Show of hands how many of us love a good dragon story. I’m going to assume that’s everybody. We are a world in love with dragons—their abilities, their intellect, their history, the very idea of them. Yet our love of these mystical creatures has turned into an over-saturation of them in our reading material. Every other fantasy novel seems to contain some element of a dragon world or character, and many have them woven into the plot or closely twined with the protagonist. How many more ancient wise ones who want to guide humanity and evil, tormented ones who want to see all humans dead can we take?
What we as readers want is a unique story about our scaly friends (or foes). That show of hands proves that there is still an audience for them. So how do you, as the writer, navigate the clichés, pitfalls and over-worked plots to create a truly beautiful dragon story?
- Decide if your dragon will be flying solo or as part of a group
The dragon community, or lack thereof, will play a big role in how your dragon acts. If she’s the last of her kind, she’s probably seen a lot of war and pain, and it’s going to reflect in her character. Or perhaps there are other dragons out there, but she’s been banished. Know the environment your dragon will be in.
- Determine the location and time period for the story itself
Of course, a dragon in modern day New York is going to have different challenges than one living in medieval times. We often write about fantasy creatures in non-modern periods because they’re easier to believe out of our own context. No setting is right or wrong for a dragon story, just be aware of the limitations and expectations of each setting you contemplate.
Write your dragon’s history. Who was he, before the start of the story? Do dragons do politics, and if so, where did your dragon fall in the scheme of things? As with human characters, past responsibilities and experiences are going to play heavily on your dragon. A fallen king is going to act differently than a knowledge-seeker.
- Determine your dragon’s goal in life
Stereotypically, we think of dragons as either pure evil or benevolent good. Don’t use these. Your dragon will most likely be a long-lived creature, so you have to match that longevity with interesting goals, things that could only be born of being alive. Maybe your dragon is a boisterous environmentalist, or a quiet assassin. Whatever goal(s) you choose, make sure your background story and the location make such a goal plausible.
- Physical characteristics
Throw away the first images that come to your mind of what a dragon should look like and start from scratch. There are many different shapes, sizes, colors, textures and abilities that can and should be built into a dragon. For instance, one who lives in a dense forest is probably going to be green-ish for camouflage, have a small wing span and possibly not even be able to fly, and may have a mossy coat of skin instead of iron-hard scales. Take your dragon’s personal history into consideration when crafting the physical body; just because he lives in that forest now doesn’t mean he was born there.
- Create a cultural history for the dragons
You need to know where the dragons as a race have been, what they’ve fought and died for, what their values and beliefs have been and are now. Maybe they were a warrior race that systematically eliminated their weak, or worshiped a powerful deity humanity can’t even comprehend. The cultural history might not play a huge role in your single dragon’s life, but it will be there in the back of the story, and you’ll need these details as you write.
- Decide what kind of interactions your dragon will have with the human characters
A dragon that’s serving as a protector will have a different relationship with humans than one who has spent his whole life fighting off dragon slayers. If the two races have always conflicted in your story, then the real question is: how bitter is the dragon? If the two more or less get along, then ask yourself how/why they manage to co-exist—and more importantly, what would threaten that status quo.
- Create a deadline for your dragon
Your dragon needs to be operating with this inevitable deadline that’s drawing ever-closer. If you stick with the traditional idea that dragons are long-lived or immortal, this is especially important. Death works well, but has been used before, so use this one carefully. With this ever-present reminder of things about to change, your dragon will feel the urgency to get things done yesterday, and will also have mental struggles about accomplishing all that needs to be done. This deadline makes for good inner conversation.
Yes, your dragon needs a weird personality trait or habit, just like humans. I like to think of a dragon going to spit fire, and then hiccuping half way through—every time. A good quark can be used as comic relief or as a fatal flaw, depending on the tone and need in your story. They’re also good character builders; a dragon that hiccups every time she goes to breathe fire is going to have a self-esteem problem that she’ll have to overcome.
These are basic pieces of advice to take into consideration for writing your own dragon story. The general rule of thumb with anything fantasy is to think of what you know and then steer clear of using that knowledge in the same context. And when in doubt about a story’s originality, ask someone to read it. Dragon stories tend to have a set standard in people’s minds, so a fresh set of eyes will be able to tell you where you stand in relation to that standard.