17 January 2016

How to Write About Dragons

For 2016 I have accepted the challenge of my writing colleagues to write an epic fantasy so as to better align my library of literary classics with theirs. I discussed the nature of "epic fantasy" in the previous blog post. An additional stipulation, however, is that my story must include dragons. Thus, I began the story with a scene involving dragons.

Those who know me and my writing must also know I cannot do anything literary in a straight-forward manner. I must put my own twist or spin or darkly sophisticated patina over the proceedings. The same must be true of my EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS! 

So what exactly are dragons? Furthermore, if they do not exist (at least presently), why would anyone write about them in stories? But first some official definitions:

  1. 1.
    a mythical monster like a giant reptile. In European tradition the dragon is typically fire-breathing and tends to symbolize chaos or evil, whereas in East Asia it is usually a beneficent symbol of fertility, associated with water and the heavens.
  2. 2.
    another term for flying dragon. Also: Komodo dragon, a large monitor lizard of Indonesia.

Also: 3. to drag something on or onto something else; a dragger of stuff.

There you have it: a reptilian creature that may project fire and may have the capability of flying. [Italics above are mine.]

We all know what a dragon is, I suspect, for they have been depicted in popular imagination for most of human existence, according to history books. Whether the work of literature calls the creature dragon or some other name, they are major players in many well-known stories, from the deadly serious of the Bible to the playful in children's animation. Here is a handy list of dragons in literature and a list of famous dragons you may have encountered via film and television. 

My purpose here is not so much to offer you a complete dragonology, information which you can easily find on the Internet or to enumerate endlessly on dragons, but to explain my rationale for how I will depict dragons in my project.

From a childhood filled with theories of aliens and alternate histories, I came to understand that the dragons ancient people may have seen were possibly alien spacecraft zipping around the sky--from the Native American thunderbird to the European dragon to the Asian flying serpents. It seemed more plausible to me that the phenomena was based on technology rather than biology. For my current project, however, it would be all-too-easy and perhaps in the realm of cheating to simply have "my" dragons be flying saucers.

So, as well-described as dragons have been in literature, I know I too must accept them in my project as real, flesh-and-blood beings. Thus, I have studied the physiology of dragons. Most importantly are two fundamental features:

the ability to fly, and 
2) the "fire-breathing" aspect.

The ability to fly is a simple matter of aerodynamics. How does a huge, heavy Boeing 747 lift into the air? Engine power. And the curve of its stationary wings. What kind of engine power can a reptile of, say, 50 ft or more bring to lift-off? Only the beating of bat-like wings can provide its lift and thrust mechanisms. Observation of bats show them to drop from a perch down into the air and soar on the buoyancy of their outstretched wings. The wings can support the small bodies they have. I once read an article, perhaps in a volume of the World Book Encyclopedia I was always perusing as a child, that the maximum size of a bird is limited to how big its wingspan could be. The California condor is the largest bird on Earth today, with a wingspan of 8 to 10 ft, almost as long as the family car. Condors do not flap their wings so much as glide on them. The body weight supported by these wings is still only 15 to 30 lbs.

Our next model might be prehistoric flying reptiles, most recently featured to great effect in the latest Jurassic Park film. According to PlanetDinosaur.com, these creatures were prominent in the Triassic period and died out before the Jurassic. Their wingspan varied from 2.5 to 3.5 feet, hardly monsters. However, there were a couple of them that could qualify as dragon-like: the Pteranodon's wingspan was 23 ft and the Quetzalcoatlus measured up to 43 ft. Their long wings were, like the condor's, more for gliding than flapping. They still supported rather small bodies. I can accept a fairly large creature with appropriately large wings, large enough to raise it off the ground, certainly. The practical side of me wants to limit their size to what is known to be aerodynamically plausible. However, pesky little dragons, somewhat akin to hornets, do not seem very satisfying in literature. 

So let's agree that a being whose body is approximately the size of a Nile crocodile (the largest currently existing reptile on Earth) but with wings can exist on the world I create. The gravity and atmosphere make it so. Such a creature would be 16 to 20 ft in length, its weight 500 to 1700 lbs, making it a very decent size for a monster. Now add wings. Because feathery wings are seldom seen in literature involving dragons, we must go with the bat-like wings with which they are typically depicted. How large must the wings be to lift a "Nile crocodile"? 

Now we come to "simple math"--the subject which doomed me to be a writer rather than a scientist. If a condor weighing 30 lbs is lifted by wings measuring 10 ft, then a body weighing 300 lbs should have wings measuring 100 ft, and so on: 600 lbs = 200 ft, 900 lbs = 300 ft. Seriously? Wingspan the length of a football field? (Scientists: check my math!)

All right, it's just a story. I can do anything I want. However, I like to keep it real, as real as possible--until I write myself into a corner, that is. If we look at dragon artwork we see that the wings depicted are not nearly as large as we would think they should be to lift such a heavy creature. Let's play with that. I liked the appearance of the dragons in the film Avatar: biologically plausible and of a size such that a human or the 10-ft tall Na'vi could ride them. To my eyes, that makes the dragons' wingspan 20 to 30 ft, carrying bodies weighing 500 to 700 lbs--a good sized Bengal tiger but stretched out longer and thinner. I can live with that model.

I sense, dear reader, that you may be saying to yourself about now: "He is really thinking too much!" To that, I must agree. This is because I must get things right, meaning biologically accurate, or at the very least plausible. Maybe there are environmental factors which aid the beast in flying. Who knows? One theory I've read is that the gaseous nature of their bellies helps keep them afloat in the air. I can live with that idea, as well. 

When you've been a bad city and the gods send a dragon to punish you....

Explicating the fire-breathing capability of dragons, I suspect, is going to take another blog post, so let me continue by addressing their lifestyle and temperament.

Dragons have been depicted in literature mostly as solitary creatures. We encounter them in caves, mountain tops, or attacking sinful humans. Just the one--as though one is enough for each realm on a map. In Avatar they live in family clans, it seems. That follows the model of bats and other flying animals. Some birds live in small nests in widespread communities yet other kinds of birds fly in large flocks that blacken the sky. Imagine a flock similarly darkening the sky yet they were dragons--that is, they were reptiles of 500 lbs each, their wings stretching 100 ft across! That would be truly frightening to humans! I'll take that possibility for an epic fantasy!

Temperament? Well, they do have that nasty fire-breathing capability. Better to be friends with them. In European dragon lore, they were harbingers of gloom and doom, something to be feared. In Chinese culture, they are revered as symbols of good fortune, fertility, and a happy new year. I want to stay between these two extremes. If we consider dragons as the animals they are, separate from all moral associations, we might treat them as we would any animal we encounter regularly. Take birds, for example. They alight on the fence around your backyard, spot your automobile, cry out in the early morning hours, are prey for cats, and sometimes color the whole sky with their flock's density. Imagine dragons doing all that, as well. 

So I shall treat the dragons as ordinary creatures inhabiting a world ruled by humans. The dragons live out their daily lives keeping to themselves but necessarily search for food every so often, food which may perhaps include humans, especially small humans under, say, age 5. Just dragons being dragons. So children need to be warned and protected from the dragons circling the neighborhood. One might even decide to employ a specialist in dragon control, making the skies safer for sky-gazing and cloud-naming. And then there is the most disagreeable aspect of having dragons flying around the neighborhood all the time: the droppings! That alone should be enough to compel you to pay someone to take care of the pests. 

And that is the first scene: Korlan, the gamekeeper employed by the prince to keep the flock* in check, has an unpleasant encounter with them.... 

Next time I shall address the burning question: dragons' fire-breathing capability!

*I understand that a group of dragons is called a "clan" because they are thought by the ancients to be intelligent and family-oriented, thus garnering the humanesque moniker. In keeping with the way I will depict dragons, I shall use "flock".

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  1. You touched on this idea and I don't claim that it's uniquely mine, but think hydrogen. It could help with lift and provide fuel for fearsome sneezes.

    1. I expect to develop that theory more fully in the next post. Unless I disprove it before then.

  2. 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.

    Gordon R. Dickson used the scientific hydrogen concept for his dragons--when a dragon used up his fire, he could no longer lift off.

    I used the birds in my back yard, stellar-jays, as my model for the dragons that may live nearby.

    I love the fact that you admit the droppings must be considered...hey! I just washed the car...pesky dragons...

  3. Excellent! I don;t have time to read every dragon novel that's been written, although I'm a little familiar with Pern. May I quote you in next week's blog?