At the moment, I'm holding mental auditions for a nice dragon story.
If you're wondering why, that's because Vin Simbulan released an open call for submissions for an anthology last September, and I think I've been putting it off for too long now. His conditions are actually a little more flexible than the ones for Dean Alfar's Speculative Fiction Anthology: 2500 to 6000 words, your pick of genre, deadline on January 4, 2006. Oh, and the submission has to involve dragons in some method, shape or form.
It's that last bit that complicates matters, I think.
You see, dragons... well, dragons are one of the many staples of fantasy literature. Anne McCaffrey gives them an entire line of books, Michael Moorcock writes them as insanely powerful weapons of war, and JRR Tolkien presents them as distant menaces. Even Terry Pratchett and David Eddings give dragons at least a passing mention, and they're writers who (arguably) concentrate more on the foibles of man to begin with.
Dragons also show up in other places besides fantasy literature. You can't have a Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game, for example, without the latter half of its namesake. Chinese tradition recognizes a Year of the Dragon (2000 being the most recent one), and involves the creature in much of its myth and legend. Even Catholics, for that matter, might have heard of the story of St. George and the Dragon. (Zoroastrianists, in fact, believe that the heavens and the earth were created from the body of one really massive creature, and you can bet that I'm not talking about a squirrel here.)
Anyone out there may, doubtless, know a little something about dragons themselves: Dragons fly. Dragons breathe fire. Dragons kidnap (or eat, on a case-to-case basis) noble princesses or beautiful maidens. Dragons lay eggs. Some of the more advanced scholars may even know a little more: Dragons amass hoards of riches, which they use as bedding. Dragons may either be smart enough to speak, or stupid enough to run entirely on predatory instinct. Dragons are immune to almost all forms of magic.
To be sure, one can say that there are so many resources -- so many existing stories, in fact -- that already involve dragons in some way.
That makes things difficult. How, then, does one make a dragon story different? How does one make a dragon story unique?
I don't have a definite answer to that question just yet, and I suspect that there are quite a lot of authors out there who are pondering the exact same problem.
I suspect that the main solution, the one that will get peoples' submissions into Mr. Simbulan's anthology, will lie in taking current perceptions and turning them upside-down. Well, maybe not upside-down in the literal sense; I'm referring to taking established setups and giving them a good hard kick. A few popular fantasy authors, I think, have already experienced the virtues of this approach.
I mean, we do have to admit that fantasy literature lends itself to more than a few established setups. After all, we've already agreed earlier that dragons themselves appear to be a staple of the genre.
What else would be a staple, for that matter? The presence of multiple races comes to mind, with elves and dwarves leading the pack in terms of popularity. Magic's another one: Wizards and witches and mages and all that. Knights and swords and jousts and princesses, perhaps.
What makes certain fantasy authors readable, I think, is the fact that they recognize these staples and find a way to change them somehow. They alter them in a way that appeals to our sense of the new. They turn them on one sodden ear and wait for our reactions.
I'll cite the Warlord collectible card game as an example: In their "Lands of the Accord", evil has triumphed over good. Ruthless barons control vast swaths of land in never-ending war with each other, while noble wanderers travel the land righting wrongs and generally losing resistance. In Warlord, dwarves are an ancient race that has re-emerged after centuries of living beneath the earth. Elves are short-lived, and must rely on foul necromancy in order to extend their brief lives. Orcs are very tribal, and must engage in constant battle in order to satisfy their bloodlust.
Or Narnia, perhaps? Dwarves are salt-of-the-earth folk there, tenacious whenever it comes to their land and their loyalties. Centaurs are noble and wise, and make for excellent heralds. Sentient animals make up much of the in-story audience and comic relief. No elves in sight, just as there are no dragons.
I suspect that a lot of writers are going to be analyzing the dragon and its aspects much in this fashion. There are quite a lot of things we can do with the versatile creature: We can sing its praises, we can discuss its physiology, we can explain why none of them exist today. (Or perhaps they do actually exist today, in which case we'll have to explain why we never seem to bump into them nowadays.)
What matters for this little draconian anthology, I think, is that we find an aspect that no one else has bothered to explore, and somehow turn it into a fascinating read that no one could have expected from us.
Yes, that's definitely not going to be easy.
But hey, it might be more fun that way. :)