Why I Don’t Like Dragons
First, a confession: the title of this article is a little bit sensationalist. The truth is, I don’t actively dislike dragons. I don’t go around hating them and huffing and puffing at books with dragons on the cover, and films with dragons in the trailers. My feelings towards dragons is closer to an indifference. They simply don’t excite me anymore. But let me explain:
As of recent years, I’ve found myself going through dragon fatigue. Much in the same way as zombies and vampires, it feels a little bit like we hit peak dragon a while ago (pun intended). This isn’t to say that dragons can’t be great. Sure they can. Just like zombies and vampires can be brilliant from time to time, when somebody finds a really refreshing angle on them, or when we’re talking about classic texts. Just that… in fantasy, the literature of the impossible, sometimes it can feel like writers are playing it a bit too safe.
I’ve had the pleasure of studying fantasy fiction at the University of Glasgow for the past few months. It’s currently the only masters in fantasy on the planet and, it being such a rich but relatively unexplored seam of literature, at least in the critical sense, there’s a lot to talk about. Defining “fantasy” is tricky, and there’s a lot of different ideas (Farah Mendlesohn’s a great contemporary source of thought in this area), but, largely, it seems to come down to that one idea: fantasy is the literature of the impossible. Literally anything you can imagine can happen. You are unbound by the laws that make up our world, and are free to create new laws for a new world. You can go to a completely different place, or have that place invade ours, and you can come up with new and creatively exciting monsters.
Which is why it can feel a bit strange that writers keep returning to the same old monsters, instead of cultivating their own. In a genre where you can pin wings on any animal possible and come up with a fascinating reason why (Alternative universe? Magical experiment? Mythological being?), why do people keep putting wings on lizards and making them breathe fire?
This article isn’t meant to bash dragons, or people who write about them. I certainly love some dragon stories, and I would encourage all writers to write about exactly what they want to write about. That’s where the fun is, after all. This is more of an encouragement – that the next time you’re thinking of picking up a book or sitting down to write, instead of going for the safety of that dragon story where the biggest mystery is whether the dragon is a friend or foe (Can it speak? Does it have feathers? What colour is it?), perhaps, instead, consider an alternative. Perhaps pick up a book with an unfamiliar monster in it, which will challenge your expectations, or take the time to create an awesome new creature for your story, to surprise and fascinate your readers.
Who knows, maybe you’ll write the next dragon, or vampire, or zombie – a monster writers will play around with for generations?
And I know it can be tricky, to come up with something completely new and interesting like that. I certainly struggle with it. The reason why dragons and their ilk are so widely reused is because of how easy they are to adapt – they come ready-made with well-documented lineages, and they evoke immediate and familiar responses in their audiences. They’re easy to write, and easy for publishers to sell. New monsters are neither of those things. But… in a genre where there are few limits to your imagination, isn’t it more interesting to read and write something wholly new and unexplored?
Of course, I realise that dragons come with a vast fandom, and I respect that. I’d love for you to write to me and tell me why I’m wrong, or find me a story that will reignite (pun intended) my desire to read about dragons. Please do. I think it would be nice to be excited about dragons again.