Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts, Oh No! Part VII: What’s the Difference?

That's gotta be annoying!

All bad guys aren’t the same, though they do all have certain similarities.  When we’re talking about the demons, monsters, and ghosts that populate our fantasy worlds one of the things we have to ask is ‘what’s the difference?’

If you remember way back in the first post I did in the series I discussed some of the ancient mythology surrounding various views of the demonic.  Many of these creatures could be viewed as demons or monsters interchangeably.  For instance the Indian Raksha, or Rakshasa, could be considered a monster, a demon, or (at times) a benevolent spirit.  The evil Raksha, Ravana, who stars as the villain of the Ramayana, began his life as a devout sage.  In fact, according to the mythology, the great power which makes him such a devastating opponent is a blessing from the gods for the services he has rendered to them.  He is described, in various places, as a devout follower of Shiva and a disciple of Brahma.  However, by the time we see Ravana in the Ramayana he has been corrupted by his own power, injustices done to him and his kin, and his greedy desires.

Even though in mythology there is a great deal of confusion between the three categories, in much modern fantasy there is a distinct difference between demons, monsters, and ghosts.  Usually these differences can be classified in three ways:


Origins:  These three types of creatures normally have very different origins.  Demons are usually either fallen or evil gods and their servants (Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000, Demon Wars, Exalted), creatures from another plane of existence (Forgotten Realms, Malazan Book of the Fallen, Another Fine Myth), or the fallen servants of God or the gods (Demon: The Fallen, Marvel Comics, Mercy Thompson Series).  Although both Glen Cook and Steven Erikson mix gods, demons, and extremely powerful human sorcerers into the same bag to some degree.

Monsters, on the other hand, are normally homegrown, self-perpetuating species that could have any number of origins.  Some are natural (Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Mercy Thompson Series), while others are created (The Lord of the Rings, Anne Rice’s Vampires, Frankenstein, Mistborn Trilogy), and others are cursed (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, many Werewolf stories).

Ghosts generally have one of three origins.  Either they are the souls of the unquiet dead (Supernatural, Hamlet, The Haunting of Hill House), they are magically created animate beings that mimic those who were once living (Avnul, Supernatural: Hell House), or they are the lower soul of man (or Hun) that escapes when a man dies and his higher soul (or Po) escapes to the afterlife (Exalted, Legend of the Five Rings).  These differences in origin can be used to identify various aspects of your wicked creatures, or you can combine them  (such as the suspected Demon Ghost that appears in the Dresden Files).

Burn, baby, burn!

Power: Demons, monsters, and ghosts all have widely varying levels of power.  However, they have a lowering order of magnitude (demons, then monsters, then ghosts).  For instance, in fiction, demons usually wield great (sometimes god-like) power and are often immortal (Demon Wars series, Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000, Malazan Book of the Fallen), though they are at times limited or almost human (Another Fine Myth, Malazan Book of the Fallen).

Monsters, on the other hand, normally have a level of power that is comparatively close to human (Forgotten Realms, Mercy Thompson Series, Mistborn Trilogy, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit).  Some monsters, such as dragons, may be much more powerful than humans but are still bound by mortality (The Spear Wielder Trilogy, The Hobbit, Elven Bane and Elven Blood).

Ghosts are generally powerless outside of specific circumstances (which may be defined by location, time, or the actions of their victims among other things), but within those circumstances have substantial power (Poltergeist, Supernatural, The Haunting of Hill House,  A Haunting in Connecticut).  Ghosts usually live within a set of specific rules that define their capabilities, and their ‘lifespan’ (or when and how they can move on or be destroyed).

Intentions:  The intentions of a creature are another useful means by which it can be identified.  Demons often have nefarious intentions to subvert or destroy large portions, or the entirety, of mankind (The Black Company, Demon Wars, Mythborn Trilogy).  Monsters are usually much less grand in their intentions.  The intentions of monsters vary from near human (Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Spear Wielder Trilogy) to mindless and instinctual (Mythborn Trilogy, Forgotten Realms).  Many monsters will form very human-like societies and compete with the local human population (Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance).  Ghosts, however, are usually motivated by an instinctual drive left over from their previous life and have little, if any, intelligent control over their actions (Legend of the Five Rings, Supernatural, Darkness Falls, The Grudge).

Yup, he doesn't look friendly.

These three categories can commonly be used, both in your reading and in your writing, to identify different types of creatures.  Now, obviously, within these categories there is a lot of room for movement and originality, and some writers get away with combining categories if they can do it in a believable way.  You could, for example, have an expansive underworld (Exalted) in which ghosts live very much like humans and are plagued by the ghosts of monstrous creatures.  Alternatively you could have a world in which some monstrous or demonic race is dominant, but haunted by the ghosts of the humans they slaughtered to gain control of their world.  There are a great many possibilities for originality both within, and between, these different types and styles of creatures.  Use them well.


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


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?


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 April 23, 2011, in Creatures, Demons, Fantasy, Monsters, Tobias Mastgrave and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Nice article! You should read this one! These three categories can commonly be used, both in your reading and in your writing, to identify different types of creatures.

    check this

  1. Pingback: Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts, Oh No! Part VII: What's the … | The Celebrity Buzz

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