Flying characters in fantasy and sci-fi

What is it about flight that fascinates us humans?

I mean, our angels and demons can usually fly. Our dragons can usually fly. Our spirits and supernatural things tend to waft around with no regard for gravity, and our superheros can often lift off with just a thought. There’s got to be something about flight that fascinates us on a primal level, enough to bleed through into our fiction and folklore. We liked the concept enough to invent machines that make it possible. But mechanical flight is a reality for the human race now, and we don’t seem bored of it. Maybe science fiction isn’t as obsessed with jetpacks as it was 50 years ago, but fantasy genres still have plenty of angel and dragon characters with the gift of flight.

Why? Well, flight usually involves wings, and wings can be a real visual treat. Those angel and dragon characters almost always get a scene where they dramatically unfurl their wings. Fairies and sprites get wings prettier than any ball gown. Mechanical wings might be sleek and efficient-looking, or complex pieces of artwork. Wings are an accessory guaranteed to make an impression.

But that doesn’t explain all the beings that simply float whenever they wish. It’s the act of leaving the earth behind that gets us — although cool-looking wings might be icing on the cake. Flight is freedom. Flight is graceful and uninhibited. And it seems that way because humans can’t do it with just our terrestrial ape bodies.

So in fantastic fiction — where we want to see amazing, inexplicable things — flight shows up a lot. How do superheroes fly? Maybe there’s a brief mention of magnetism, wind or telekinesis, but many simply soar upward because they choose to do so. It’s cool and we wish we could do it, too. And of course we’re willing to ignore the logistics of how a 10-ton dragon can fly. If there’s a bit of mumbling about internal air sacs or hollow bones, yes, sure, that’s good enough for most SFF fans. Let’s just get to the part where the dragon flexes its wings and launches skyward, with the wind rushing through its rider’s hair.

Personally, I put a lot of thought into my korvi race’s physical structure— their bones and muscles and feathers, those physical apparatuses that are compliant with flight on Earth. Firecasting magic charges their reptilian bodies with energizing heat for flapping. That same heat provides a bit of lift — and as I’ve brought up before, blimp mechanics are a pretty cool touch in dragons. But as much as I wanted my Aligare dragon folk to seem plausible, I’ll never go full science fiction. The inexplicable really does have a certain joy to it. Korvi might have physical similarities to birds, but would they be able to fly in our Earth skies? What is their essential magic really made of? Could firecasting strength be measured and rationally understood? I think those questions are best left unanswered. By me, anyway.

What do you like best about flying characters — the science or the fantasy? Share in the comments!

3 Comments on “Flying characters in fantasy and sci-fi”

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