Are Dragons Generic?

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I love dragons, and if you read my blog, you probably do too. In many ways, they are the embodiment of pure fantasy. I can’t begin to tell you the number of dragon-based story ideas I had as a kid and it’s because they represent so many fantastic qualities. They are reptilian and thus outlandish, huge in scale, they breath fire, and many of them can fly. Few monsters are so recognizable, and so easy to break down into their core concepts. But are they overused? Has the fact that they have been categorized and given an almost universal representation, the archetypal western dragon,  hurt their utility in story telling? To a certain degree, I would say that it has. We have overused them and the generic representation of what it is to be a dragon has made them lose some of their mystique. However, it’s easy to get around. I don’t want to give up on my dragons and I know you don’t either. We just need to get a little more creative!

I wanted to discuss this topic because I’ve been thinking a lot about adapting my RPG sessions into a prose style. I’ve mentioned that project before, and for anyone keeping score it’s about fifth in the line up of works I intent to complete this year! When I sat down to work on it originally, I had a hard time getting around the fact that the sessions were hard to translate directly to prose. One issue was pacing, another was that I personality found most of the events were predictable. One such case was the encounter with the black dragon, which I will mention again later in the blog. This blog is the result of my re-imagining process, my attempts to make the encounter more unique within the fantasy genre. While I focus on western dragons in particular I’m sure these same ideas could be applied to other archetypes, even none dragon character designs. I hope you enjoy this rather specific look into my writing process!

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Dragons are the ubiquitous final encounter for many gaming session and many fantasy novels. But because of this, people interacting with these stories have come to expect a particular kind of dragon. When finally faced with that type (the archetypal western dragon), they respond with apathy instead of dread or wonder. As a GM, I once designed an encounter with a black dragon – my players understood it was a threat but also immediately knew it had acid breath. The party also decided quickly that because they were in an enclosed space, they could take it as it could not fly. I turned this situation around by role-playing the dragon to intimidate them, but I was still annoyed they weren’t surprised to see one in the first place! I thought it was strange that they half-expected to find a dragon waiting for them, and worse, they had a clear understanding of what it was outside of the world I created. In another campaign where I was a player, I was forced to fight a red dragon. Knowing I was playing pathfinder, and having read the bestiary (as many players have), I then assessed the threat by doing some quick math to calculate its hit points using its size and color as a reference. I was ten points off…

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My point is that if I can do that, a lot of gamers can, and it creates a situation where there is no mystery. They know the opponent, hell, they might even know his base stats! I know these are both examples from table top RPGs, but I think a simple thought experiment can showcase my concerns in other mediums. Ask yourself how many time you have been surprised by the design of a dragon? That is to say, you thought “wow that’s a unique dragon design!” I can think of three times in mainstream film. And only twice in video games. And, I hate to say it, in this moment I cannot think of one time in written literature that I have been genuinely surprised or intrigued by the description of a dragon. None of that means the dragons I had encountered were poorly designed or unappealing, they just followed the tried and true western archetype.

The easiest way to get around the mechanical issues I showcased with my gaming examples is to simply switch some things around to keep the characters guessing. Have a benevolent black dragon or a villainous gold dragon. Have a white dragon breath fire or a green dragon who uses electricity as a weapon in a similar fashion to an electric eel. Small tweaks like this will completely blindside veteran players and remind them that their knowledge outside the game is not relevant to the world within it. That being said, it’s also a bit mean and may even start an argument! It also fails to address the greater issue of design. For that, we will have to go a bit deeper and decide what a dragon is at it’s most basic level.

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What is and is not a dragon is very subjective. I would argue that, as I put it earlier, it breaks down to four main features: reptilian characteristic, large size, a breath weapon, and flight. I would also, for the most part, say that with good design and appropriate context  you could make a creature which features at least two of these traits into a dragon. I say at least two, because in my brain-storming I though of many examples where two wasn’t enough. For example, a giant bat is both large and flying but unless you gave it other distinguishing features it won’t be recognized as a dragon.

I think a good starting point would be to figure out how the proposed dragon fits in your world. A black dragon from D&D might not fit in a more realistic setting. If your story has no real magic, only superstition, then you might be able to use something from the real world for inspiration.

Method One: Reclassify An Existing Beast

Look at that thing and tell me that isn’t a dragon! It fits two of the four outlined points being both big and scaly, and given the right context could be seen as a magical. In some places it may even be monstrous.  I wrote an encounter where the perspective party were down in half sunken abandoned mines where there was supposedly a dragon. The creature itself is an albino crocodile which grew to its monstrous proportions in the depths of the tunnels. The key is to describe it, don’t just say it’s a crocodile or an alligator! If you have laid the groundwork, and you just describe its features appropriately, it will no longer be seen as a normal animal. It will embody the mystery and menace of a dragon because it has enough of the right parts to carry the image through. This is where you need to think about using symbols, rather then names to create the effect you desire. I don’t want to bore you with a long discussion on semiotics. You just need to remember that nothing you described is real, at least in the most literal sense. With proper word choice and context you can build the appropriate symbol you need to convey your point. A dragon is a series of unifying symbols the represent an idea. You can get to that idea without using the most common description, you just need to connect enough parts to evoke the correct impression. But enough literary theory, lets move on to another method!

Method Two: Manipulate The Existing Archetype 

Another method I like is taking the idea of a dragon and warping it. The image below is of an enemy from Dark Souls. I think it says volumes about the creativity of the art department responsible for the game’s character designs.

I think we can all agree that The Gaping Dragon is a dragon. Name aside, it has everything a dragon is supposed to. As it is first seen scaling the waterfall when you encounter him, you think “Ok, time to fight a tough dragon.” Then when more of his body is shown the truth sets in, you were not prepared for him. His scale and the disfigured nature of his design set him apart from the other dragons in the game. He is also genuinely disturbing, because of the ruination of an otherwise recognizable form and the symbolic nature of his titular trait. This is an prime example of symbolic representation in character design and one hell of a hell of a memorable dragon!

To emulate this method, take a basic dragon design (or any archetypal design) and then figure out what impression you are trying to covey. Once you know what you want, apply that impression or theme directly to the design, change it slightly to suite your narrative goals.To use a literary example, Smaug is a creature of greed, and his underbelly is literally encrusted with his horded treasure. You can tell from his description that his greed is a large part of his character as he has slept atop his horded gold for so long it has become a part of his body. He is often depicted in what some may call, a generic western style, but Smaug’s design is unique because of this one layer of symbolism. That being said, you don’t always have to make adjustments based on symbolic representation. It is just one of the more effective ways to both utilize an archetypal design while remaining original.

Method Three: Think Of It From A New Perspective

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Look at representations of dragons from a non-western culture and see the differences. Even dragon-like mythical creatures might fit perfectly into your story where a western dragon would just seem generic. Most importantly, with some research you will find that similar creature can mean very different things in different cultures. You might find a mythological character or a particular archetype that fits the themes of your stories perfectly, perhaps even better then a dragon would.

Alternatively, think of it from a truly alien perspective. What would a dragon which evolved on another planet look like? That might seem like a silly exercise but one of the most interesting dragons I could think of was the alien from the movie Outlander (as shown below). It evolved bio-luminescence to attract its prey, which is something I had never seen in a dragon before. Here is another  example to consider: in Alien 3 one of the characters refers to the xenomorph as a dragon. Is he wrong? If a xenomorph can be considered a dragon, what else can be? It’s all about perspective and context.

Conclusions 

We don’t need to work too hard to have dragons in our stories that are mysterious and unique. Beyond the methods I discussed, I am certain there are a plethora of  you can use to mold an interesting creature for your story while still holding true to the basic concept of what it is to be a dragon. For gaming it isn’t just about adjusting stats and difficulty, it’s about surprising your players. And in all story telling you want a creature that fits your setting and your themes. If you think about it, you can find a perfect dragon to fit your story and the extra effort is more then worth it.

I decided to go with a combination of methods one and two for my dragon. I won’t spoil the mystery, but it embodies the archetype of the D&D black dragon while looking nothing like it. In fact, if one were to break down the description it would appear very similar to an over-sized real-world animal. It is a dragon because of what it symbolizes and the way in which it acts.

If you have any suggestions for how to create unique dragon designs, please share them in the comments section. I’d also love to hear about more unique designs from mainstream and fringe media. It would enrich the discussion if we had more examples. Hopefully we can think of some fantastic new dragon ideas to spring on our unsuspecting readers!

“I’m not so much a dragon slayer, more a dragon annoyer — I’m a dragon irritater.”
―  Craig Ferguson

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On a side note I want to apologies for the lack of content this week. With my upcoming interview, I’ve been a bit less focused then usual. If you’ve been checking up on the Serial Chillers site I assure you more content is on the way. I have two pending reviews which should be up any day now. Thank you for all your support and I’ll have more content up soon!

Images retrieved from In order of appearance:

http://chiseledrocks.com/main/galleries/dragon_anatomy/topics/dragon_anatomy_muscles

http://benwootten.deviantart.com/art/Red-Dragon-118573547

http://www.usborne.com/catalogue/book/1~b~bbtnm~5159/thats-not-my-dragon-.aspx

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_alligator

http://www.giantbomb.com/profile/7force/blog/dark-souls-design-works-translation-npcs-and-monst/98089/

http://pixbio.com/2012/pashu.php

http://www.explore-science-fiction-movies.com/lethal-alien-species.html#axzz2qS2YXeWS

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6 responses to “Are Dragons Generic?

  1. Skyrim to me perfectly represents what you are talking about. I think the first encounter may have been exciting, but by Dragon 2, then three… I’d rather play without initiating the bastards! Roam the Dragon-free land.

    • I know what you mean. They stopped being interesting very quickly. I think I spent more time trying to get them to accidentally fight other animals then I did actually fighting the dragons in Skyrim, haha. Nothing ruins your fear for a creature more then seeing them get absolutely pummeled by a giant!

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