Illustration of fiction podcasts
Give your eyes a rest from reading or staring at a screen and listen to fiction podcasts. (Illustration by Elizabeth Wong, University of Rhode Island)
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Illustration of fiction podcasts

In an era where everything is online, turn off that screen and get lost in a riveting audio drama.

Aren’t your eyes hurting right now, staring at the screen hour after hour? Mine sure are. These days, with our lives moved almost entirely online, it’s difficult to get a break from the glare of the screen without quickly becoming bored, especially since going outside isn’t always an option.

That’s why getting into podcasts is a healthy way to take a break from work. There’s something for everybody in the podcasting field, whether you’re looking for true untold tales from history, dramatic love stories or self-help. But a lot of these podcasts make you think, and if you’re looking to get lost in a story the same way you would with a captivating book or Netflix show, there’s a greater subgenre: fiction podcasts.

Ever since the explosive popularity of “Welcome to Night Vale,” which began in 2012, fiction podcasts have rapidly diversified and become the modus operandi of many celebrated creators. “Night Vale” is arguably the most popular fiction podcast to date, with over 160 episodes, a few novels and live shows under its belt. It was one of the major players on the scene that popularized the audio medium for fiction, and now the world of podcasting is replete with serialized audio dramas across all genres.

The surge in fictionalized podcasts is in part due to its compelling size and flexibility. Much shorter than audiobooks (which you also have to pay for), the strength of these podcasts lies in their ability to offer gut-punching stories in a democratic way.

You can listen to them anywhere, and you can experiment across genres without the commitment that comes with embarking on a TV show with 10 seasons or listening to 27 hours of an audiobook. There’s something comforting about listening to well-crafted fiction in our time. Forgoing true crime and political discussion podcasts is nice if you want a temporary escape from our world.

And fictional stories are particularly well-suited to the podcasting medium. Many creators experiment with sound effects in the background of their shows, whether that be the sound of a thunderstorm or that of a fire crackling gently in the hearth — not something you find in most audiobooks or even most other genres of podcasts.

With “Night Vale,” the realm of fiction podcasts became much more experimental than that of mainstream TV or bestselling novels — perfect for fantasy writers looking to try something new. Many of these podcasts feature a diverse cast of characters, tackling very real issues like minority representation in the media while giving their own take on classic themes of good versus evil, the collective versus the individual, true love and the like.

You’re bound to find something that suits your fancy in the diverse, creative world of fiction podcasts. Here are a few if you’re looking to dive into the genre. What else can you get through in its entirety while cleaning or washing the dishes?

1. Wolf 359

This is one of the original fiction podcasts that boasts of over 60 episodes produced across the span of three years. It’s set in space, in the U.S.S. Hephaestus Research Station which orbits a dwarf star known as Wolf 359. Doug Eiffel, the main character and communications officer for the research station, records what it’s like up there in space for us to hear.

It’s what happens when you “take one part space adventure, add one part character drama, mix in one part absurdist sitcom.” But it’s not all funny; the drama tackles serious issues like mental health and feeling isolated (which I’m sure we can relate to now).

2. The Two Princes

This series from Gimlet follows the story of Prince Rupert as he sets out to defeat a curse that’s attacking his kingdom. On the way, he meets Prince Amir from his rival kingdom, and the two join forces to find out what this curse is all about. It’s rare that stories just make you feel good, but this podcast manages to do that without being trite.

A loving and fulfilling show featuring queer characters, “The Two Princes” expertly introduces historical fiction to the realm of audio. It’s like a fairytale that knows how to work with representation. It’s easy to find a home in this podcast; I binged it while packing up my room and moving to my college dorm last year, and it was a perfect way to keep me grounded.

3. Alba Salix, Royal Physician

An overworked physician is obligated to join forces with a sprightly fairy and a grumpy apprentice boy in this hilarious audio drama. Listeners can rejoice in following the bizarre ailments that Alba Salix treats, her job only made harder by her two assistants.

It feels like a sitcom about an entire extended family crammed into the lives of three very different people, which naturally leads to intense interactions and butting heads. The dialogue and characters are natural, memorable and dynamic, which is what earned it praise upon its release.

4. CARAVAN

This surreal podcast follows the journey of Samir when he decides to go camping in a canyon with Carlyle, his best friend whom he’s had a crush on forever. Very soon into their excursion, Samir slips over a steep cliff and meets some interesting, supernatural beings. He finds new friends in Argeaux’s Caravan, a group dedicated to finding a way out of the canyon they’ve been trapped in.

Voted the Horniest Podcast of 2019 by the AV Club, this audio drama doesn’t hold anything back. It deals expertly with interesting, multifaceted characters with unique, developing storylines, not to mention it proudly features not stereotyped bisexual Desi representation.

Right now, we could all use a good story. Something that takes us out of this timeline we’ve found ourselves in and into another, illness-free one (for the most part, unless it’s for comic relief). Fiction podcasts fill the hole left by our inability to access local libraries or, if we’re financially unable, to buy from independent booksellers. The boom in fiction podcasts is teaching us that in our time, there are more ways than one to witness a spectacular story.

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