Dragons: From Primordial Chaos to Fantasy Cliché

Okay, before you rage quit or try to punch me through the internet, I’m not saying that dragons are cliché. I’m saying that they can be cliché. After all, anything can be cliché if it’s done improperly. The thing about dragons is that there are so many different ways to include them in a story, a game, or a fictional science manual. Yes, I said a fictional science manual; I’ll get to that later.

The characters Bowen and Draco from the 1996 film "Dragonheart"

The characters Bowen and Draco from the 1996 film “Dragonheart”

Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to…never mind. The beginning, as in Creation. In the creation story of the Babylonians, the primordial dragon Tiamat represents the salt water, while her husband Apsu represents the fresh water. When Apsu is killed by the gods, who are led by Marduk, Tiamat is understandably ticked off. She responds, of course, by trying to kill the gods, and therefore everything in the universe that is not her. You see, as the salt water, thereby being the ocean, Tiamat represents chaos incarnate. When Marduk kills her, he forms the world out of her corpse (a fairly common trope in creation myths). Meanwhile, all the demons, evil spirits, and monsters are born out of her. So, by that, Tiamat is chaos, the formation of the earth, but the mother of all dragons. Daenerys Targaryen, eat your heart out.

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World Building: Why Bother?

I had been planning on moving on from posts about language to other aspects of world building, but I really think I need to address something. Why do we world build? Why bother making up a fictional planet, or a fictional timeline, or a fictional country? What’s the point? Yes, writing fantasy needs that, but are there other reasons to create worlds? Is it just a personal exercise that doesn’t have any meaning? Does any of it even matter?

Well, I just want to say that, yes, world building does matter and that there are a number of reasons to do it. One obvious reason is to create a believable world for a story or game design. You don’t want your readers to lose suspension of disbelief because you included something (or left something out) that was important, like actually having space to grow food for your massive city in the middle of the wasteland. Even in writing fiction, though, there are different reasons to make a world however you make it.

1) Writing for a story.

When you’re building a fantasy or science fiction world for a story, then the story is the goal, but the world is essential. There needs to be rules that dictate the magic or technology, even if you don’t get into them in the story. In a world where anything can happen, nothing ever happens. There’s no drama, no conflict, and no reason to care about the characters. At the same time, if you focus so much on developing the world, it’s easy to forget about the characters, and about their part in the world. The story is a microcosm of the universe that you’re creating, even if it’s just about two people in a room. The only part of the world that matters for the story is the part that affects it. If you have a distant nation a thousand miles from where your story takes place, why are you focusing on that unless it plays a part in the plot?

2) Writing for a role playing game.

Like world building for a story, you need to create as much, and no more, than is needed for what you’re doing. It takes time and effort to create a culture, and focusing too much time on cultures that your players will never reach, whether because they’re too far or simply back story, takes away time that you could have spent working on the world that actually affects the game. Now, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t make the world bigger, grander, and more realized than you would for, say, a novel about a single small kingdom. Players can mess with the plan that a DM has for the game. All they have to do is say, “We’re boarding this ship to sail to Kharzan.” A good DM has the player’s enjoyment in mind, and so, if you players want to go to Kharzan, you’d better have Kharzan ready for them.

3) Making a point.

Okay, here’s where it gets interesting. Some writers craft their stories around making a point. In fact, I really think that most writers do that, even if they don’t mean to. A good story needs a good theme, and the stronger that theme, the more it’s going to permeate the world of your story. I’d argue that, if you have a point to make, let it happen naturally. Make your world to represent how you see the real world. J.R.R. Tolkien hated technology, and so in his grand mythos of the ancient Middle Earth, technology and metal machines were inherently evil, used only by the powers of Morgoth and Sauron. On the other hand, George R.R. Martin’s world doesn’t even touch on the subject, because that’s not the point he’s making. A Song of Ice and Fire is less about mythologizing a lost past and more about deconstructing the chivalric mythos. While I would argue that his books are actually more brutal than the majority of the real medieval history, it does make the point that he is going for.

A more blunt example of world building for making a point is found in dystopian science fiction. The theme of government over-control, which is common to the genre, lends itself to a certain kind of world. If you want to talk about the need for freedom or independence, creating a world that shows the dangers of lacking either of those is a fairly simply way to go. At the same time, when you write to make a point, make sure that not everything in your world is allegorical, or else you end up clobbering the reader with too much. Having everything you mention lead toward the goal makes it very clear that it’s more of a treatise than a story, but if you make the world more naturally, craft it so that you’re telling a story rather than preaching a sermon, you have more of a chance of drawing the reader in.

4) Just to have fun.

Now, not everyone wants to build a world for stories or games. Some of us just like making up fictional worlds and seeing what we can do with them. As far as that goes, it’s a very personal hobby that holds value just in that fact. Research what interests you and craft the world as you see fit. It’s your world and it’s your hobby. Just have fun with it.


Next post—Genres of World Building: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and More.