Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Meerkats & Mystery

Sandra Parshall

The saga of the Whiskers family on Meerkat Manor – by turns exhilarating, engrossing, hilarious, terrifying, heartbreaking, infuriating and, yes, boring – has taught me a lot about storytelling.

Like many a mystery series, Meerkat Manor started strong and drew legions of devoted fans. Front and center, always, was Flower (right), the desert dominatrix with a radio collar, absolute ruler of the Whiskers mob. (“Mob” happens to be what a meerkat family is called, and if you watch them for a while, you’ll agree that it fits.) Flower was courageous, decisive, and quick to take action. She fiercely protected her family members – unless they were disloyal. Then they were toast.

Lesson #1: Your protagonist must be the centerpiece, the heart and soul of your tales. Do not let any other character overshadow the protagonist. Your leading
man or lady must have the inner strength to survive adversity and the cleverness to escape danger and ultimately solve the crime.

Flower wasn’t perfect. See the toast reference above. Female meerkats will sometimes kill each other’s pups, so a dominant female, when pregnant, will get rid of any perceived threat before her pups are born. In standard meerkat fashion, Flower evicted her own adult daughters from the family if they dared to turn up pregnant (only the dominant female is allowed to breed), or if Flower simply suspected that they might be capable of disloyalty. The first time this happened to the beloved Mozart (right), I was aghast. Mozart was darling and adorable! Mozart was a great babysitter! Mozart stayed faithfully by her brother Shakespeare’s side after he was bitten by a snake. No meerkat can survive in the desert for long without a family’s support, so I was relieved when Flower allowed Mozart to return home. I forgave Flower. When this sort of thing kept happening, though, and Tosca perished after Flower banished her, my affection for the Whiskers’ matriarch began to curdle. By the second season, I couldn’t stand the little bitch.

Lesson #2: Give your protagonist faults, sure, but don’t go overboard. Occasional meanness, followed by guilt and reparations, may be endearing, but relentless, unrepentant cruelty is more likely to turn readers off.

Despite my growing dislike of Flower, I was still hooked on the Whiskers and wanted to know what would happen next. Unfortunately, what happened next began to look an awful lot like what happened before. Beautiful morning, the family foraging peacefully, a sudden alarm call: here comes the enemy! I absolutely love the meerkat war dance, that stiff-legged bounce that looks hilarious when 30 tiny meerkats are charging forth in full attack mode. But even a sight so adorable can lose some of its attraction when it happens every week, often more than once. Danger – a bird of prey, a snake – can also become routine, even if you know that one time out of twenty, something bad will actually happen.

Meerkats forage for disgusting things to munch on. They mate and raise pups. They take cover from predators. They attack enemies. They defend their territory. They wage furious battles, run the enemy off, go back to the burrow and either lick each other’s wounds or engage
in exultant grooming. This is pretty much the life of a meerkat family. Lots of dramatic highs, to be sure, and some lovely downtime for the clan, but we’ve seen it all before.

Lesson #3: Keep the drama surprising. Keep it original. Don’t let the reader guess the shape and size of the threat before it arrives. Don’t always let things work out in the obvious way.

Although I came to dislike Flower, she won back a bit of my heart when she accepted little Axel (right), a pup from another mob whom Flower’s son Mitch mistakenly “rescued” during a battle. By instinct, Flower should have killed Axel when she realized he wasn’t a Whisker, but she took him into the clan, and I began to grow fond of her again. Then she died. All of Meerkat Manor fandom went berserk. Message boards on the Animal Planet web site overflowed with angry, heartrending cries of grief. Shakespeare’s unexplained disappearance was bad enough, but this was Flower! How could the camera crew stand by and let her die? Every newspaper and TV station in the known world ran obits and speculated over whether fans would boycott future shows.

Lesson #4: Be careful who you kill off. Ask Elizabeth George, Dana Stabenow, and Karin Slaughter how fans feel about the death of a beloved character. Few writers would be foolish enough to kill a protagonist, though, and what happened on Meerkat Manor after Flower’s death shows why this would be an extremely bad idea.

Suddenly the Whiskers had no leader. Two of her daughters, Maybelline and Rocket Dog, jostled for the role of dominant female. The thoroughly unlikable Rocket Dog (left) emerged victorious, but she was a weak leader at best, and the family began to fall apart. Zaphod, Flower’s widower, no longer had a place in the clan, and he went roving in search of an unrelated female. Maybelline (right) formed her own mob. Poor sweet Mozart was on her own again. Every program jumped around from the remnants of the Whiskers to the Commandos to the Aztecs to the Zappa. I could hardly keep the meerkats straight, much less develop a fondess for any of them. I still loved Mitch, Axel, Daisy, Mozart, but I saw too little of them. When Mozart died, alone in the cold desert night, my heart shattered.

Lesson #5: Maintain your focus. Too many characters and too many storylines will dilute the impact of the narrative and prevent the reader from forming a strong emotional connection. Decide who you want readers to care about, and who will provide the most drama, and tell the story from the viewpoints of those characters.

I don’t know whether we’ll see any more seasons of Meerkat Manor. I suspect the ratings dropped so much after Flower’s death that the series may fade away. If it returns, will I watch it again? Probably, because our cat Gabriel is crazy about it and I wouldn’t want to deprive him. One bad season soured me on it, but I will fondly remember the compelling episodes with Flower as the driving force, and I appreciate the storytelling lessons.


Lonnie Cruse said...

Argh, I HATED it when Flower died, but I don't see what the camera crew could have done to save her, even if they didn't have a "don't interfere" policy. Best I recall, Flower and the group returned to their home after a battle with a snake and she went inside to check on her new born pups. The snake had taken refuge there and she died trying to get rid of it and protect the pups. I didn't watch much of Meerkat Manner after that. However, we spotted some real Meerkats at the Santa Barbara Zoo last July while on vacation. I stood there looking at the Meerkats for a long time, thinking of Flower. Facinating show. Sometimes difficult to watch.

Paul Lamb said...

I watched one season of Meerkat Manor at the enthusiastic recommendation of a friend. I found it contrived and even manipulative. Knowing nothing about meerkats, I had to assume the producers were giving me the true story of what was going on, but they could have said anything to tie all of the footage together and I wouldn't have known better.

As for all of these rules, I think they probably apply to commercial fiction, but I still say that a writer must follow the demands of the story. Many, many classics violate all of the rules. Maybe that's why they endure.

Jeremyinc said...

I love meerkats, but have never watched Meerkat manor before. I just saw them at the zoo and fell in love. I even wrote a little blog post! Check it out Meerkats at Melbourne Zoo