Breaking Cliches: By Fire and Fang

Years ago, Scarlett made two friends: Elena and Kirin. They are realm leapers who take it upon themselves to test how realistic fictional settings, tropes, and cliches are. I firmly believe they put themselves in this much danger solely to make fun of it once they escape. Not something I’d recommend, but today you get to benefit from their rashness. Or rather Kirin’s rashness in investigating dragons up close.

Hello and listen. Carefully.

I met a dragon once. And I lived; always a plus when dealing with unpredictable beasts such as those scaled monsters. Also, don’t you dare tell them I said that because it’s not a thing to even mention in front of a dragon’s face. Or faces, as the case may be.

Dragon, as defined by the New Fantasy Handbook of Common and Uncommon Creatures, is ‘a creature, generally with scales, wings, fangs, and claws. Are clever, occasionally speak; often have eyes with varying degrees of hypnotic ability. Status: highly dangerous if disrespected.’

Due to the vagueness of that definition, it’s wise to research deeper before meeting dragons face to face. Hence this letter. You’re welcome.

I had to do this without any sort of letter.

I am aware that, in some realms, dragons have been relegated to myths. Laugh at this if you want, but there are places where they are alive and well today.

Even within realms, dragons differ drastically. As any classifier of such creatures knows, the word ‘dragon’ stands for a family, not a species.

Dragons cover every spectrum of color, but what many people don’t know is that the color often is related to whether the dragon is cold-blooded or warm-blooded and what climate they live in.

Knowing the status of their blood is terribly important, or you’ll find yourself trapped after a midnight raid on a frozen tundra with an escape ride that won’t wake up. Trust me on this.

As a general rule, darker-scaled dragons are cold-blooded while lighter-scaled dragons are warm-blooded. But some of the latter are also cold-blooded and simply live in deserts where there is already lots of heat. An ice test is the only sure way to tell.

Another thing I learned is that dragons come in all sizes. I met one that was passed around a market, clinging to a tiny coin. Others are no bigger than birds or cats (though generally far more annoying). On a larger scale, some dragons are large enough to comfortably ride while others can crush whole houses under their scaly chests.

To add to the complication of describing these creatures, dragons have no single shape. Some dragons have long necks, thin bodies, and narrow faces. Others are muscular. Others have double wings and some have none at all.

Despite the New Fantasy Handbook entry, scales aren’t always a given either. Rare breeds of dragons are known to grow manes. And even among scales, there are some that shimmer, some are dull, some fade and change colors to meld into the background…you get the idea. As for claws and teeth, I can tell you they’re generally sharp. Frankly, I keep as far away from them as I can, though I did manage to find a sketch by an old dragon tamer for those of you who professed interest in such matters.

A major concern to be aware of, other than a dragon’s size, is its eyes. Most dragons contain some hypnotic power, normally only lasting while eye contact is being made, though there are rare cases of sicknesses developing that can continue for months. Often the effect won’t even be noticeable. You’ll simply find yourself treating the dragon with more care than a normal mount, or not shooting its fourth cousin while on a hunt.

The wit of dragons tends to be coupled with their hypnotic ability. The greater the ability, the greater their cleverness.

In some lands, they are simply wild beasts (despite the handbook’s warnings) and are hunted for meat and scales. Tamed dragons of smaller size have been found in the homes of the rich as pets, while others pull carts. There are even accounts of organized dragon fights, though in many realms this is illegal. It’s also always dangerous.

Most commonly, dragons are used as mounts. Many nomadic groups greatly favor these beasts because they are hardy and (if you have the right kind) a ready source of fire.

In other realms, dragons can understand human speech, and a few can even communicate. The laws here are more tricky, with politics and religion getting involved to argue over what rights the creatures have, if they have souls, and all the rest. Personally? If a dragon is smart enough to talk to me, I’m going to treat it with respect regardless of the laws.

Not because it will incinerate me, though that can be a concern, but because it seems right. Only about a quarter of them have fire abilities, by the way. And dragons don’t breathe smoke. This misconception comes from a confrontational species of dragon which breaths out steam to frighten off enemies.

Even without fire, all dragons have defenses of their own kind. Fangs and claws are obvious. Some dragons also secrete poison in their tails or wing tips. There’s also heated breath, freezing breath, poisonous breath, a whip-like forked tongue, and the list can go on.

The good part is, most dragons won’t attack people unless provoked. Repeat, I said most. And for those idiots who decide to attack dragons for the fun of it, well, they deserve what they get.

Not to mention, taking down a dragon isn’t easy. Most normal weapons won’t cut through their scales. There are generally soft spots, but not always. And they vary from beast to beast; a cracked scale, a patch of leathery skin behind the ear, through the eye, stabbing the inside of the throat. Unless a dragon is massacring whole villages, maybe just let it be?

Like I said before, this is just a letter. I could fill a whole book with dragon adventures. Like how their horde collections vary (I once met one whose bed consisted solely of silver spoons of all sizes). Or if they generally kidnap maidens (I only saw this once and it was an ancient grandmother of a dragon, doing it as a joke and also to rescue girls from unsavory marriage. Normally if they want to kill, they’re going to kill regardless of age or gender.)

There are also all the other boring things, like where they live (from tree tops to caves to burying themselves in desert sands). Or what they eat. Or what sounds and songs they make. The differences between males and females. How many young are raised at once, by who, and for how long? Ages of dragons (hint: most get pretty old). Their hobbies (like collecting gold, polished stones, or sword hilts). What they enjoy. What they can do and what they will do and how they appreciate music…the list could go on and on.

But I don’t have time for a book because the dragon’s den I’ve been watching while writing this is starting to shake and I think I’m way too close.

One final tip. Many people know to never trust a live dragon. This is questionable since some are actually quite friendly.

But never, ever, trust a dead dragon. Dragons that die of natural causes are rarely found; they hide away in a tomb of their own making. If you find a dragon that appears dead, but its head is still securely fastened to its body and no knight is there to claim the victory, steer well clear. If you don’t, you’re very likely walking into a trap from which there will be no escape.

Have you seen a dragon? Or heard of a weird one? Let me know below and I’ll check back sometime. For now, I need to implement the technique most likely to keep anyone alive if they meet a dragon: running.

Fascinated by working with cliches as well as breaking them? Check out a free booklet laying out the history of cliches, how to write a cliche masterpiece (satire) and how to work with cliches to strengthen your writing!

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One Comment

  1. Varania is a silver, lightning-breathing dragon who has powerful enchantment magic that doesn’t use her eyes. One cocky idiot stuck out his middle finger at Varania. She would have eaten him, but she had uses for him (besides he smelled like he wouldn’t take very good anyway), so she merely bit off his finger so show him some humility. The idiot went home and bragged to his friends that he got his finger bitten off by a dragon.
    Varania’s namesake is an unrelated dragon from a completely different world called Varanium Silex. Even in his own world, he is only mythical because before they released his story, he was replaced by a bunch of thorny flowers. How insulting that must have been for him.

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