Why do first time writers always
choose dragons for their story?
And, by kids, I mean everyone. They are the ultimate fantasy creature and part of our psyche, from national emblems and folk heroes, to fairy stories and classic books. Dragons are woven into fantasy writing and children’s books. Writers, who want to appeal to a wide audience, can conjure up creatures without having to try too hard.
We all know what dragons look like; sort of elegant dinosaurs with wings and fire. Dragons are devilish beasts and part of the epic landscape; St George, Beowulf, Tolkein, Camelot. They are an easy shortcut to Biblical evil and the serpent of Eden.
Heads or tails? Dragons are the ultimate collectible for gallant knights – kill the dragon, win the fair Maid. Easy. From Greek legend to Shrek.
We all know what they look like; green and scaley. We know how they fill their time; breathe fire and eat people, create wastelands. We know that they live under mountains. We know that they fly and can be trained to carry passengers. They are ancient and supersmart (except for the occasional Chosen One/young farm boy who is even smarter and can outwit them easily).
Dragons are also the ultimate rights of passage mascot and proof of masculinity. “Look at me! I beat the dragon single-handed.” Now, we all know that this isn’t strictly true and the only way to defeat a dragon is to cheat. Big magic sword, shield, potion or invisibility cloak, or with the help of a demi-god, warlock, sorceress or a bunch of kids. Works every time.
Maybe you can help me with something? If the maiden is always tied or chained up to a rock or a post, who puts her there for the hero to rescue? How does a dragon tie knots or put a key into a padlock? That’s the intriguing bit of the story, right there.
Dragons just are. They are the end level Boss, the keepers of the most important thing you can think of and you need all of your magic and health points to beat them.
Dragons are earth-bound aliens. Green? Check. Evil-looking? Check. Drool? Check. Misunderstood. No, of course not, they look evil, so therefore they must be evil, right?
This is the long list of cliches I faced when writing Thumbs.
How to change the rules, or use all these shorthand motifs in a different way from all those other first time writers?
I needed a hook for a tired format.
Firstly, I didn’t want to write a sub-Tolkein fairy tale. That was going to be hard. If I was going to create a pseudo-Mediaevel world, it was going to be hard not to end up feeling like all of those made for TV sword and sorcery films.
I wanted young people to not just like it, but want to read it. I wanted to cut out the “Have at thee, varlet!” language and Harry Potter spells. I would need to be careful to avoid the “streetwise, but ever so slightly nerdy kid transported back to a kingdom where a magic sword/ring/book/crown/trumpet/squirrel will turn them into a king” (that’s my next book). No matter what, I wanted to avoid “Chosen Ones”.
I love super heroes, but there are already too many of them. I wanted heroes who would rise or fall under their own steam, because I felt that this would make them more real. And easier to write about. Not another Narnia. I wanted characters who couldn’t see the future/read minds/talk to horses/walk through walls and who didn’t have names like Rainbow Plasticshield / Bearclaw Riverwilde / Garside Windgatherer (I do know someone called Silje Frosthammer – for real!).
It was going to be hard enough for readers to suspend belief without all of these things and good fantasy is all about getting readers to suspend belief so that they are swept away by the story. There would be no young champion who, after a supreme test of his manliness would rescue the beautiful faery queen and unite the Seven Kingdoms. I needed a hero who had moved on from Prince Valiant, Flash Gordon and Luke Skywalker and one who was less worried about food than Bilbo Baggins.
Ordinary people without super powers? They would need certain personality traits or skills to make them stand out from the crowd. I wanted foils for my human characters who were more interesting than a Wookie or a talking dog.
Dragons were either going to be easy because I could rehash everything ever written. Or, it was going to be hard to find a few new twists to set it apart from every other first book. You choose.