How To Design Your Dragon

There are many movies, TV shows, games, and comics out there that feature dragons, those awesome beasts of mythology and magic. They’re flexible in design, and done right are very, very cool. And yet, I keep seeing the same ‘mistakes’ over and over again. Their creators keep relying on the argument ‘they’re made up, we can do what we want’; and to a degree, that’s true – but they’re also trying to engage an audience and create a world, or (worse, for these purposes), adapt one. They should aim to make dragons as cool, as interesting, and as draconic as possible, and even *gasp* show some faithfulness to the source material (if there is one) – but they don’t always do that.

Here are some of the most common things I see a lot that aren’t as cool as dragon-makers think they are:

six Limbs
Do not try this at home.
Six, count ’em, six limbs! (Two front legs, two back legs, two wings.)

Dragons should have (at least) six limbs; two front legs, two back legs, two wings. Very often, you’ll get one with four limbs: two back legs and two wings – and that’s it.

People who argue for four-limbed dragons say ‘they’re more realistic; no vertebrate in the real world has more than four limbs’.

Me, I argue against four-limbed dragons by saying ‘they’re more realistic; no vertebrate in the real world has more than four limbs’.

The problem there is (this keeps coming as a shock to people) when I go to watch a fantasy movie or TV show or read a comic about myth and magic and monsters and heroes and villains, I’m not expecting a David Attenborough special. I don’t want to have everything I watch or read, especially when I watch or read it specifically to escape the real world, to be purely ‘realistic’ (as I have said many times about many things). I want something that isn’t bound in the same dull world I see every day, I want something that isn’t bound entirely to science – as long as it still makes sense, and the magic / unrealism is meant to be magic / unrealism and isn’t just because the writer didn’t do their research. If I want to see the world outside my window, which I can see every day, I will look out my window (which I keep doing as I’m typing, but that’s irrelevant.)

I don't think Hogwarts even teaches science.
This is not a documentary.

If I come in expecting one thing and they give me another, and I don’t like the other more than what I expected, I’m not going to like the final product as much because of it. (I might still like it, but it’s going to lose a star or two.)

I’m gonna allow this

I’ll give an exception for:

Sometimes it just works.
Spirited Away four-limbed dragon: still cool.

Any Asiatic-style dragon. Though the wings are one of the things I love about the beasts, I’m not worried about seeing a dragon without them, especially an Asian-style dragon; that’s what they look like traditionally, that’s just how they roll.

Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus
Not Asian, but Asian inspired. Good enough.

Oddly, I can handle the loss of wings better than the loss of front legs (though I think the wings are cooler). I think it’s because the two back legs, two wings variety just look awkward (I admit they’re sourced from bats – the same place as the wings usually come from).

So many dragons, and I can't have one.
A chart of various dragons from the How To Train Your Dragon franchise.

How To Train Your Dragon movies and TV shows. Although they have a few dragons that really look like they need the extra limbs, they have a very broad variety of dragons, and many of them do have all six. They basically have the numbers to absorb a couple without – and quite a few of their four-limbed dragons look like they’re designed that way (as opposed to the overbalanced look you get by chopping the front legs off a traditional dragon).

(A note on the Harry Potter movie dragons: most of them are four-limbed, which would put the movies in the ‘bad’ category; but I swear I remember at least one six-limbed dragon in there somewhere, which would push them closer to this category… however, I can’t find images online, and I don’t have time at the moment to rewatch all eight movies to find them.)

I am the night.
Realism in a ‘realistic’ movie, plus it doesn’t look bad.

Reign Of Fire. This one is specifically meant to be a non-fantasy: its whole premise is a sci-fi take: Batman vs The Dragons. Although it fails biology in some areas, giving them four limbs is only natural in this case. I’m okay with one or two sci-fi dragon movies – although if they had started taking over and being the only dragons you’d see in movies, I’d be quick to start whining.

Peg-Wing
This is not how you fly, people!
And you thought Youngblood’s disease was bad.

This one happens to a lot of fantasy creatures besides dragons. Winged horses are also especially susceptible.

It almost always happens in more cartoonish / stylised media (but I seem to think I’ve seen it in more ‘realistic’ things as well).

The wings are meant to look cartoony, but for me, they just don’t look good. They look weak, like they wouldn’t work – which they wouldn’t. Peg wings just aren’t strong enough to sustain flight, they aren’t cool, they’re just silly and useless. When I see them, I get annoyed. (And then get on with watching the show.)

I admit that some of what I’m saying is similar to the ‘but it’s realistic’ argument I’ve just decried above, but I’m not after ‘unrealistic’ or ‘silly’ any more than I’m after ‘realistic’. I mostly just want my dragons to look cool.

I’m gonna allow this

I’m… not. But I’ll make acknowledge toys, where the limitations of engineering might force the creators’ hands.

Elbow Spikes
Is this supposed to look cool?
Look at that bizarre spike protruding from the wing’s ‘elbow’; what is that?

Similar to peg-wing, this is one that just doesn’t look good (and is hardly confined to dragons) – and yet people keep going back to it.

It’s also unrealistic: on one of the many, many special features for The Lord Of The Rings, either Alan Lee or John Howe complains about the other one designing a Nazgûl’s (dragon-inspired) flying beastie with elbow spikes (by the way, in the book they’re basically just pterodacyls). He told the guy that they couldn’t even fly that way; but that’s what made it into the movie.

The other guy complained about every piece of armour that was built wrong, as if badly-designed manufactured objects don’t exist – or were even noticeable on screen. He got listened to.

Dragons are usually bat-winged (though I’ve seen them with bird wings and insect wings, too – and that’s fine. Oh, and peg-wing works on insect wings). Dragon creators: if you want your dragons to have the bat-wing look… look at bats’ wings. There’s no reason to go beyond. Seriously; bat wings look cool on dragons as they are; redesigning them for the sake of it is unnecessary.

I’ve seen more realistic dragons go way beyond that, with spikes all along their ‘arms’,

Even Alpha Flight isn't immune to criticism from me.
Jade Dragon, of China Force, Jim Lee art.

or go into full heraldic mode, too, where the wings are a bunch of spikes along the back with a membrane. That’s just… uh…

You went full heraldic. Never go full heraldic.
From a D & D toy commercial.

I know where it comes from (heraldry, as I implied; or is it ‘here be dragons’ maps?), but it doesn’t work on something without a matching level of stylisation.

Colour

Any colour you like.

Dishonourable Mention
I cannae do it, captin! I'm a rocket ship, not a dragon!
I love the movie, but… no. Just, no.

Thor: Ragnarok

We’ve seen dragons in the Marvel Universe before.

It's four-limbed, but at least it looks like a creature, not an 'our dragons are different'.
An Asgardian dragon from the actual source material. Note the wings.

They tend to look like, well, dragons. So what is this thing?

Honestly, while the Thor:Ragnarok dragon is kind of cool, I just look at it and think ‘that was designed that way to look “different”, not for any aesthetic or practical reason’. It actually takes me out of the movie.

Why does Hollywood always seem to think it has to redesign things that have already been designed?

What about…?

There’s one fairly well-known dragon that I haven’t even mentioned. Some of you may be wondering why. Some of you may be screaming at me for not mentioning him yet.

He’s an article on his own.

6 Comments

  1. Two things:

    1. The “Elbow spike” is actually the dragon’s thumb. The elbow is down inside the wing, and the ribs radiating out from the point of the wing are actually fingers.

    2. The Ragnarok dragon is designed that way in order to resemble the classic 1950’s Marvel monster “Fin Fang Foom.”

    Other than that, I mostly agree with you.

    1. Le Messor

      Interesting… I can see your point about the ‘thumb’, but take a look, for example, at the ‘peg-wing’ drawings… I drew the ‘thumb’ onto both (but it’s mostly visible only on the LHS one); it’s way further up than the elbow. (Again, look at bat wings.)

      For somebody who loves dragons as much as I do, I have very, very few FFF appearances. Does he have that ‘rocket pack’ thing in the comics? If so – come back, Thor: Ragnarok, all is forgiven!
      (When I picture him in my head, I’m not seeing wings; at least not big ones.)

  2. Dredd

    I find it interesting the other dragons that have appeared frequently in recent pop culture weren’t mentioned. GRRM is the first person I heard debate the 4 or 6 limbs for dragons, and obviously he preferred 4, so that is what you have in Game of Thrones. The first time I saw Dany’s dragons walking on their wing connected limbs it looked pretty odd, but I’m used to it now.

    For the earlier debate about bat wings with thumb and elbow:
    http://i0.wp.com/theamazingbat.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/bat-wing-alone.jpg?resize=545%2C365

    1. Le Messor

      I’d noticed that I’d skipped GoT, but I basically didn’t have much to say about those dragons that I hadn’t said already.

      I’ve bought a couple of picture books about bats specifically to draw dragon wings. 🙂

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