Dragons: Temper and Temperament

Silhouette of a dragon. Original caption: Thei...
Silhouette of a dragon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) How does this dragon think?

What would a dragon really be like? Would he prance and caper like the almost-catlike ones in How to Train Your Dragon? Would she be a mind-linked soul mate as in Dragonriders of Pern? Or maybe just the vicious animalistic dragons of Reign of Fire? There’s no right answer and I’ve enjoyed all the archetypes mentioned but for me the closest epitome of dragon is Smaug from The Hobbit. Smaug is huge, ancient, clever and malevolent: the perfect foil for the hero and a force to be reckoned with.

But as interesting as Smaug is he still feels a bit too human for me. Granted The Hobbit is a children’s book but Smaug’s vanity and complacency are what you might expect from a powerful warlord grown fat. His foils and temperament, his reasoning (aside from a draconic greed for gold) smack of a despot.

A Congo African Grey Parrot in Herborn Bird Pa...
A Congo African Grey Parrot in Herborn Bird Park, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Proof that a non-mammalian brain can be affectionate and intelligent.

How would a dragon really think? There’s no right answer. It depends on the setting. Dragons are almost exclusively lizards and our human biases are to think of these as mindless and coldblooded (in spirit and body). But if you’ve ever kept a parrot, you’ll know that the avian brain (not so far from a reptile’s) can host an engaging, cheerful companion. I once had an African Grey that was brilliant- answering as appropriate (“Goodbye” to the clicks of the alarm system, “No” in my voice when my wife asked me a question). We also had a Sun-capped Conure who was just the sweetest, most affection bird you can imagine. If birds are any example, dragons could be friendly and sociable, like in Pern. Plus Anne McCaffery has her dragons descend from social fire lizards ruled by a queen. Such a heritage would certainly lend itself to smart, gregarious dragons capable of friendship and affection (just like we humans descended from sociable primates. Current thinking is that our big brains evolved to deal with the pecking order and other pitfalls of life in a social group.)

But what about dragons as enemy? Is there a different path than the Smaug-route of dragon as “evil human with scales” (as opposed to the friendly dragons of above which are more “kitty-cats with scales”)? How about a dragon that is its own creature, not anthropomorphized?

Where to start? We are humans after all and it’s hard to completely put ourselves into an alien intellect. Here it helps to pick apart what makes us human. Certainly we have innate intellectual skills involving reasoning, capacity for mathematics, language, and so on. While it is fine to strip some of these aspects from a dragon to create something alien, as a writer I prefer a dragon that can be interacted with at more than the physical level so I prefer to leave speech in the mix and I don’t want to disadvantage my dragons so at least a human’s reasoning skills and other latent abilities seem appropriate, like capacity for mathematics and magic for the appropriate setting.

But this basic intellectual capacity, and in the case of language, physiological capability, does not address temperament. How does the dragon view and interact with other sentients?

For example, disdain for lesser folks is long a staple of Dragon stories but I see dragons differently. I don’t see them as disdainful because I don’t see them as having the empathy for disdain. Most of the negative traits assigned to dragons require some awareness and consideration of the opposing sentient creature as a separate entity, a being with its own desires and fears. Manipulating such a creature (and scorn is a form of manipulation) requires some awareness of the other creature’s motives, a concept of the other creature being an entity like yourself. What if a dragon did not have that sense, at least not innately?

Could you ever befriend a creature who doesn’t see you as any different from the elk he just devoured? Maybe you can speak but the wind can whistle. What are you to a dragon?

So how do you write that? Well, such a creature would lack the ability to see things from another view-point. They would have difficulty separating what they know from what others know. They would likely have great difficulty reading other’s expressions. Something as simple as the gesture of a pointed finger at something might make no sense to them. Point at a distant hill and they might simply stare at your finger tip.

Some of you may already realize where I’m going with this: we have some idea of what this would be like from the autistic among us. First a caveat, I’m absolutely not suggesting that the autistic are heartless, psychotic or anything of the sort. I have a surprising number of family members who clinically are on the autism spectrum (and others I suspect, include myself, who might be on the more empathic end of the spectrum but haven’t been diagnosed). Plus I’m an engineer: I know that a healthy percentage of the people I work with fall on the Asperger’s end of the spectrum. So, this is not a slam or attack or a denigration of people with autism. But autism does provide some interesting insights into what a dragon without human social aptitudes might be like.

There is a wide range of autism from the severe to the mild to what is considered more human-typical. You see behaviors ranging from a complete absence of empathy to simply a slower development of empathy in a child. And it is clear that those diagnosed with autism can learn these behaviors, either as a mechanical adaptation (they don’t really get the jokes but learn when they are expected to laugh) to full empathy, depending on the person.

One early test for autism is a three panel comic strip. Panel 1: two children are in a room and the first child puts a ball under a box. Panel 2, the first child has left and the second moves the ball to a different box. Panel 3, the first child returns. The person being tested is asked where does the first child think the ball is. Children who are more likely to have autism are much more likely to point to the new box. They have trouble getting in the mind of the first child and have difficulty understanding that the first child did not see the ball move.

Similarly to understand what the gesture of a pointed finger means, you need to realize that the other person wants to show you something. They see something that they want you to look at. If you have trouble understand the viewpoint of others, such a gesture might mean nothing to you. All gestures might be meaningless because gestures require interpretation of other’s desires and feelings.

Again, this is not an attack on the autistic but simply using what is known about autism as a guide for how to make a more alien dragon. Before you say, well you are calling the autistic aliens, I’m just looking at autism as an example of being “different brained”. Temple Grandin who is autistic, has likened her own experience as being an anthropologist on Mars: having to learn about human social behavior as an outsider. Might that make a good model for dragons interacting with humans, even eventually learning much about human social behavior?

We’ll see how it work: I’ve got a mother and son dragon in my current project. The mother is centuries old and has come to understand humans by long years spent with a powerful Archon. The son is young and completely lacking in empathy. The mother places her son with the protagonist for the ostensible purpose of learning about humans. Of course, she’s still a dragon and has more sinister reasons. Neither are evil but to the humans in the story, they seem evil.

There’s much out there on autism. Check it out for some ideas on how to create not an evil or  wrong-brained but a “different brained” character.

Also, checkout Wrymflight for more on dragons and notes on her new book!


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