In the Memoirs of Lady Trent series, Marie Brennan does something somewhat unique with her dragons: she attempts to ground them in science. She explains why in an essay posted over at io9.
Maybe we should blame dinosaurs. Giant reptilian creatures did exist once upon a time; why couldn’t giant reptilian creatures with wings exist? Well, because physics — but the inner eight-year-old, the wide-eyed child who shelves books about dinosaurs right alongside fantasy stories with no regard for boundaries, doesn’t care about the equations. (One wonders what the long-term effect will be of the realization that dinosaurs actually had feathers. Will we see more feathered dragons cropping up in genre fiction, a la the Aztec quetzalcoatl?)
Or maybe it’s the sheer nerdy challenge of it. The same impulse that makes people build working computers in Minecraft or postulate the likely outcome of a battle between Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan might lead you to wonder whether dragons couldwork, and if so, how. I know from personal experience that there’s nothing like application to make a dry and tedious topic interesting; no doubt generations of biology students have entertained themselves by fiddling around with matters like bone structure and oxygen exchange, trying to find a way to make dragons fly.
Then, of course, there’s the amusement factor. NORAD — the North American Aerospace Defense Command — tracks Santa’s progress around the world every Christmas. Why? Because in 1955, a Sears ad gave children Santa’s phone number . . . but the number they gave accidentally went to the duty commander at NORAD’s operations center. (Oops.) Utter silliness, but the point isn’t to be serious; it’s just a chance for adults to kick back and enjoy some imaginative play. We’re more willing to allow that to grown-ups now than we used to be, so I think you get more intersections of adult knowledge with childish whimsy as a result.
I love this kind of world-building, having worked out something of the science of both unicorns and griffins—and hoping eventually to work it into my Into the Wonder series in some way. I also know a fair bit more about the physiology and evolution of dwarves than I’ve tipped my hand to so far…
At any rate, I will definitely have to put the Memoirs of Lady Trent series on my wish list!