How to make a dragon fly

A dragon that can't fly
A dragon. Sort of. It can’t fly.

I said I wasn’t going to write about writing (much), and you’ll see I’m not. I’m writing about dragons, and that’s entirely different.

The seed of the idea for my current work in progress comes to me when I’m watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My thought process goes approximately like this: “Wow, fantasy is more fun than real life. I want to write a book about dragons.”

I didn’t say it made sense.

Having made this decision, I have to deal with the big question faced by everyone who decides to write about dragons: How do I make them fly? My physics is a little rusty, but I’m guessing any creature as big as a truck would need football field-sized wings, and if its muscles could even get up the strength to move them, flapping would snap its bones in two.

Dragons should be cool and terrifying, not mournful and broken, so that’s a problem. (Actually, a depressed dragon with self-confidence issues might be a great story, but it’s not the story I’m writing this time.)

I want to be true to physics, so I start by wondering what the biggest creature that’s ever flown is, on the basis that if it actually happened it’s probably possible.

I’m from New Zealand, so I’ve heard of Haast’s eagle, a huge kick-ass eagle that hunted moa (think, ostrich, only bigger and less stupid colours). I recommend you check out the link—I’m sure it’s entirely scientifically accurate. I’ll wait.

An eagle
Not Haast’s eagle, but still pretty cool.

Haast’s eagle has been extinct for hundreds of years (hence, no photo), though I hear that doesn’t keep tour bus operators from warning tourists to watch out for them when they’re sightseeing in the New Zealand mountains.

Sadly, Haast’s eagle only weighed up to 13 kg, and a dragon of this size would be a pathetic beast indeed.

I’m certain that something bigger has been capable of flight, and so I go searching. Wikipedia comes to the rescue: “Pterosaurs include the largest flying animals ever to have lived.” Eureka! They’re not actually dinosaurs, but “prehistoric archosaurian reptiles closely related to dinosaurs”. Close enough.

Look at the wingspans on those things—up to 13m (43 ft). Since most people are less than 3m tall, those are massive wings. An army of dwarves could camp under them.

But would a dragon the size of a pterosaur be massive enough to eat a man in one bite? (Not that that happens in my story. Well, it might. I’m not telling. But really, what fun are dragons if they don’t occasionally eat people?)

Further reading reveals that it’s really hard to tell how heavy an animal was by looking at its skeleton, but science can’t rule out flying creatures as large as 250 kg (550lb).

How would that be for a dragon? A “light riding horse” might weigh 380 to 550 kg, so we’re talking about a dragon with half the mass of a horse.

I know a dragon could seem big for its size given its huge wings, dagger-like teeth, and flame for breath, but a half-horse sized dragon screams puny to me. Even if I stretch the science and say dragons are the same size as a horse, they’re disappointing. The worst kind of dragon is a disappointing one.

Horse with a mouth much smaller than a person.
Could this eat a man in one bite? I think not.

I want dragons the size of a juggernaut.

A humongous truck
How scary would this be if it had huge teeth and was trying to eat you? (Image credit: C.P. Storm via Flickr.com.)

Maybe that’s a little overboard. But still, dragons should be freaking huge.

I feel that science has failed me on the dragon flight front, so I have to consider alternatives. I can see two.

  1. Dragons can’t fly. What kind of pathetic dragons would those be? Is it even fair to call them dragons if they’re flightless? Sure, Komodo dragons can’t fly, but everyone knows reality is a poor imitation of fantasy. No, my dragons have to be able to fly.
  2. Dragons fly using magic. This is a cop-out, but it could work in some circumstances. Like, if dragons are magical in other ways. My dragons have certain unusual talents, but they’re not magical as such, so we’re a no go.

I am not happy and require significant cheering up.

A yummy-looking pastry
Cake? Pie? It looks good, and may be the only solution when your dragons can’t fly.

Then I realise I’m missing the obvious solution. Of course my dragons can fly. They’re dragons.

If my reader can’t handle that she’s reading the wrong genre.

Do you have any better solutions to the dragon problem? Do fantasy worlds that bend the laws of physics without using magic bother you? What are the most egregious abuses of physics you’ve come across? How do you deal with these types of problems in your writing?

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Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

21 thoughts on “How to make a dragon fly”

  1. I do have a better solution! Dragons can fly because they choose to, like trees have leaves, because they choose to and the wind blows because it chooses to. Ask a child under the age of five – the majority of them would agree with me! 😉

    No, fantasy worlds that bend the laws of physics do not bother me, at least within reason. Call me simple minded, but if I can acknowledge that dragons indeed can exist in this world, than I too can acknowledge that they can fly. And why wouldn’t they, if evolution found a way to create dragons in that world in the first place, it might as well have found a way to make them fly. 😉

  2. I was going to suggest you look into dinosaurs! Ha! I love your comparison with the horse to give us an idea about size. How big, end to end, was the Pterosaurs though? Even if scientists can’t guess weight, they should have an idea about how big its jaw was.

  3. I love juggernaut-size dragons! 😀 For variety I’m also okay with dragons the size of parrots, but usually when there are dragons in a fantasy book, I expect something mean and massive. With big teeth! I do think it takes magic to get those beasts off the ground though. Especially if you want to make them breathe fire as well, magic is a pretty solid explanation. I’m not bothered by fantasy worlds bending the laws of physics because I think the genre is supposed to be about imagining something different. I suspect viciously sticking to laws of physics would make it either science fiction or alternate universe – which are also awesome genres, but different animals.

    1. It’s funny you say that. I have huge dragons, and also dragons the size of house cats. I love them all, but the little ones are scavengers and house pets and not at all scary.

      You make a good point about the line between fantasy and sci fi. In my opinion, fantasy needs magic, but not everything in the fantasy world that’s not in our world needs to be explained by magic. In sci fi, something might look magical at first, but it can explained by science, even if the science is stretched.

  4. Ah, the physics of dragons! I remember reading somewhere that while nothing in a genre book has to follow the rules of our world, there still need to BE rules, and as long as you stick to the rules of your world the reader will accept it. (If the dragon turns into a fluffy bunny to avoid being slain by the knight, there might be questions). That seems to make perfect sense to me – who’s to say how things operate in a world of dragons?

    Except, of course, everyone knows dragons can fly. That’s just a given.

    1. Now I want a dragon that turns into a fluffy bunny when threatened. It could be a defense mechanism. I mean, what kind of evil knight would slay a bunny?

  5. Dragons are always going to be a source of contention, whether you go western or eastern, I’ve not been a fan of the “because there’s magic” excuse, so I think about it this way… how do things fly in the real world, like birds for example? They fly because they have hollow bones, well, why not let the dragon have hollow bones? Also, birds have heavily built-up chests proportional to the rest of their bodies, so therefore dragons will need a more beefed up chest. If you have your dragon with a beefed up chest, well, you’re going to need to balance it somehow.

    I prefer longer necks on my dragons, because honestly, it looks so much cooler, but it’s also going to need a longer tail for flight. Now the tail doesn’t have to be too muscular, just enough to steer and stabilize, but again, it needs a bit more weight. At this point, I usually have to beef up my dragon’s chest again, and then I think it looks even cooler so I move on to claws and accessories. Yes, dragons must accessorize, after all. I’m talking nice long sharp claws, perfect for grabbing large pray, because a large dragon will need to eat a lot. Large teeth, again, for obvious reasons.

    Then, I have to think about how the dragon will catch its food, and thus I look to the snake. The cobras are crazy fast, due to lots of muscles that are really quick. Well, put that kind of muscle and vertebrae into the dragon’s neck and tail, so now it can be quick, thus more awesome and dangerous. As for the wings, the final bit would be to think of how they’re made. Having skin stretched between the bones makes sense, since reptiles have skin under their scales. Strange, I know. The only problem is whether the skin would be strong enough to support the weight without sheering, and to that I only have to remember how durable clothing made of dragonskin is. Spoilers, it’s quite durable. Scientifically, you could argue that dragon skin is denser than normal skin, but sometimes science can get in the way of a good story, so I’m content to let it lay.

    Now, if we’re talking fire… this one is pretty fun. Scientifically, we know that you can light a fart on fire (bare with me a bit) because farts contain ignitable gas, which happens inside the body. Now, we’ve already established a dragon’s skin is very tough, thus implying it’s a good insulator, and since it has to eat a lot, that means it’s taking in and converting a lot of energy. Energy is heat. So, we get all this heat and explosive gasses going on, but finally we need a spark… the dragon bones themselves. Dragon bones are long understood to be as tough or tougher than steel, so the bones striking against each other would likely produce sparks. The sparks start in the teeth, so the spark starts in the mouth, and then the very hot gasses are exited from the mouth you get… fire. Yes, I did try to scientifically explain dragon fire. No I do not have, well, evidence to explain this per say, but I like to think it’s somewhat probable.

    So, in conclusion, of course dragons can fly. Look in any serious fantasy book and you’ll see. Simple 😉

    By the way, Stephen Norse, the one I use on twitter, is my pseudonym. This is my real name. Pleasure to be reading you 🙂

    1. Hey, Stefan! It’s great to have you stop by.

      That’s an impressive set of logic you have there, especially your point about dragonskin clothing.

      I do have one question, though. If the dragon ignites the flammable gases by sparking his teeth together, wouldn’t that mean his mouth was closed when he belched flame? My understanding is that dragons only breathe flame when their mouths are open.

      I hadn’t thought through dragon tails all that thoroughly. I know dragons have tails, but the required length and shape to be helpful in flight bear careful thinking. Do you agree they’d almost have to have sails on the end to be effective at helping to steer?

      1. This is possibly just me, but when I see depictions of dragons breathing fire, there’s usually a point where their mouth is more closed before being thrown wide open to expel the flame, so it could be argued that’s where the ignition sequence happens. Again, that’s just me, lol, but it’d be interesting to see a book actually science dragons into reality.

        On the note of tails… sails, fins, plates, something along those lines would make sense as being effective for steering. I would almost think that the movement of the dragon in the air would be similar to watching a lizard swim.

        1. I’m not convinced on the lizard swimming front. I imagine a dragon flying is more an up-and-down motion, whereas a lizard swimming is more side-to-side. Maybe more of a dolphin?

        2. No, that’s a good point, I agree with you there. I was just thinking back to “How to train your Dragon” and for some reason I was seeing a side to side motion, but in reality it was more an adjustment of the tail to act as a rudder.

  6. Hey now, komodo dragons can be terrifying. Have you seen the ancestral komodo in Terra Nova? http://tinyurl.com/j5tpcmb That thing was pretty much a dragon.

    But, I get where you’re coming from. If you’re going to have dragons, you gotta have DRAGONS. No other way about it.

    Physics can be suspended to a degree in fantasy without me minding, especially if there’s magic involved. That being said, I love when physics is blended with the world and its magic. Nothing too detailed, but enough to hint to the reader that, even if the characters don’t know it, the laws of nature as we know them remain intact.

    Great picture choice in this post, by the way. They were perfect!

    Also, elegant solution to the email every post vs. monthly update dilemma. I like it!

    In my own fiction I prefer to create monsters a bit closer to reality. I’ve got a new short story with sink holes inhabited by giant pitcher plants that will trap and digest humans if they fall in. It also features something I call the “wendiguar” which is based on the native American mythical creature, the wendigo. It can mimic sounds like a mocking bird, or parrot, but more precise. Thus, it lures humans in by “talking” to them, though it doesn’t understand that it’s talking, just that it’s mimicking noises it’s heard humans make before.

    1. Whoa, that ancestral komodo is a monster!

      I’m glad you like the pictures. I had a lot of fun finding a series of freely available pics that told the story I was after. I had to look at a lot of wimpy trucks before I found that one that screams “dragon”.

      I love your idea of man-eating plants – I always thought it was rather unfair that animals eat plants and plants almost never get revenge. And your wendiguar sounds awesome. Does it have huge talons?

    1. Hi Luciesmoker! I agree. I like science and I think it’s a good starting point, but it shouldn’t get in the way of a flight of imagination. At least, not in fantasy. 🙂

  7. I debated the physics of dragon flight with an engineer i used to work with and you’re absolutely right, once you get to a certain point, the increasing area of the wings (which will increase to the power of 2 as size increases) is unable to lift the mass of the muscles required to power them (because these increase to the power of 3), so even if you have hollow bones and gas filled bodies etc, if you want a big flying beastie you have no choice but to break with physics.

    I’ve given my dragons two adaptations:
    1) they are mostly gliders, because gliding requires far smaller muscles than flying and is not unknown among ‘first world’ reptiles, and
    2) they have a special class of ‘dragon magic’ that allows them to warp/ignore the physical rules of the world to enable them to take off/fly despite it being physically impossible for something their size.
    I know the latter is kind of a cop-out, but it was the only thing i could think of seventeen years ago when i came up with it. My rule is that as a very powerful form of magic (gained even before the gods came to my world) it has a very limited range i.e. it can only extend a maximum of a few feet beyond the dragon’s physical form. It means that dragons can produce fire to breathe it if i want them to too and it can allow them to get into a cave in mountains where there isn’t an entrance big enough too. I’ve also made it a conscious form of magic e.g. like casting a spell, so it only works when the dragon is concentrating on it, so they are actually quite vulnerable during take-off and they can stop using the skill once they are air-born because of the gliding, so my way works for me as a workaround because it means that dragons, while mighty, do have a vulnerability, and they are not always breaching the rules of physics.

    It was this or make them an aquatic species and let the water support their mass, which i don’t like because, as you say, dragons need to FLY.

    1. I love that there are people who think so hard about these issues.

      My dragons also have the most trouble taking off, but they solve it by flapping harder and ignoring the rules of physics. (If you don’t look they don’t apply, right?) Magic that gets them off the ground but makes them vulnerable while they’re casting it is a cool idea–I imagine that could lead to all sort of interesting things in the plot.

      Gliding is also sensible. So I suppose their wings are very large.

      All the best with your book(s)! It has dragons, so it must rock. 🙂

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