Some comments by TMSO on my post about using race longevity in your fantasy world settings reminded me of a game from long ago where, as game master, I experimented with letting players have all sorts of different types of characters. The campaign was set in a world fragmented into many floating isles so flight was at a premium. One player selected a bronze dragon for his player character, featured in the picture here.
The player’s wife selected a half-giant, half-demoness Gyllda:
Unfortunately, for the dragon’s ego, dragons are extremely powerful, so in order for a dragon to be a player-character he had to be very, very young, and therefore, very small:
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.
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!
Some contemporary fantasy fiction leaves me a bit cold. Dragons, hidden cities, exotic races, are for me. Maybe another way to look at it is, I look for the fantasy elements to be significant to the world setting and the characters. Fantasy books that are very much like a given time and place on Earth with perhaps a bit of magic don’t feel like fantasy.
The father of all fantasy for me is Lord of the Rings and to a lesser extent The Hobbit. It doesn’t feel like “in your face magic” but from the start, you have wizards and exotic races, hints of ancient lore that matter to the story, and dwarves and/or hobbits. As both progress, you get Wraiths, Dragons, talking spiders, elves, lost cities, hidden realms. Every few scenes there is something fun, fantastic and not earth like.
Contrast with Game of Thrones. No question it is well written, at least the first few volumes, and captivates many but I remember setting it down a third of the way into the first book wondering if this was even really a fantasy series or whether it was more alternate reality. Guy Kavriel Kay looked interesting and I may yet go back to him but that was another case where I wondered if there would be anything fantastic about it. For both of these, I’ll confess an issue which is more a personal quirk: I read a lot of history and some historical fiction. So books like Game of Thrones‘ nod to War of the Roses or Kay’s near-Earth historical setting have two negatives for me. One, I know those periods very well and the near Earth analogies are a distraction more than anything else. Wondering if one of Kay’s towns is modeled on Hedeby (pretty sure it is) takes away immersion for me as does the more obvious modelings. The other problem is, well, if I wanted to read about Earth history there are plenty of good layman’s history books (A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman is a perennial favorite for me; my copy must be pushing 30 years old and is quite worn but I love it) and there are plenty of good historical novels. Why read something that is kinda, sorta Earth history?
For me, and again this is my personal view on it, by all means read and enjoy what you like, if I’m going to read fantasy I want to read about a world where the fantastic is tangible, present and matters. Earth Middle Ages + a dash of magic doesn’t do it.
As a long time fantasy world builder (for gaming and writing), I know the temptation of doing “Earth plus”: it simplifies creation plus you can work off player/reader stereotypes (actually a mixed bag since stereotypes vary widely among individuals so you the author/DM don’t actually know for sure what you are tapping into). I’ve done it for a few D&D campaigns, although usually ones intended to be short. But it feels like a cop-out when carried too far: if the setting is Medieval + a little magic, it doesn’t take that much imagination. And if it is Medieval + a lot of magic, it doesn’t feel right to me: lots of magic will surely change the course of events into something nothing like Earth Middle Ages (and same holds for any Earth historical period analog be it Bronze Age, Seven Kingdoms China, whatever.) That’s not to say a good understanding of history doesn’t help; it certainly does, especially if your take-aways are trying to understand the different customs and mindsets of other places and times.
Where am I going with this? Well, just grousing really but also hoping maybe to tip other writers more into hard fantasy and not into following G. R. R. Martin’s foot steps. Also, it’s a bit of a manifesto on my own writing, for what it’s worth. Here, there will be dragons!
Writers have it easy: we get to throw our own soft pitch and then smash it out of the park. Meaning, we control the story so we get to setup just the right plot inflection for our big fireworks, which usually involve surprising the reader.
This generally means creating an expectation and then breaking it, using surprise to generate reader engagement. The trick of course is to break expectations in a manner that is credible: it must fit the story and, of course, further it. While in a detective story, it might be a surprise to have the protagonist find an alien in the barn that he is searching for clues, you can bet that’s where all your readers will drop your story (and you will get really entertaining reviews, too, if anyone bothers to review). The typical approach is to turn the expectation on its head: the detective does not find a clue in the barn but he finds the suspect instead, subsequent conversation leading to another place to look for clues, perhaps.
But what do you do if the expectation is critical to your story? It might be one of the main plot points that the story is built on. In my case, my fantasy novel relies on the hero meeting a young dragon fairly early in the story whose mother wants him to learn the ways of humans (and more nefarious things, of course). I’d written to the point where the expectation is set that the hero will travel to a certain place and find his new mount. All nice but now I was faced with a chapter where the reader already new what was going to happen. In the end, a novel can tolerate a few such chapters, especially if there’s a big pay-off like a DRAGON, but why build such a chapter into the first draft? There’s almost always a way to heighten the suspense while still serving the story.
Two ways occurred to me to deal with this, both viable.
Re-write the previous chapter to change the expectation that was set. This may yet prove a reasonable way to go but for now, I decided to keep the expectation, partly because I expect that should this ever get published, the jacket pitch will likely mention that the hero rides a dragon so it won’t be a mystery regardless of what expectations exist in the narrative at this point.
Find a way to break the expectation while still keeping it. Sort of a conundrum, at least it felt that way at first. Obviously if the hero is going to end up riding the dragon, the expectation would be met but maybe there were ways to mix it up some so that between the start of the chapter and the dragon “acquisition” expectations could be broken.
I liked the second option better; I could always go back to the first path if it wasn’t fruitful. But where to start? How about an old fashioned brainstorm: for me, that’s a blank piece of paper where I take freeform notes. Of course, being a geek with terrible handwriting, my sheet of paper is MS OneNote but the concept is same (and this way, I can even decipher my own notes! Bonus!). Brainstorming is great in a group but it works fine solo. The method is to jot down any ideas as they occur, without critique. That’s really the trick of a successful brainstorm: you want to let the ideas flow and while any given idea might not be useful, it can often lead to one that is. If you censor your ideas and don’t write it down “because it can’t work” you might pinch off an ultimately productive line.
In this case, I just started writing things down: some ideas, some notes on what I wanted to accomplish in this chapter, some things I didn’t want to happen. It also helped to list the expectations established in the narrative to date. Then I decided it might also be useful to list the “anti” expectations: that started as just logically inverting the expectations but before I’d finished I’d also added a few additional ones that were helpful (anti-expectation: “dragon eats hero.”) To that, I added a few reminders of what I wanted to establish (namely that dragons are dangerous and are not like people, or kitty-cats-with-scales for that matter).
It didn’t take more than ten minutes of this before I had my solution: while the expectation existed that the hero would get the dragon as a mount, I could have the dragon attack him first. For one thing, while the reader was expecting the dragon in the chapter and for the hero to go get him as a mount, the dragon was expecting someone else. This has the virtue of establishing some of the dragon’s personality through showing and as it turns out, in the process of the exercise, I also thought of a way of showing an aspect of the setting I was casting about for a way to handle. In the latter case, chapter one mentions that floating islands were falling from the sky. While that is useful for the plot at that point, it wasn’t really germane to the overall plot and something I did not have happen on-scene in my initial synopsis. But you can’t really mention an island crashing from the sky without having at least one in the story (that might seem like a cheat or misleading to the reader) so I’d been casting about for some plot-relevant way to show one.
Anyway, I’m still writing the chapter. It may not work or survive a later re-write but I thought I’d share how a few minutes of brainstorming helped. In the end, the solution as currently settled on isn’t exactly earth shattering but the process was helpful. A few minutes of brainstorming helped me avoid staring at a blank sheet of paper (the dreaded writer’s block) or creating a chapter with a big, red bulls-eye on it for a re-write. It’s not the only arrow in the quiver but in the right places, a brainstorm can help keep things moving. My notes are below, complete with typos and garbled sentences.
Could a dragon really fly? If evolution had taken a different path on earth, would it be possible to have something like large dragons soaring through the air?
The most straight forward approach to analyzing this is by analogue. What is the largest flying creature in earth history? That proves to be, as far as is known, the impressive Quetzalcoatlus from the Late Cretaceous, estimated at anywhere from 150 pounds to as much as 550 pounds. It was quite the hefty creature with a wingspan of nearly 40 feet. That’s a large creature but it is far short of dragon proportions.
Dragons such as the ones in the picture above would weigh several tons and a dragon like Tolkien’s Smaug might weigh tens of tons. There seems no way to get such a creature airborne on Earth.
What about the Pandora solution? A lower gravity world, perhaps with a denser atmosphere? Turns out that that helps but a little lower gravity and a little thicker atmosphere only makes so much difference. To really loft even a griffin of maybe 1000 pounds, you would need something more like the Moon’s gravity and maybe 10x denser atmostphere. You could call it good at that but did you notice the humans in the movie Pandora hopping around like the astronauts on the moon? And 10x denser air may not seem like much of a difference but it is no small matter. I live where it is a short trip to the Columbia River gorge where you can experience 50mph winds frequently. It’s hard to move in such winds. Imagine a 50 mph wind with 10x denser air: it would be the same as a 500 mph wind on Earth. Of course, the winds wouldn’t be that fast, it would take too much energy. Instead, the thicker air would mean both wind and aerial creatures would move slower. And while the thicker air increases lift for a given speed, it also increases drag. On net, it doesn’t really help all that much because your flying creature would stall and fall from the skies.
One thing often overlooked, however, is scale. What if your humans were smaller? Remember how much larger the world seemed when you were a child? Your perception of the world around you matches your size. So if everyone in the world was 50% smaller, then to those people a Quetzacoatlus would seem much bigger and just as importantly a world peopled by fellow small folk would look to them much like our world looks to us, except they would have (to them) taller trees, bigger animals, etc. Our half height humans would weigh one eighth of a normal human’s weight since weight is a function of volume which scales cubically. So instead of a 200 pound rider (maybe 160 pounds for the person and 40 for the riding gear), you would have a 25 pound person and harness. That’s certainly carryable by a Quetzacoatlus, especially if you tweaked gravity and density a little bit. And the wingspan would appear to be 80 feet to the mini-human. That is getting to be dragon sized. You would have to posit human intelligence in a brain of one eighth the mass but that seems feasible (more efficient neurons?) At least it pushes the problem farther down the road.
So can dragons fly? Not for us, but maybe on other worlds in our universe with smaller sentient creatures. And in the realm of fantasy, there can certainly be dragons: it is all part of the suspension of disbelief.