Our Dragons Are Different

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"Gronckle, Zippleback, the Skrill... Boneknapper... Whispering Death... Burns its victims, buries its victims, chokes its victims, turns its victims inside-out... Extremely dangerous, extremely dangerous... kill on sight, kill on sight, kill on sight..."
Hiccup (flipping through the Dragon Manual), How to Train Your Dragon

Nearly every culture has myths about something called a 'dragon', despite the fact none of them can agree on exactly what dragons are. How big are they? What do they look like? How many heads do they have? Do they breathe fire? Or ice? Do they fly (and if so, with or without wings)? How many legs do they have? Are they dumb as planks, or superintelligent? Are they low scaly pests, or ultra-rare Uber-serpents ancient and powerful as the Earth itself?

The answers to these questions generally fall within two traditions, "Western" and "Eastern". Even then, in addition to cultural differences, dragons fall into a very wide range of types even in one local mythology.

Eastern dragons, such as have a place in the Eastern Zodiac, come from different traditions and as such aren't technically the same dragon as their Western counterparts; Westerners who encountered stories and images of Chinese lóng and Japanese tatsu (better known as ryuu) sprung on the similarities to the European dragon and couldn't think of anything better to call them.

Even within these traditions, however, there is much variability. This has increased in modern times, as Western and Eastern authors have blurred the traditions by mixing and matching attributes from both (benign Western dragons are quite popular these days, for instance). Some authors invent completely new attributes to set their dragons apart from the crowd or just make them cooler. And some authors put dragons in their stories just for the sole reason of making a story look cool.

A quick rundown of the Western and Eastern schools of dragon is as follows:
Western DragonsEastern Dragons
Are scaly and reptilian (outwardly, anyway), and usually serpentine.Are Mix-and-Match Critters, though the exact components vary (generally, they can best be described as "lion-snakes"). They sometimes evolve out of Seahorses or Legendary Carp.
Normally associated with fire, which they often breathe as an attack.Normally associated with water (and the sky, which was considered an ocean in classical Chinese thought), and are often considered bringers of rain. In various fiction, some Chinese dragons are capable of breathing fire.
Have around the same size range as houses, at least when fully grown.Can be as small as a grasshopper or large enough to fill the space between heaven and earth.
Are usually antagonistic towards humans, if not an outright stand-in for Satan. More intelligent versions are often manipulative, or, at the very least, love to screw with people; less intelligent versions are mindless beasts and act the part.Are benign, but capable of destructive force when provoked. They may be rivals with tigers.
Kidnap damsels (preferably princesses) and/or hoard treasure. Often greedy and/or insatiable, especially in the latter regard.Instead of hoarding magical treasures, they make them. The other thing they hoard is wisdom, which they rarely share with mortals.
Have a variable number of heads and legs, though one head and six limbs (four legs, and a pair of wings) and a tail is the most common configuration. More divergent types (no legs, multiple heads, etc) seem more likely to be brainless bestial monsters than the "basic" form.Most often have one head and four legs. The longer a dragon, the more pairs of legs he has.
Either fly with bat-like wings, or they lack wings and don't fly.Can fly via magic even if they lack wings, which they usually do. When they do have wings, they are often birdlike.
Have varying levels of intelligence. Prior to Tolkien, they rarely spoke. After Tolkien, they are often portrayed as at least as clever as humans, and frequently (much) more.Not only are they intelligent, they are usually a Mentor Archetype.
Their scales (and armor made thereof) may be impervious to magic. In addition, they often have some form of innate magic if intelligent. Sometimes they may even disguise themselves as humanoid beings of much smaller size and interbreeding with said species, creating half-dragons. In addition to assuming human form, they also often have the ability to transform into other animals.
Live for a very long time, if not actually immortal, but typically may be killed.May be an out and out Physical God.
Are incredibly strong and hard to kill but usually have one or two fatal weak spots. This is traditionally under the chin, but post-Tolkien, it's more likely to be on the chest or belly, and the eye is popular too.In relation to the above, pretty much invincible... not that people actively seek them out to kill them anyway. Have a single "reversed scale" under the chin, and go into a blind rage if it is touched.
Sometimes have poisonous blood, breath, saliva, or some such. Often, this will kill you after you kill it. If their blood isn't poisonous, it grants special powers such as invincibility.Since they live and breathe essence of life itself, they are the exact opposite of being poisonous.
The original name (drakon) meant Serpent/Snake.The original name (long) is used to describe Saltwater Crocodiles (smaller crocs are named something else) explaining their ties to water.

Recently, western dragons' physical variability has created a number of named sub-species:
  • The most popular variation has been the wyvern, somewhat resembling a bat with the forelimbs being clawed wings and the rear limbs being two legs - this configuration generally being considered more "realistic" as something that could actually evolve. note  In some settings, this is the only type and will simply be called "dragons." In other settings, wyverns are not considered "true" dragons at all, but a related, usually less powerful and intelligent species. Wyverns are less likely to breathe fire, and more likely to be poisonous (even when dragons in the same setting are not poisonous).
    The term "wyvern" is less likely to be used if the creature in question walks quadrupedally (using the wings as forelimbs, like a bat or a pterodactyl), such as Smaug from The Hobbit, Vermithrax Pejorative from Dragonslayer and the dragons from Reign of Fire.
  • Rivaling the wyvern is the Hydra from Greek Mythology, which is often depicted as a flightless dragon-like water or swamp beast with one or more heads; for each head you cut off, two rapidly grow to replace it. If they have a Breath Weapon, it's often a different one for each head. The original sprayed poison and had poison for blood.
  • A drake (when it is not simply another term for dragons) is usually a creature closely related to dragons but smaller and less intelligent, equivalent to the relationship between humans and chimpanzees. Multiple species of drake may exist for different environments (e.g. the drakes that live around volcanos may be the only ones able to breathe fire). Unlike wyverns, they have the same body type as other dragons in the setting, though if dragons have wings then drakes will sometimes lack them.
  • Very old (Greek and Roman, and some medieval) dragons are presented as more serpentine than the more recent ones — if winged, the wings are usually their only limbs; and some were totally limbless, just very enormous serpents. This type of dragon may be referred to as a wyrm (pronounced just like "worm").

Other reptilian or avian mixed mythological creatures, particularly the Basilisk, Cockatrice and Quetzalcoatl, may be considered types of dragons or similar creatures in some works.

Further, it's also become fairly common for dragons to come in different flavors of Elemental Powers, especially in settings where Elemental Rock-Paper-Scissors are enforced. This may simply manifest in their Breath Weapon, or it may affect all properties of the dragon. Elemental rainbows of dragons are most common in video games and tabletop games where diversity of creatures and gameplay balance are considerations. One-off dragon variants are most likely to be ice elemental, poisonous, or maybe zombified.

As mentioned above, a recent trend has been to try and make dragons that could actually exist in the real world. Naturally, these tend to either use Science Fiction concepts or be very different from traditional dragons. Also common in later works is a tendency for dragons to form a life-long bond with any human or humanoid who is present when they hatch (probably inspired by the 'imprinting' which occurs with most birds in Real Life, which is why birds raised in captivity with the intent to be released must be cared for by puppets). This gives writers a way to give dragons unique psychology without having to come up with unique motivations for them. It also explains why humanoid Dragon Riders can boss them around. Yet another trend appearing here and there is for dragons to be depicted as looking similar to dinosaurs, usually the bigger theropods (like Tyrannosaurus rex), but occasionally sauropods (such as Brachiosaurus) as well. The two are often outright confused with each other. Another common trend in modern fantasy is the miniature pet dragon, suitable for perching on one's shoulder.

Compare Giant Flyer, and other Dragon Tropes. Supertrope of Draconic Humanoid, or humanoid dragons and dragonkin.

Not to be confused with The Dragon, a position only sometimes held by a real dragon (while dragons themselves can just as easily be Big Bads).

Examples:

    Fan Works 
  • The dragons of RainbowDoubleDash's Lunaverse are mostly Western type. They have nigh-invulnerable scaly hides, fire breath, six limbs (counting the wings), eat gemstones, and collect a Dragon Hoard because they grow larger the more stuff they possess.
    • However, this is heavily Deconstructed. Because dragons are so individually powerful, and can find their food so easily, they never developed a civilization beyond the crudest level of "might makes right". Very few dragons can even read and write, and the handful of more civilized dragons have to learn other languages just because Draconic lacks the vocabulary to express many of the things they want to say. In addition, since the greatest threat to a mature dragon is another dragon, they never work together, and though they may spawn whelps, they would never take them into their own lairs, for they might steal something. As a result, there are only a few thousand dragons on the planet. As one abnormally wise dragon puts it:
    We are dragons. We are mighty. We are the strongest of the mortal races. We have no equals. And because of that…we are dying.

    Music 
  • Gloryhammer: The song "Magic Dragon" from the first album, Tales From The Kingdom of Fife is about a magic dragon who becomes Angus McFife's ally after a magic spell is cast.
    Demon attacked me but then it was slain
    The dragon appeared and a battle was fight
    [sic]
    I spoke from the words of a powerful scroll
    And magical dragon became now allied.

    Pro Wrestling 
  • Chikara has Dragon Dragon, a giant stuffed animal who came to life. He was modeled after a dragon(obviously) but doesn't have many of the abilities associated with. His plushy nature allows him to survive things most other wrestlers cannot however, including decapitation.

The man-eating ones have said they mostly prefer their humans with barbecue sauce.
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