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Though this applies to lizardfolk and most creatures with a snout as well, I'm having trouble giving more facial expressions to dragons. Sure, they can wink, bare their fangs and laugh out loud and that sound is literally roaring laughter. They also have tails and wings, but the face is easier to read for humans and can convey more complex messages without having to say a word.

Plus there's that a bit too toothy smile might end up giving the wrong message and before he knows, the entire city watch has surrounded the dragon.

So, how can I give facial expressions to dragons?


Note: While rumaging through my folders I found this picture: enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ something like this ? or this ? i dont think angry face need help for dragon case since they have angry issue and have the perfect facial for it. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Mar 11 '20 at 16:28
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    $\begingroup$ @LiJun "I hoard treasure you filthy humans can never hope to attain, fabulousness" - dragon $\endgroup$ Mar 11 '20 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ You can hire Benedict Cumberbatch, he gave facial expressions to Smaug. $\endgroup$ Mar 11 '20 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ I remember watching a director's commentary on How to Train Your Dragon and they mentioned that they used Toothless's ears to convey his emotions. $\endgroup$
    – Halfthawed
    Mar 11 '20 at 19:13
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    $\begingroup$ In many fantasy settings, humans often learn that the trick to reading lizardfolk/dragon/drake/humanoid-with-scales emotional state is to look at their tail and how it's moving as these creatures frequently move their tails instinctively like dogs or cats $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Mar 11 '20 at 19:44
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Look at dogs and cats for inspiration. Besides doing things with their tongues (as CaptainSkyfish suggested; good suggestion!), think also about angle of their head. Do they have mobile ears (or ear-like fins)? If so, these will almost certainly be expressive. It's not much of a stretch to give them moderately expressive lip muscles, that will allow them to raise or lower the corners of their mouths (for a smile or frown), raise their lip over a single canine (fang) vs. their whole mouth (a sneer vs. a smile/grin), or make an 'o' at the tip of their snout (surprise). Even whether or not they pull their lips back, which many animals can already do, can be the difference between aggression and happiness.

Realistically, though, you should also be thinking about whole body expressions. A lashing tail can mean anger (cats) or happiness (dogs). A raised tail can mean contentment. A tucked tail can mean fear / submissiveness. An arched back can mean a number of things. A low sternum with raised hindquarters can mean playfulness or... er, 'mature playfulness'. If you look to existing animals for inspiration, you will find there is plenty of room for expressiveness.

Also, don't be afraid to make your dragons hard for humans to read! There is a time and place for making your characters relatable, but there is also a time and place for making them alien!


p.s. Another question just posted this, which may give you some inspiration.

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    $\begingroup$ For dragons, the signs of aggression are: bared fangs, arched back, unfolded and raised wings, raised tail held curled-up at either side (the tail's storing elastic energy and is ready to release it) and hissing. Anything else I could add to the list? $\endgroup$ Mar 11 '20 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ For aggression: They may or may not show dilated pupils. If they have ears or ear-like flaps, these may be pressed back. Depending on level of aggression, hissing might be replaced by growling (growling = I'm annoyed / warning you; hissing = I'm about to attack unless you back off NOW). You might see the tip of the tail quiver. Also, while staring isn't necessarily aggressive, aggression almost always involves staring. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Mar 11 '20 at 19:14
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure if the tail bit is brilliant or if I'd expect tail lashing. The latter would be more mammalian, the former seems more reptilian. It might even vary by individual ('cool and calculating' vs. 'brash'). Relatedly, if your dragons have long necks, expect to see the neck also 'cocked' back ready to strike. Legs, particularly hind legs, bent in 'ready to pounce' position might also happen. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Mar 11 '20 at 19:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Matthew the last thing I want to see is a dragon wagging its tail with an exuberant joy, like pups do ;) $\endgroup$ Mar 12 '20 at 6:21
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    $\begingroup$ @AdrianColomitchi, actually, I think a 50' long dragon imitating a puppy that wants to play would be hilarious. Possibly in a terrifying way 😉, but that just makes it better. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Mar 12 '20 at 15:22
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If you are trying to anthropomorphize them, they could just have more muscles in their face than lizards and have the same expressions as us.

But perhaps more fun is to consider them as the alien beings they are. In which case, a lot of their expressions could be made with the tongue. A quick flick for humor, a curling for distain, a left-right loll for a shrug, hanging out the side of the mouth for boredom or laziness.

Also, their eyes could dilate like humans when they see something they like, and the reverse when they don't like something. If it is more pronounced, it would be easier to notice.

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People often describe the face of dragons as a horse-like face or a lizards face. I never understood why as the european dragon mostly has a canine face in shape and jawline. They are scaly dog faces, but dog faces nonetheless.

spiky dog face https://images.app.goo.gl/ppvTPPuqKZbTSbYd9

And just some google searches that show similar faces: https://www.google.com/search?q=european+dragon

Just try to describe the faces of dragons like this: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2294813/amp/Study-reveals-humans-read-dogs-facial-expressions.html

Humans arent 100% capable of recognizing all dog emotions (and many dogbreeds handle emotions slightly differently from other breeds or even depending on the emotions they emulate from their owners), and that could be a nice way to still convey emotion while simultaneously making them still alien enough as mighty dragons.

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