24 January 2016

How to Write About Dragons Part Deux

Yes, it's a big deal. The bigger the better. If you are going to write an Epic Fantasy with Dragons, you need to know a fair amount about dragons! 

In my previous blog post I discussed the nature of the beast and addressed the flying issue. I tried to compare the flying capability of dragons with the flying capability of birds, bats, and dinosaurs (pterodactyl, et al.). The mechanics seemed to hold true but there remained in my pouch of doubt that such a heavy body borne by the typical literary dragon could fly solely from flapping the less-than-ideal sized wings.

Then, as if my epic fantasy magic, a reader offered an excellent explanation!

Because the second aspect of dragonology concerns their fire-"breathing" ability, it makes sense that dragons have a biological/chemical furnace within their bodies which manufactures whatever it is they create fire from. In short, gas. Lots and lots of gas. Like your besotted uncle after Thanksgiving dinner. My guess is that the making of fire requires gases which are flammable - ouch! - swirling around within the belly (or lungs?) of the beast. Imagine perpetual heartburn. No wonder they have such nasty dispositions!

That revelation leaves us with a short list of wonderful gases: hydrogen, the stuff of star fire. Buoyant yet flammable. The perfect gas. So, the presence of hydrogen in the belly of the beast contributes to the dragon's ability to stay aloft and maneuver about using smaller than ideal wings. Thanks to author David Cantrell for the "flam[e]buoyant" suggestion. Author Connie J. Jasperson reports similarly: "Gordon R. Dickson used the scientific hydrogen concept for his dragons--when a dragon used up his fire, he could no longer lift off."

Killing two dragons with one iron bolt! (if you will...)

Dragons do not actually breathe fire; they expel it. In every film I've seen and every book I've read involving dragons, the primary feature of exhaling a stream of fire is what they are best known for, causing much mayhem. It is the primary reason dragons are feared. There are also the kinder, gentler dragons who play nice with pretty maidens or princesses, of course. I'm not going to have any of those in this epic fantasy! Dragons are fundamentally evil and will be depicted as evil because they do not have any union or staff of attorneys to file lawsuits against me for defamation of character! 

But back to the fire. The exhalation is whence comes the fire, possibly in two forms: 1) the long stream of flame like the flame-throwers of World War II, and 2) the "great balls of fire" coughed up and blown forward. The latter is more my own thinking, just to be different - because I must be different, while remaining somehow the same, enough of the same that readers are not seriously put-off by my way of writing about dragons.

Let's run through that process and make some rules: 

1) The dragon breathes in ordinary air like people do, and then exhales ordinary air like people do. 

2) Some of that air is somehow broken up into its base components and the hydrogen is held somewhere inside the dragon, say the belly, for later use. 

3) When enough hydrogen is collected, the dragon may elect to expel the excess or to deliberately project the gas, igniting it once it leaves the mouth of the dragon. (Wouldn't want it to ignite while still inside the dragon, right?)

4) Thus, dragons at times will not have enough hydrogen to be able to make fire. (Or to be able to lift-off...?)

5) There is probably something in the saliva of the dragon, a chemical we have little direct knowledge of, which when mixed with the hydrogen serves to ignite it. (I know I'm playing fast and loose with high school chemistry here, but it's my story....)

I think that will do nicely. 

Now, one final aspect of dragonology to figure out: How did dragons come to be? 

Epic fantasy author Connie J. Jasperson commented on my previous post thus:

"Anne McCaffrey's dragons began as small creatures that were bioengineered to their larger size. The way she kept them aloft was though a combination of wingspan and belief--what a dragon thought it could do, it COULD do. 

Natural appearance in the world or manufactured through some experiment gone wrong? The fact that dragons have been so widely held in ancient mythology presupposes a real basis for their presence. But I tend to be a realist, even in fantasy writing. I like things to have origins and existence within scientific plausibility. We do have dinosaurs, but where are the dragon fossils? Even if ancient societies called whatever they happened to see as dragons, where did they get the idea for depicting them in the variety of ways we see them in art today? 

So I'm going to go with something once existed, then disappeared for a long time, then reappeared as either 1) they snuck away to distant lands and now have returned, or 2) they were re-engineered, perhaps on a lark, or out of pure cussedness by scientists who vowed to get revenge on government authorities who cut their funding, perhaps. 

Nevertheless, the dragons depicted in my EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS are - or have become - a nuisance, and someone has to keep them in check, hence the introduction of one of my stable of protagonists: the royal gatekeeping (a.k.a. "dragonslayer").

Let the fire-breathing commence!

I have recently been captured online by virtual elves and forced to scribe at Ye Olde Edgewise Words Inn as a demi-semi-regular contributor. As my first contribution, I shall offer the opening scene of my current Work-In-Progress, EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS. Yes, that is the real title, because it is what it is. Thanks for your indulgence!

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. You've got me thinking about dragons too. Perhaps they were once sea creatures (flying fish come to mind) that evolved organs to extract oxygen from water vapor in the atmosphere and hydrogen is the by-product. The hydrogen fill their "lung" sac and provides lift and fuel for roasting their meals. A small amount of a pyrophoric material expelled in a mucus coating within a cloud of hydrogen could be the ignitor.

  2. In Arthurian Legend, the fiery breath aspect is not explored until later with Sir Pelenor, and even then it's unclear as to whether there is actually fire, or an acidic saliva. Either one is not a convenient circumstance if you are the one standing there with the sword.The concept of actual fire solidifies in Arthurian folklore after the tenth century.

    1. Ever the medieval scholar! So why so many reptilian motifs in a land without much reptiliana?