Slaying the dragon

By Paolo Uccello - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

Spoilers ahead.

Fiction involves some sort of conflict. Usually, the source of the conflict is visible: another person, the environment, or some other physical threat. Even conflicts within ourselves are made visible through our actions.

What if the source can’t be seen? What if it is something powerful and overwhelming, but abstract? What if the adversary is something like greed, racism, political repression, social stratification, or ignorance? How do you slay the dragon, especially when it can’t be seen?

Here are some tips on creating and slaying the dragon in our stories.

Avoid the personification trap

One way writers attempt to do this is by creating a character who is the personification of whatever malevolent force is in opposition. Such characters fail because they lack development and are two-dimensional. This also isn’t realistic. Evil attracts many followers for different reasons. Defeating one evil person doesn’t end the evil. Hitler has been dead for over 70 years, but there are still Nazis and others who share in his beliefs.

The key to revealing the dragon is to show well-rounded characters who are motivated for different reasons and show different aspects of that evil. Anakin Skywalker is one of the best examples. He was drawn to the Dark Side and became Darth Vader for what he thought were noble reasons. He wanted to protect his lover, and he was convinced it was the best way to defend the Galaxy.

It also helps to show a character who is both the victim and the victimizer. One of the many disturbing scenes in Schindler’s List was when SS officer Amon Göth stepped onto the balcony — drunk, bored, and shirtless with a beer gut — and opened fire at the helpless prisoners in the concentration camp. He showed both the capricious cruelty of the Nazi regime and the toll it had on his psyche. But we felt no pity, just greater disgust at what a pathetic person that evil made him become.

Show the dragon in small ways

The dragon doesn’t just show itself in large-scale acts of evil. In a repressive society, the dragon infects every aspect of life. The small and nagging ways the dragon asserts itself can bring it into focus.

In 1984, Victory Gin and Victory Cigarettes are physical symbols of the squalor and false promises of Big Brother’s regime. Cheap, foul tasting, and poorly made, but they are the only form of relief for the unending misery and scrutiny of a repressive society. The name “Victory” also reflects the false hope given by a government that promises a glorious future while barely providing enough to keep its citizens alive.

Show who benefits from the dragon and why

The dragon also shows itself in the people who benefit from it. This isn’t just those in power.

If we look at the original legend of St. George and the Dragon, the townspeople threatened by the dragon originally sought at appease it by offering it their sheep, and when they ran out of sheep, their children. We see this legend in The Hunger Games where the districts offer their children to fight to the death in hopes of winning something for their community. In both cases, the dragon can be a protector — if we give in to its demands.

People also buy into a cruel and unfair system in hopes that it might offer a way up. This feeling was expressed in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “[We] don’t want to stop the exploitation, we want to find a way to become the exploiters.” Oskar Schindler thought the same way in Schindler’s List. He started out as a Nazi Party member who hoped to make a fortune by using Jewish slave labor.

And for those on the bottom with no hope of escape, the cruelty of the dragon gives them a sense of purpose. They accept repression in the belief it is for a greater purpose, or that is the life they are destined for and deserve. Suffering becomes a badge of honor. In 1984, people learn to believe the lies of the government without question and hate the enemies they are told to hate. A father expresses pride in a child who turns him in. In the end, they love Big Brother, because Big Brother is all they know and how they see themselves.

How to slay the dragon

Under these circumstances, who would want to slay the dragon? If so, how?

The motivation must be personal. The dragon has to get in the character’s way or threaten his or her survival. The reward for slaying the dragon must be so great that it is worth the tremendous risk. That’s because dragons can’t always be slain.

In 1984, Winston’s love for Julia motivates him to find some way to at least trick the dragon enough to maintain his sanity and humanity. In the end, the dragon slays him. Oskar Schindler could only partially slay the dragon. He was able to save a number of Jews, but he realized that he could have saved more. And he wouldn’t have been able to save any of them or himself if the Allies hadn’t defeated Nazi Germany in World War II.

The best Winston Smith and Oskar Schindler could achieve were temporary or limited victories against the dragon. The dragon is too powerful for individuals to slay on their own.

Unless you use the dragon to destroy itself. That was what Katniss Everdeen did in The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games were created by the Capitol to keep the districts in line. But Katniss used the fame she gained through the Games to bring down the repressive government. The dragon’s greatest and most fearsome power is its ultimate downfall. The Death Star that can destroy planets can itself be destroyed, and the Empire along with it, with a well-placed shot in its exhaust port.

Slay your own dragons

Dragons are powerful creatures. They appear in ways both great and small. They can’t be personified by a single character because multitudes benefit from the dragon — even the dragon’s greatest victims.

To slay the dragon, find where it is the most fearsome and dangerous, because that’s where it is the most vulnerable. Its greatest strengths can be turned against it. Its pride and arrogance lead to self-destructive decisions. Its rage reveals what scares it. Its violence leaves it open to other methods of attack.

Creating and slaying the dragon in our stories can inspire us to stand up to the dragons in our own lives. Dragons play on our fears. When we are unafraid, dragons can be defeated.