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
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.