1. seije
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    seije Member

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    redefining dragons: (show vs. tell)

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by seije, Jan 27, 2013.

    I'm working on a fantasy novel. A very large portion of the cast are all dragons, and humans aren't present until later chapters of the book. But here's the catch: my dragons are anthropomorphic. they walk on two legs instead of four, wear clothing (i have already planned the 'how' and 'why' of this), and use tools and weapons. All of this might be easily shown if there were humans in the scene to draw comparisons from, but the story sets humans and dragons apart for a reason. I'm also reluctant to include any extra scenes for the sole purpose of comparing the two races side by side, due to the fact that it wouldn't add to the plot, and my novel is already too long.

    I had originally planned to dispel the reader's idea of dragons, then build them back up through description. After first telling the reader that stories of dragons were gross exaggerations, I wrote a paragraph describing how a dragon is slumping in a chair. I thought it made sense, but after going back and forth with someone who was helping me edit and being repeatedly told that my descriptions did little to clear things up for the reader, i've begun to question the "show, don't tell" mantra that I've heard so many times before.

    since then, my paragraph that at first only told of what dragons are not, has now become the following:

    Amongst humans, there had been many tales of dragons, but few were anywhere near the truth. “More likely to eat you than talk to you. Scales like iron. Fiery, bone-melting breath. Giant, soulless killers.” Akell had once preferred humans to believe those stories. Let them think he lumbered around on all fours instead of standing solidly on two legs, as they did. Or that he could devour a grown man in a single bite, when he would be hard-pressed to fit a human infant in his jaws—not that he would ever resort to something so barbaric or disgusting.

    I'm not sure what i think. I'm mostly happy with it, but in knowing that this is telling the reader instead of showing, I can't help but feel like it drags a little bit- and will certainly drag if i attempt to include more. But also i feel like if i try to go back to the old method of "break down, build back up," i'll fall into the same trap of having the reader filling in what i haven't told them with what they know from other stories, and become confused when i attempt to show them otherwise.

    thoughts?
     
  2. tcol4417
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    tcol4417 Member

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    Two options:

    A) Don't call them dragons until after you've established their physical characteristics.

    B) Just don't call them dragons.

    Anthropomorphic dragons are called Dragonborn in the D&D universe (possibly the spawning point for most cultural memes) and you have several spinoffs like the Argonians from the Elder Scrolls series. The ONLY way I see you getting away with keeping the name is if you first establish the fact that they are not what we would call a "dragon", then call them a dragon and let the reader work out that it's either a colloquialism, nickname or racial slur.

    Starting off with "dragon" and trying to redefine them from there just creates unnecessary work for the reader. There are instances of this happening, but we're not talking the difference between Draco Vulgaris and Draco Nobilis (Terry Pratchett), we're talking the difference between Dragons and People With Scales. It's like saying that a chocolate is like steak, except in every single respect besides being edible.

    Don't try to explicitly rewrite a staple of the genre straight out of the gate: You're just setting up reader expectations that won't be fulfilled.

    Rather, set up your own material and then say "Hey, kind of like a dragon right? That's why they're called etc. etc."
     
  3. Kaidonni
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    Kaidonni Member

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    Please be aware that the term 'dragon' will be interpreted differently by different cultures. European dragons are not the only kind - go take a look at the mythology of dragons in various Asian cultures and you'll see exactly what I mean.
     
  4. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    last two posts make good points re calling them 'dragons'... while the paragraph you've posted here is somwhat better than the ones we've been working over, it still suffers from the 'dragon' vs 'what your characters really are' gap...

    if they have humanoid-shaped bodies, just the fact that they have scales and wings does not make them 'dragons'--which are commonly seen as reptilian, not humanoid... your creatures have arms, hands and legs and sit like humans...

    what you are describing might be 'human-dragon hybrids'...
    https://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=dragons&biw=614&bih=406&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.&wrapid=tlif135939376486310&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&ei=4bMGUffgM8TtigKHyoGYDQ#um=1&hl=en&tbo=d&tbm=isch&sa=1&q=human+dragon+hybrid&oq=human-dragons&gs_l=img.1.1.0i33j0i10i33i24.134308.136274.0.138247.6.6.0.0.0.0.145.437.5j1.6.0...0.0...1c.1.1s_de0sqnwc&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.&bvm=bv.41524429,d.cGE&fp=b9613edaa4b54e97&biw=1039&bih=406

    but if you don't want your creatures to have been cross-bred with humans, how did they get to be humanoid?... and you'll still have to call them something other than 'dragons' unless in your story, there aren't supposed to have ever been 'standard' dragons... in which case, references to the others would make no sense... get what i'm saying?

    if they're simply meant to be a different species of 'dragon' that humans haven't ever seen, then you need to make that clear and explain why they're similar to humans in shape...

    are any of these what you had in mind?
    http://us.vclart.net/vcl/Artists/Robboman/Dragon%20Anthro%20(colour)/index01.html
     
  5. henmatth
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    henmatth Member

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    I disagree and think that you should call them dragons. Dragon is merely a word- and it's interpretted differently in each and every novel written. I think the paragraph above clearly states as to how your dragon differs from other stereotypes. And as your story developes I believe your readers will become more accustomed to the dragons you are describing and eventually be able to fully visualize them. You have to treat these dragons similar to human characters- in the fact you have to take time to develope them physically and emotionally. Obviously they are not the stereotypical mystic, fantasy creatures we are used to. So, naturally, I think it's important that you spend a few extra words giving your readers detailed accounts of the dragons behaviors and conversations.
     
  6. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    In Chinese mythology it's quite common for dragons to shape shift to humans, perhaps you can find inspiration there?
     
  7. Chirping Cricket
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    Chirping Cricket New Member

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    Within the fantasy setting 'dragon' carries a specific connotation. You have your Western dragons, your Eastern dragons, and the feathered serpents of South America. If they're truly anthropomorphic then can they truly be considered dragons? Why not a race of reptilians, perhaps related to the dragons in some way. Much as the Dragonborn (or Draconians, for the old school) of D&D were related to the Dragons but were a race in their own right.

    Someone who radically changed how I view dragons is Naomi Novik in her Temeraire series. In particular the Chinese dragons who, while not anthropomorphic, were still seen wearing the draconic equivalent of clothes, using tools, and engaging in commerce alongside humans. There was no need for her to radically change what the word dragon meant to the reader. I could instantly relate to the creatures she was writing about, yet she turned how I imagine a dragon right on its head.
     
  8. Asaph Judea Wagner
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    Asaph Judea Wagner Member

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    Have one of your POV characters of that race describing the race or just outright tell the reader these are the people of the race, at an appropriate time and as soon as possible. I'd tell just the physical traits: scales and horns for example and leave some of the talent surprises for later.

    Option A, POV: Early in the morning, a young individual has awaken
    "Damn it, my scales are itchy. Didn't I went through puberty already?"
    "Don't forget to wash your horns, it's your big day."
    "Thank's mom (said cynically), it's only X (something to do with their culture)."
    "I can send you back to the house of that fire-breathing whacko."
    "Fine, just let me put on some clothes."

    Option B, narration : The Drakeborn are a proud race of an enlightened society. They walk upright and use garments to cover their scales as a sign of class. Their horns serve the same purpose, as each royal house has their own shape. While not as ferocious as the folk-tales of 'dragons', they are still mighty warriors mastering the art of flame breathing, though incapable of producing it themselves."
     
  9. tcol4417
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    tcol4417 Member

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    Asaph has the basic right of it, albeit in a clumsy sort of way.

    Option A is the famous "show don't tell" example, but you want to be careful about handling it too ham-handedly.
    "I has scales. Wy? Becuz I m a DARGON. LOL." (No offense meant to Asaph, but I'm not a huge fan of info dumps disguised as dialogue).

    The trick is subtlety. If animals were to write about humans, ideally we wouldn't be saying "And don't forget to wash with water because you can't lick yourself everywhere on the fur you don't have because you're HUMAN."
    From what I recall the best details are revealed piecemeal: Start with something relevant but not noticeable, follow up with a more solid detail and only mention the name of the species once it's impossible for your reader to jump to conclusions.

    Option B is the info dump: I wouldn't.
     
  10. Xatron
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    Xatron Contributing Member

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    And remember: you don't have to paint them a portrait. Give the reader some details and let them imagine or derive twice as much. Noone ever finished reading a story and went all "it made me use my imagination, i hate it". Info dumps are what causes impatient readers to drop the story instantly.
     
  11. SunnyE
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    SunnyE Member

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    Bahaha! Okay, that was funny.

    And yes, info dump=bad writing. Don't do it. Subtlety is pretty much always a good thing. Also keep in mind that you don't have to get all the details to the reader at the starting gate. You can drop hints and details along the way and let them piece it together as they go.
     
  12. Bimber
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    Bimber Contributing Member

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  13. Xatron
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    Xatron Contributing Member

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    NOT TRUE!!! The big dude was definitely 100% gargoyle....
     
  14. Pale Writer
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    Pale Writer New Member

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    Aren't there Dragonians ?

    I don't think you should put the 'human' pov to explain. As soon as you do you start with conflicts of belief. Instead I believe you should let your story draw them. For example I don't start a story telling the reader my character is human. Since you mention them having human characteristics, it is enough of a starting point to show a similarity without telling. Build your characters with more than another species' definition. If you draw them in well, it should be enough for the reader to see.

    Pale
     
  15. Bimber
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    Bimber Contributing Member

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    Sorry to disagree but the most that looked like a gargoyle in the series was that little dude, i find them very fascinating but where ever i looked found them pictured as some what shorter creatures, dont know the reason but my guess that a big size one would be seen more like a demon than a gargoyle
     

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