Friday, April 3, 2009

Thoughts on unicorns

Unicorns are an iconic part of fantasy. They’re beautiful, unusual, imbued with magic and myth… and prone to being overused, especially by new writers. I ought to know, since that’s exactly what I did when I first started writing fantasy. Probably why I’ve never written about unicorns until now; I slept and breathed and ate unicorns until I turned twenty so I didn’t really want to think much about them after that.

One problem is that most unicorns follow the template above. They’re sleek and beautiful and graceful and magical. I tried to make some of my unicorns different by sticking wings on them, which probably didn’t help. A lot of stories do the same thing – making their unicorns even more special in some way – and that still won’t stand out from the pack.

So what else can be done to differentiate unicorns?

Make them fantastic

One thing I loved about The Last Unicorn was the unicorn’s cool detachment from the other characters. She was calm and controlled and different.

Unicorns are fantastic creatures – make them act that way. If they behave and feel like humans with hooves and pointy horns, the story’s likely to be a dull one. Unless the story is deliberately adhering to myth, a single unicorn should be more than just a pale feral creature that’s tamed by a virgin. Likewise, a herd of unicorns should have their own customs and group behavior.

Make them flawed

If the unicorns are actual characters, as opposed to being token Magical Creatures appearing in the story, I want them to have real flaws, even serious ones. Just because they tend to be beautiful on the outside doesn't mean they'll all be pristine on the inside as well.

While the manuscript I completed about unicorns is one of my Cautionary Tales (because I did so many things wrong in it), there’s one thing I did like about it. One of my unicorn characters had lost his mate, the love of his life. She had been abducted by humans, and although all signs pointed to her being dead, he wouldn’t accept that and was obsessed with finding her.

As a result, even though he was extremely intelligent, he refused to recognize any evidence of her death and was also bitter and hostile towards most humans. Writing about him was always enjoyable (albeit a little painful) because he caused so many problems for himself, and yet remained sympathetic. To me, anyway.

Make them ugly

This is something I’d like to do if I tried writing about unicorns again. Why are unicorns always beautiful? Why should they always be beautiful? Maybe they carry scars from escaping hunters. Maybe they have brands that show which demons they serve. Maybe they’re simply ugly in a way normal horses aren’t – misshapen skulls, horns the color of blood or obsidian, what have you.

Or maybe my future unicorns will just look like Clydesdale farm horses rather than like Eight Belles.


Randall said...

While it's not a unique idea, the unicorns in the world of my current WIP are flesh-eaters. Smart, vicious, and thankfully rare predators that aren't afraid of humans.

Tara Maya said...

I actually don't feel I've read that many good unicorn stories, even with the classic unicorns. Maybe it's more prevalent in YA. Maybe agents feel differently. But for me classic unicorns aren't saturated at all.

Thadine said...

I like the idea of ugly unicorns, or at least less attractive ones, like your idea of making them look like farm horses. What if they were more like rhinos, than horses? What if they had fangs? How about short manes, like zebras, instead of long flowing locks? Or large flappy ears (a Dumbo version...) What about a fat unicorn? Since many stories have unicorns as revered creatures, maybe they would get spoilt and lazy. There are so many possibilities!

Madison said...

I always add a unique element to my unicorns. I have a friend who hates unicorns...until he reads what I have written. :)

writtenwyrdd said...

I can only recall one memorable short story about unicorns (by a guy named Robert Frazier, which I recall because it's my father's name) and it always remained in my mind because I was so surprized. Basically, a unicorn shows up to a woman who owns a stable. She happens to be a virgin. A guy is also showing interest in her. Things happen and events conspire until the unicorn is going nuts and trying to kill this guy (or something like that) and other things are going on. The crux of the matter is when they suddenly realize the unicorn is setting them up to get the woman alone. Someone askes the fateful questions, "Why do unicorns want virgins? And why are there no unicorn mares?" Ahem. Rape by crazed unicorn averted.

This was actually quite a good story and disturbing on so many levels, lol. I still have the photocopied zine someplace in my files because I loved that story.

Marian Perera said...


That idea not only sounds cool, it makes me wonder what unicorns normally eat. You've made me want to see unicorns which eat weird substances like rock or metal. Or which are pitch black and absorb sunlight for energy.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Tara and writtenwyrdd,

I have to admit, the only published unicorn stories which came to mind as I wrote this were :

1. The Last Unicorn
2. Black Unicorn by Tanith Lee, where the unicorn is really more of a myth-brought-alive than a character.
3. A DragonLance book that featured the typical unicorn (beautiful, good, etc). I can't remember the title.

So maybe you're right and there's still a lot of scope and potential for unicorns done well. The unicorn rape story qualifies. I like it when the unicorns are the bad guys... seems to me like that's the meaning behind the song,

"The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the crown,
The Lion beat the Unicorn all around the town."

Marian Perera said...

Hey Thadine,

The basic definition of a unicorn seems to be "a horse-like creature with a single horn", so almost any modification to that could work.

The one I thought of just now was the idea of featureless unicorns (e.g. no eyes or ears or hair)? They look as though they're made out of mercury. Sort of like androids from old Doctor Who episodes.

And Madison, you're on the right track. :)

writtenwyrdd said...

seems to me like that's the meaning behind the song,
"The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the crown,
The Lion beat the Unicorn all around the town."

Nope, that's allegorical reference to the two factions fighting over the literal crown of England.

But an evil unicorn doesn't make me want to write unicorns. I just don't have an interest in them. Make me want to barf from sugar overload no matter what. I think I've mentally crossed them with My Little Pony (also barfworthy) in my head or something.

colbymarshall said...

The Last Unicorn is one of my favourite stories, actually. Love it.

Barbara Martin said...

I think unicorns have been overdone in books, and unless a writer comes up with something very unique about their 'unicorn' the story will suffer.

On a slightly different vein, but still on unicorns: there is a strain (Carpathian) of Andalusian horses that produce a bony bump in the middle of their foreheads which is called a 'unicorn horn'.