HANK: It might’ve been a Twilight Zone. Do you remember this one? (Or maybe it was short story.) A hospitalized young woman is in a coma, they think. But really, her brain is working. And we see that she’s seeing people with animal heads. Her doctor a lion, her nurse a sexy kitten, her husband a snake. Something like that. And she sees herself in the mirror, a frightened fawn. Then she comes out of the coma, and everyone has their own heads back. But she has learned something.

Maybe writers can learn from that, too. Simon and Garfunkel famously sang “it’s all happening at the zoo.” Author Carleton Eastlake agrees–and has discovered it can help you with your character development.

TO UNDERSTAND YOUR CHARACTERS, TAKE A TRIP TO THE ZOO
by Carleton Eastlake

Screen stories – we’ll get to novels in a second, then visit the zoo – nearly always are about two things: 1) forging relationships, and 2) gaining agency or something close to it, like social esteem, self-esteem, or the raw power to accomplish a goal.

All the rest in a story, famous ships sinking, multiverses proliferating, or getting into the Berklee College of Music, are mostly illustrations of those two, deep themes.

Really? Yes. At least for films that people, not jaded critics, really want to see. Consider the top grossing films of my lifetime. In Star Wars (the real one), in first place with an inflation adjusted $1.5 billion, rebels struggle for freedom, i.e. agency, against an evil empire that crushes worlds. The gang also finds quite a lot of time to flirt with one another, siblings included, and forge relationships so strong with mentors, smugglers, and furry guys, they risk death fighting for each other, and in one case stick around after death to keep whispering encouragement.

The Sound of Music, second place at $1.2 billion, is about Nazis, the ultimate antagonists to agency, and forming relationships with a very handsome Captain and his children. Singing is also involved.

The third, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, $1.2 billion, is about a boy and his beloved extraterrestrial, also his mom, and achieving the agency to go home. Government agents and spacetime turn up to illustrate the story.

And we all know about Titanic, an adjusted $1 billion. The poorest boy, the apparently richest girl, confinement in a cell on a sinking ship: it’s a supernova of fighting for bonded love and physical agency and social esteem ultimately so successful Rose survives the Titanic and spends the next century mourning Jack.

Isn’t This Just For Crassly Commercial Stories?

CODA, a tiny 2021 film that all the same won the Academy Award for Best Picture, concerned a deaf family who may lose all income and independence if the hearing daughter – who has a ton of intense relationship issues with a guy, a teacher, and her entire family – leaves them to do something or other, in this case, study singing.

But becoming a dancer would have been the same story. Or a fighter pilot. And no matter what, she’d face the same panel who looking down on her minuscule social standing assumes she’s valueless, then prevail because her relationships stand by her and she proves to be amazingly, unexpectedly powerful at whatever the interesting – but actually illustrative – activity is.

So…Novels?

The wonderful truth is, novels are perfectly publishable even if they ignore these mundane, inartistic, reductionist themes. However, it’s also the truth that 98% of books sold fewer than 5,000 copies in 2020, according to the New York Times.

Of course, that’s not the dismal fate of every book. For example, there’s the astounding success of Where The Crawdads Sing – the story of a child so poor in social standing and other aspects of agency and so lacking in relationships that she’s abandoned alone in a swamp, suffers as prey to a rich cad, and is arrested for murder – but becomes successfully published (the ultimate agency story for literate readers), achieves justice (or is it revenge?), and forms quite an amazing variety of relationships, some rather useful.

Off to the Zoo!

Why does the struggle for agency and bonded relationships serve as the foundation for so many powerful stories? Because in the real world they are the ultimate motivations of almost all striving by humans, chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys, and dogs (although not cats, who seem only interested in agency. No, no! Ouch! Just joking! I’m sure they secretly love you.)

There really isn’t a mystery to this: if I were running an MFA program, I’d start everybody off with an introductory course in primate ethology and evolutionary psychology (I’ll explain in a minute), and, for good measure, a deep dive into the closely related, specific psychology of limerent love relationships. This would equip the students with a grounding in the powerful emotional forces they ought to consider working into their stories. It would also help them achieve agency in their actual lives by better understanding the sly power games and critical alliances, and the disruptive crushes and crushing heartbreaks, that most will endure in workshops, workplaces, life, and art. Also, in their homes at Thanksgiving when that awful uncle turns up, and on the streets of Washington, D.C. and Kyiv.

Above all (no, not really, but close) it would be clarifying, and certainly more entertaining, if the course made field trips to the nearest zoo.

So Exactly What Are We Supposed To Study?

Ethology and evolutionary psychology are closely related. Evolutionary psychology attempts to understand the deepest forces driving human behavior in light of the assumption that evolution and genetics are really real. Which means human behavior starts with (no don’t worry, it absolutely doesn’t end with) the striving to achieve the agency to survive and to form relationships, which before modern technology interrupted the chain of consequences, would lead to the survival of the clan’s, and likely the individual’s and their relatives’ genes – and perhaps also their cultural memes.

Ethology, particularly of primates like us, studies these issues in animals and animal societies, and thus is pretty useful at giving a more simple picture of many of the things we also do. Simple, relatively speaking, because when we do them, we dress them up with elaborate beliefs, daydreams, actual dresses, endless chatter, even more chatter on TV, and also by writing and reading novels. After which we set out to form dominance alliances (no, I mean political parties and armies and networking friends in literary circles) just like monkeys do when they set out to conquer the world.

Truly, when you look at capuchins literally physically stacking on top of each other to threaten their rivals, then see pictures of a political leader backed by his followers at a podium, it all becomes so much more clear.

And if nothing else, the animal stories are very charming.

But Really, Does This Work?

Once upon a time I was a young writer-producer on a TV show riven by the sort of angry internal politics that can destroy careers. One fateful night, watching a documentary about the murderous consequences when a new male became dominant in a tribe of monkeys, I realized I was seeing exactly the same behavior playing out on my show.

I’ve written and run a lot of TV shows since then. More importantly survived them. Published a novel about it all, too, in which the character learns to use ethological insights to understand the destructive conflicts on a show. And although the details are infinite and confounding, much of the basics behind the stories on the evening news seem painfully transparent to me, although like Cassandra, that only gets you so far.

Oh – and here’s an appeal to higher authority: Kya, in Crawdads, also found ethology very useful in understanding humans.

Even Better, Acquiring Wisdom Is Easy-Squeezy

Does learning anything useful about this require years of crushing effort? No. Two or three books, and maybe a trip to the zoo or Animal Planet is all you need to get the basics. Then you can amuse yourself by testing your new insights against things you watch and read. Also, at the next holiday dinner, instead of succumbing to the rages of family politics, you can picture everybody as chattering monkeys (no, it’s a nice way to regard them, monkeys are adorable) – and become calm enough to eat a second helping of pie.

Have you ever thought of your characters as zoo animals? Farm animals? Pets? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page.

 

 

CARLETON EASTLAKE graduated from UCLA in political science and psychology and from Harvard Law School with a concentration in law and the social sciences.
After a career in public policy and consumer protection law, being hired on Steven Spielberg’s series seaQuest confirmed him as a television writer-producer as well. He has shared in Edgar and Saturn awards and is a former board member of the Writers Guild of America West and a past President of PEN Center USA.
His wife Loraine Despres is a best-selling novelist, television writer, and tree-farmer. They live in Los Angeles, California.
Monkey Business, his debut novel, came out May 2022 via Red Hen Press.

 

A Reading List That Will Change How You View All Sorts Of Things

Here are some of the books that explain all the above – and more:

Perry, Susan, with Joseph H. Manson. Manipulative Monkeys: The Capuchins of Lomas Barbudal. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Tennov, Dorothy. Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love. New York: Stein and Day, 1979.

Stewart-Williams, Steve. The Ape That Understood the Universe; How the Mind and Culture Evolve (Revised Edition). New York: Cambridge University Press. 2020