Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts, Oh No! Part V: Making it Your Own

Light/Kira and Ryuk

So far we’ve looked at some of the real world mythology of demons, and four archetypal demons.  Today lets talk a little bit about how to use these demons in your fantasy writing.  The first rule with demons, as with villains, is ‘DO NOT MAKE YOUR DEMONS THE GOOD GUYS!’.  I am all for complex characters, heroic villains, and examining how to deal with complex moral and ethical decisions in fiction.  However when you take an evil character and make him the hero you have a problem.  Let me give an example of what this means:

I want to compare two very similar television shows which are both relatively recent.  The first is a Japanese Anime called Death Note and the second is an American show named Dexter.  These two shows are very similar in many ways, both are very dark in both the story they tell and the humor they use, both make use of graphic imagery when appropriate, both feature excellent writing and production values.  Both of these shows also feature a serial killer as the protagonist.  Despite all of their similarities I love Death Note, but I hate Dexter.

The reason is simply one of characterization.  In Death Note the protagonist, Kira, is portrayed as a villain.  My feelings towards Death Note may be summed up in one phrase: “I love Light, but I hate Kira.”  Light and Kira are the same character, two sides of the same person, one without the Death Note (a magical item which allows Kira to kill on a whim leaving no evidence of the crime) and one with the Death Note.  The anime effectively portrays how a good man, Light, can be corrupted by nearly unlimited power and become evil, Kira.

Death Note deals with very complex moral issues and shows Kira’s slow slide into madness.  For instance Kira starts off by only killing violent, unconvicted criminals.  Then he moves on to violent criminals in general (unconvicted, in prison, and reformed).  Eventually he becomes comfortable killing anyone who opposes him, including civil authorities, and from there to killing when it is convenient, including friends.  Death Note also allows the viewer to see Light’s reaction to Kira’s actions.  Light, being a good person, is horrified by the actions of Kira and desires (indeed tries to help) bring Kira to justice.  The anime has some obvious inspiration from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Yeah...not a fan of this show.

On the other hand Dexter presents its protagonist, Dexter Morgan, as a hero.  He can’t help killing people, but he only kills bad people who deserve to be killed.  Despite his heinous acts the viewer is repeatedly encouraged to see Dexter as the hero of the story, to root for Dexter, and to identify with Dexter.  Unlike Death Note this shows makes no attempt to deal with the deeper moral issues of evil and corruption.  It also does not address the serious moral complications of Dexter’s position in the police department (he is a forensic analyst) in the face of his extra-curricular activities.

In the second season of the show the character makes some attempt to deal with his serial killing as an addiction.  However the attempt is not made out of any moral compunction, but instead in an effort to keep his girlfriend.  When compared with the movie Mr. Brooks (2007) the attempt to deal with issues of addiction in Dexter is facile at best.  While the show is entertaining it fails to impress on any deeper level.  When compared with Death Note, or Mr. Brooks, Dexter is a distinct underachiever.

I say all of this to note that how you deal with the moral aspect of the demonic is extremely important.  The character of Bartimaeus in Jonathan Stroud’s work is a fully realized demonic character.  However, I am not a fan of the series specifically because of the moral representation of Bartimaeus.  The demon is brought across as clever, likable, and friendly even though he is deeply selfish and amoral at best.  The danger here, and there are plenty of people who will disagree with me on this, is that the reader identifies with Bartimaeus.  This book is in intended for youth.  Encouraging a young, developing individual to identify with a character who portrays selfishness as a desirable quality causes some problems.  I have mentioned in a previous post that the first book in the series, The Amulet of Samarkand, has been banned from some school libraries, but there has been some contention about this ban.

The king of mindless evil!

When you write your own demons you must be careful that you make them both realistic characters, but also characters clearly portray your intentions.  This is difficult to do, and may not be the same for all people.  The contention over The Amulet of Samarkand clearly shows that what some people find difficulty with others do not.  I myself am of two minds about the book and honestly can’t decide whether I like it or not, even though I do not like Bartimaeus.  This is one of the things that makes writing demonic characters difficult.  With a mindless character like the Balrog it is not difficult for the author to display its evil.  However in a more likable, seductive character such as Bartimaeus or Kira this becomes very difficult.  This difficulty is what makes Death Note so brilliant.

**************************************************

Among The Neshelim: My first novel, Among the Neshelim, is now available from Smashwords here, and Amazon here. Print copies are not yet available, but will be soon.

Among the Neshelim

by

Tobias Mastgrave

Understanding. One little word, and yet it means so much. We spend our lives pursuing it in one form or another. We long for it, seek it out, and break ourselves trying to find it. But it is always a rare commodity.

Chin Cao Yu, priest and scholar, has sacrificed all he held dear in its pursuit. Now he undertakes the journey of a lifetime, a journey among the mysterious Neshilim, a people of power unlike any he has seen before – all for the hope of understanding. This journey will turn upside down the world he thought he knew and challenge all of his dearly held beliefs. Has he found the ultimate truth or the ultimate lie? And what will he do with it when he learns?

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About noothergods

I hate writing these things. Ok, a little bit about me. I split my time between this world and other worlds so I'm only here about 25% to 50% of the time. Other times my body might be here (or you never know it might not) but I am off somewhere else having strange and usually pretty horrible adventures. I consider myself a scholar of Christian Theology and of Religion in general, I love learning about other people's belief systems. I think that Shinto is fascinating and I'm obsessed with the theology of sin...and with monkeys...I don't know why I'm obsessed with monkeys but I blame Gus...if you know him you'll understand that, if you don't then...well...I blame Gus. Anyway, I'm the one of the blog that needs to be censored the most so if there's anything posted that you find offensive it was probably me. I think that my brain doesn't really work the way it's supposed to but that's an issue for a whole other time. I have two degrees, a B.S. in Religion and an M.Div. in leadership. I enjoy a great many things some of which include writing (gee, what a surprise), martial arts, anything media that has a good story to tell, cooking, discussing/reading/occasionally writing about Christian theology, General theology, religious belief systems, philosophy, etc. I also enjoy reading medieval and previous magical texts and studying the history, practice, and beliefs about magic from around the world. I don't practice magic and if you want to know my personal beliefs on the subject you can email me, however the intersection of magic and religion is a very interesting topic.

Posted on March 26, 2011, in Demons, Movie Reviews, Tobias Mastgrave and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Noothergods,
    I really like the point you make here, that villains, no matter how complex and real they are, should not be made into role models. Sometimes when I’m reading a book or watching T.V., and I see that the writers are going to turn the evil mastermind into a merely mistaken individual, I’ll start to feel like I’m the bad guy. Shouldn’t we want to give people a second chance when we’ve received so many ourselves? Yes, and there are appropriate ways of doing that, but too often forgiveness is substituted with understanding or sympathy. Take Despicable Me, a movie where the “bad guy” is the main character and the “nemesis” is a budding baddie trying to make his daddy proud. To say that Gru had a miserable childhood and never learned how to care about others should not logically lead to a change of heart and a Hallmark worthy resolution. What about all those children he had deprived of ice cream? If being bad has no consequences than how can being good make the world a better place? In our attempt to add flesh to faerie tales we cannot forget that our primary goal is to impact our audience. Letting bad be good makes a wishy-washy impact at best.
    Putting this issue in terms of demons makes things clearer. Unless you’re dealing with asian demons (which seem to act more like malevolent faeries), demons should be demonic. My memory of the Bartimaeus trilogy is foggy now, but I can still recall how bothered I was that Bartimeaus, the inherently evil being, had a stronger hero impulse than Nathaniel. The latter had all the right elements for a righteous crusader: awful parental figures, innate talent, and the kind of opportunities that fate alone could orchestrate. Yet despite all these he seemed content to be another bad guy, spying, lying, scheming for his own purposes, and forcing Bartimaeus into servitude (which showed a peculiar lack of self-preservation in the very least). Even though I kind of remember him saving the world at the end of the series (did he sacrifice himself for the good of mankind, or have I re-written the story in my head?), his actions leading up to that have left a stronger impression. Just thinking about Nathaniel makes me feel a little bitter inside. When your demons become more humane than your humans you know you’ve left behind all hope of edifying readers and have slipped, oh so easily, into merely entertaining them.

  1. Pingback: Writing in an Age of Sexual Freedom « While We're Paused

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