Thar Be Dragons!

I was talking with my brother a couple of months ago about the fantasy book I’m writing when he asked me a loaded question: “Does it have dragons?”

He didn’t know it was a loaded question, but the truth is that I had thought long and hard about what kind of creatures I was going to put into my story world. Would I include classic fantasy creatures like elves, dwarves, dragons, and goblins? If I did, would I make them fit the classic stereotypes for those creatures, or would I give them some kind of twist?

The advantage of using classic fantasy creatures is that the reader usually comes to your work with a certain degree of familiarity with them. If you make it clear up front that the creatures fit the standard mold, your readers will fill in a lot of blanks with that familiarity.

The down side of using the classics is that you have to work harder to overcome your readers’ expectations if you try to do anything unusual with them.

What Is a Dragon, Anyway?

Dragons are particularly interesting to think about because of the wow factor. They are often large, scary, and dangerous. But when you get right down to it, the existing body of work that incorporates dragons presents them in a wide variety of ways. What I like about that is readers have fewer expectations about what a dragon is.

So that leaves the writer free to create a flavor of dragon that fits well into his story world and matches the writer’s desires regarding what a dragon could or should be like.

Dragon Characteristics

When you think “dragon,” what image pops into your head? I’m betting the image looks something like this:

  • Large, scaly reptilian appearance with four legs, a long tail, and large bat-like wings.
  • A head that would not look out of place on a Tyrannosaurus Rex
  • Ability to fly and breathe fire
  • Bad temper

However, if you read enough high fantasy, you encounter dragons that vary substantially from that description. You have wyverns, which typically just have two hind legs and wings (similar to a bird). You have draconettes, which are tiny dragons. The dragon from Neverending Story actually resembles a dog and has fur. Some dragons are friendly and allow riders. Others think you look like a sack of tasty meat.

What Will You Have on Your Dragon?

When my brother asked me if I had included dragons, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. I regaled him with dragon theory for about 20 minutes. I take my dragons very seriously.

Will I include dragons in the Vaetra Chronicles? Possibly. As long as I can figure out a way to work them into the story world in a way that makes sense.

Designing a dragon is a study in balance. If you make them too powerful and too common, they logically must overshadow every activity in the story. If they breathe fire it’s probably stupid to say their natural habitat is forested mountains.

My idea of a balanced dragon goes something like this:

  • Has four main appendages: two legs and a set of wings. No avian, mammal, or reptile in nature has four legs plus wings. Yes, I know, this is fantasy, so we can change whatever rules we want. I just happen to like that one. My dragon is based on the pterodactyl, with a less goofy head.
  • Does not breathe fire, but may have a magical ability that is equally devastating.
  • Is top-of-the-food-chain large and dangerous, but rare.
  • Has animal intelligence. Any magical abilities are “natural.”
  • Avoids human civilization, but won’t hesitate to pick up a stray human for lunch if the opportunity presents itself.

So, when my characters encounter a dragon, it’s not going to be: “What shall we say to the pretty dragon?” It’s going to be: “Run for your life!”

If I had to choose my favorite dragon from another writer’s work, it would probably be the dragons from Anne McCaffrey’s world of Pern. Although her dragons are everything mine are not, they fit perfectly within the parameters of her story world.

Of all the fantasy you’ve read and the dragons you’ve met, which dragon did you like best? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.


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