Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Dragons and fairies and more, oh my!

On the evening of Friday, April 13th, I'll be speaking in Longmont, Colorado. If you can make it, check out the details on the Appearances page of my website (click on the right). Hope to see you there! 

On October 12, 2011, Elizabeth wrote, I'm working on a novella right now about dragons, Gail, and I was curious about your take on dealing with magical creatures, as my novella will have lots of them. Do you have any advice on how to deal with them? I'd be happy to hear what other people have to say, too! :-D

So please add your contributions to mine.

I love to introduce new magical creatures or dream up a fresh take on the ones we all know about: fairies, elves, dragons, gnomes, and so on.

The first consideration, before I let my imagination run wild, is the role this kind of creature is going to play in my story. It’s not very different from the approach I take when I dream up a human character. I ask myself what this character is going to have do and be. I suggest you ask yourself the same questions.

In The Two Princess of Bamarre, for example, the dragons are one of the species of monsters that plague Bamarre, so they can’t be good, and I wanted them to present yet another obstacle to the success of Addie’s quest. After I knew that, I considered what form their evil might take. And that’s the second question you can ask yourself. Evil, yes. But evil how?

Suppose I want my dragons to be allies of the tree-dwelling clan, Opkos, against the cave-dwelling termite people, the Ditnits. Lots of follow-up questions flow from this decision: How do the dragons help? Are these flying dragons? How smart are they? How do they communicate with their human friends? Through speech, ordinary speech, or in some other way? So here’s an early prompt: List ten more questions you can ask about the dragons in this scenario. Answer them. Write a scene involving first contact between a main character of the Opkos clan and a dragon who is going to be important in your story.

Once I start writing I may discover that I’ve imagined features for the creatures that don’t fit my plot as it develops, so I have to go back and revise, which is fine and necessary. This happened with the tiffens in Fairies and the Quest for Never Land. I got too elaborate, and some of the characteristics didn’t work, so I dropped them. In Beloved Elodie the same happened with the brunkas, which I hope you’ll read about some day.

At some point in the questions you’ve asked yourself you probably moved from plot demands to pure invention, another fun part. For this, I generally think about the usual portrayal of these creatures and ask myself how I can diverge while still keeping enough of the idea of a dragon so that my creature is recognizable. There’s a lot of leeway here. I think I could get away even with a dragon mouse, a scaly mouse with a long snout, and a flame no bigger than a match flame. In Ella Enchanted, where the dragon provides only a little richness, it’s a baby, tiny with a tiny flame.

Your dragons don’t have to be evil. Masteress Meenore in A Tale of Two Castles and Beloved Elodie isn’t exactly kindly, but IT is essentially good, very good. If yours aren’t evil either, the questions are pretty much the same: How do the dragons fit in my story? What are their attributes? How can I distinguish them from the run of dragons in other stories?

Unless you’re writing fan fiction, you should stay away from dragon representations you’ve encountered in contemporary books. Anne McCaffrey’s series springs to mind, also Ursula Le Guin Earthsea Cycle, and I'm sure there are more. If there are dragons in novels you’ve read, think about how you can make yours different. Let’s take my Masteress Meenore for example. IT is a detective dragon. You can write a detective dragon too, I think without stepping on my authorial toes, but then don’t also make IT stink of sulfur and refuse to reveal ITs gender and have gorgeous translucent wings.

I like a sense of wonder in fantasy. I achieve this in Meenore with ITs lovely wings, ITs smoke that changes color according to ITs emotional state, ITs facility at the game of knucklebones. So there’s another question: What is likely to astonish the reader in a good way?

Another consideration is the amount of power you give your creatures. This often comes up for me with fairies, who in traditional fairy tales have limitless power, which won’t work in most stories, because we don’t want the fairies swooping in and solving everything. Which leads to the question, How much power do your fairies or dragons have? How does their power work? For example, for fairies does the power reside in the magic wand? Or in spells? Or somehow inherent in the fairy? In my Disney Fairies books, the fairies’ power is limited to their talents. The water talent fairies, for example, control only water. The magic of all of them is enhanced by fairy dust; without the dust they’d hardly be magical at all.

Power for evil has to be limited too. If your dragon is evil and can destroy everything and is unstoppable, there is no story either. Your evil creature needs an Achilles heel.

You needn’t limit yourself to the standard roster of imaginary creations. You can go to mythology for other kinds of critters. And you can create your own. Again, think of your story and the kind of creature you may need.

Do you want to make it up entirely or combine creatures? A coyote and an eagle? A boa constrictor and a sphinx? If made up entirely, how big is it? How does it communicate? Does it communicate at all? Another prompt: Think of ten more questions you can ask about your new creation. Answer them.

Of course you don’t need to think of your story first. You can start with your creature and think of a story to go with him. If you’re taking this route, consider what his problems may be. The next step is likely to figure out how he might approach his problems. Then, as in any story about anybody, your job is to make trouble for him and keep him from achieving his goals easily. So that’s another prompt: Decide what your creature’s problem is or what he wants. List several possibilities. Pick one and start your story. Keep going.

One last prompt: Write a story about the winged steed Pegasus.

Have fun, and save what you write!


  1. Gail, when you were writing A Tale of Two Castles (and now Beloved Elodie), did you have an idea in your mind on whether Meenore was male or female? You obviously don't have to tell us, but I was just wondering if you yourself know. :)
    Drake's Comprehensive Compendium of Dragonology by Ernest Drake (edited by Dugald A. Steer) is the absolute BEST dragon guide ever. It is extremely useful in any dragon-esque writing!

    1. Brianna, although Gail has probably changed her answer,but when I went to an event with her for A Tale of Two Castles I asked her that question and she said she Didn't know and asked me!

    2. Brianna--IT trends a certain way for me, but I'm not sure, and IT isn't telling me either!

  2. I tend to think of IT as female.

    And don't forget Oriental dragons! They're often benevolent and wise.

  3. Thanks so much for this post! It really helped me a lot, as I tend to feel a bit stuck when dealing with magical creatures - when I'm using a certain species of creature that has already been used it always feels cliche. Thanks again!

  4. I think of IT as male, actually. Maybe that's because male dragons are cliched-- except in The Two Princesses of Bamarre the dragon female...
    Just my observation, but I thought IT acted more masculine than feminine. I think it's so cool when authors can make the readers think like that... it sure provokes many spirited discussions amongst my friends and I!

  5. I have always thought of IT as a female! I always thought IT's mannerisms were more female than male. It's so interesting to hear what people think!

  6. I always thought of IT as female, too, partly because of the Mastress part.

  7. Sadly enough, I haven't read a Tale of Two Castles, because my library hasn't gotten it in yet. Still, I have to say that I am amazed that you managed to pull off a character so mysterious and intriguing that it causes readers to wonder about IT even after they've finished the book! How inspiring!