In fantasy and science fiction, it is tempting at times to give your creations unique names, either by combining familiar words or just coming up with something off the top of your head.
Take that most iconic of fairy tale creatures, the dragon. Now everyone has a different idea of what a dragon looks like and how it behaves, based on things like the first dragon they encountered in their childhood or the dragons that they know from work or school. I stand by the idea that a dragon would have four limbs, with the forelimbs being wings rather like a bat’s, with one of its fingers forming the wing’s membrane and the others still be usable for climbing or maybe attacking prey.
Others tend to hold firmly to the idea that a dragon should have four limbs in addition to the wings.
Some mind-dragons are intelligent and able to express themselves vocally; others are fantastical beasts but in the end no more intelligent than animals of the smarter sort.
But they all go by the name dragon. You could start categorizing the various kinds–tacitly acknowledging that each mental image of a dragon is as valid as the others–putting the kind I prefer into the category “Wyvern” after the medieval Welsh beastie of that name. But let’s not get too weighed down in taxonomical hair-splitting.
Fantasy writers have gone with all sorts of designs and still managed to call the resulting creatures dragons. In his A Song of Ice and Fire series, George R. R. Martin holds to the four-limbed dragon, and makes them into beasts no more intelligent than a bright dog or other family pet–though much bigger on reaching maturity of course. They can be taught to bear a rider and to use their fire-breathing on command. A sort of housebreaking I suppose.
Patrick Rothfuss takes a different tact completely. Kvothe, the hero of his Kingkiller Chronicles, is disappointed to find that the dragons of legend are based on a natural (but no less impressive) creature that resembles a hippopotamus and sticks to a strictly vegetarian diet, unlike most dragons in fantasy and fairy tale that are rather predatory in nature.
Another of my favorite fantasy writers, Jim Butcher, only brings dragons into his stories in rather subtle ways. In the Dresden Files series, he puts a dragon at a vampire countess’s party, where came in human form (it is a costume party so that may explain things) and smokes a cigarette without lighting it. Now that’s a great image. So dragons are able to change form or at least mimic human appearance. Except for some odd details. Backstory to the same series includes a dragon cult, but besides that there’s not much call for dragons in the Dresdenverse.
So where this leaves you is with a lot of images of dragons from mythology, folklore, and modern fantasy. Dragons tend to be big, have scaly skin (like a reptile), and breathe fire. Where you go from there is up to you, but you should let your reader in on what kind of dragon you’re dealing with. It’s fine to go off on your own, offer something fresh for the reader to discover. One of my favorite recent depictions of dragons is in Andrew Kaye’s flash fiction story “Smaug MD” (link), where dragons for reasons you’ll have to read and find out (RAFO) bring their own unique talents in the medical field.
My own dragons are based a bit on the fairy tale dragons that I loved as a child and on my own imaginings of what a dragon would be like. I’ve gone more with the dragons found in Asian folklore and mythology that dragons are protective spirits tied to nature, rather than scaly beasts who wait around for brave knights to hunt for sport and profit. So of the three examples from modern fantasy I discussed above, mine would probably fall closer to Butcher’s. It’s good to keep an air of mystery around creatures like dragons and not try to define them too much. They tend to be too big to fit in any one box.