Clichés aren’t wrong because audiences have seen them before. The problem is that clichés do not carry your author voice. Cliches move your story along while robbing your story of YOU.
At the same time, you don’t have to start from stratch. Dragons work. They resonate with audiences worldwide for dozens of reasons. Pick any one reason and use it as an emotional target to aim for. With very little work—just a few quick questions—you’re about to systematically personalize your dragons so brilliantly that stereotypical dragons will never satisfy you again.
MONSTER MACGUFFIN SHUFFLE
Create a dragon-sized problem
If you love fighting dragons, start here for spicy, meaningful combat.
“MacGuffin” are anything that motivates or enables plot without impacting it. Things are considered MacGuffins if they are 1)interchangable items of value or power and 2) basically useless outside the story.
Most dragons are MacGuffins. They kickstart quests. They exist to be challenged. You could swap them out with any toothy creature or pretty unicorn and keep your whole plot.
So that’s exactly what this strategy does. Start with a MacDragon blueprint. Then swap the creature while retaining a dragon’s Macfunctions.
Let’s break down the basic fighting assets of a traditional dragon.
- Fire – Burns stuff. Yup.
- Scales – Armor. Reduces efficacy of your weapons.
- Big – Your spear is basically a splinter. Gearing up to fight it takes work.
- Wings – Easy escape from you, you pathetic little ground slug.
- Teeth – You can ignore these if having arms is optional.
- Strength – Stronger than you, and that’s all that matters.
Now think deeper.
Traditional dragons presume ONE primary type of strength—raw muscle. What other kinds of strength are there?
Strength is numbers is terrifying. Take snails, for example. Persistent little bastards.
One snail, not a big deal. But if a nest of snails hatches near you, good luck keeping your succulents safe. So… imagine fire snails that cause wildfires.
Now consider the plots you could play with. Snails in force destroy ecosystems. Imagine the war humans would go on to snuff out snails that sporadically set things on fire. Imagine how much impact that would have on architecture, clothing, and world ecology.
Then… what if snails were the only known way to START a fire? What if you didn’t know until you mostly wiped them out?
Suddenly, snails become meaningful gifts, gestures of respect. You’d keep your snail in a little box and take immaculate care of it.
Maybe they’re rare enough that you only have one per village. The death of your tribe’s snail would probably trigger a dissolution of the tribe. Likewise, if the snail makes babies, the tribe has the freedom to split.
All we’ve done was question what TYPE of strength to give our monster. Simple monster premise. Then we wrapped a culture around it.
Isn’t that fantastic? Asking just one question gets you far enough away from traditional dragons that there are no nearby stereotypes to rely on, and new, totally natural stories start to write themselves.
That’s just one type of strength. There’s also strength in kindness, intelligence, resilience. Even the strength of an adhesive is straight up more interesting than brawn. You have a dozen traits to play with. So mix it up.