Dragons don’t annoy me in and of themselves like prophecies do, but misused, they’re right up there.
1) Try to come up with reasons for the clichés. This goes back to things like crystal balls. Dragons in fantasy tend to sleep on hoards of gold and hate knights. Yet this isn’t Earth, with its complex of dragon legends to account for such things. Most of the time, no explanation is offered; it’s simply “Well, this is a dragon, and that’s what they do.”
A lot of fun can be had when trying to come up with justifications, or twist your dragon away from the usual. What reason would a dragon have to sleep on such a hard, cold bed of metal, when it’s a reptile? Does its own fire keep it warm? Perhaps your dragon hoards blankets instead of gold, or silver instead of gold. What do dragons do with the virgins they carry off, anyway? What would happen if a dragon could speak peacefully with a knight? (Roger Zelazny wrote a very funny short story about a collaboration between a knight and a dragon who want to impress their girlfriends; unfortunately, I don’t remember the title). Or perhaps your dragons are entirely different in not hoarding treasure at all. It’s always better to put a little thought into ideas like this instead of just adopting them.
2) Dragons don’t need to be either evil or benevolent. Many amateur fantasies tend to one extreme or the other; the dragons are evil, ravening monsters, or creatures of powerful magic and high civilization—much like elves in other fantasies—who want to help humans reach the same level. Yet this ignores some fundamental truths, the deepest being why dragons would bother with humans in the first place. They don’t share much in common with them; they aren’t the same size (most of the time), the same shape, or possessed of the same curiosities and drives (again, most of the time). It takes a really compelling motive to bring dragons and humans together, or should, and most of the time that motive isn’t explored. The dragons are left with the same lack of motivation that afflicts other Evil characters in fantasy, or they want to talk to humans just because. Remember the saying: “The surest sign that there is other intelligent life in the universe is that none of it has yet contacted us.”
Basically, don’t reduce your dragons to satellites orbiting around the human sun. Give them motivations of their own, motivations based recognizably on their psychology and physicality, and distinct from the motivations of goblins or elves. Otherwise, dragons aren’t being used to their full potential. They could be marvelously unique, given how different they are from most of the other creatures in fantasy, but that rarely happens.
3) Don’t assume dragons would have an analogue for everything humans do. I’ve read a few amateur fantasies where dragons lived in houses, had their own form of clothing, and used chairs.
Why, though? As mentioned above, dragons aren’t the same shapes as humans, and couldn’t comfortably fit in most human houses or furniture. They aren’t even humanoid, and so don’t have the excuse of other fantasy races like elves and dwarves for developing the same kind of possessions that humans do, only more graceful or rougher. It’s much more likely that they would suit themselves, rather than just slavishly copying the humans.
Now, dragons could have their own form of covering from the weather, places to rest comfortably, and homes. They could do art and have music. But to transplant humanoid notions onto them doesn’t really make sense. To take just one example, why would a dragon have a shirt and pants instead of just one covering for the whole body, with holes for the wings if they have them? Why have different clothing for the male and female, when the females likely don’t have many outer characteristics to differentiate them from the males? Why adapt dragons to a standard that fits our own instead of something that would make more sense?
I suppose this could apply to every fantasy race: try to think of what would make sense for them, instead of just for the humans visiting them.
4) Come up with something for the dragons to do all day. This is a problem that also afflicts other fantasy races with long lives, a “high” level of civilization, and apparently nothing better to do than hang around and help humans or bother them at some point. What do the faeries do in their own courts? What do the elves do when they’re not lamenting the death of their lands or coldly refusing help to humans? And what do dragons do, other than hunting and sleeping?
There seems to be remarkably little sense of dragons as a society, even when it’s stated that they are one. I’ve read very few books with dragons who created art, who sang, who explored, who did all the interesting things that humans seem to think we would be able to do if we just had longer lives. Consider this: Dragons are usually large reptiles, and large reptiles don’t need to eat that often. They feast when they need to, then let it subside in their bellies. And surely intelligent and civilized dragons wouldn’t spend the rest of their days sleeping. What do they do? And if you take humans among them, can you show them doing it?
Of course, dragons can be just animals in your world, or the lesser partners of humans. But if they’re not, if they’re intelligent and self-sufficient on their own, it doesn’t do to state that and then just show them eating and sleeping. Who takes out dragon trash?
5) It shouldn’t be that easy to kill a dragon. In fantasies where dragons are evil, it often is, though. Some of these are explained away as the result of enchanted weapons and the help of fate, which is how Tolkien treated the dragon-killings in his world. But otherwise, people go around stabbing these powerful beasts left and right, and rightfully feared adversaries are reduced to the level of other “evil” races in the fantasy world—sword-fodder for the heroes.
If you’re using a “standard” fantasy dragon with four legs and two wings, pause a moment and think about how many weapons that beast has, even if it’s only twenty-five or thirty feet long. For a start, it will be enormously strong, far stronger than any single human or horse. If you’re using one with a whip-like neck and tail, it can use both of them as battering rams. The blow of a crocodile’s tail can kill a human being. What would a dragon’s tail do? Probably not cause light wounds.
There’s the talons and teeth, of course, and if your dragons are snake-like or lizard-like, they should be quick enough to use them—and strike home at least some of the time. Try to make your heroes’ escapes look like skill rather than luck or Miraculous Dodging Powers. The wings would probably be kept folded in close to the body, since the wing-leather is usually represented as fairly thin and vulnerable to spears and arrows, and not spread wide just to provide an easy target. However, if the wings are torn apart, then your heroes have not cowed the dragon; more likely, they’ve just brought a very angry dragon to the ground, where it can strike from close range. If your dragon has horns and spikes on the head or tail, it should get the chance to use them, too, and it might well stamp with its paws.
Finally, there’s the breath, usually of fire. Decide whether it’s a thin, concentrated line or a wide blast. The thin line may prove easier to dodge; on the other hand, it’s likely to be hotter that way, and a hero it does strike will probably burst into flames and be very hard to put out, or vaporized altogether if the heat is strong enough. It might be best to actually estimate a rough temperature for the breath, so you don’t have inconsistencies like the flames melting rock but just making a hero’s jacket smolder.
Defensively, the dragon will also have its scales. If they’re thin and flexible, then the dragon may prove vulnerable to swords and arrows, but it will also move more quickly than a dragon with thick and heavy scales. A dragon might lumber with scales too thick, but your heroes will have a harder time justifying fighting it without magic. For every advantage, there’s a trade-off, or should be.
And there’s what happens if you have magic-wielding dragons, intelligent dragons, or dragons with both. Obviously, a dragon should not be an easy opponent to fight.
6) Dragons are not helpless without hands. Many times, even dragons with high levels of civilization live in rough caves, with their poorly fashioned mockeries of human things strewn around them. This seems to be the fault of not having human hands.
Again, particularly if you want to present your dragons as high and sophisticated, think like a dragon. There are many advantages to fingers, but there are disadvantages as well. For one thing, humans cannot carve stone without the aid of special tools, and even then not easily. Why not let dragon talons and teeth do that? Or why not have them use their fire breath to carve out tunnels to live in, particularly if it’s hot enough to melt rock? Fire that strong wouldn’t be much use in hunting, since it might char the animal beyond edibility, and dragons wouldn’t be under attack all the time. Try to come up with uses the dragons would have for it. Do it right, and they will come to seem like embodiments of themselves, rather than shadows of humans. (This is the problem with a lot of non-human races in fantasy; they’re presented as just ways of commenting on human society, either positively or negatively, not as people in themselves).
To mention just one more disadvantage of hands: They’re bruised or broken easily. If human magic in your world depends on hand gestures, what happens to a mage who gets his fingers broken? If dragons use gestures as well, they would have an advantage over human mages here. Their gestures may be clumsier, slower, or wider, but it would be one hell of a hard job to break or bind their talons.
More personal than some of them, but people using dragons as just sword-fodder or surrogate elves irritates me.