What makes a dragon?

What is a dragon? Weird question, right? Nearly every culture in the world has a mythical creature that might be described as a dragon. And since the whole world knows the general concept, the actual definition of a dragon can be pretty vague.

There are two commonly referenced types of dragons, though: Western dragons, the monstrous, four-footed dinosaurs with wings on their backs; and Eastern dragons, the peaceful, long-bodied animal medleys that fly with magical levitation. Dragons almost always have reptilian traits, and are usually large, powerful creatures. When a fantasy book mentions a “dragon”, we can still have a general idea of what to expect.

Because so many cultures developed dragon-like creatures independantly of each other, it has been suggested that the dragon represents something fundamental in the human psyche. We have a tendancy to look at snakes, crocodiles, predatory birds and large cats and be awed, so ancient humans all took that inspiration in a similar direction. They invented dragons that were to be respected, either for their terrible evil or for their godly wisdom.

Or for looking eye-wateringly awesome.

I was watching an episode of River Monsters (which I’d link to a clip of or some information about, if I could find it) where the host is trying to unravel an African urban legend of a man-eating fish. He touches on the local folklore — which has a very Western-looking dragon in it. This dragon design didn’t spring up spontaneously. It has the legs of a hippopotamus, the neck of a snake, the head of a crocodile, and wings inspired by the fins of a carnivorous fish — all dangerous animals that kill fishermen on a regular basis. That interpretation of dragon is basically the sum of all fears. A hero who can defeat this dragon is a celebrated character, indeed. It was the first time I had seen a really logical process for designing a dragon, although I’m sure plenty of cultures have a method to their dragon designs if one digs far enough into history.

When I was writing Shades: Enlighten, my clumsy first novel, I considered what I wanted my dragons to be. I liked the intelligent, friendly interpretations of dragons much better than the evil monsters, and I definitely didn’t want any characters trying to shank my dragons with swords. They should be ordinary people, I thought. Not grand legend-beasts. Ordinary, relatable people. The image of dragons is so familiar to any fantasy fan, I figured there could be a more mundane majesty about them, in the way that a human acquaintance can inspire our respect if they seem brave or noble or hard-working.

And mostly, I wanted to remove my dragons from the mental image of a hulking, four-legged European dragon. So I went with a slim, bipedal design. Sort of bird-like. They had four limbs plus wings on their backs, and the dragon tail became a tripod leg to keep these top-heavy creatures standing upright. And along with the reptile skin and webbed wings, they had a crest of ornamental feathers on their heads. (These early prototypes were called dracans. Stunningly creative name, I know.)

When revamping the Aligare world to write Remedy, I freshened up my dragons, too. I had been reading up on Earth’s archosaurs, the biological family encompassing crocodiles, birds and some types of dinosaurs. If you mash together a crocodile, a bird and a dinosaur, you’ve covered all the major points of a dragon, right? And Archaeopteryx was always my favourite dinosaur as a kid …

T-rex? Too mainstream.

So, that settled that: my dragons became more bird-like. They got efficient feather wings capable of generating lift, and I thought the extra feathers added ordinariness, too. We’re all used to seeing birds in our daily environment, right? Not intimidating eagles (probably), but social birds that flutter around chirping and chatting. Pushing the bird-like angle of dragons gives them a distinct flavour. Inspired by that, I gave my dragon people a better name: korvi, based on the genus Corvus that defines our world’s crows, jays and magpies.

When people say they’re sick of dragons in fantasy, they usually mean they’re sick of the unquestioned Western dragon. It’s huge; it has convenient superpowers; it can fly despite smashing every Earth law of aerodynamics into powder. But there’s so much leeway in our collective idea of what a dragon is. There’s inspiration literally everywhere on Earth, in all our vague historical texts and all our natural surroundings. I think the fantasy genre should make more use of that.

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