WorldBuilding: How to Write Dragons

It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.  –J. R. R. Tolkien

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.

  •    Is/was your dragon a powerhouse?

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.

  •     Quarks

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.


35 thoughts on “WorldBuilding: How to Write Dragons

  1. Good tips to get the mental wheels turning. I feel I’m about due for a dragon story — (I’ve barely utilized them yet. Call myself a fantasy writer!) — but it’s a project I don’t want until I’m ready to create my own customized type of dragon and do the creature justice. So I’ll add your suggestions to the stew, and we’ll see what comes flying out (or slithering out, or running out like an ostrich, or…?).

    • LOL, I’m definitely in the same boat. I have an idea for a short dragon story, but each time I sit down to work with it, I feel it’s cliche and flat. I hope when you are ready for your next dragon story that it comes out just like you want it.

  2. I have a love/hate relationship with the oversized lizards. On one hand, they have been the pen-ultimate fantasy element since ancient times and deserve a writer’s respect. On the other, they have been so overdone and mishandled since, that I find myself hesitating to even pick-up a book with a cover depicting one of the kerosene spitting dinos. Your post, however, has inspired a reflective mood and I’m going to work on identifying just what it is that makes me shy away from dragon tales and tails.

    • I often feel the same ways towards dragons, Sunwolfe, hence this post. I feel like there is still an honored place among the many creatures of fantasy for dragons, but for us writers, we have to be very careful how we treat them. Let me know if you can figure out why you shy away from them; perhaps it would be a great post.

  3. Fantastic post! I, personally, don’t foresee myself writing any dragons into my stories any time soon, but I love the over-sized bastards! No creature insights a greater sense of the mystical and magical. Kudos again!

    • I don’t know about you, but I have to be in a very specific mood to even want to write dragons, and though I love the concept of them, I’m with you Justin, and probably won’t be writing seriously with them anytime soon. Thanks for reading!

  4. I jumped into this a little late
    But I love a good dragon. I don’t mind the traditional mean nasty one because I think if they did exist, that is how they would act. What I can’t get in to though is a talking dragon. As silly as it sounds – to me that’s too far fetched

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  8. I really like how you plan “dragon-writing”. Being a huge dragon fan since I was very young, I am probably going to include one of theses majestic creatures in future stories and your advice was very helpful!

  9. I have written a post-apocalyptic book about dragons and am trying to find a suitable cover picture. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  10. I found all this very interesting and it gave me a few ideas on how to improve my story. I’ve basically got everything except I’m having problems creating an interesting main charater personality. I don’t want her personality to be too serious otherwise the story might get too boring

  11. This info will be useful for a Skylanders story I am writing that has the dragon Skylanders as the main characters. 🙂

  12. Pingback: Technical Aspects of Writing Dragons | Invisible Ink

  13. I didn’t realize I had not checked to follow you until today when I was looking at your blog again. I’ve remedied that situation. Your pointers on how to write about dragons will be so helpful when I write my children’s story.

  14. Pingback: The Technical Aspects of Writing Dragons | A Writer's Path

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