So, you want to write a fantasy epic with monumental fire-breathing dragons that rule the sky and cause havoc? A noble ambition. However, it’s very easy to create mythical monsters and throw them into overdrive, but much more challenging to build a convincing world and adapt those mythical creatures to it. Today, I hope to give you a little more insight into that process.
But, before we can really dive into how the inclusion of dragons can affect worldbuilding, we first need to define a few dragon related terms. Dragons originate from many different parts of the world so the representation of them in media and fiction can be varied; however, I have broadly summarised them into 3 categories:
THE WESTERN DRAGON
They are the ferocious, fire-breathing death bringers that we all know and love. They are The Ash Eaters from Reign of Fire or Drogon (and siblings) from Game of Thrones. They are portrayed in mythology as terrifying creatures who terrorise villages with flames from the sky and capture fair maidens, so that a hero armed with a sword and a shield can charge in and save the day. They are a bestial killing machine, incapable of reason or logic, that are occasionally portrayed as subservient to a mother figure, but not often.
THE NORTHERN DRAGON
"Lord of the Rings - Glaurung" by Mark Erdt aka Vaejoun
These creatures originate from Norse and Slavic European tales. They are extraordinary creatures who, although as large and menacing as the Western Dragon, possess the ability to speak and to reason. They are the erudite Smaug from The Hobbit or the cunning Fafnir from Norse mythology. The architype is of a greedy and manipulative creature that seeks to command and control everything it see’s, like Tolkien’s Glaurung who doomed the children of Hurin in The Silmarillion.
THE EASTERN DRAGON
Iroh and the Dragons Ren and Shaw
The Western and Northern are the more commonly seen dragon tropes, but the Eastern is still being represented in creations like Ren and Shaw in The Last Airbender and Shenron in Dragonball Z. Unlike their European inspired counterparts, the Eastern Dragon is an ancient, wise, knowledge giving force that is commonly benevolent and more commonly divine. They are associated more with water and have a more gentile nature.
Worldbuilding in fantasy is all about introducing new, exciting, fantastical and incredible elements into your world and explaining logically and clearly how those elements affect that world. But when it comes to dragons, the stakes are always raised and the worldbuilding needs to be more on point. Whoever controls the dragons, controls the world. They are the flying superweapons that cannot be contended with by anything aside from bigger superweapons, and there are certain things that we the audience need to know about these beasts before we can invest in them and believe in them.
So, a western dragon is terrorising the countryside, or an Eastern dragon has chosen a group of humans to lead the conquest of the continents. How’s that gonna effect your small town in Kansas? And more to the point, how is your small town in Kansas still standing in a world full of such terrors?
Consider the economic effects, the geographical locations and the political situations of all the societies in the world you’re creating – and how the addition of dragons would affect all that. Societies don’t survive in a world filled with gigantic flying death lizards by chance, the society must had evolved to cope with the threat and manage it accordingly, and good worldbuilding will highlight that.
The trade routes of Westeros
Perhaps dragons are a beast of burden in your world, a less safe but more badass form of aviation travel. If so, think about the industry that would accompany that. Don’t just give me dragon wagons and no more information, tell me about the extra manpower it takes to secure these creatures, the fuel that they would run on and the impact these flying transport beasts would have on everything.
If dragons only exist in the very centre of your worlds landmasses then commercial trade would suffer horribly, whereas maritime trade would flourish. Considering the cause and effect of the presence of these creatures is what will sell your world to the audience.
Right, let’s be serious for a moment here. You’re writing a story where flying, fire-breathing lizards exist, and unless they were poofed into being by a supernatural entity at some point, they probably evolved with the rest of the life on your fictional world. Like all of evolution, creatures gain and lose natural attributes and traits based on the environment that they are living in. Not only do your societies need to adapt to the threat of dragons, your organisms do to.
Seadragonus Giganticus Maximus from How to Train Your Dragon
Are dragons even the biggest fish in the pond in your world? Perhaps there’s an even bigger, scalier flying demon in the stratosphere that breathes supernovas, and the dragons have decided it best to avoid it by staying near the land. What natural obstacles would this cause for your story’s dragons? How would they evolve to survive with this? These are the sort of questions that lead to convincing worldbuilding.
DRAGON SOCIAL STRUCTURE
In most fiction, dragons are solitary hunters who only come together to mate – much like tigers do. If you are looking to create a Western dragon then this approach works fine, but when dealing with Northern and Eastern dragons, worldbuilders often forget (or simply don’t think of) the fact that intelligence almost never occurs without social behaviour, any story involving a Northern dragon must, must, must consider this.
But what culture has formed from within this social behaviour? Do they have religion? Do they have Gods? How do they worship them? Another interesting aspect of creating a social structure for a giant fictional creature would be its morality. It’s far too easy to lump dragons into the generic good or evil category, but if you plan to give your dragons a social structure and a unique culture then it stands to reason that the morality that comes from each society will differ, much like human societies.
'Tiamat' - Image from tobiasmastgrave.wordpress.com
If you, like many of us, were disappointed with the ending to Game Of Thrones and thought to yourself, ‘I could write a better dragon story than that’, then I hope I’ve laid out the foundations as to how you can make your fantasy world feel more alive and visceral.
Special thanks to Youtube Channel - Hello Future Me for inspiring this article.