In fantasy TV and books, the dragon is one of the most common symbols. But how do you use the symbol of the dragon without overusing it as a trope? In fantasy, dragons span from TV to movies to video games to books and tend to have a lot of old and tired tropes.
I would argue that in my observation, fantasy writers love using dragons the most as tropes. From Eragon to A Song of Ice and Fire to the Age of Fires series and the Chronicles of Dragon series, dragons have occupied many book covers and have been used either as a centrepiece or plot development tool of many different books.
So without question, the fantasy world is oversaturated with dragons, and it’s not like these are bad books or series, but there’s just too many of them out there that gets redundant.
TV Tropes brilliantly describes the many tropes used with dragons:
We have armoured dragons where dragons have removable armour that’s not part of their anatomy. We have dragons that breathe fire and vomit a substance used as a weapon. We have dragons that act like cats, dinosaurs, nice dragons, and mean dragons. We have dragons that are foes of knights and we have someone who rules the world on the rider of a dragon. We have knights that act like dragons.
We have dragons that are wise, who are Gods, dragons who love princesses, princesses who are kidnapped by dragons. We have heroes or villains that transform into dragons. We have immortal dragons that are a wise sage. We have huge dragons with a lot of scales. We have the “weredragon” — humans who are sometimes dragons and sometimes humans.
So yes, dragons are overused and have various tropes, but they are used for a reason in fantasy. They’re fascinating. They’re compelling.
It’s not that people shouldn’t use dragons, but they should use dragons right. Nicola at Thoughts on Fantasy puts the idea perfectly:
“The question is, when there are so many dragons out there, how do fantasy authors make their dragons feel fresh and interesting? How do they avoid presenting a beast that’s just a forgettable, tired cliché, and instead present a creature that is real and tangible and compelling? A creature that gives even jaded readers that feeling of wonder and delight?”
Fantasy writers need to think about the appearance of the dragon, and since most dragons are dinosaur-like animals with that can breathe fire, but dragons are actually very different. They vary in size, colour, and texture, and every writer has to create a dragon that’s unique and memorable over one that’s overly generic and cliched. Focusing on the detail rather than just having a dragon for the sake of having a dragon is the key.
Dragons come from a lot of different traditions
Nicola also urges writers to research the mythology and inspiration behind dragons in different cultures. In Catalonia, Katlyn Roberts brilliantly points out that St. George was a man who defeated a dragon and saved the princess from death — and wins the love of the princess. Hawaii has water dragons that can shapeshift, and Norse mythology has dragons that can chew trees. Ladon, a dragon in Greek mythology, could wrap his body around a tree and protected golden apples in a garden.
In Western culture, it’s easy to think of the dragon as originally an English invention, as Beowulf and its major battle has heroes battling a dangerous dragon that steals riches. Nicola also attributes The Hobbit and its antagonist dragon, Smaug, for popularizing this English model of the dragon.
But other cultures have great traditions of dragons too, and basing them off of different or even multiple traditions is a way of
Are your dragons real characters or props?
Dragons are cool in “Game of Thrones”, but they’re not their own characters with their own personalities, but merely the tools and “children” of Daenerys Targaryen. Viserion, Drogon, and Rhaegal did not have any personality, and Nicola urges making the dragons self-aware beings that might even surpass human intelligence. As authors, fantasy writers have the right to have them behave however they like and not fit into this trope:
“They might be more instinctive animal-like beasts, driven by rage or fear or greed or the need to survive.”
He cites Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon that behaves and sounds like a household pet, like a dog or cat, and has personality by having fear and emotions. Toothless is young, small, and has no teeth — very different from traditional dragons.
Lastly, Nicola urges fantasy writers to have their dragons fight stereotypes sometimes and not have every dragon obsessed with treasure, breathe fire, have scales and long teeth, and be incredibly hard to kill.
The best way to make an authentic dragon is to make one that no one else has made before, one that is inspired but not copy-pasted from preexisting models.
The popularity of dragons won’t go away in fantasy any time soon, so why not make them more unique and authentic?