They’re fantasy creatures — except when they’re not. They breathe fire — except when they don’t. They’re bigger than houses — except… Well, you get the idea.
D is for dragons.
There’s not enough room in a blog post of reasonable length to discuss all the variations on dragons in fiction, or even all of the best-known ones.
The most common image that most of us have of dragons, though, is that of the big, fire-breathing, maiden-devouring foe of knights and other heroes. And there’s certainly still a place for such dragons in new fiction. (Please don’t make me have to go on yet another rant about the difference between trope and cliché. Please.) On the other hand, different interpretations have led to some really good stories over the years.
Take Anne McCaffrey’s Pernese dragons, for example. She said that she invented them in the first place because she wanted to write a story in which dragons aren’t evil. Thus she gave us dragons who are huge and do breathe fire — if they chew the right kind of rock first — but are friends to humans rather than terrible monsters. Also, since Pernese dragons are the result of genetically engineering a species native to another planet in order produce a life form with larger size, greater intelligence, etc., they’re science fiction creatures, not fantasy ones.
And that’s kinda the point: Dragons don’t have to be fantasy creatures, although they certainly can be. It mostly depends on what your definition of dragon is. After all, we have frilled lizards here in our world that look like small dragons, and the Komodo dragon is a scary-big lizard with a toxic bite, and there are snakes that grow big enough to pass for the wyrms of medieval tales. It also depends on what kind of story they’re in. Magical or not, if they’re in a fantasy setting, they’re fantasy creatures/characters. If they’re in a science fiction setting, they’re science fiction creatures/characters. (This applies to everything and everyone, by the way, not just dragons.)
Concerning my own fiction… I do have dragons in a novel-in-progress (no, not “that novel”) that happens to be a fantasy-ish story. However, I say fantasy-ish because although it appears to be fantasy on the surface — it has dragons and a low-tech setting and all that — there is nothing inherently fantasy about a low-tech setting (no matter what Mr. Card says on the subject), and as we’ve already seen, dragons don’t have to be magical or supernatural creatures, even if some of the characters in the story believe otherwise. My dragons are not bigger than houses; they’re actually fairly small, typically 7 to 9 feet (2.12 to 2.75 meters) long, nose to tail, and having a wingspan of 12 to 15 feet (3.66 to 4.5 meters). They do not breathe fire (although some humans in the novel think they do, and I can understand the confusion, because young dragons do silly things just like young humans) or any other dangerous/noxious substance.
And… The dragon who figures prominently in Changing Magic is not the only dragon in my fiction. Dragons and their kin (I should type that as ‘kin to be accurate) are in several of my stories. Someday I’m going to re-post my short story “Finder’s Fee” on this blog. The reason it isn’t there now is that it does contain some major plot spoilers for both Changing Magic and The Excalibur Mission (you may recall that I’ve mentioned the latter as a near-future science fiction novel), and I want to wait until both of those novels are in print so as not to ruin the surprise.