Jul 15 2008

Manuscript Killers: Part-Time Dragons

Published by at 4:30 am under Character Development,Writing Articles

A part-time character is any character that can switch freely between two species. The two species are most often humans and dragons.

Why this is a problem: it feels like the character treats his species like flipping a switch. “I think I’ll be a human today!” It also defeats the purpose of having a nonhuman character: nonhumans are fresh and interesting precisely because they are nonhuman. Turning your character into a human at the drop of a hat is a copout.

Changing your character’s species also tends to ruin dramatic scenes. When a character struggles, it leads to genuine drama. For example, if a dragon were invited to a formal business dinner, the potential for disaster makes the scene dramatic. How will the dragon avoid making a fool of himself and humiliating his host and friends? If he “resolves” the problem by flipping the switch and polymorphing into an 100% coordinated human, there’s no drama. Letting your dragon turn himself into a fully adapted human will spoil the moments when a dragon character would be the most interesting, when being a dragon is a liability. Your readers would rather read scenes where the nonhuman struggles through awkward, delicate situations where he should be out of his depth.

How to fix it: the easiest way is to pick one species and stick with it. If you would really like to use a polymorphing character, I strongly recommend that the character not really fit into his secondary form. It will be more dramatic (and believable) if he has trouble adapting to a new body, let alone pretending to be a member of the second species.

For example, your polymorphing dragon might have trouble…

  • Sounding human in conversation. If your dragon is hundreds of years old, he may have a tendency to use words like “Greetings” instead of “Hi.” He may also accidentally refer to children as “hatchlings” or “whelps.”
  • Walking on two legs. Walking upright gives us a higher center of gravity than most quadrapeds.
  • Performing any sort of precise task (like dancing, horseback riding or turning the pages in a book). These all require coordination and dexterity that a dragon just should not have in a human’s body.
  • Fighting. He probably wouldn’t be able to use a sword in any remotely competent way, given that he’s always used his claws and teeth. Also, he might not feel comfortable wearing armor.
  • Eating politely. If he’s used to eating with his claws and teeth, as a “human” he would probably stick out at dinner.
  • Avoiding social blunders. For example, humans rarely wear pajamas outside, but a dragon in a human’s body probably wouldn’t know that.
  • Perceiving his surroundings. In nature, most predators have more highly-attuned senses of sight and smell than humans do. Flying predators (like owls, hawks and eagles) have particularly acute vision.  If a dragon were in a human’s body, he might be disorientated by his suddenly poor vision.

The more you can draw on the cultural and physiological differences between the character’s default species and what he has transformed himself into, the better. For example, The Dragon and the George did an excellent job of characterizing dragons by transforming a human into one.

UPDATE: One e-mail asked “what do I do if the character is a full-time dragon that has been raised by humans? He doesn’t really have a culture of his own.”  OK, then you have several options.

One, you could build drama from the conflict between a dragon fitting into a society that wasn’t made for him.  If you were writing a light-hearted story, you might focus on physical details (like how hard it is for him to fit into buildings).  You could write a deeper and more serious story by focusing on what humans thought of a dragon that lived among humans.  Can a nonhuman be “one of us?”

Two, you could build drama from a human-raised dragon not fitting in among dragon-raised dragons.

Third, you could combine the first two by saying your human-raised dragon doesn’t fit in well among either the humans or dragons.  That’s similar to a large body of literature about the children of interracial parents, I think. This approach has several positives, particularly if you’d like to write a serious and “respectable” fantasy story, but it might get angsty. Also, it’s hard to write an innovative ending for this story. He will probably decide that either both the humans and the dragons have something to offer and try to live among both, or try to bring the humans and dragons together, or decide to live among a community of human-raised dragons or whatever. In contrast, a story that asks an open-ended question (“can a non-human be one of us?”) is better-suited for a creative ending.

31 responses so far

31 Responses to “Manuscript Killers: Part-Time Dragons”

  1. Garreton 25 Jul 2008 at 2:25 pm

    Is it that bad? I have a race in my book that are shapeshifters; they can assume any form. Is it really that bad of a crime against writing? I mean, it doesn’t feature much, it’s just a part of who they are. Ugh. Please know that I take all your writing advice very seriously and now you’ve seriously freaked me out. Please reply.

  2. B. Macon 26 Jul 2008 at 8:13 am

    Eek, don’t let our advice freak you out! We started this site to offer suggestions for authors to consider and help them feel more confident.

    As for your question, a race of shape-shifters would probably avoid the the part-time dragon problem. PTDs are problematic because they shift among two identities (usually dragon and human) far more naturally than they should be able to. In contrast, your mimics will probably have a single identity, because they’re never really human in any meaningful sense even though they may take on a human’s body. Does that make sense?

    Your race raises many interesting questions. What would their society be like? How do they interact with other species? What do they do with their shape-shifting powers? What sort of cultural and psychological traits and tendencies would such a species have? I think your species is the solid basis for a deep and interesting manuscript. Good luck.

  3. J.Bon 13 Aug 2008 at 12:22 am

    I’m writing a character who is, well, both a human and a human/wolf… not a werewolf, but mainly human with some wolf attributes. He talks and walks normally but has fur and claws and a tail. Anyway, when he gets hurt too badly, he changes back into a human loses his special qualities like added strength, better senses, and overall cooler. Is that OK?

  4. Jacobon 13 Aug 2008 at 2:32 am

    “but mainly human with some wolf attributes.” I think it will be hard to sell a publisher on a human with wolflike appendages (fur, claws, tail). Making him more distinctly wolf-like will probably make the story more dramatic. Also, publishers may mistake your work for a furry story if it’s essentially about a human in a wolf’s body. But a story that’s about a highly wolf-like character would not scare publishers away. Alternately, children are usually amenable to books about humans in animal bodies, so if you’re writing for kids please feel free to disregard the above advice.

    If you would like to make your character more wolf-like, I think Aragh from The Dragon and the George is an excellent example.

    If you would not like to make your character more wolf-like in ways that a bit deeper than his body, I’d recommend just making him a human. I think it would be very difficult to sell a story about a human in an upright wolf’s body.

    Good luck!

    –Jacob

  5. B. Macon 07 Oct 2008 at 9:56 am

    Hello, J.B.

    Like Jacob, I’m not too thrilled with the character-concept, but mainly because it sounds too much like Inuyasha. The character may give the story a pulpish (and slightly cheesy) anime feel. But that could be appropriate for the story, if you want it to feel like anime. It could work.

    Assuming the character isn’t part of any romances, I don’t think that there is very much potential for confusion.

  6. Andreaon 21 Nov 2008 at 11:31 am

    Hi there! So… I was just wondering. I’m actually writing a potential fantasy novel that has humans, dragons, and elves involved… I’ve already managed to make dragons and elves unique in their own ways. But the main character is actually a male half-dragon (if you google image search half-dragon, you’ll get an idea of what I’m picturing).

    Is that anything like what you may be talking about? He cannot turn into a full dragon and can’t spit fire… but still? Thanks!

  7. B. Macon 21 Nov 2008 at 1:17 pm

    Hi, Andrea! I am very pleased that you have unique elves and dragons. That said, I have a few concerns about the half-dragons.

    1. Half-dragons are typically Mary Sues.

    2. The character may also be a “homo superior“– like human, but better. It could be problematic if he can do everything a human can do and more. You can get around that by making the dragon side of his heritage a liability (ideally for reasons not related to discrimination/persecution by other characters).

    3. Erm, I’m going to tread very, very carefully on this one. Many stories about talking animals feel pretty innocent and mainstream (like Redwall or TMNT). Other talking animals (furries) have a somewhat unpleasant and deviant connotation. Publishers would much rather work with a story that feels like Redwall than a furry story. First, the potential audience is larger. Second, the author of a furry story might be too invested in the story. That suggests the author may prove resistant to story-changes that the editor feels are essential. Two quick questions. 1: Is there any romance for the half-dragon? and 2: If an editor offered to publish your story but only if you changed the half-dragon to a human, what would you say?

  8. Andreaon 21 Nov 2008 at 4:00 pm

    Thanks for the input. As for your questions… there is about a 99% chance there will not be a romance involving the half-dragon, there are other characters that can be romantic with each other. As for the second question, that’s a tough one… the plot basically revolves around him being a half dragon:

    “For millennia, dragons conquered all nations. Humans and half-dragons alike roamed the human world freely and in harmony. Daunted by their presence, however, humans formed an alliance, Humans Against Dragon Control (HACD), to bring down these powerful creatures. The war against dragons and humans raged on for nearly ten years. Dragons were banished to the demon world. All half-dragons were killed. However, one half-dragon remained. For the rest of time, he was to guard the bridge between the human world and the demon world.

    Still bounded by a contract, Carzel was soon free to roam the human world. But when the demon lord, Valdemar, escapes, the world is waiting for Carzel. With a few unlikely friends, Carzel embarks on a journey to rescue his people, but must first forgive the humans.”

    So if the publisher did ask… I’d probably have to change EVERYTHING, and just invent a new plot in general. If I could change it, I guess would, it would just take a while…

    Homo superior? I guess I can see where that could happen… O.o a lot more problems with this idea then I had expected….

  9. L.A.Writeron 01 Feb 2009 at 9:19 pm

    I have a character who can turn into a demon. The thing is his demon side has it own personality, so they’re basically fighting control for his body. The demon is the actual superhero, but when the human becomes accustomed to him, his human attributes are enhanced. So what do you think?

  10. B. Macon 02 Feb 2009 at 5:02 am

    Hmm. It sounds like Jason Blood/Etrigan from DC Comics. To keep your guy fresh, I’d recommend playing up the fight for control, particularly if you’re doing a comic book rather than a novel.

  11. L.A.Writeron 02 Feb 2009 at 4:24 pm

    I can see how my idea is like that, so i’ll make sure to play up the fight for control. I’m actually thinking of creating a new species instead of using demon, but I feel that his other half is more demonic. Thing is, I want to do a novel. So how should I go about that?

  12. B. Macon 02 Feb 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Well, if this story is about a struggle for control against a sinister entity, I think a demon character really makes sense. For a more generic fantasy feel, you could try something like dragons (a la American Dragon) or a minotaur or something, but I think that demons have a particular dark, hellish vibe about them that a generic fantasy creature doesn’t… again, if this is a story about a struggle for control, I think a demon just fits better.

    “I want do a novel. So how should I go about that?”

    Umm, that’s kind of a general question. Not knowing anything else about where you are in your writing process, I’d recommend coming up with a few traits for the main character and a setting (probably modern Earth or a generic fantasy setting). Then you put together a development arc… ie, how do you see the main character growing over the course of the story? Then, once you know his starting traits and how you’d like him to evolve over the course of the story, then you’d design the villain and plot accordingly. (At least, I assume that the demon won’t be the main villain, but I could be mistaken).

  13. L.A.Writeron 02 Feb 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Okay thanks. As for the demon being a villain, that’s a no. The main villain will probably be a common enemy, someone that they’d both agree has to go just to show that the man and demon don’t completely hate each other.

  14. Shellon 17 Feb 2009 at 8:27 pm

    I would love any kind of advice on this one. I have a group of humanoid characters with bestowed power to grow to giant sizes at will (some are heroes, some are villains). So, in essence they are “part-time giants” (sort of like Apache Chief was in “The Super Friends,” for anyone who knows). There are plenty of great and deep issues to play with here, which is why I love working with giants–especially with the perspective of a human who has the ability to become giant.

    However, I want to avoid making their normal human form too convenient. Any ideas or references for how I can reasonably challenge these characters to use their giant powers as often as possible, and not rely too heavily on the convenience of blending in?

    Secondly, it’s obvious that the setting will pose a conflict for them; but how can I repeatedly and effectively make the situational conflict and the setting conflict work together as one? (Preferably not in the heroes’ favor.)

    Thank you for any replies.

  15. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 17 Feb 2009 at 9:41 pm

    Shell, I have a bit of advice for you.

    It helps the story if the character has less control over when they change. In D.N.Angel, Daisuke has less control in the beginning, having to avoid Risa (the girl he has a crush on) to avoid transforming into Dark. There’s one incident in the manga where he has to run away from her as he begins to transform in the school hallway. (Awkward! Haha.)

    Using D.N.Angel for another example, Dark and Daisuke are not the same person. They exist in the same body but they switch every time one of them thinks about their crush excessively. Dark is a bit of a flirt but Daisuke is easily embarrassed. This distinguishes them and also shows a bit of a struggle when one of them is in control. When Dark isn’t stealing cursed artworks and avoiding the police, he’s flirting with every girl he sees. When Daisuke isn’t doing homework, he’s pining over Risa. So perhaps your giants could have different personalities when they’ve gone from one size to another?

    You could also make it so they change slowly. If it took ten minutes to become a huge giant it would take the same amount of time to shrink, and maybe some parts shrink slower than others. (“Jack, is it just me or are your arms a little longer today?”)

    I hope I’ve helped! 🙂

  16. B. Macon 17 Feb 2009 at 10:08 pm

    Some observations, Shell.
    –I think that the transformation element would work more smoothly for a single part-time giant than a group of part-time giants, or at least a small band of PTGs among a town that is comprised of mostly other kinds of people. Otherwise I think the main characters won’t really stick out all that much, and everyone will be too forgiving of problems that arise from whatever awkward situations may come. For example, secrecy is an element that plays in a lot of stories where the hero can transform himself at will… eg Jake Long can turn into a dragon at will, but he can’t let any humans see him as a dragon. I think Danny Phantom has a similar setup. In contrast, if everyone in town is a PTG, then there’s no social limitation on the ability to transform.

    –“There are plenty of great and deep issues to play with here…” Which are you leaning towards? I don’t feel like the regular vs. giant transformation will feel very substantive because the character’s personality and role don’t seem to change very much. In contrast, other transformations (Jekyll and Hyde, Hulk and Banner, Jake and dragon Jake, etc.) tend to involve a change of personality and/or role.

    –Pride, maybe? If the giant aspect is their natural aspect, then maybe they’d look down on being human-sized. This is a kind of flimsy limitation, but it’s a start.

    –You could try something like a hard time-limit on the transformation power as a last resort, but I don’t think it matters. Why is it important to keep the characters out of human form rather than giant form? Should giant form feel more natural to them? Is it possible to just make them full-time giants and eliminate the transformation element?

  17. C. S. Marloweon 26 May 2009 at 12:52 pm

    … Hmm.
    (frowns)
    Are they *really* that bad?
    A little half idea for a novel’s been hopping around in my head for the past couple of days. It’s a long story, but a woman is working for this magical/demon/angel guy (yeah, it really is a half idea) and he gives her the ability to change into a bird so that if he needs her to do something speedily, she can. It’s mostly for travel purposes, so she’s only a very small bird. Should I be seriously worried? Consider an alternative?

  18. NewAgeZombion 10 Oct 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Would this mean that this one concept for a hero I have is bad? The concept involves human (well, not quite human, but beside the point) to snake transformations. There IS a time limit, but the snake form can be either ethereal or corporeal. I was already thinking he might be a tad bit overpowered and this article is anchoring my doubts about using him.

  19. NewAgeZombion 10 Oct 2009 at 2:34 pm

    Whoops. I guess BBcode doesn’t work here. What kind should I use?

  20. Lighting Manon 10 Oct 2009 at 6:33 pm

    NewAgeZombi, I don’t think Part-Time Dragons is a trope that applies to characters like that, I think the problem with PTDs is primarily that the author is saying “My character is as awesome as a dragon but I don’t actually want to have to bother with writing a primary character that is a not a human, so he’s both an awesome human and an awesome dragon.” Unlike your character, in which it is a power that has various built-in weaknesses and presumably requires your character to learn how to use it effectively.

  21. B. Macon 10 Oct 2009 at 7:10 pm

    HTML. For example, italics is lessthansignIgreaterthansign.

  22. NewAgeZombion 11 Oct 2009 at 8:41 am

    Ah, I see the difference. I’m still thinking about cutting out the ethereal bit, though.

  23. B. Macon 11 Oct 2009 at 10:06 am

    I think this problem applies more to non-humans that can shapeshift into a human form than human shapeshifters (like Beast Boy). The main problem is when the author can’t decide whether the character is a human or not–like a dragon that can become a fully-functioning, completely-coordinated human whenever convenient. It’s not dramatic.

    I don’t think that your character suffers from PTD problems, partially because he’s a human shapeshifter. And partially because there are some drawbacks to being a snake. (That is probably my understatement of the year… ahem, no limbs!)

  24. NewAgeZombion 11 Oct 2009 at 11:41 am

    The answer to the no limbs thing is moderatly simple: prehensile tail. But this is getting a bit off topic. 😉

  25. B. Macon 11 Oct 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Yes, it is well-known that reptiles are very proud of their tails

  26. Merideson 14 Oct 2009 at 10:08 am

    Hmm… made me pause for a moment, with my FMC, Lerin. I’m writing a mutation-style story, caused by genetic weaponry misfiring. As the story progresses, the mutations become more and more advanced, eventually proving potentially fatal. Lerin receives scales, and later on, wings, and if I continue the story, she’d fully transform… but there’s no going back to the human form. Hence the sub-plot of my story, the search for the cure to the mutations. Too cliche?

  27. B. Macon 14 Oct 2009 at 4:16 pm

    I think it would probably be workable, Merides. The concept is fairly similar to what Beast went through in X-Men (although Beast’s change was sudden rather than gradual).

  28. Merideson 15 Oct 2009 at 10:10 am

    Good. I was a bit worried there for the moment. 🙂 She’s not the only one with an animal type mutation, but she /is/ the only one with a reptilian mutation. Another becomes very similar to Spiderman’s Rhino, (only she’s a girl LOL) and there’s another bird-type… mostly, though, it’s elemental or technological mutations.

  29. Nahshonon 04 May 2011 at 8:54 pm

    hi i am a first time novelist and have found ur site to be very useful!! already i am taking notes and writing down editing tips to look for in my book. for this concept of morphing to and from different species what about a human that is brought back to life by the blood of an angel. this makes him “a hybrid. then his ‘dies’ but because of his immortal blood it is more like a phoenix death. u die and come back even stronger. the second time he dies he gains a full angel form.

    so now he can go between human and angel. the only thing about his character that i am worried about is over time i want him to slowly shed his ‘human nature’ and become more angelic u could say. is this a good concept and i haven’t even added that he was affected by a mutating virus. so NOW this character is like a three in one combo. but only thing is that he has a full angel form and his regular hybrid from…..my quesiton is his character clear or two cluttered?

  30. ThatOneGuyon 07 Apr 2013 at 8:57 pm

    I do have a character, not exactly the MAIN main character but one of importance, who actually can shapeshift into a feline but cannot turn fully human again, meaning they can still retain the appearance of her human self but still has cat like attributes. I’m not fully sure if this counts as a mary-sue but I try to actually make this person like an actual character and have a real personality. Any advice?

  31. Kelekonaon 15 Apr 2014 at 9:38 am

    I wonder if it’s possible to have an interesting shape-shifting dragon who spends time studying human interaction and learning his lesser form.

    I doubt it would be easy.

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