So You Want Dragons?

Last week, we were talking about how writers of SF/F need to get to know the

Just A Few Dragons

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!

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13 Responses to “So You Want Dragons?”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I got a better question; Do we have to hold to the stereotype at all? I’ve heard of fantasy writers getting crucified for “deviating from the lore” when it comes to dragons, werewolves, and other beasts.

    Why? Why limit our world to what has been established? What’s wrong with a werewolf having total control over his change, and not being affected by the moon at all? To stay more on topic, what’s wrong with a dragon that doesn’t breath fire, has fur and feathers, dislikes treasure, likes to sleep in the forest, and *gasp* is vegetarian!

    When I think of my dragons (or whatever), I use the status quo as a place to build from. The foundation of my foundation if you will. After that, MY world! I could have a European dragon build, with the hide of a wolf, with the powers of a Chinese dragon. Might even add a horse tail, just to be mean to the “This is the dragon box, stay in it!” people. My creatures are my own. Do they never follow the “normal” guidelines? No. But I never let those guidelines stop me from building the world I want.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Whoo-boy…

      I can see your point on werewolves. A lot of that stuff owes more to movies than folklore, but if you’re going to deviate so far from the model, why call it a “dragon” at all?

      If you’re going to “build the world you want” to that extent, then why not go all the way and do as many SF/F writers have done and add something new to our imaginary realms without shackling your creature to an older tradition?

      Ball back in your court!

    • heteromeles Says:

      There’s even a traditional model: the “bear doctors” of some California tribes. They could shapeshift into grizzly bears, and they were allowed to kill up to four people per year as a grizzly under the rules of the magic. If they killed more than four, they would suffer from the bad luck of being found and killed. Somehow. They killed to rob their victims, not from simple bloodlust.

      It’s too bad the folklore is so obscure, because there’s a great story there for someone.

      As for the semi-vegetarian dragon, The Name of the Wind had a lot of fun with that. So did I, in an SF context. Dragons who gardened, and tamed humans to help them, were a lot of fun to write.

      About the new critters, though….All too often, they come across as a conglomeration of random parts, and act the same way. Certainly it’s easy to write randomly assembled critters–you just use Excel to make the attribute tables and the =Randbetween(X,Y) function to roll them up.

      Personally, I’d rather see the critters based on something fairly rule-based, whether it’s evolution (especially in SF), hiding from humans by looking like other things, or whatever. Having rules makes the world come alive, in a way that random parts monsters do not.

    • Peter Says:

      Speaking as somebody who’s pounded in the odd nail during crucifixions of authors who “strayed from the lore” I’d like to emphasize the importance of *knowing* the lore before you stray from it. I’m perfectly happy to see new twists on old concepts, but in order to pull it off well it’s generally necessary to understand what it is you’re fooling with.

      • heteromeles Says:

        To play devil’s advocate, Peter, um, the Lore? Are we talking about tetrodotoxin poisoning to make zombies, or the Hollywood walking dead? The Livonian werewolves, who chased devils in hell (Google Thiess of Kaltenbrun) or Larry Talbot? A lot of fiction’s current lore came out of the movies.

        Happy Leap Day.

      • Peter Says:

        All of the above. The more you know What Came Before, the better position you’re in to come up with a new and interesting twist, in my opinion. And the easier it is to fake it by returning to a legend’s roots, since a lot of your audience won’t be familiar with the original sources 😉

  2. Max Kaehn (@mithriltabby) Says:

    My favorite dragon NPC I ever created was the Lord Mayor of a city-state. Also the treasurer. Also the executioner. Also the standing army. He ran the most sophisticated, enlightened city-state, taxed it, and paid himself a generous salary while still plowing a generous amount into public works that made the place more prosperous. Sure, the threshold for capital punishment was pretty low, and the method was “eaten by dragon”, but law-abiding citizens had nothing to worry about…

  3. Paul Says:

    Well, Anne McCaffrey’s dragons certainly varied from the “norm”…

  4. Dominique Says:

    I keep coming back and rereading yesterday’s post! It was really great, and full of good advice! I am so glad that you mentioned Dealing with Dragons, it’s one of my favorite YA novels, along with your Brother to Dragon, Companion to Owls.

  5. raartori Says:

    It’s just personal preference, but in the context of a high fantasy setting, I really want a true “dragon” to have wings and be able to fly believably. So if those wings are tiny, or if the dragon has an enormous amount of mass, the wings had better either be huge or supplemented by magic. In any other setting, the “dragon” should have a good reason to be referred to by that loaded word. The Dragon of Despair is an excellent example – a powerful entity associated with fire capable of mass destruction and can “devour” people. In a science fiction setting, an alien strapped to the word “dragon” shouldn’t be a fluffy amorphous organism – unless then it shoots fire from every orifice and rampages colonies for human treats and shiny objects.

  6. janelindskold Says:

    To me, words mean something… Even if the word stands for a creature that doesn’t really exist (like dragons) it comes with baggage the word has accumulated.

    That’s why, like Peter, I come down on the side of Knowing The Lore.

    And, honestly, a lot of the clever new inventions writers who don’t know the lore think they’ve created are neither clever nor new.

    I remember the time a friend pulled me aside to whisper his great, new original SF/horror idea –“Vampires with AIDS” — in my ear. The idea was already so overused that it merited a line in Joe Haldeman’s filk song “The Science Fiction Editor’s Lament.”

    I also have to admit… On a purely gut level, even mythic things become real to me. I once got in a heated discussion with a friend on interpretations of the god Apollo. I was arguing that the symbols she put onto him ignored parts of his myth — that it wasn’t fair to mix and match just to turn him into the symbol she wanted.

    Puzzled, she said “But, Jane, Apollo’s not real.”

    And my thought was, “But, somehow, to me, he is!”

  7. heteromeles Says:

    I agree with knowing the lore, if only because it tells you which stories survived to be heard again.

    On the other hand, I feel sorry for all the leafy sea dragons, bearded dragons, and komodo dragons (among others) who have just learned they no longer deserve the names people gave them.

    • janelindskold Says:

      You, sir, are a tease…

      We _were_ discussing dragons in Fantasy/SF.

      I actually have on display a lovely picture that blends the mythic dragon and the sea dragon. It was a Year of the Dragon gift.

      I like to think that all the people who named real creatures for mythic dragons were trying to put some magic into the world…

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