Dragons are the mythical beasts of Dreams and Nightmares. There’s a lot of content on building a world with dragons in mind, but no discussion on how to write stories with them. We’ll be breaking this down into four topics writing an original dragon story, spectacle, dragons as protagonists, word choice, and dragons as antagonists.
One of the criticisms of writing Dragons is that they have been done by every major fantasy author of the last century. Some authors recently have come up with Stranger Dragons to make them original, like Motormouth in Guild Wars two. He’s called a dragon but has no reptilian form and can’t breathe fire. There’s nothing wrong with coming up with unique designs for dragons.
Something that many fantasy writers miss is that the problem is not lacking a radically unique dragon design outside the three archetypes. You don’t need a dragon that can shoot saxophones out of their face. So before writing about dragons, you must follow some basic rules and avoid some usual thinking. If you want to do that, stay with me till last.
How To Write A Dragon Story?
An original dragon story comes from the author’s narrative questions in using them. To break this down further, consider the sources of tension and wonder in your Dragon stories. It’s Dragon time to explain how dragons can be used in writing.
We will analyze some common characteristics of a dragon and discuss the symbolic meaning behind each characteristic. I will present my 7 tips for successfully writing a dragon story or character. Let’s fly!
1. Describe your dragon
Dragons are often described as having the characteristics of a reptile, scaly skin, snake-head, cold blood, strong claws, and jaws. Reptiles can be a symbol of solitude, as most reptiles spend a majority of their time alone. The author may consider how the dragon interacts with others when writing about dragons. Think about dragons as that grumpy neighbor, often rude, easily agitated, and potentially aggressive. Dragons would prefer to be left alone.
Ancient dinosaurs were reptiles and were around millions of years ago. Being ancient can have different meanings depending on the context. For dragons, being ancient can mean that they are very intelligent or wise, while wisdom can be of positive virtue.
Also, it can add to the danger associated with these creatures. It is very rare to read about an encounter with a dragon that goes according to plan. The intelligence of these creatures means that they are aware of what is going on and can thwart the plans of those trying to harm them.
2. Add a dragon’s perspective
In fantasy or science fiction novels, dragons usually take place in a world the reader is unfamiliar with and are immensely hard to do with minimal dialogue. It plays a more critical role in our interpretation of the text. Given that we don’t have other factors like music or cinematography, and more importantly, using language to describe the thoughts of a creature who does not think any language, strictly speaking, is very hard.
Making the Dragon’s perspective characters in the story involves a Western thinker who can speak, use common idioms and language, understand common customs, reason, and feel diverse emotions. Fundamentally, they can express themselves in ways familiar to human readers.
So while giving a dragon explicitly, human capacities and personality traits might give the reader a clearer and more direct insight into the character and help them empathize with their journey. It is usually suitable for immersion.
I still adore the legend of the Spyro series with all of my heart, but it can come across as lazy writing. It is because instead of bringing the reader to understand a dragon’s world, they are forcing the dragon to fit our world. On top of this, it can feel unrealistic because here’s a little secret, and dragons aren’t human.
3. Make your dragon’s fiery breath unique
An iconic characteristic of dragons is their fiery breath. Fire represents destruction and is arguably one of the most devastating forces on the planet. The fire itself can have many symbolic meanings, but for dragons, there are two major ones. The first symbolic meaning of fire is dangerous. Fire consumes everything, which can burn houses, melt armor and devastate crops. Combine fire with a giant monster, and you have a very dangerous combination.
For this reason, it should not be surprising that when an author writes about dragons, some danger is present. The second symbolic meaning of fire in nature. Fire is a force of nature, and while it can be destructive, it can also be necessary. Some plants require fire for the seeds to open.
As a result, a dragon with its fiery breath can symbolize nature and the rich potential of destruction and creation that exist within our world. The fireworks spectacle is dedicating time in the story to showing the reader how incredibly magical and huge your dragons are. That’s useful in a fantasy story. You want those moments that hit the reader with a powerful feeling of otherworldliness.
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series features three dragons: Drogon, Viserion, and Riggle. These are as typical wisdom beast-style dragons as possible. They breathe fire, and they’re not of human-level intelligence or divine. But despite fitting one of these traditional dragon archetypes perfectly, which might make them seem ordinary. The tension in their story is not derived from whether Cersei or Jaime can kill one of them, considering the sheer dangers and horrors that come with it.
Using the three dragon archetypes does not make a story unoriginal. The narrative questions involving dragons that an author asks make their involvement. The role your dragons play as a question: What tension does their presence help build, and what wonder do they inspire?
However, it isn’t about design or narrative questions because we can’t talk about dragons and ignore the role of spectacle in a story as mighty creatures soaring in the sky. Fire breathers, divine beings, monolithic beasts, and dragons bring the spectacle to make the reader excite.
4. Show the flight power
A dragon’s core feature is its wings and capacity to fly. Flight allows a dragon to travel large distances and reach places other creatures cannot. This is the reason that many dragons dwell in mountains or caves. They are usually one of the few creatures that can get there by being able to fly.
- Dragons can symbolize freedom and are often portrayed as animals who do what they want when they want.
While this freedom can benefit the dragon, it can also mean chaos for other creatures. After all, if a dragon can do whatever it wants, regardless of the consequences, how will other creatures stop it? To take this idea further, the wings of a dragon can symbolize the terrifying realization that there is no escape no matter where you go. This looming threat can be a catalyst that forces other characters to action. Ultimately, other characters must choose what to do, live in fear or face the dragon head-on.
5. Don’t hide your dragon’s character
A combination in classical literature is dragon and treasure. Sometimes that treasure can be a mountain of gold and jewels. Other times the treasure could be something else, a title or a castle for slaying the dragon, sometimes even the treasure of a beloved princess. This treasure hoarding by a dragon can be linked to a symbolic connection discussed earlier.
What happens if you remove dragons from your story? Can your characters still make the same crucial decisions in moving the plot forward? Can they still resolve certain character arcs? Does the type of tension in the story remain the same? If yes, then the dragons are there mostly for spectacle.
Calling someone cold-blooded often means they only think about themselves regardless of the cost to others. It can mean that a dragon who hoards gold could be a symbol of selfishness and greed. That’s a summary of what dragons can symbolize in a piece of writing.
6. Writing dragons as protagonists
One challenge that authors face in writing Dragon protagonists is making them easy to follow and empathize with as a character when they are mythological creatures that are distinctly inhuman. It is usually done in one of two ways.
The first is writing a dragon protagonist through a reader-representative character. These are usually used where the author wants to keep their dragon’s magical, beastly nature, that otherworldliness, that alienness that we have in dragons. They don’t want them to speak naturally.
Not being able to speak or articulate their thoughts in ways we are familiar with makes them harder to follow and empathize with. So the author uses a perspective character who can understand this dragon and bridge that gap between the reader’s understanding and the dragon’s experience.
We see this with Israélien as Amadeus and the Dragon Prince, who can tell the audience how Amadeus feels. Dragons allow for a distinctly different characterization of a protagonist. Giving them a human persona through our word choices loses some of the mysticism that could make your dragons and your story unique.
7. Writing dragons as antagonists
Language choice is particularly relevant when writing dragon protagonists because we use language to get insight into their characters and want to follow the story. But it applies to dragon antagonists or any intelligent dragon in a story.
One of the reasons that I love Glory in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is because of his language as a magical being deeply connected to ancient and evil magic. There is a rhythm to his speech that we don’t see in Elvish or human characters throughout the story, our language, philosophy, morality, social structure, and social protocol.
So relying too much on distinctively human language traits leaves us with the spectacle of a dragon and not the character of one. Give reminders in your story of crucial differences in dragon society, their emotional coding, and their psychology to retain that otherworldliness that is so fascinating and a fantasy story.
Falsely, dragons have a long history as antagonists with the whole burning down towns and kidnapping princesses who now think they need a hero, and stark dragons have been antagonists with the myth of leaden who guarded the golden apple or disparities.
There’s a lot to discuss on antagonists, but in discussing specifically dragons, it’s essential to consider the type of dragon. So we’ll go back to those three we addressed at the beginning that will influence their role as the antagonist in the story. There’s a reason that Western-based like Dragon do not often take on the role of the primary antagonist in the story.
They cannot interact verbally or intellectually with the protagonist, which does not support an exciting dynamic between the hero and the villain. So when they do, they tend to take on a particular antagonistic role and the climax of the epic poem Beowulf. Beowulf fights a Western beast-style dragon. The reason it makes for a good and antagonistic force in the story is not that the Dragon is a multidimensional character with an intensely personal history with Beowulf.
The Dragon’s presence in the story is the catalyst for resolving Beowulf’s character arc throughout the story’s events. In contrast to Western thinkers or Eastern sage style, dragons tend to take on a more diverse array of antagonistic roles. They tend to be a more versatile type of dragon when representing an antagonistic force in the story.
Carefully consider your choice of language, idioms, and colloquialisms that may be distinctly human. One writing strategy that Sutherland uses to deal with this problem in her Wings of Fire series is to wave reminders of a few vital, unique characteristics of her dragon culture into the story’s events. Emotions like guilt, love, and sympathy have particular reasons for arising in the human psyche, socially coded to feel guilt when we steal.
Our evolution has taught us that there are repercussions to that happening. It’s trying to stop us. Stealing a dragon will not necessarily be coded the same way. They will experience emotions differently. Emotions are inspired by different experiences or certain emotions being felt more commonly or rarely. While human society has a sense of obligation and moral imperative to raise and take care of your children, dragon society has no such morality.
Western-based dragons tend to take on an antagonistic role that primarily works to resolve and define the protagonist’s character arc. In contrast, Western thinkers and Eastern Sage Dragons allow for a much wider array of antagonistic roles depending on how you design them. So to summarize, writing an original Dragon story does not require you to avoid traditional dragon archetypes, though variations can help distinguish your story. What matters are the narrative questions that an author asks and using them?
Consider where the tension is and ask if we have seen that before. Secondly, integrate your spectacle with crucial moments, character arcs, or thematic tension to underpin their importance. Thirdly, dragon protagonists are harder to follow and empathize with as characters because they are mythological creature that is distinctly inhuman. One method to address this is using a reader perspective character to interpret the experiences of the dragon for the reader and bring in an element of dialogue.
Another is allowing them to speak and express themselves as humans would. Fourthly, relying too much on human customs and idioms and your word, choice, and language describing dragon experiences can result in dragons losing their otherworldly or mystical nature to the reader. Fifthly, if a Western-based dragon plays the role of an antagonist, they usually exist as the ultimate obstacle that defines and resolves the protagonist’s character arc.
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