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One Story, Many Mediums: How to Take Your Characters out of the Box by Brian Anderson

Characters are the foundation of your story. You build your house on them. But what should that house look like? A picture book, a Y.A. fantasy, a graphic novel? Hard to decide, especially if you want to write a middle grade fantasy, but your characters don’t want to live in that type of house. You’re like a story telling agent showing them around a 50,000 word colonial with lots of twists and turns. They give you a polite nod but decide it’s too much house for them.

You drive them around to condos, waterfront apartments and Greek revival ranch houses. No interest. Frustrated, you down another couple espressos and ponder moving on to new customers. You want to write that middle grade fantasy, maybe you need new characters. Wait! What if you tear down the structure and focus on the foundation? Forget word counts and double-page spreads. What is it your characters want and what’s stopping them?

You might be thinking, “Enough with the analogies!”

Sorry, you’re right. A semi-clever analogy will not help.

I had been writing and drawing my syndicated comic strip, “Dog eat Doug” for a few years and decided I wanted to put Doug and Sophie into a picture book. But three hundred and sixty-five comics a year are a lot of story lines, conflicts, and weird side characters to cram into thirty-two pages.

Here are the three simple steps I took.

Step One:  What Does Your Character Want?

Here’s the foundation for every story: What your character wants.

That’s difficult when you have thousands of comic strips under your belt. Knowing I only had thirty-two pages, I had to focus in on a single “want”, but I had so many! Sophie wants cheese. Doug wants to be a pirate. Sophie dreams of being a wolf while Doug builds humongous robots with alphabet blocks. The list goes on and on. I needed something they both wanted, and it needed to be something I hadn’t explored in the comic strip.

One day, while brainstorming for the strip, I wrote a single line of dialogue: “Sophie! Doug! Bedtime!”. Both Sophie and Doug did not want to go to bed. Bingo!

Step Two: Break the Rhythm

Every medium has a structural rhythm. A daily comic strip has four panels (six on Sundays) with a setup and punchline. My new rhythm was a rhyming thirty-two-page picture book.

I watched Sophie and Doug run wild, doing everything in their power to avoid bedtime. I took notes as they flipped laundry baskets, hid in closets, and ransacked the kitchen. A rhythm emerged as the hyper duo raced from page to page, wreaking more and more havoc.

At the end of the book, Sophie and Doug had worn themselves out. While they snoozed, I went back and tidied up the mess with the help of my editor.

Despite switching from daily jokes to rhymes and from crisp lines to acrylic paints, Doug and Sophie remained their true selves. By focusing on what they wanted, I could let them play in a variety of backyards.

In fact, now they’re frolicking around in a graphic novel! Here’s how I applied my own advice to that medium.

I started with step one. What do the characters want? Sophie wants all the attention, which she gets until a new baby brother shows up. Doug wants to explore and learn about the world. And that’s just the beginning! Unlike the picture book, the goals can change throughout the graphic novel.

Once again, I brainstormed lists of things Doug and Sophie wanted. These were as simple as a block of cheddar (Sophie’s favorite) to Doug daydreaming about being an astronaut. Let your characters tell you all their dreams and desires, no matter how silly or serious. The more you learn about them, the more real they become. On to step two!

Breaking the rhythm of a daily comic strip and moving over to graphic novels, while daunting, was creatively liberating. Instead of four horizontal panels, I had blank rectangular pages I could lay out in any way I saw fit. Panels could be any size and the characters could bounce around the page in all directions. The “joke a day” structure was gone. So how did I find a new rhythm?

The graphic novel format allowed me to map out longer story arcs. This meant Sophie and Doug’s goals could change and mature organically. Using my brainstormed list, I expanded a few of the items into rough storylines, jotting down potential conflicts and obstacles. Then I broke those stories into chapters. Next, I grabbed my pencil and let Sophie and Doug loose.

My biggest challenge was breaking the “laugh a day” rhythm of the comic strip. It had become second nature after so many years. To break that habit, I had a lot of fun playing around with the size of the panels. I got to draw expansive settings and when Sophie imagined herself as a T-Rex, she took up an entire page! (Try doing that in a newspaper strip!)

It took a few drafts to find the rhythm, but putting in the work allowed my characters to guide me. Which brings me to my final tip.

Step Three: Experiment and Have Fun

Try sharing your characters’ stories in a new way. It can be scary. I made mistakes but learned that if I let my characters go for what they wanted, the readers came along for the ride.

Switching mediums and trying out different rhythms and structures challenges your imagination and gives you fresh eyes on whatever you write. It also opens new opportunities.

Drop me a line if you have more detailed questions about converting stories to different genres or if you want to chat about comic creation techniques. Happy storytelling!

Brian Anderson is the author of several children’s books, including The Conjurers trilogy (book three, Fight of the Fallen, coming in February!) as well as the picture books Nighty Night, Sleepy Sleeps; The Prince’s New Pet; and Monster Chefs. He is also an optioned screenwriter and the creator of the syndicated comic strip Dog Eat Doug, which enjoys an international fan base both online and off-line. He lives in North Carolina with his family, which includes a herd of rescued dogs and cats.

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