I recently started reading a dragon anthology that’s been collecting dust on my shelf. I know, for shame – why would you not read straight through a good dragon book? Well for starters, as I started to read the first short story I remembered that I’d read it already, and it was as mediocre the second time around as the first. Then the second story failed to impress, and now it’s sitting on my stack of writing stuff, about to be neglected again for weeks on end.
The whole point of reading a dragon story is the dragon – yes, we want character development, an awesome plot and an epic setting, but we want to be in awe of the dragon. They’re such iconic creatures that writing them into a story changes the flavor of the entire thing. But it also brings inherent challenges. When dragon stories fail, they fail epicly and usually for simple reasons.
About a year ago, I did a post on tricks for writing dragon characters into a story. Now I want to look at some of the different kinds of dragons. This is by no means an exhaustive list; many books, MMOs and games have their own additions, and there’s nothing stopping you from doing the same. The key is to be able to distinguish between all the different kinds. After all, there’s not just one kind of human, right?
I like to think of forest dragons as the most ancient branch, slow to move and covered in moss. Almost like the Ents in Lord of the Rings. Forest dragons’ wings are so short and stubby they’re not capable of lifting the wide frame, so they don’t fly. They are long, however, with a tail that is about half their body length at adulthood. Their teeth are not overly sharp because over time they have developed a taste for the plants and roots around them as opposed to animal flesh. When they walk they shake the earth, but the forest animals are not overly perturbed by them. It is said that they breathe out a chemical that boosts growth, so the land flourishes wherever they go.
Mountain dragons are typically what people think when you say, “Dragon.” Their wings are their defining feature, long, graceful and in countless colors, with a wingspan that can reach twenty ft in some sub-species. Their frames are streamlined so that they are faster in fight. Their heads are flat and narrow to aid in cutting through the wind, and their eyesight is the best of all the dragons. They have three membranes that can be folded over the eyeball for different depths of vision, enabling them to “zoom in” on anything within four miles. They do not have the lung capacity to roar, so instead they hiss if they are confronted.
Lake dragons are the smallest subspecies, though their size is the most varied of all the dragons because they will grow in proportion to the lake they call home. Their color is often metallic blue, but it can be different depending on the lake itself. Their wings are strong enough to allow them to fly/glide for short distances, but because of their two-part design they work better underwater for steering and balance. Their teeth are serrated and excellent for spearing unwary fish, as well as capturing the occasional small animal that wanders over for a drink. Their life force is tied with a specific body of water, so that if the lake grows, they grow, and if the habitat around the lake flourishes, so do they. This species is particularly in danger of extinction because when lakes dry up or are destroyed by human building, they die. It is very rare that a lake dragon is able to move to another lake.
Plains dragons are built for endurance and speed, and are perhaps the most adaptable of all species. They are at home in exposed plains and in forests (though they tend to stay away from the woodlands that are older and overgrown because of maneuverability and the likelihood of encountering a forest dragon.) They have rather large heads when compared with their long, slender necks and their jaws can actually be unhinged to allow for consuming larger prey like deer or buffalo. They are often tan or brown in color, but some of them have developed chameleon-like color changing abilities that serve for camouflage. They are hot-tempered and territorial, so it is never a good idea to provoke them or seek out their nests.
These reclusive creatures are rarely ever seen, even by the humans who inhabit their homelands. It is estimated that the average arctic dragon will spend about ¾ of its life in its den, hidden from the bitter cold and killing snows, venturing out only when its fat stores are depleted. They are heavy-set, with the same white-yellow fur of a polar bear. Their feet are padded for better movement across snow and ice, and while their wingspan does suggest that they have the ability to fly, none have ever been sighted in the air. This could easily be attributed to the weather, however, as they are only seen moving about during snowstorms, and visibility in the air would be zero.
Marine dragons have almost as much in common with the great whales as their dragon brethren, for they live exclusively in the ocean but must surface to breathe. They are almost eel-like in their structure and their wings have changed over generations to be more like fins. Their tails have sharp barbs on the end that they use to help snare prey, and inward facing rows of teeth ensure that nothing escapes once captured. They can dive to the very bottom of the ocean despite the horrible amount of pressure at such depths, and often travel parallel to land. They have been sighted in freshwater rivers, but surprisingly their encounters with people have still been small in number and all non-fatal.