Turning Reality Into Fantasy: A Horse of a Different Color

When you think Fantasy Fiction, certain elements automatically come to mind, three of which, you can almost bet on:

  1. Swords
  2. Magic
  3. Horses

Most fantasy worlds—excluding Contemporary/Urban Fantasy—come devoid of any means of modern amenities.  “No phone, no lights, no motor car.”  So how do people get around in fantasy fiction?  A horse, of course, of course.

Well, not so in The Fallen Odyssey.  When I started writing these stories, I decided it would be kind of a neat challenge to rebel against the convention of using horses.  What if, in this world, the horse never existed, and humans instead relied on some other breed of animal for transportation?  (I sense a disturbance in the Force… As if a million horse-lovers suddenly cried out in terror…)

The result of my experiment was the steed.

Macrauchenia

The Steed

Standing nearby were three ranch animals…  They had umber-brown, muscular bodies, similar in size and shape to a horse– standing tall enough to look Justin eye-to-eye.  Like horses, they had short hair, hooves, and wiry tails, but their long faces had the pronounced brow ridge of a camel, and their snouts were elephant-like trunks that hung halfway to the ground.  To Justin, they looked like the kind of bizarre, extinct species you might see painted on the wall at a natural history museum; an ice-age, mammalian precursor to modern life.  He stared at the odd creatures, watching their trunks pull up clumps of grass and place it in their awaiting mouths.  All three had saddles on their backs.

Justin approached… but he didn’t know what he was supposed to do.  The thing seemed to be watching him, and despite its docile manner, he was suddenly wondering what kind of teeth were under that trunk.

– from The Fallen Odyssey by C.B. McCullough

This creature is referred to only by the simple moniker, steed.  Steeds play a key role in our story from here on out, and while they are very similar to horses in implementation, we find out that their hardiness makes them suitable for all sorts of conditions.

It is for good reason that Justin compares them to museum exhibits, as the steed is based on an actual species that existed on Earth, long ago…

The Macrauchenia (Macrauchenia patachonica)

Macraucheniidae was a family of ungulates of the Litopterna order.  This animal would have looked, to our eyes, like a combination horse-llama-camel, with a goofy little trunk-like appendage hanging from its snout.  Macrauchenia went extinct 10-20,000 years ago, during the late Pleistocene, along with many other unique and strange looking mammals.

While Macrauchenia was the basis for steeds in the world of The Fallen Odyssey, the steed does not adhere to the scientifically-accurate Macrauchenia, nor is it meant to.  For one thing, Macrauchenia was larger than a horse—almost ten feet long, and about a thousand pounds heavier.  And for another matter, steeds have long, opposable trunks, more like an elephant.

I’ve found the development of new and interesting animals to be one of my favorite parts of world-building.  It’s fun to imagine what human culture would be like, had one little thing happened differently—like the horse.  It’s not that farfetched to imagine—if the horse never existed—cowboys riding across the American west on the backs of camels.

Stay creative, friends!  Write long, and prosper.
– CB

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10 thoughts on “Turning Reality Into Fantasy: A Horse of a Different Color

    1. It’s a lot of fun, too. The dangerous part is in getting carried away with describing every detail of something. The way I’ve managed to avoid that so far is in first describing every detail to myself, in a separate “encyclopedia” document, just for reference. Then, when it’s time to insert the creature into the story, I can pick out one or two key details and describe it without sounding like an Audubon’s Field Guide.

  1. This is really great! I think it works the best for a story like yours – which I gather from the intro has a main-character transported to another world. I think it would be much harder to do for stories where this sort of displacement doesn’t happen, because characters don’t usually go out of their way to describe things that are commonplace to them.
    I think the steed is a great creation. Keep up the good work!

    1. I definitely see where you’re coming from. In this story, I have the advantage of the reader and the main character being in the same boat: they’re discovering this new world together. But even in stories where character displacement doesn’t happen, READER displacement almost always happens in Fantasy.
      If the setting is any world other than present-day Earth, some sort of cursory explanation of things– history, geography, government, current affairs, etc.– is almost always needed before the reader will understand or care about the desires and fears of the characters. Whether this means a monologue-style explanation of the world, slow, steady exposition through dialogue, or even a Star Wars style mid-space scroll-by: that all depends on the needs of the story.
      Thanks for sharing! I’ve been enjoying reading “Adventures in Fantasy!”

  2. This reminds me of what Anne McCaffrey did for her Pern novels. For the less-than-dragronrider classes of people who could still afford to and still had to travel long distances, she created a animal called a “runnerbeast”. I surmise they may have been initially a different name for a horse, but later novels developed them into something both subtly and wildly different.

    In my works, I tend to avoid characters riding horses unless they have a *very* good reason. And that is because most of my characters simply cannot afford to obtain and keep one. And almost all my horse-riders have horses provided as part of their job (such as garrison guard).

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