A guest post by Gama Ray Martinez.
Of all the creatures spoken of throughout human history and storytelling, dragons are the most common. They back to our earliest pieces of writing, Kur in the story ancient story “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld” (though some claim other candidates for the first dragon), five thousand years ago. Ancient mapmakers would use the phrase “Here be dragons” to denote places that were unexplored or dangerous. The question is why? Why are dragons so pervasive? Why have they endured so long? It’s the same reason other mythological creatures, from the oldest of stories, show up again and again. They tickle something deep inside of us, a sense of mystery or even a primal fear of the unknown. You could even go so far as to say they are a part of who we are, and so stories of them will always have a certain draw. How do we use this as storytellers?
Every dragon is not Smaug. Every phoenix is not Fawkes, and there are unicorns other than Amalthea. A lot of people ask how they can make their creature different from every time that creature has been used before. They then try to build their story around that. The thing with that, however, is that it’s a setting question. In general, when building a story, you will probably naturally starting in one of three places: Setting, Character, or Plot. If you don’t start setting, that question may not be the best place to start. I normally, though not always, start with the setting, so that works for me, but I’m going to give you two examples from my own work: one where I started with the setting (unicorns) and one where I started with the character (angels). Hopefully, that will give you some insight in how to adapt creatures to your own story.
If you know me, you’ve probably heard of the infamous purple unitato. The short version is that I was challenged to write a short story about a purple unicorn potato. With an idea this ridiculous, I had to start with the setting. I started asking myself questions. In what world could such a thing as a purple unitato exist? There has to be some sort of transformation magic. The unicorn has to be turned into a potato rather than existing naturally in that state, mainly because I’m not a comedy writer, and I can’t think of a non-comedy story where a unitato occurs naturally. Also, why does the potato have a horn? That’s easy enough. I just need some reason why a horn can’t be transformed. Let’s say it’s pure magic, so it can’t be changed (this actually comes into play in one of the novels that takes place after the story). Why a potato? Maybe the person couldn’t transform something into anything else. Again, we’re running into the silly, which I’m more or less trying to avoid. Why could said person only transform something into a potato? Well, potatoes are crops, so let’s say this person was primarily concerned with helping crops grow. They don’t know any other sort of magic. Why transform the unicorn at all? The obvious answer is self-defense. I wanted to keep to the idea of unicorns being basically good creatures, so why would someone need to defend themselves? Maybe the unicorn was under the influence of something that forced them to act against their will. In that case, the transformation was unfortunate, so let’s make the story an attempt to undo it.
So there’s the beginning of a setting. I have the start of a magic system that is somewhat compartmentalized. I have something that makes unicorns attack, and a little about their nature. I could go on with the questions I asked myself, but that’s the beginning. You also see a little about the person who transformed the unicorn, which is a character thing influenced by the setting, but how do I do it if I focus first on character?
For the Pharim War, I had this idea of an angel cursed to human form for one lifetime, but who is he? Does he know he was an angel? Does he have access to his power? If so, to what extent? I do favor coming of age stories and stories of self-discovery, so let’s say he doesn’t know, but he will find out in the course of the story. Where does he learn this? I toyed around with a couple of ideas here before I settled on magic school. What kind of person is he? If he has an angel for a soul, he’s an essentially good person. I’ll make him a bad liar. Later, this also translated as him being bad at illusion magic because that is essentially seeing a lie and true and projecting that, but that only happened late in the planning, once I had worked out the character and a little of the setting. I can’t give the character access to all his power. That’s too easy. I need a limitation. Let’s say it’s too much power to be contained by human flesh, but he is an angel, so let’s make him really good at magic used to fight demons. He sees himself as human, so one of his biggest concerns should be not losing himself to the angel within. To him, that’s the same as dying. That also gives me his central conflict. There’s a powerful demon, of some sort. In order to fight it, he has to embrace the angel within, but can he do that without losing himself? Maybe, as an angel, his job was to watch over this demon to make sure he never got free, so there’s an enmity between them that the character doesn’t remember.
So there we have a character. I have something of the nature of angels (or pharim, as they’re called in the series). They are different from traditional angels because the character requires them to be. I know his motivation. I want him to have a place to learn, so I create a magic school, thus the character informs the setting. Everything that comes after this is built around making him make sense, but the character is the core.
Both of these examples have one thing in common. I ask myself a lot of questions. There are no wrong answers to these questions. There are no rules for them except the ones you yourself create. If you come up with an outlandish answer, you just have to ask yourself more questions to figure out why that makes sense. Are you best a creating the character first? Great. Write a story about a phoenix made of water. Why are they made of water? How does this motivate them? Are you best at setting? Fantastic. Give me a setting that allows for a creature that is normally made of fire to exist as water, and tell me the implications of that. How does that affect the world? Is the plot where you start? Wonderful. Give me a conflict where a water phoenix turns out to be the answer. Once your strongest point is done, build form there.
Gama Ray Martinez lives near Salt Lake City, Utah. He moved there solely because he likes mountains. He collects weapons in case he ever needs to supply a medieval battalion, and he greatly resents when work or other real life things get in the way of writing. He secretly hopes to one day slay a dragon in single combat and doesn’t believe in letting pesky little things like reality stand in the way of dreams.