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I couldn't decide what type of dragon I wanted to write, so I decided to do a Rise of Skywalker and now my dragon is all the dragons. This isn't actually hard to achieve. The key idea is a character that shows a different facet of themselves, depending on how people interact with them.

In practice, that means my dragon, despite his above-average-human knowledge and wit, is also an impulsive brat. Consequently, the cliché draconic greed is replaced by an "awesome" borderline-unhealthy attachment to various objects, which might or might not include people (like close friends) and places.

Now that opens up a whole new treasure trove of potential conflict. For instance, you might steal a dirty book from the dragon's lair, then the dragon chases you for miles just to get his favorite book back. In the end, everyone's left dumbfounded that the dragon threw such a tantrum over something like that.

This behavior is tiresome and after a point, scary for a parent when their child does it. Just imagine how utterly terrifying it becomes when the one having a fit is a living flamethrower with the claws of a cassowary and the jaws of a Nile crocodile. It might actually be enough for some to conclude that it's for the best to get rid of (murder) the dragon before he burns down a whole village because the book thief lives there.

At the same time, this allows for endearing character moments as well, maybe the dragon never reads the ending of that book. because that's when the "good" knight slays the "evil" dragon. Instead, he made up his own ending where the cornered dragon tricks the knight and escapes, then later finds a far-away place with other dragons and lives there happily ever after. Or maybe, the dragon really likes to play games like catch and doesn't get mad if he loses (unless you really rub it in).

Thirdly, the villains could use the dragon's impulsiveness to manipulate him (either sending him into a blind rage or blackmailing him), which is pretty good for leveraging the long-term battle.

This all sounds fine and everything. However, I'm afraid the dragon might actually come off as irritating and detestable for the reader, despite the endearing moments. Either because the negative outweighs them or because they actually piss the reader off even more. Compared to my other characters, the dragon is more responsible for his action, which is the point, but I don't want to go overboard and make him unsympathetic, how can I do that?

  • One approach to childishness that isn't annoying if done right is to make the character friendly but impulsive, like Buddy in the movie Elf. Granted he's an adult, but he acts like a child. But not a mean-spirited child (brat). Instead he's extremely friendly and happy-go-lucky. But he gets into trouble because of his impulsiveness. Because of all this, he's likeable not annoying. – bob Nov 2 '20 at 17:35
  • I also think you might want to consider making the dragon non-stereotypical if you want people to like him. The stereotypical dragon that is scary and flies into a rage and burns down villages is a villain. People hate the villain. – bob Nov 2 '20 at 17:41
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The difference between childish and unsympathetic is defined by where the tantrum stops, and why

Small children can, in fact, be horrifying monsters, ready to do awful things. One of my nephews once told his mother to get rid of his father and "get a new daddy," over a minor issue of discipline. (Something like not letting him climb on the bookshelves.) In a child, this is forgivable for two reasons. First, the child is unable to carry out their shortsighted impulses. Second, it's obvious that the child is simply not practiced at thinking through to the other end of the question, and is giving voice to an impulse they would take back later.

10 minutes later, the same child will be romping with Daddy again.

But even very small children, when they are brought to understand some part of the real pain their thoughtlessness causes, will tend to stop, and be sorry. Those who do not stop (children or not) are sociopaths. Here is where you hit your problem. The dragon which will burn down a village because a book-thief took shelter there is either a sociopath, or is so shortsighted in his rage that he has forgotten there are consequences. The third option is that he is too stupid to understand, but you have already hedged that out by declaring him to have "above-average-human knowledge and wit".

Childishness in those capable of knowing better is tolerated - when it is limited, and can turn off

Now, if your dragon is willing to act like he would kill over his favorite book, and scares a thief half to death - but people realize, after the triumphant dragon flies home with his treasure, that he not only did not hurt anyone, or ruin any houses, but actually managed to step over the old woman's flower gardens... Then your dragon might be more sympathetic.

Likewise, if your dragon throws a fit, but stops himself when he realizes that it was just a game to him, but the people he was "playing" with are in real, mortal terror - that would make your dragon more sympathetic.

But a "playful" dragon who is willing to burn down entire village of innocent people over a stolen book is a villain, and you are correct in thinking some readers would find such a creature detestable.

  • #Jedediah You are forgetting how how members of the species Homo sapiens treat members of other animals species. Many, though not all, Homo sapiens are willing to kill members of other animal species for important reasons, for minor reasons, or even just for fun. Those members of Homo sapiens justify in their minds such disregard for other beings by claiming that only Humans are people with rights, even though current research indicates there are many species on Earth potentially as intelligent as humans. Perhaps dragons think that humans are inferior animals without rights. – M. A. Golding Apr 18 '20 at 16:46
  • @M.A.Golding That does not change what will make the character sympathetic. – Mary Nov 3 '20 at 23:42
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Just a suggestion, but maybe consider splitting the dragon's personality up into an id/ego/superego system?

He can have a childish id that lacks impulse control and throws tantrums and all that. He can have a general ego - a mode where does other things like expand his territory or whatever regular business he has, and he can have a superego mode that's all old and wise with all the cool ancient dragon powers that inspire shock and awe... Just to balance it all out.

You could set up triggers so the readers learn his patterns and what sets him off, so they end up having some suspense...

Also, dragons don't need to be sympathetic. If the reader feels like they're in the dragon's head and they understand how his motives work and how he's wired, then they have empathy and with empathy comes genuine interest.

I think the main question is how human you want your dragon to be? What are his needs? What are his priorities. In a sense, it wouldn't be fair to a dragon to impose a system of human morality on him. All writers are human and all readers are human, so we end up writing very human characters even when we're writing aliens and killer sharks, but he doesn't have to be human.

Children grow out of childishness to function in an adult society. Children don't play with fire because they feel and fear physical pain. What are your dragon's drives/fears/needs? Does he have to blend in with other dragons? Does he need the village for food? Does burning a village help him in any way?

Are you basing his need for collecting things on Hoarding Disorder? There's poor impulse control and then there's compulsion. Does he feel a need to burn and hoard?

I think it'll come to you the more you think about the story itself. Once you have a handle on the world and all the characters, the dragon might more or less shape himself. Eg, if you have a world full of high-tech, magical dragon hunters, you're writing a very different dragon compared to one that exists in a world that's all sunshine and butterflies and bread-baking farmboys who don't believe dragons are real.

People can make suggestions but you alone will know how developed you need this character to be. If you only need him for a flyover or to show up to help the heroes by burning baddies to death, he can be a juvenile as Smaug.

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Childish doesn't have to mean brat

One approach to childishness that isn't annoying if done right is to make the character friendly but impulsive, like Buddy in the movie Elf. Granted in that movie he's an adult, but he acts like a child. But not a mean-spirited child (brat). Instead he's extremely friendly and happy-go-lucky. But he gets into trouble because of his impulsiveness and naivete. Because of all this, he's likeable not annoying, and a very interesting character.

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