At some fairly early point in the development of my series of fantasy novels (no, they’re still not ready for publication — rewrites are ongoing) I made what in retrospect appears to have been a stunningly bad decision. It made sense at the time, because it has a certain mythic resonance, but I didn’t think it through.
I decided to send my intrepid heroine off on a detour to a land ruled by dragons. The dragons eat people; they consider humans a tasty treat. There are whole villages of peasants whose fate is to be eaten. And of course it’s a staple of heroic fantasy that the hero has to rescue people who are in danger and distress. Leaving those people behind as dragon chow would not make for a Happy Ending.
And now I’m forced to consider what an awful plot problem I’ve created for myself.
To see the problem clearly, we need to do the numbers. Let’s suppose the entire population of human-munching dragons consists of 2,000 of the beasts. Let’s further assume that on average, a dragon eats a human only 50 times per year, subsisting otherwise on cattle or sheep.
That’s 100,000 humans per year. In order to replenish the population loss due to dragon predation, 100,000 new babies will have to be born (and not die due to infant mortality) each year. If a woman has a surviving baby, on average, every two years, the population of peasants will have to include 200,000 women of childbearing age. We don’t need that many men; men are expendable. So maybe the adult population is 250,000, plus more than a million children between the ages of newborn and 14.
Even assuming my heroine can arrange to hold the dragons at bay while a population that size is evacuated, where are they going to end up? We know from news stories in our own world that resettling refugees in already populated areas is not easy to manage. And if the refugees are taken off to an area that isn’t already settled, there’s no infrastructure. There are no stored supplies of grain or anything else in a land where nobody is living. And the refugees won’t be able to subsist by hunting and gathering, because (a) having worked in the potato fields all their lives, they’re not trained hunters and (b) they don’t know what local wild plants are edible.
Fortunately, my heroine has access to well-trained wizards. But I’m not sure how even a crackerjack team of wizards could feed more than a million people on an ongoing basis while they get organized to plant a crop in their new location and then wait months for it to ripen. Even cutting the numbers by 90% still leaves an intractable plot problem: Feeding 125,000 refugees is not materially easier, in a novel at least, than feeding 1,250,000 of them. Either way, you have to have a very large and viable source of food.
This is why I hate writing fiction. I have a fiendish talent for wanting the story to make sense. Pardon me while I go chew on nails for a while to calm down.