On the Use and Abuse of Dragons

Who doesn’t like an immense, terrifying, awesome Dragon thrown into a fantasy story? The problem I often find, however, is handling a dragon with… respect? Dignity? The first thing I suppose a writer needs to consider is sentience. Is your dragon a beast or a conscientious entity? Is it somewhere in between? The answer to this has a number of repercussions. It seems almost certain that a dragon will get used in some way. In the few stories where I can think of that the dragon doesn’t get exploited (David Eddings, Terry Goodkind) this is when it only appears in a few scenes and is mostly treated like a beast of nature that you should leave well alone… a bit like if you’ve stumbled across a moose in the Canadian outback.

Reddit picture of moose to show scale

More often, though, if a dragon pops up in a fantasy book, they’re likely to become a minor or major element in the story. Interestingly, although much of contemporary fantasy is inspired by J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and its precursor, The Hobbit, contemporary authors seem to avoid taking a page from Tolkien’s book with regards to dragons. While Tolkien kept to his medieval inspirations by casting dragons as an obstacle or quest to defeat and overcome, dragons in contemporary fantasy seem to take the form as a resource, an item that must be captured, conquered, tamed, and brought under control. By taming a dragon, the hero conquers not only nature, but also the supernatural, finding an unlimitless supply of power. Consider Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, for example, an alternate history which reimagines the Napoleonic Wars with dragons as an air force in the army. (Although,I confess, I haven’t read the entire series and my memory of them might be faulty.) Novik’s early precursor, Anne McCaffrey, employs dragons in a similar way in her Pern series; here, McCaffrey’s dragons are bioengineered to fight a pestilence that falls from the sky. In each case, the dragons are sentient, taking an active part in the war they’re bred for. But the fact remains that, though sentient, they are still bred for these activities, domesticated much like a hunting dog and given no other purpose except to kill or be killed.

While these examples show sentient dragons that don’t seem to dwell on their own purpose in life – no existentialist crises here – there are, of course, examples where dragons are aware of the way in which they’re being exploited and destroyed. Though I haven’t read the complete series, Robin Hobb’s Liveship and Wild Rain trilogies is one such example. Another that leaps to mind is Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy (which I first talked about here). Although I lamented the slow pace in the first book, the second book moves along at a brisk speed. In the first quarter of the book, we meet the dragon Ancaladar, who has been hiding away as he doesn’t want to risk bonding with a mage. Once a dragon forms a bond with a mage, the mage is able to access unlimited sources of power to fuel their spells. Thus, while Lackey and Mallory’s worldbuilding specifies early that magic has a price, they created a deus ex machina in the form of dragon. Unfortunately for the dragon, the dragon’s immortality is taken away, shortening to match the life of their bondmate. So not only do they get used as a battery pack, but they’ll be discarded soon after. Unlike (most) of the dragons of Pern or Temeraire, Ancaladar does object to being exploited, but as he usually ends up complying with his bondmate’s request, all this shows is that Lackey and Mallory have at least taken some time to consider the feelings of their non-human characters. The drawback, however, is that a dragon with an unlimited supply power risks functioning as a deus ex machina when things go wrong. Their ability to fly also adds to this effect. In a fantasy world where long-distance communication is often a problem, a dragon removes this obstacle fairly effectively. The authors must find other ways, then, to maintain narrative tension.

Finally, we have dragons that are purely beasts. They may form a bond with humans similar to a wild animal that may be raised from infancy, but, at the heart, they are still savage animals. In these scenarios, dragons are even more heavily exploited. Owning a dragon means – almost literally – owning a form of power. Consider George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, for example, where many of the characters try their best to take control of the dragons. Afterall, the Targaryen dynasty was established through dragons, as Aegon the Conqueror was only able to take over Westeros because of these beasts. Other instances of dragons-as-beasts makes the exploitation of dragons even more explicit. In Jane Yolen’s Pit Dragon trilogy, for example, dragons are bred for fighting, in a gladiator-style dragon cock-fight. It’s a brutal and savage use of dragon-kind, made even more so as the trilogy slowly conveys that the dragons are much more intelligent that the humans give them credit for. J K Rowling treats them similarly in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (although one wonders what was the thought process that went into deciding to use school children as dragon bait for these gladiator-style games. But I digress.)

I suppose my question to all of these authors is why? What is the purpose of adding dragons to your worldbuilding? Do they even have a purpose beyond sheer desire? Have they set out to say something meaningful about the way we perceive animals and nature, the way we see any object that is of use to us – whether sentient or not – and set out to find ways to exploit it? Or is this simply a secondary side effect of the world we live in? Is exploitation the underlying force that moves us all?

Lessons in Brevity

Dear writers, if you’re going to write a 700+ page novel, please have more than one central point-of-view character – especially if you’re writing a portal quest Fantasy which spends 1/3 of the book inside the POV’s home city and/or the POV is an adolescent. Listen. No matter how interesting your character is, no one wants to live in one teenager’s head for 700 pages. Our teenage years were hard enough. Don’t make us relive that angst.

I suppose I should mention the title of the book I’m ranting about. Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy is actually half decent – once it starts going. Although the first book, The Outstretched Shadow (2003) is a slow crawl, by the second book, To Light a Candle (2004), Lackey and Mallory seem to have learned their lessons and we see the perspectives of a number of protagonists. In the first book we meet Kellen, son of the Arch-Mage (Head of the High Council which rules the city). We are also introduced to the city of Armethalieh, ruled by a totalitarian system of mages (the High Council). Within the first few pages, we are given a description of how magick effects every single facet of the city: “There was virtually no aspect of life that could not be enhanced by magick” (p. 5). This statement is bracketed by detailed examples, establishing just how integral and integrated magic is in the city. Once this is confirmed, we move swiftly into seeing the extent of the High Council’s authoritarian rule: “They, and not the merchants, determined what could be sold in the marketplace” (p. 8), right down to the patterns and colours allowed in ribbons for decorating clothing. As these details are established within the first 10 pages, it seems a bit… overkill to spend the next 150 pages reinforcing this message.

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy

We finally get to our first exciting incident at the quarter mark, as Kellen is expelled from the city. And the sense of urgency and suspense is handled-well, showing us that the authors are equipped to write exciting scenes. But once Kellen finds safety, the pace slows to a crawl again, as Kellen begins to gather information and evaluate his pre-conceived notions. Although there are a number of interesting events to keep the plot moving – as Kellen encounters a number of fantastical creatures that are outlawed from the city – the emphasis is on his reactions to these encounters which, unfortunately, take the form of introspection, a lot of quiet solitude ambles as Kellen ponders the nature of good and evil (seriously).

I should note that throughout the trilogy, we also see the perspectives of a handful of antagonists, a device I deplore except when handled in prologues like in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. If your readers don’t like living in the head of a 17-year-old, they’re also unlikely to like seeing the perspectives of an evil – no nuances, wholly dark – character. It’s boring. And uncomfortable. So your character enjoys torturing people and doing other nasty unspeakable activities. Yuck. Do you really need to hammer out that detail over and over again? We don’t need continued reminders of why we should be rooting for the good guys. And, if you ARE going to keep reminding the reader, then we don’t need to have nearly 2/3rds of the book dedicated to introspection with the hero worrying that he’ll turn evil. I assume the contrast was supposed to establish a sense of horror if the hero gives into “temptation” and turns dark. But if you’re having such an all out black and white binary, it seems extremely unlikely that this good-hearted, conscientious person is going to turn so evil that he’ll sacrifice others for profit or pleasure.

In Story Engineering (2011) Larry Brooks describes the ideal structure of a novel. I’ll highlight the key points here:

  • Set-Up – first 20-25% – introduces character backstory, backstory, foreshadows antagonist
  • First Plot Point – everything changes for the hero
  • The Response – hero’s reaction (analysing, responding to)
  • The Attack – hero becomes proactive and tries to fix things
  • The Resolution – wrap things up (I.e. no new information introduced. The hero has everything they need to handle conflict)

Let’s apply this outline to The Outstretched Shadow. As I said above, the first 25% of the book gives us background information. While the first few pages describes the totalitarian government, we then spend the next 150 discovering just how extremely authoritative the government is. At 25%, right on cue (according to Brooks’ structure) Kellen is summoned to appear in front of the High Council and is then banished. So we have our first plot point, where everything changes for the hero. From there for the next 350 pages, the story is in “Response” mode. But, as I said above, this response mostly takes the form of deep introspection each time new information is revealed. 350 pages… in Response mode is… a snoozefest. Luckily Kellen is introduced to a number of interesting things that makes the reader preservere on and push past the tedious introspection bit. But you really don’t want your readers to “push past” any point of a book. At page 510 we get to “Attack” – except, significantly, the plan to attack does not come from Kellen himself. HE is not proactive. Instead, he is made to follow strict instructions, and, to top it off, he is given very little accompanying information about the whys. Kellen is sent out as a champion without being told even the smallest tiny detail about the antagonist. Heck, he’s not even told there even IS an antagonist. The language is all very vague and obscure and it’s only at page 592 that Kellen learns that he’s been sent off to face Demons. Let that sink in. Page 592. It’s at this point that we can really see the narration move into “Attack” mode, where the hero is given enough information to make a decision. But – even here – Kellen is in a position where he’s reacting and responding to the information. He’s already well into his journey that he doesn’t have a chance to make many active choices.

At about the 630 page mark we are introduced to a new character – one that is absolutely fundamental in helping to resolve the first novel (and ultimately the trilogy as a whole). From there, I would like to say that the final 80 pages go quickly. They don’t. The resolution itself is another series of introspection as Kellen faces temptations and internal conflict. It follows a fairly Cambellian and Jungian trajectory where the Shadow / Antagonist that the hero must face is himself. Which is absolutely fine, as a central goal of a journey. But not when you have nearly 710 pages dedicated to the deliberations of a single 17-year-old man-child. If you’re a writer and want to go down that route, then my advice is take a page from Jordan’s Wheel of Time and add enough characters that the introspections and self/shadow themes are varied and interesting. (Despite this rant, though, I’d like to add that I thoroughly enjoyed the next book in the series. So I still recommend it to read, but perhaps not if it’s your first introduction to Fantasy Fiction).