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


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?