I want my cultured creatures to be cultured!
The books I am working on currently have a lot of dragons in them. I have big ones that are very beautiful, I have bigger ones that like singing, I have smaller ones that tend to be very annoying. Almost all of them talk and are as intelligent as my human characters.
When I was planning out the books, I needed to develop my dragon characters in the same way as I developed my human characters. It became obvious very quickly that if the two were going to get along they better have some things in common, something that each could relate to in the other.
Where do you live?
This is often a starting point in character development: "John woke up in his bed with a headache." Okay, not very imaginative, but the sort of thing that living, breathing creatures tend to do. Why would only a human do that? Why not a dragon? The dragon needs to sleep somewhere, might object to getting wet overnight and like something soft to lie on. I know my dog used to: Here, doggy! Cushion or cold kitchen floor? Guess which she went for? And yet we subject our poor, long-suffering dragons to caves and piles of uncomfortable treasure.
So, the next thing I had to look at is what sort of place would they live in? I mean, if your dragon is the size of your house, what size is their house? And what do they do with their tails? There are many possible answers, of course; I went for the house made out of huge tree trunks covered with canvas and hides. More or less open plan so that the tail was not an issue. I then filled it with silks and rugs and cushions; well, I would find that comfortable, so why not they?
The Opposable Thumb
It is no coincidence that human beings, language and being able to manipulate the environment all go together. Our actions are as important as our words whether that is waving at someone across the street or being able to knit a woolly jumper. There is no reason to believe that a non-human beast would be any less capable, indeed, it could be argued that they would have to be otherwise their brains would not have evolved so much like ours. Birds can be pretty clever with their beaks, but there is a limit to the trick, so it is not surprising that many dragons end up resembling a T-Rex with wings; they get arms.
Goody! They can now pick things up and manipulate them. So what do we have them do? Pick something up with their teeth and throw it over the cliff. No, no, no! If they have hands-ish and brains they would use them for all sorts of thing from cutting up their dinner to chucking spears or even making beautiful items; these are highly intelligent creatures remember who appreciate their environment. So now my dragons talk, like warm dry places and make things for pleasure.
As an aside, next time you look at a picture of a four legged dragon with wings, ask how many limbs they have? Oops! They are hexapods! What are they doing on the same planet as quadrupeds? That is one that keeps coming up as a mystery in my book because, let's face it, it is rather odd!
Love your neighbours
Dragons need to have baby dragons (or extinction beckons) and this means they need to have some sort of family structure, like all animals. On top of that, if they are intelligent, they will have an advanced sense of society and so may want to live in communities, have some sort of hierarchy and generally live by rules, like us humans do. But of course, there are differences here that are rather stark; well, one at least.
Many of the basic human rules, dating back to a more primitive past, are based around the idea of the tribe. Tribes have two things going for them, they are self-protectionist and they are territorial. In other words, they look out for each other and make sure that there are no invaders wanting to, well, invade. Humans are particularly good at this because they lack one particular skill; they cannot fly.
With my dragons, the very fact they can fly causes a huge problem; it is very difficult to protect your territory if your neighbour can just fly straight over your head. And remember, this is not a sudden problem, dragons have been able to fly for aeons, so this is something they have evolved with.
In consequence, my dragons are not territorial; they do not understand the concept. They also do not understand the idea of ownership in the same way as a human, at least not when it comes to land; if it is not possible to protect it, why would you have the idea of protecting it in the first place.
This then leads onto another interesting conclusion; dragons do not understand wars. Wars are always over territory in one way or another; even ideological wars tend to be about not wanting someone else's ideology on your territory. If you do not get the concept of territory then you have removed almost all the reasons for wars.
Please notice, that I am talking about war here, not fighting; with intelligence comes argument and there is no reason to suppose that dragons would not get involved in a good punch up. But the chances are that left to their own devices, war would be rare or non-existent. As a result, in my character development, where my dragon characters get involved in wars it is because they are helping their human friends because the human wars are threatening the dragon's way of life. As a result, interestingly enough, the dragons would probably always end up on the same side of a conflict; they would chose to fight against the one that is messing up the status quo, for whatever reason. If everyone is messing it up, then the dragons would probably not get involved at all.
Eating Each Other and other Nutrition
Dragons have to eat. Oh, I suppose if they are magical they might just absorb energy through their skins or something, but that is probably not the case most of the time. I have had to take into account a couple of things; firstly they eat a lot, which makes them challenging neighbours from the resource point of view, and secondly as intelligent, cultured creatures, they would have preferences.
Why would a dragon want raw and live goat when they could barbecue it? They know how to make fires, they have hands, so why not light a fire, dispatch the goat nicely and roast it with some herbs? Yes, it would need to be a whole goat, per dragon, and the mug of beer to wash it down would be suspiciously barrel shaped, but it is conceivable.
They may even worry about their diet. In my book, two of the species of dragon are sea dragons and mountain dragons. They are related, but one tends to like goat the other fish. At one point, the sea dragon introduces a mountain dragon to fishing, but they both have been drinking and they mistake a rotting bit of whale meat for a nice fresh bit of tuna. Perfectly possible. The result is that the two are as sick as dogs for a week. Now, I treat it as a comic story being told to a young child, but based on reality. This was about two friends who had a couple of beers too many and bought a dodgy kebab and got food poisoning, but translated into dragon culture.
They are us
If you are going to create any mythical style creature that lives, breathes, bleeds, talks and dies, then it must share some of our attributes or it would never have come to be what it is in the first place. If the creature can be critical of humans, then it can be self-critical too and will make life choices. Just like the dog who prefers the cushion, those life choices may, at times, seem very human.
So, here is the toast to the cultured, neighbourly dragon, warts and all.