Dragons and dragon-like beings permeate history and culture across the world. From the typical European interpretation to their Asian cousins, to Africa and Central America and the Middle East. They differ vastly from one another and go by different names, but they are all, inherently, mythological and majestic creatures.
[A handy chart highlighting some of the common interpretations and their relations]
Differences in Literature
In fiction, dragons differ in body shape, powers, and even intelligence. They can be merely wild beasts, trainable and curious, or even capable of human levels of reasoning. They can be large or small, wild or tame.
In Harry Potter
In this series, dragons are merely like any other predatory species. They cannot be tamed any more than lions or tigers in our world (read: some degree of tameability if done correctly), and they are very dangerous. They are all some degree of European dragon or wyvern, all having two or four legs and a pair of wings – even though one species that is called the Chinese Fireball (despite not being a Chinese dragon); this was my one pet peeve. Dragons don’t come into the series often, mentioned in the first, fourth, and seventh books, but they were well done nonetheless.
In The Last Dragon Chronicles
In this series, dragons are made out of clay and are given life by their sculptor. They are each given a specific purpose, and they can come to life. They aren’t vicious and seem to be more like house pets (or house spirits) than wild animals.
In the Inheritance Cycle
In this series, dragons are both highly intelligent and extremely dangerous. They can be wild or be bonded to a rider; bonded are more intelligent and the wild are more fierce. Again, they seem to be typical European style dragons, and their lifespans are nearly infinite. There doesn’t seem to be a limit to how large they can grow, either.
In How to Train Your Dragon
In these books, the dragons seem at least somewhat tameable, as the Vikings are sent out to capture a young dragon from its nest and train it by yelling commands at it. However, they are still very dangerous animals, and they can be stubborn. They have their own language which, in the books, Hiccup learns to understand and speak.
My Pet Peeves
Despite how amazing I think dragons are, there are some things that bother me when I’m reading about them. The first of which being inconsistency. Even with their typically magical nature, it is my belief that dragons are living creatures like all other animals out there. Sometimes, authors give them powers or abilities or other such features for seemingly no reason at all, and it really takes away from the story. This is especially annoying when these features change based on plot convenience.
One such series I read involved wyverns and dragons and drakes (see chart above). Each type had their own differences, but they all had similar powers over the elements. However, as the series progressed, the plot became repetitive, though the powers kept ramping up. it became so that there were many characters with unique powersets, and while I don’t mind different characters having their own strengths, it ran into the problem of Overpowered Characters.
What I mean is: it seemed like the stakes were set in the first book. Then, at the end, there was a battle that of course the good guys needed to win (for the series to continue), but because the heroes won, the villain had to grow stronger, which meant the heroes had to grow stronger. For this to happen, the author added new powers and new magic and new characters as needed. The plot itself didn’t seem to move forward – it was the characters that kept mounting.
Now, this can happen with any story, not just ones with dragons, but dragons can be an issue because they are just so diverse.
How to Successfully Use Dragons in Your Writing
I’m not sure there is a “right” way to write dragons, but being successful can come in many forms. The one thing to remember, however, is balance. Don’t add dragons to your story just for the sake of having dragons. If you just want a “dragon” in the vaguest sense of the word, go for it, but in my opinion, a better dragon is one that’s unique. It’s something that sticks with the reader for a while after they’ve read the book.
My biggest suggestion is to first figure out your dragons and their limits and give them that hard line. Adding new things for the sake of “more action” and “higher stakes” isn’t as exciting as you may think; it just takes away from the previous issues. So, how can your dragon series (or dragons in your writing) not run the risk of being overpowered?
First, you need to decide what your dragons are going to look like. They can all be the same or different (dragon vs wyvern vs wyrm; see chart above). Consider where your story takes place and where your dragons live. How does their surroundings shape their bodies? A great help to this process is researching real creatures that live in similar climates and learning what adaptations they’ve made for themselves.
Is there anything you want to give your dragons that makes them unique? They could have horns or antlers, hands or paws or even hooves, maybe fur or feathers or scales or just skin. Be careful not to go crazy; consider why they would have these features.
How do the dragons communicate with one another? Dragons have been known to use human language, or their own, but they may chirp like a bird, hiss like a reptile, roar like a tiger, or sing like a whale. Their communication may not be verbal at all; they could use smell and body language like wolves. Whatever you choose, the more research you put into it, the more cohesive your creatures will be to read – even if you’re only using them for a small part.
Evolution & Communication
Tying both physicality and language together, how do your dragons behave as a species? Do they live in solitude or in groups? Do they have specific mating rituals, and if they do, do they mate for life, for the season, or otherwise?
Consider as well how they interact with other creatures. Other types of dragons, maybe their predators and their prey. Where do they get food and water, and how do the species at the top of the food chain (usually humans) affect them?
In some works, dragons contain a magic of their own – prophecy, incantations, even spells. For most Western dragons, they can fly and breathe fire. These, of course, can be explained by evolution and science (wings, oil glands, spark sacks), or simply be magical in nature.
Having Fun with It
Dragons are always fun creatures to write about because of their vast history and their versatility. You can make them whatever you want to make them, and they’ll still be recognizable. They’re something cool and familiar to add to your writing, and I think, as long as they’re written with passion, consistency, and reason, they’ll turn out great.
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