identify those things that are difficult for the character to face. Nice post!

Lois Winston said...

Even in humorous cozies, I believe characters need "splat." It's what makes them more believable and helps readers identify with them. Because, let's face it, how believable is it for a non-law enforcement type to stumble across dead bodies constantly? It's the "splat" that enables the reader to suspend disbelief and buy into the character and the story.

I also love this quote of his: “Courage is the price that life charges for peace.” Absolutely brilliant!

Shannon Baker said...

I love the idea of "splat." Laura Baker (Story Magic)gave a three-hour workshop at the recent Colorado Gold conference. She passed along a similar message about finding out our own issues and using those in our books. Great post, Cricket.

Beth Groundwater said...

Great post, Cricket, and yes, we writers need to dig deeply into our own emotions to tug that deep "wound" out of the back of our characters psyche, then start poking at it with the story until it bleeds. Too many times I've seen writers avoiding this, because it's hard and raw and opens our own emotional wounds. Just last night, my critique group convinced one member to open the door on a death scene and describe the characters' reactions to it and each other (and finding out one well-loved character was the killer) rather than to leave the door closed and gloss over the aftermath. That makes for the safe path for the writer, but not the interesting path for the reader.

Kathleen Ernst said...

What a thought-provoking post, Cricket! I wasn't familiar with the term, but as a reader I do look for Splat. And as I writer I want to find that deep emotional essence that makes me truly care about a character. Thanks for sharing.

Cricket McRae said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Darrell, all that extra writing devoted to back story sure pays off, doesn't it?

Lois, I love that quote, too, enough to post it by my desk.

Hi Shannon -- sounds like I should have gone to Laura's workshop!

"poking at it with the story until it bleeds" -- Beth that really gets to the meat of it. Nice.

Kathleen, I agree: no story is worth a darn if you don't care for the characters.

Keith Raffel said...

Cricket, splat? Is that what I've been trying to do? Terrific post.

Robin Allen said...

Interesting concept. Right now, I'm working on what turns out to be a splat for my main character. No wonder it's so hard!