A Cast of Thousands

Recently I listened to a show called Beta Flight from BrokenSea Productions, and while it was extremely well done on the technical side, on the writing side it fell a little short. The most major problem with it was it’s cast, of which there were far far too many, or as I put it in a forum post:

That said, while I really (really) wanted to like this I have to say it pretty much lost me about 2/3rds of the way through and I can’t say for sure I’ll be back to listen to more.

The reason is really simple- too many characters. It was an exercise in character overload, and that was before the villains showed up. By the time the fight started I cared so little about any of the nearly nameless voices that not only couldn’t I follow the fight I was pretty much lost as to what I was listening to.

If this was a superhero comic, or cartoon, it would be no problem because superheros were created for a visual medium and are visual creatures. I’d be able to easily recognize everyone from their handy colour coding no matter how many characters were thrown at me. But, this is audio, and humans are visual animals, we can only learn and remember so many disembodied voices and characters at a time and then keep events straight on top of that. (I say this as someone who has been so immersed in superheros and superhero gaming for 27 years I could instantly picture each of the heros as they named themselves and their powers. If I was confused, god help your average non-geek listener.)

In the end the only story I was really able to follow (or care about) was that Arc guy who stowed away and his side-story, the rest of events might as well not have happened as far as I was concerned.

I make no secret that I’m a minimalist- I believe in using the absolute minimum number of characters in a story to tell the story accurately and well. To me, the greatest mistake an audio producer can make is confusing their audience by throwing too much at them too fast. While I have no doubts that the following episodes will expand on the team and their characters I think the writers went too far, to fast with the opener in an effort to make it spectacular and it lost coherency as a result.

If the writers really pull back with the second episode and give us more of a chance to settle in and know the team and the situation I think it can still be a good series. The characters are fine, and they’ve obviously thought a lot about this story and where it’s going. The only issue is the cast size and the limitations of the medium need to be considered better. Superhero comics can do stories like this from the get-go, but superhero audio is another medium and has it’s own rules. This felt more like a comic than an audio drama, and it suffered for it.

Audio drama in general (as with most things) actually benefits greatly from a small cast. It’s actually quite rare for most of the Old Time Radio (OTR) audio dramas to have more than Six major characters in their casts, and quite often they only use 3 or 4. Part of that is of course the limits of time, since they often had only 22 minutes to tell a story and could only pack so many people in there, but there’s more to it than that, as a friend commented in a recent e-mail while were discussing the above review…

Rob: With Team Iron Angel I made a conscious decision to limit my cast to 4 heros, and I’m glad I did since I think more than 5 is incredibly awkward in a single story. Of course it can be done, but you have to very slowly build up to it. Twin Stars Episode 8 (the season finale) will have a massive cast, probably bigger than Beta Flights. However, I will have spent 7 previous episodes working up to that show and getting the audience familiar with the cast in very small pieces. It’s a technique I learned from the Japanese comics I read, who make a point of starting small and then slowly working out as a way to ensuring clarity to their readership.

Friend: It makes a lot of sense. I can’t remember where it came from, but a great theatre practitioner once said that the golden rule to introducing new characters to an existing scene was to make sure they came in individually & had their chance to imprint on the audience. Even if they were a couple arriving together, ideally one should be delayed for some reason: parking the car, getting bags, stubbing out a cigarette, etc. A lot of the great playwrights did just that.
Definitely something to think about. Introducing characters in stages gives the audience a chance to get used to them before throwing the next one at them, increasing the chances they’ll be remembered and recognized. Nowhere is this more important than in audio, where the listener already has a hard enough time remembering who is who due to the way human beings are wired.
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