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The Unicorn

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, April 30, 2022

No, this article isn't about the mythological beings. I wouldn't want to steal any single one from Andreas Helixfinger's awesome Sunday article series.

What I want to talk about is the metaphorical unicorn: a character that is too good to be true, too unlikely to be found in real life or so rare that they would, in fact, be on par with a unicorn when it comes to people.

First off, what constitutes such a character?

A ‘unicorn’ of a character would be someone that rises above and beyond normal behavioral patterns within a specific framework or context: a judge who will not be corrupted or cower before political power; a journalist who will go against censorship even with the highest of stakes; a doctor who will not bend ethics for hospital politics; a teacher who will prioritize pedagogy rather than superficial adherence to the rules; a politician that actually is in the game to serve the community and not compromise; the incorruptible cop; and so on.

So such a character is going to be by default heroic in most circumstances (though there are dark unicorns of course), and usually is either the main character or at least a very pivotal character in the story.

These characters can be tricky to write because they can easily become ‘perfect’ and fall into Mary Sue territory. It's easy for the ethical, dynamic, fervent politician to also be gorgeous, a great spouse, a wonderful parent, love puppies, rescue kittens, and spend time at the shelter knitting socks for charity.

What I mean is that ‘unicorn’ characters shouldn't have the ‘unicorn glitter’ of perfection which is a trap that makes such a character unlikeable or boring or simply predictable and uninteresting. Such characters need to be flawed, to have their own vices and drawbacks, to struggle with their own uniqueness, to have fears and worries and hangups or even big flaws in areas that may or may not clash with the one in which they are the ‘unicorn’.

But character design aside, unicorn characters are tricky and dangerous because they can (and will) derail your plot if you're not careful: the biggest element of a unicorn character is that they have drive. They are motivated to do the thing that makes them a unicorn. That means that they are unlikely to stop before they are satisfied- and that means that they will either drive the plot or ruin it as they find some way to move forward you may not have foreseen (if you let your characters breathe and evolve as you write).

A journalist that is driven to uncover corruption may manage to do it more efficiently than the plot requires, for example. So hurdles and perhaps character flaws are necessary to cut the efficiency to what the plot requires- if that is possible. For example, the character may be a novice and make mistakes as they gain experience, which cuts the efficiency and makes for a great hero's journey. Sometimes, however, the character design is such that it can't really be done without the author's hand becoming visible to the audience: you can't have a novice high ranked judge or a novice medical fellow or attending surgeon who has risen up the ranks.

That's why unicorn characters have a high death rate or at least incapacitation rate. Unless they're the main character, killing them off before they can yield full results too soon is a solution. Then, other characters will step up to do it at the pace the plot requires (especially if mourning stalls them all). If that is not an option, putting them out of commission for a while also works (like an attempt on their life). Another solution can be the ‘heel face turn’ unicorn: a character that starts off mundane and then gradually becomes the unicorn for reasons that the plot throws at them (e.g. a moderately dirty cop that gradually decides to become incorruptible and turn on corruption).

Whatever the case, unicorn characters can be fascinating and alluring if done right, and nothing around them can be boring- if written right, and handled right.

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PaulEberhardt at 7:08AM, May 2, 2022

A politician who honestly wants to serve his/her country the best he/she can without any thought of personal gain... Now I know unicorns are fictional for sure! ;) But jokes aside, unicorns get in trouble more or less automatically once you add a tiny bit of realism (or, failing that, some cynicism). It's in their very job description that sooner or later there will be some conflict with someone else's interests. It doesn't even have to be some bad guy's interests - it's enough to get your unicorn into a situation when he/she can't do good without hurting someone else who is just as undeserving... Another way of adding depth and drama is having your unicorn find out at some point that he/she was being misled by the wrong virgin (e.g. liberating a princess who moves on to reestablish herself as a psychotic bloodthirsty tyrant à la Elizabeth Báthory, or somehow being stabbed in the back by who he/she thought was their best friend, or just realising that no good deed goes unpunished)

hushicho at 1:38PM, April 30, 2022

Killing off such characters or getting rid of them quickly is usually a fallback for poor writers, so please try to avoid it. Most such characters aren't all-around perfect, but they do have one thing that their belief in is steadfast and can't be shaken. It's common with heroes. But they don't always have drive. Sometimes it's the hardest thing in the world for these characters to keep their integrity and not compromise their standards. You don't have to go out of your way to find difficulty for these sorts of characters. The world will do that automatically. Having standards at all inevitably finds difficulty readily, because most people don't have any standards whatsoever and have no problem compromising what they don't have.

usedbooks at 3:52AM, April 30, 2022

I wrote one to kill off as a throwaway character, but I can't seem to get rid of him now. I just do my best to keep him out of the plot. Luckily, he's very busy being a philanthropist, business owner, and firefighter.

Corruption at 2:40AM, April 30, 2022

One way to deal with Unicorns is to set the protagonist clashing with them, like in "The fugitive". The marshal was a Unicorn, bringing more of a challenge to the doc. A journalist might be fed a false lead causing them to hassle the main character who just wants to be left alone in privacy (that makes the journo think they are hiding something). Maybe the doc who won't let hospital policy stop him from doing what is needed causes problems with it (like causing an investigation in to breaching government standards, and skilled people get sacked for allowing it, causing others patients to die due to them being short staffed and unable to care for everyone). Doing this can be interesting. Imagine a spy, who is very good, finding out latter the guy he reported to was stopping his reports and using him to find leeks in the groups he spied on (for a price)?

bravo1102 at 12:51AM, April 30, 2022

You know a lot of unicorn stories have words like "true story" somewhere in the introduction. Whether "based on", or "inspired by" or even "this actually happened". They're often there, especially with hero incorruptible cops like Serpico or Bo Dietl.

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