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.
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?