From Novel to Comics—Don't Get Too Attached to Your Characters

I thought adapting Ronen's massive novel Generation of Steel into a screenplay was challenging enough. It took me close to two years, with the initial draft clocking in at 214 pages — a hundred pages too long for professional consideration. But when we decided to adapt it into a comics series, Flexors, we actually felt very confident — After all, by that time we had already written three novels, five screenplays, a web show, and over a dozen shorts.

Talk about a humbling experience. With the screenplay, I went through eight drafts, but the plot always remained (generally) in line with the novel. With the comics, finding the story that would work in that medium required four different versions, each with a completely different plot and a multitude of drafts.

The only thing that remained constant through all the versions was the premise and concept: “In the future humanity develops a bio-engineering technology that allows people to live and work on the most inhospitable planets — super strong and durable human-bulldozers known as Flexors. The story focuses on planet Torano, a harsh place with gravity a hundred times that of Earth, inhabited by belligerent aliens known as the Orgelians. An explosive conflict between the aggressive aliens and Flexors spirals into a full-scale celestial war, where the Orgelian gods defeat the Olympian gods.

The Olympians entrust the outcome of the war along with the fate of Earth to the hands of our protagonist — a mortal who must succeed where the gods have failed!

You may be lucky enough to have a plot that translates well into comics with minimal tinkering.

For us, however, that wasn’t the case. Our original plot was designed specifically for novel and screenplay forms. During the long adaptation process, we learned just how easy it was to get caught up in plot details, trying to alter everything to the point where you wind up chasing your own tail. Eventually, we realized along with the plot, we had no choice but to modify the characters as well, to build their background stories and interactions in a much more comics-friendly manner. Yes, those characters we worked so hard to round out and enliven had to be sent back to the drawing board —no pun intended.

It can be a difficult process to make such substantial edits — almost like cutting ties with friends you’ve known all your life. Still, no matter how much or how little you alter your characters, it should always improve your adaptation, even if in unexpected ways.

In Generation of Steel, our protagonist, Stav, was very different from the one you see in Flexors. He was a 38-year-old war veteran who couldn’t make a living on Earth. He became a Flexor and left Torano for economic reasons, falling back on his natural leadership skills and becoming a successful mining foreman. Revered by the other Flexors for standing up to a renegade Orgelian, it was rather easy for Stav to earn their trust and assume the role of a leader in battle.

The Stav of the novel had only an incidental connection with the Olympians, having previously encountered Ares on the battlefield. The Olympians' decision to choose him to champion humanity in battle involved an intricate subplot involving a failed mission to the Orgelian homeworld and Stav’s hospitalization in a special Flexors facility on Earth. One of his physicians was haunted by Erinyes that told Zeus about Stav. In the facility, Stav also met his love interest — a Flexors' psychologist and daughter to the owner of the Flexor development corporation. She had a rather small amount of page time, but a major role in the story, giving Stav a personal motivation to save Earth and a renewed enthusiasm for life.

This unfolded well in the novel but was too long and complex to squeeze into a comic. We realized it wouldn’t be enough just to cut the subplot, instead, we had to completely change the character to make it work. Ronen insisted that we show the Flexor transformation process Stav endured, as this was an origin story, immediately leading us to realize we needed to start the story at a much earlier point in Stav's life.

With the Orgelian mission subplot scrapped, we also needed to find a specific reason the Olympians choose Stav to save humanity over any other person on Earth, or for that matter, over any other Flexor already on Torano. This was an example of how a creative challenge can improve a story significantly. Once we figured out Stav to be the son of a Heraclid, we found real elements of Greek tragedy and were able to re-script an entire background story around it — one that involved a mysterious prophecy about the savior and the destructor of the world.

It took us a while to fully understand Stav's new character. He was now a troubled young man who lost his mother at a young age, suffering from a short temper with people who didn't value him. Certainly not just a flat action hero, but it took us some time to discover his true depth and weave the traits of his personality into actions that drove the plot. We made a big dramatic stride when we realized Stav never met the Flexors he was supposed to champion and had to wrestle their loyalty away from a Flexor they had known for years.

Our secondary characters also changed a lot. We combined two government officials that were critical in getting Stav back to Torano, combining them into a single ambassador — one that introduces the Orgelians' monarchy to the readers. Stav's commander, General Walsh, was developed into a much bigger role, flying alongside Stav to Torano and acting as a father figure.

Eridis, Stav's love interest, had changed completely. She knew Stav from having served in the same platoon with him. In fact, we start the story with them doing kitchen duty as punishment for Stav misfiring during an ambush operation. Eridis has many issues with Stav's attitude and actions, seeing him very much as a rival and someone she wouldn't want to be around during a fight. This gave us nice dramatic tension between the two of them. A tension that would later transform into romantic attraction. When they finally put their differences aside, Eridis would also have a major involvement in helping Stav overcome the incredible odds he faced in saving humanity. Eridis came into her own as a strong female lead.

As the new plotlines emerged and evolved, we became more and more comfortable with our choices. It was certainly a process, but while we had to give up on some things we liked in the novel, we were rewarded with new elements, that were surprisingly even better. One by one things fell into one piece until a great new story arc had fully formed.

Changing your characters when adapting a story from one medium to another may be the hardest aspect of the process, but we can tell you the rewards are worth the effort. The time you spend will bring out great creativity and inspire you to write your story in ways that may be actually better than your original vision. Just go with the flow on it and enjoy the discoveries you make along the way.


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