Last week, we were talking about how writers of SF/F need to get to know the
fictional setting in which they’ll be writing. Since I’ve been doing a lot of this myself lately (not about dragons but other things), it’s much on my mind.
So… You want dragons. Despite the occasional reaction against dragons as overused – I have heard writers bragging that their Fantasy fiction is a “dragon-free zone” – I completely understand the impulse.
I’ve been visited by dragons in a few of my pieces. Of course, they were rather strange dragons… One was two-headed and rubber (Betwixt and Between from Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls). Another was more an elemental spirit of treacherous nature than a fire breathing lizard(the eponymous creature in The Dragon of Despair). Then there were the Chinese dragons featured in the “Breaking the Wall” novels. The fact that dragons are extinct is a major point in the athanor novels, Changer and Legends Walking.
That raises the first question. What sort of dragon do you want? Do you want something modeled on the classic European dragon? If you want this sort of dragon, do you want the simplest form – fire-breathing, violent, and destructive – or do you want the more refined model, still fire-breathing, still capable of violence, but also sophisticated, interested in riddle games and maybe even rulership?
Or are you looking for something closer to the Chinese dragon – or lung – a very different beast entirely? If you do your research, you’ll find that there are several varieties of Chinese dragon, each associated with different landscapes, each with its own tastes and quirks. Which of these do you want?
Let’s say you want something closer to the European dragon. Inspired by Smaug from The Hobbit (or perhaps the myths and legends that gave him birth), you want the more sophisticated model. You’ve decided that you’d like a male. He’ll have scales of a burnished red, highlighted with copper. He flies, eats meat, hoards treasure, and demands the occasional virgin maiden.
Great! You’re set!
Actually, not quite… A dragon of this sort is a peak predator – that is to say, at the top of the food chain. Even if he eats only occasionally (even lesser peak predators like wolves and great cats eat only a couple times a week), when he does, he eats a lot. Where is he getting this food? How do the locals feel about having their flocks – or game preserves – raided?
And that treasure… Where does he get it? Is it from forgotten days of yore or is he still building the collection? Why does he collect it? Long ago, I read an article in a gaming magazine that suggested the answer to this question was key to understanding the place of dragons in a given world. I have forgotten the source, but I still remember the question: “Do they just like lumpy beds?”
“Hey!” says the would-be writer of speculative fiction. “Does this really matter? I just want the dragon so my hero has something to go after, a quest, y’know, maybe an initiation challenge.”
Well, sure, if you want your novel to have the depth and lasting power of this year’s current hot computer game, that’s enough. Kill the dragon and level-up. There’s satisfaction in that. I’ve done it and felt it. But we’re talking about writing a story here, maybe even one that will have some staying power in the reader’s imagination when “World of the Wyrm” is forgotten by all but die-hard gamers.
Let’s look at Smaug… Smaug’s treasure was what brought the dwarves (and Bilbo) to him, in some cases for wealth, but in some cases because they knew things of great power were hidden there. Smaug didn’t come out very often, but when he did the people of Laketown suffered. That meant they were both willing to fight against Smaug and – in the latter part of the story – felt they had a right to some of the loot, enough of a right that they were willing to go to war to secure their share. Their neighbors also had a long relationship with Smaug. Even those who had not been victims of the dragon’s greed and rapine knew about the treasure – and wanted it.
These same questions underlie the action in a SF treatment of dragons. In Dragonflight, the first book of Anne McCaffery’s Pern novel, the locals are getting tired of supporting the “useless” dragons in the Weyrs. They also don’t think much of what they see as essentially sacrificing a virgin or two. By underpinning her science fictional concept with these mythic resonances, McCaffery gives her piece depth. Her twist that the big, fire-breathing, peak predator (who do, in fact, have a “taste” for virgins) are ultimately not monsters but saviors reshaped the concept of the dragon in both science fiction and fantasy.
Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede provides a creative answer to the question of why dragons demand human princesses. I don’t want to offer a spoiler so I’ll settle for saying that this book – and its sequels – don’t just provide a twist. They use the twist as a fascinating foundation for a new setting.
Teeth and Claw by Jo Walton is another novel that takes the politics of intelligent dragons to a new level. Initially, the dragons could be humans with, well, teeth and claws. Then, just as the reader gets comfortable with this, Walton shows you that her characters are not human at all. Then the book becomes truly draconic.
So, why think about your dragons? Your pegasi? Your unicorns? Isn’t it a lot of work for nothing? (I mean, everyone knows what a dragon is.) I hope the examples above give you an idea why you might bother and why bothering not only makes for a better story, it also can be creatively stimulating and (dare I say it?) just plain fun!
Oh! And Happy Leap Day to you all!