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Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts, Oh No! Part I: Unleash the Beast

  • Demons are often used in fantasy writing, sometimes well and sometimes poorly.
  • Examining actual, historical, beliefs about demons in the mythology of various religions can be very helpful in deciding how to use them in our stories.
  • In historical belief systems demons are always connected with religion.
  • In historical belief systems demons vary greatly in power, cunning, ability, and appearance.
  • In historical belief systems demons almost always live on earth rather than on their own planes of existence.
  • In historical belief systems demons do not age but in some they can be killed.
  • Be careful of a few, basic, pitfalls in writing demons such as making them too static or dumb, or making them too powerful for your heroes to realistically overcome.

Sure, it's just a wall...that wants to eat you!

Let me first say that I’m not done with my series Social Commentary In Fiction, just taking a break.  I’ll probably be interspersing that series with this one just to keep myself interested.  Those who have been reading for a while will remember my series on Villains.  Being that I love the bad guys this time I’d like to take a look at the variety of supernatural wickedness that you might put into your fantasy and the way in which you use them.  I’d like to start off by talking about demons, which I see used often in fantasy, and often used poorly.  Many times demons are portrayed as little more than the thugs or spree killers* of the magical world, lots of power but very little brain.  It seems to me that, if a creature is thousands of years old and incredibly powerful it’s not likely to be a thug…thugs tend to have short lifespans.  So what are demons and how can/should they be used in your fiction.

When looking at beliefs about demons in the real world a few things may be noted, first of all demons are religious in nature.  In every instance demons are intimately related with gods, sometimes they are the servants of a god or the gods (e.g. Shintoism, Taoism, and Buddhism all recognize ‘demons’, an english translation of a wide variety of words, as spirits which serve the gods in some fashion or even as minor gods themselves.  In these cultures demons may be wicked, beneficent, or ambivalent depending on their current task, associations, and needs).  Other times they are gods themselves (e.g. Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and various Mesopotamian religions recognize ‘demons’ as evil, wicked, or chaotic gods who are opposed by the benevolent gods.  Oftentimes these beings are not necessarily evil in a moral sense but representative of the natural and chaotic world as opposed to the order imposed by human civilization.  So those supernatural entities who support civilization become gods while those supernatural entities who oppose civilization become demons).  Those who are familiar with western religion, which includes most American and British fantasy authors, recognize demons as the morally evil opponents of God or the gods (e.g. The Christian idea of Lucifer and his demons, which is where the word ‘demon’ gets its wicked connotations**, the frost giants of Norse mythology or the titans and children of Echidna in Greek mythology, though these last are arguable).

I told you he looks weird.

Secondly demons in the real world vary greatly in power, ability, cunning, and appearance, among other things.  Taking all of these views of demons together they can range from nearly powerless (grass or dust spirits from eastern religions) to equal in every way to the chief god of their pantheon (Tiamat from Mesopotamia, Angra Mainyu from Zoroastrianism).  They range from devestatingly beautiful (Lucifer) to quite ugly (Oni, originally, were described at 10-12 foot tall red-skinned giants with either one or two horns and grotesque faces) to gelatinous (While Tiamat is often called a dragon when the actual descriptions of her are read she sounds more like an amorphous mass of…well…gelatin which shapes itself at will) to odd (in the Ramayana the Raksha*** which the hero, Rama, must slay is described as being ten feet tall with ten heads, and ten arms, though sometimes he is portrayed in pictures and statuary as having as many twenty and as few as two).  Some are considered to be wise beyond human understanding (Lucifer is a good example of this, as is Angra Mainyu) others are quite single minded (Oni were pretty much content to raid villages in Japan and eat the farmers) while others are…well, drunk is one word that comes to mind (like the Norse gods their enemies, the frost giants, spent most of their time inebriated…actually, given how much time both sides spend drinking, it’s kind of a wonder any warring actually gets done).

Thirdly demons almost always live on earth, the only exceptions I know of are the Norse frost giants (who live in Jotunheimr, one of the nine worlds) and the celtic fae (who often do reside in the world but are sometimes considered to have their own world of Faerie, which is sometimes considered to be literally under the earth and sometimes considered to be elsewhere).  However in Christian, Mesopotamian, Oriental, Greek, Egyptian, Native American, etc. mythology the wide variety of demons to be found all live on the earth, under the earth, or in the sky.  They may often go back and forth between being ethereal and physical and sometimes make small pocket worlds for homes which exist within the physical world (for instance in Japanese mythology some spirits live in grass and river filled plains that exist at the bottom of wells or burrows under trees).  Often these creatures are considered to make their own ‘worlds’ either in the sky (see the early Shinto mythology****) or under the earth.

From fire I am born with REALLY spikey shoulders!!!!

Fourth and last demons do not age but in some religions they can be killed.  For instance in many animistic or polytheistic religions both demons and gods may die by violence or poison.  In Shintoism, Hinduism, ancient Egyptian religion, and Norse mythology there are examples of both gods and demons being killed (though their existance normally continues in the underworld until they are resurrected).

Now let us compare these real world beliefs to some common rules for demons in fantasy.

First of all in many fantasy stories and games demons come from a separate plane of existance.  Thus they may not be killed in the material world but, assuming one can reach their home plane and battle them there, they may be killed on their own plane of existance*****.  Demons must be summoned into the world by a human, they may not enter it on their own.  Demons are always wicked, cruel, and malicious, they love destruction more than anything else.  The last common use is one which I deeply dislike, demons have no ability (or possibly willingness) to change, adapt, or make long term plans.

Now there are rare exceptions to each of these and, with the exception of the last, I think these common stereotypes can be useful for a story, mostly because readers are already so familiar with them.  The last assumption is, however, one that I see often and have never been able to comprehend.  If a being is thousands, much less millions, of years old it is unrealistic to think that it cannot change, adapt, or make long term plans.

Many fantasy authors uses the very Christian idea of demons as the enemies of all that is good, as powerful forces which influence humanity.  However the cunning, intelligence, and adaptability of demons in the Christian comprehension is rarely evident.  Moreover these beings of great power are inevitably overcome by mortals, which also makes little sense.  In real world stories where demons and mortals battle either 1) the mortals have the help/blood and power of the gods in overcoming these demons****** or 2) the demons, while powerful, are on the same essential level as the mortals they battle.

This is a demon from the Dungeons and Dragons Role Playing Game...look at the tiny wings.

So, how should demons be used in our writing.  Well, for one I would say that demons should be used sparingly.  They should be used in a manner which is warrented by the story.  If the demon/demons in your story are going to be overcome by humans then do not make them world altering powers.  Look again at the Ramayana, Ravan was a world altering power who was only defeated by the combined efforts of both gods and men.  In Christian belief Satan and his demons are not defeated by humans, they are defeated by God.  In Norse stories the frost giants are not the enemies of men, they are the enemies of the gods.  I could go on but I think you get the picture, if your demons are immortal entities of world altering power then they need immortal entities of world altering power to oppose them.

On the other hand if your demons are going to be opposed by humans then give them realistic weaknesses.  Look at Japanese and Chinese mythology for some ideas, give your demons physical bodies that can be killed, give them homes in the real world that might be invaded, families or kingdoms that might be threatened.  You could give them a moral understanding to which the hero might appeal.  Demons in Japanese and Chinese mythology, while very different from humans, are at the same time remarkably similar in many ways.

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* A spree killer is a type of serial killer.  The spree killer is a serial killer who kills large numbers in sprees, sometimes over several days and sometimes at one time.  Spree killers normally have a large number of victims but a very short span of activity as they are quickly caught.

**The word demon comes from the greek daemon or daimon which refers to a spiritual entity, not necessarily good or evil, just spiritual.  The word was used by Christians to refer to those spiritual entities which were the enemies of Yaweh, thus ‘demon’ became synonymous with wickedness.

***A Raksha, also seen as Rakshasa and as Raksa, is a type of Hindu demon which stands somewhere between the gods and men in power.  In some myths Raksha are relatively weak and similar to humans only with the ability to change their shape.  In other myths Raksha are immortal and all but invicible, as is the case in the Ramayana.  The hero, Rama, is the reincarnation of Vishnu (a Hindu god) who then receives help from both human heroes and other gods in order to defeat Ravan, a Raksha of incredible power.

**** My favorite myth is the story of how Susano-o is banished from the sky to the earth for driving Amaterasu, the sun, to hide in a cave the full story can be found in the Kojiki here (Susano-o is translated as His Impetuous Male Augustness, start at section XV).

*****This was popularized by the Dungeons and Dragons line of fantasy role-playing games.  This series separates demons and devils giving each their own plane of existance.  Demons represent the evil forces of Chaos and are drawn from older mythology ranging from Norse, Mesopotamian, Greek, and Egyptian mythology to a few creatures inspired by Chinese and Japanese Mythology.  Devils on the other hand represent the evil forces of law and order and are predominently inspired by Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost.  In D&D these demons and devils may be summoned into the ‘Prime Material’ or real world where they cannot be killed, only dispersed.  If a hero is to permanently kill one of these creatures the hero must travel to the creatures home plane and battle it there.

******See the Ramayana here or the story of how Susano-o defeats the demon Orochi, here for examples of this.  I love that Susano-o turns the chieften’s daughter, his reward, into a bead for his necklace.

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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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No White Knights Here

Melissa’s post about killing off characters reminded me of another topic that writers sometimes disagree on- the place of the “bad guy” in fiction. Science fiction and fantasy have a history of famous series built around characters who really can’t be called “good.” These genres continue to be filled with an increasing number of anti-heroes- characters who are protagonists, but don’t have many (or any) heroic qualities. Here are a few famous examples:

Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Glen Cook’s Croaker (the Black Company), Stephen King’s Roland, and Roger Zelazny’s Corwin (Amber series).

Anti-heroes cover the whole spectrum of gray, from characters who are just a little too morally conflicted to be called heroes, to those who are just downright evil, but have managed to steal the spotlight. Does this put us in the position of rooting for the bad guy? Maybe.  A good author can pull the reader into the story and make them care about what happens to the protagonist. The reader feels the main character’s desires, is happy when they succeed, and disappointed when they fail. But what if that character’s desire is the enslavement of all mankind, or something similarly wicked? Should we be comfortable entering a mind like that?

There are arguments to be made for it, of course. Gray characters feel realistic, and even really evil ones can probably strike a chord with us, if we’re honest. Everybody has a little bit of monster in them. And it’s good escapism. After a bad day, who wouldn’t want to do a little mischief to the source of the aggravation? Most people wouldn’t dream of doing anything of the kind in real life, but dark characters offer a guilt-free way to cause mayhem vicariously.

So, how can we justify writing and reading about dark characters? Or do we even need a justification? Is it enough that, for both reader and writer, letting a little of the evil out is fun?