In case it wasn’t immediately obvious, I like dragons. When I first started out writing, I was writing a fantasy story all about dragons. That story was awful by the way, but that’s beside the point. Dragons are a huge part of the fantasy genre, and in a lot of mythologies all across the world. Many people think all they need to do to make their story cool is to add a dragon.
I’m here to give another perspective on what adding a dragon to a story really means. This will be both for literal and metaphorical dragons so please bear that in mind. Putting in a dragon (or some other type of legendary beast for that matter) may be just a gimmick to make your story “cooler”, or just because you simply enjoy those creatures.
There was someone I once knew who kept saying things like “dragons are really cliche and you’ll have to do a lot of work to make them not cliche” and I always hated that. How is the presence of a creature cliche? Well, I think I do know what that means now, though this person never explained it well. It is not the presence of a creature that makes it cliche, but rather the purpose that it is used for that can make it cliche.
Most often, dragons are just used as obstacles for a hero to overcome in a fantasy story. They’re evil creatures that must be slain because they wreak havoc and chaos across the land (see The Hobbit for reference). That’s the most stereotypical form of a dragon, though I’ve also seen “good” dragons which are just wise old creatures that are powerful but generally stay out of the affairs of others unless they see a reason for stepping in (which that trope in and of itself can be considered cliche, whether it’s using a dragon or not).
Now, I’m going to give my perspective on what significance adding a dragon can do. There are several fantasy stories where dragons do exist, but it’s not something you would think of. They aren’t common, they’re practically myths, but they do exist. So when the characters meet a dragon in the flesh, they’re just struck by terror, awe, and whatever other emotions you should feel with those particular dragons. It makes you stop and go, “Wow, dragons actually do exist.” It’s a great moment for both the characters and the audience.
This idea can be a great tool for storytelling. Your moment doesn’t have to be an actual literal dragon, but just something with the same sort of impact. Something that you’ve heard plenty about before but you don’t really believe it exists, and then you find it and it’s just so breathtaking and awe-inspiring you don’t know what to say or do. The reason dragons are a good thing to do this with is because it’s something you could relate to in real life. Everyone, in practically every culture of the world, has had stories of dragons in some form. We’ve never seen dragons, but the idea that maybe, at some point in time, in some secret place, they do exist, and to be able to see them would be amazing.
So why not add something like that to your story? Give us something to gasp about when we see/read about it. Make an impact and a lasting impression on us. Make us step back and really think about the gravity of what we’ve just learned. Give us a dragon.
Now, obviously this is not the only thing you should use dragons for in stories. You can have “casual” dragons and all those other sorts of stereotypical dragon tropes as much as you want. It doesn’t make them bad. But just give this idea another thought when you’re planning on putting something like this into your next story.