Some ensemble required…
Sometimes I wonder if I would have an easier time writing this story if it were told exclusively, or almost exclusively from a single point of view; say for instance if Suzie were narrating the whole thing in a series of Batman/Wolverine style monologue captions.
I might. But that also sounds awful, and not just because I still have it as a thing that the best Westerns always featured protagonists who never precisely told you what was in their heads. It’s also a point of view that doesn’t lend itself well to the idea of the “docudrama”, reality television aspect of Zombie Ranch. Suzie is our main character, but in the way that Leslie Knope is the main character of Parks and Recreation. She can tell us about herself and others and the place she’s at, but she’s not the only voice able to do so. We’re just as likely to get Ron Swanson’s take on the same situation, and it might be wildly (and usually quite entertainingly) different.
So sometimes in the comic we follow this character, and sometimes we follow that one, and the latest couple of pages are reminding me that I have all these bits regarding Lacey I still want to get into beyond just the broad strokes of her being a bit lazy and slow on the uptake. Except there’s still plenty of unanswered questions about everyone else, too, right? In a comic titled ‘Batman’ it’s fairly obvious where the focus is going to be, so it doesn’t seem weird if everyone else comes off as supporting cast or even just bit players. Or to get closer to home with a Weird West theme, we could go with ‘Jonah Hex’. This comic is not titled ‘Susannah Zane’ or even ‘Susannah Zane: Zombie Rancher’, and that’s intentional, but an ensemble piece presents its own challenges.
This article on what went wrong with the Street Fighter movie is fascinating in many ways, but one part that stood out was where Stephen de Souza tried desperately to convince Capcom that there should be a limit on how many characters were included in the film. He temporarily succeeded by asking the meeting room if anyone could name all seven dwarves from Snow White. No one could.
“There’s a reason there’s seven dwarves,” says de Souza, “There’s a reason there’s seven wonders of the worlds. There’s a reason it’s the Magnificent Seven, which is a remake of the Japanese movie The Seven Samurai. Seven is the number of characters an audience can keep in its head at any time.” So the writer set seven as a compromise, and Capcom, persuaded by the parlor trick, agreed to the limit.
de Souza may have pulled this argument out of his ass, but it’s entirely possible he was on to something, especially where a movie is concerned. Alien was able to give us seven distinctive characters. Aliens begins with many more but quickly whittles down to a more manageable level with only Hudson, Hicks, Gorman, Vasquez, Burke, Ripley, Newt, and Bishop surviving the initial encounter (and Bishop is sent away about the same time Gorman wakes up from his concussion, as I recall). The movie roster for the Avengers is helped out by all the establishing solo films that preceded it, but still confines itself to a core team of six heroes.
A classic group structure, as noted in TV Tropes, is of course the Five Man Band, so seven major characters could indeed be stretching attention spans. Forget naming the seven dwarves in Snow White, can you name the thirteen dwarves of Thorin’s company featured in The Hobbit? Hell I can’t even remember if the movie did feature all thirteen of them, I just know that it felt like too many to really keep track of or get invested in.
A serial/series allows for more leeway because you have a lot more time available, or at least that should be the theory. In practice I’ve got a lot of character moments on the backburner still, some of which might never make it across the gulf to the audience. At least I’m not in the situation Game of Thrones is in, where even in the books I almost felt like George R. R. Martin kills off characters like he does as an auto-immune response to having written too many of them into his story. In the TV Show they have the books to use as a pattern and have streamlined some things and combined some characters, but there are still enough that even with a “Previously…” introduction a lot of viewers are still left wondering who the heck they’re watching and end up just clinging back on to a Tyrion appearance like a life raft. It doesn’t help that they’ve had to recast actors on occasion, although arguably that’s a case where the audience being overwhelmed might work in their favor.
When I talk to people about Zombie Ranch, they often can’t name names of characters. I used to think that indicated a problem, until I realized that I did the exact same thing with a lot of fictional properties I really, really liked, but was not quite obsessed with. Writers are almost by definition going to be obsessed with their own material, so of course I’ll have all the names to hand in a discussion even as the person across from me is snapping their fingers and going, “My favorite character right now is the lady with, uh, the… the one who likes her bike a lot…” I’ve been in exactly that predicament on the other end, and so I hope any creator will react as graciously as I do and politely prompt, “Rosa?” Even geeks have a limit to how many things they enjoy as true obsessions, so if someone actually does remember my characters’ names, or heck, even if they start picking out inconsistencies, I reckon a large part of me is highly flattered they feel it’s that worthy of paying attention to.
But yeah, there’s no way I’m going to get away from Zombie Ranch being an ensemble piece at this point, nor do I want to. If I’ve got to juggle a bunch of characters, so be it. Sooner or later I hope they’ll all have the opportunity for moments, and maybe even enough moments to become memorable, or even reach that high pinnacle of name recognition, but I also never want any readers to feel that a character is being shoved down their throats for that a la Jar Jar. Even after all these years, I still feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of this cast, but while the comic runs, you can bet I’ll keep digging.