So, demons in fantasy?

A quick (and I mean a super, uber, single) search on Google for “Demon Fantasy” doesn’t yield much: the books that flag on Amazon are all self-published Kindle novels, the covers of which have a definite romance vibe, or at the very least, that kick-ass-chick-glancing-over-one-shoulder vibe, and there’s little joy in terms of hits with viable information as to how these dark little things feature in fantasy.

But that’s probably a good thing.

Devil from LegendThink about it: demons in their basest form are perhaps the earliest, purest form of evil out there—the original evil. The Devil, El Diablo, Beelzebub, He Who Must Not Be—sorry, wrong embodiment of evil. You get the picture. Call him what you will, and in whatever denomination; Satan’s a pretty nasty piece of work. He’s also a demon. But of course, whilst Satan might be a demon, not all demons are Satan. Hereafter, we’re not going to talk about The Devil, rather demons as, shall we say, a race of their own, the same way we’ve talked about the fae.

It’s not hard to see why writers might shy away from writing about demons. Not only do they have a pretty negative rep, but the possible dangers of clichéd villains are mounting up quicker than the national debt. Generally, you wouldn’t write about a straight, white paladin male with 2.4 children (anymore), so naturally you wouldn’t write about the single original concept of evil. It would be plain boring and present a very one-dimensional bad guy, which creates all kinds of problems in any good story.

So here’s the trick: What if we mess with those steadfast concepts of good and evil? That’s right, mess with them. You see white, you see black. See that space between both colours, between both concepts? That’s grey, and that there is your middle-ground. It’s also any writer’s most useful discovery. There is no such thing as good and evil, only people/characters and the things they do. Start playing in that grey area, and as if by magic, characters and villains alike become just like real people—and all the more readable for it.

Let’s invite our demons here, and see what happens. We might end up with the aforementioned barrage of supernatural romance—the same happened with vampires when they took to the grey—or we might end up with more humanised demons or half-demons (a similar treatment to the fae with their changelings) that feature on the sidelines of stories, or in the roles of villains. What is rare, is to see demons treated as a regular race, as elves or dwarves might be.

The Japanese are somewhat better at this, but then, anime is a whole different world of fantasy that adheres to its own rules and garners a whole new set of expectations. Some demons in anime and manga are still quintessentially evil, but others are not. Offhand, a few are classic examples of how demons aren’t always the epitome of all evil. Sebastian Michaelis, from Kuroshitsuji (Black Butler) is a demon who enters into a contract with a noble human in exchange for his soul, however, they develop a closer bond than that of servant and master. Ao no Exorcist (Blue Exorcist) sees Rin Okumura and his twin brother, Yukio, as the sons of Satan, living in the mortal world and entirely unaware of his parentage at the beginning of the story. Basically a high-school anime with fantasy and adventure themes, Ao no Exorcist is a brilliant example of how demons can be envisaged very differently.

The nature of Japanese mythology better allows it to take concepts and turn them around; oni, akuma, tenshi—all these mythological creatures have a myriad of differing interpretations and roles in different and contrasting stories, whilst Western mythology is all the more rigid. However, if you take the time to look deeply enough, and then think, it’s easy to find instances involving demons in fantasy that make you think again, or take a second look.

Dragon Age Pride DemonDragon Age presents demons in a very textbook fashion: demons will offer mortals a truck of some kind, in order to strike a bargain, and eventually possess them. The bottom line is generally accepted that demons—spirits from the Fade—want a shiny human body in which to waltz about. Deeper than that, is that they want to experience life. There are several points throughout Dragon Age (both I, Awakening, and II, but more so in the second game) where demons are presented in not so damning lights—at least for a while. There’s a scene with a Templar who’s trapped in the illusions of a Desire demon’s spell: he’s living a happy life with a wife and children, things he does not have in life. Sure, the Warden has to waltz in and kill the demon, and winds up killing the bewitched templar too, but how much harm did it do the templar to be caught in the illusion, and didn’t he enter into it willingly in the first place? It’s a small little nugget.

What isn’t a small nugget is the concept of Justice.

In Dragon Age sprits live in the Fade. So do demons. Spirits are “good” beings, who largely ignore humans. Demons are “bad” beings who prey upon the basic human emotions of Desire, Pride, Sloth, etc (a touch cliché, but if it’s not broken, don’t fix it), and seek to make bargains with humans in order to gain power, cross to the mortal world, or otherwise scheme and plot towards their demonic plans. In point of fact: demons and spirits might well be the same things, as they come from the same place, and they might be two different “personalities” of a supernatural “spirit” being. I’m delving very deeply into the fluff here, but hey, that’s what good fluff is for.

Dragon Age Rage DemonJustice. During Dragon Age: Awakening, we meet a spirit called Justice. It’s a spirit, it does justice-y things; it’s a spirit of Justice. It’s a good spirit, not a demon. However, here’s the thing: it possesses a man. Whether this man is dead or not, is beside the point. This spirit of Justice possesses a man. Demons do that. Furthermore, when Anders, a mage, allows the spirit of Justice to partly reside within him, Anders’ anger and hatred for the Templars, and the injustices they deal mages, forcibly transforms this spirit into a spirit of Vengeance. It does bad things through Anders. It changes him. Demons do that, too.

Most of this is open for interpretation, but what further compounds my take on Dragon Age demons as being merely spirits who might be “grey” once in a while (whilst the good spirits are “white” and the bad spirits/demons “black”), is Merrill’s character in Dragon Age: II.

Merrill is a main party member. She’s also a blood mage and she’s entered into a bargain with a demon to gain power. The notion of the demon being merely a “spirit” is very strong and clear earlier in the story, until it dwindles very quickly and clumsily, as though messing with the concept of good and evil was too much to cram into a companion side-quest, and the demon Merrill has bargained with reveals himself to be just as evil as all other demons in the game. It’s a pity, really, that the seemingly original idea wasn’t taken further. Understandable, though, in such tight time confines as a video game.

Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files has no such restrictions.

Butcher’s always been good at questioning good and evil and moreover, that space in between. So good, in fact, that later in the series (from Death Masks (book eight) onwards) his depiction of demons—we’re talking true Fallen Angel demons—is very different to what even fans of the series up until that point might have expected. Instead of having an army of fell demons, bent on the destruction and enslavement of man, these Fallen Angels all have personalities and schemes of their own that do not necessarily relate to any grander plan.

Dresden has dealings with one such demon, one who actually demonstrates many personality aspects that he had not expected. The behaviour of the Fallen slowly makes Harry question what he’s previously been told about demons, and what’s he experienced himself. It’s a classic way in which Butcher messes with things and mixes ideas and concepts up: for all the Dresden Files may not always be the most original series out there, any failings that border on the overdone or the cliché are more than made up for with his constant questioning of humanity. Good and evil will always be a chewy subject and Butcher definitely gives us gum by the bucket load. At the base of the topic, the impression is given that, whether Harry likes it or not, demons don’t always adhere to the simple rules of good and evil. It is absolute genius to have a character who is unsure of the difference himself: it’s incredibly real and it makes a change from a monochrome character landscape, where evil is evil merely because it’s evil.

Demons are such an untouched area of fantasy, an area that lends itself so well to urban fantasy that it’s a wonder we don’t see more of them around. Perhaps in the same way that vampires, fae/changelings had their rotation, we’ll see demons get a look in. Personally, if writers tackle the “race” in the same way as the aforementioned races, and not as a cheap, throwaway evildoer from Villains-R-Us, then I’ll be very interested to see where it goes—if it ever happens and manages to go anywhere at all!

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Title Image by sandara


By Leo Elijah Cristea

Leo Cristea is a disabled, panromantic, asexual, male-shaped thing with teal hair, loud opinions and a rather lovely altar to the Morrigan on his desk, where he spends 70% of his time writing, 20% of it conducting imaginary metal orchestras with headphones on, and 10% of it dislodging one of his five feline familiars. He reads and writes mostly YA fantasy and science fiction and constantly presses for wider and better diverse inclusivity in books, and he will apologise for neither of these things. When he’s not writing or reading he’s probably romancing yet another love interest in the Dragon Age games or burying himself under too much work trying to learn every language in the world all at once. He is a Creative Writing graduate and the laconic is something he will never master (and isn’t really trying, either), though since he likes words very, very much, this isn’t currently a problem. His favourite authors are all women and this is perfectly fine with him. When he remembers to, he blogs. (Occasionally. When the planets align.) Usually found wearing black.

25 thoughts on “Demons in Fantasy”
  1. +1 for Dresden. Great series.

    Actually, “daemon” comes from the Greek “daimon,” which is a “divinity or supernatural being of a nature between gods and humans” or a “attendant spirit or inspiring force.” It wasn’t until the 16th century that it became a common term for an evil entity. The Greek definition is why in computers we call background processes that do work behind the scenes “daemons.” (e.g. a print spool daemon or a web server daemon.)

    Another series that features daemons prominently, besides The Dresden Files, is Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy. It’s set in an alternate version of London ruled by sorcerers who summon and bind daemons of various types to do their bidding. It’s told primarily from the perspective of a snarky djinn. It’s a good series, but I’m not really a fan of the ending.

    1. Yeah, the ending left me with a lot of questions, but the story was pretty original and the plot was amazing.

  2. -takes a moment to fangirl over Kuroshitsuji-

    Ahem. Sorry, had to get that out of my system.

    You need to read the Rai-Kirah trilogy, by Carol Berg. The Rai-Kirah are demons and you have the expected plot of demon hordes overtaking humankind and all that doom and gloom – but only for book one. After that, things get interesting and the protagonist, who used to be something of a demon hunter himself, finds that things aren’t at all what he expected. An added bonus is the fact it’s not set in medieval Europe but flaunts an eastern setting.

  3. As an author of dark fantasy with a demonic bent, I found this article fascinating. In the world I’m building there is no black and white; no true good or evil. I treat demons much more closely to the previous commenter’s “daimons”. Dwelling in alternate elemental planes that border the prime material one (our world), they are immortal beings of immense power who have built draconian societies lacking many of our Christian values. As a long time gamer and RPG enthusiast, I wanted to diversity the idea of immortal god-like beings. Both demons and their mortal children have a sense of morality. It is interesting to explore the difference between demons and devils. Demons have always been more chaotically evil while devils are more lawful–sticking by their twisted contracts. You won’t find, as you say, “that kick-ass-chick-glancing-over-one-shoulder vibe” in the books I’m writing. My demons are visceral, dark and cunning. Cheers.

  4. I was mulling over this for a write up I was working on, but this is good information as far as how to think outside the box for demons and “evil”. Demons are evil, sure… They also have their machinations and ideals they want to accomplish (if you look at the “traditional” demonic worlds in gaming), the constant rivalry and temptation between each realm is story worthy in itself.

    I had many problems with Dragon Age II, most of it was the companion quests were just not smoothed out. I am glad you pointed out Merrill’s and the issues you had with it, I was less than thrilled myself. That game was why I stopped gaming and turned in all my console games.

    Thanks for writing this up, good timing!

    Side note: If you enjoyed the DA games, I’d recommend the books too. Well worth the read.

  5. Another interesting take on demons is Bujold’s Chalion series (of which I’ve only read the first two), which sometimes puts people in between both gods and demons as they go to war with each other. In fact, “sorcerers” in those books are merely people who have made pacts with demons in exchange for their powers, and one of the various gods in their pantheon is the father of all demons. A pretty original and well-executed take on the concept, in my opinion.

  6. I’m frankly shocked. I had no idea that demons were such an under-studied race. I generally take it for granted that any creature/race/being is an entire culture of its own, with many shades of gray along with the white and black, as well as rebels and deviants. My novel On Common Ground ( features both angels and demons, with the lines drawn in a very haphazard manner. Good and evil there do not necessarily lie beside angels and demons respectively.

    I wonder why these commonly “evil” and “base” races are so intrinsically liked with romance and lust? Vampires, Demons, (not even counting succubuses!)… is it the appeal of power? the attraction to a “dark side”?

    Thanks for the info, Redwall! I do love linguistic derivations!

  7. Oh, I loved the mention of Dragon age and Dresden Files. Yeah, that quest did change fairly abruptly and rather anticlimactically. In some cases Lord of The Rings could be used as an example here. Although since there is no explicit mention of Demons I don’t think I can go into a big spiel about it. Oh well. 😛
    The only other mention of demons I can think about in the Fantasy is Kim Harrisan’s depiction of demons.

  8. It would be pretty cool to see demons tackled as a race rather than the stereotypical Christian ‘denzien of Hell/servant of Lucifer’ personification.

    Do Philip Pullman’s Daemon companions count as an example of using demons as a race?

    1. Possibly, depending on how you look at them. They seem to me to be more of an extension of their host/partner, as opposed to beings of their own accord. Perhaps not so much their parter’s personality, but more a physical manifestation of instinct.

      If, however, you were to look at them as separate entities, then it could be argued that these are another use of Demons. This is supported by the fact that the daemons can be removed from their partner, though the effect this has on the partner is rather unpleasant.

      So, depending on your viewpoint, it could fall into this category.

  9. Another good book that focuses almost exclusively on demons and really explores their motivations as fallen angels is Barlowe’s novel God’s Demon. It’s an extremely interesting read, and presents a more detailed and well-thought-out vision of Hell than I’d ever read before.

  10. Peter Brett focuses quite a bit on demons in his books. The Dark Border series by Paul Edwin Zimmer is filled with demons. James Barclay’s series finale Demonstorm is another that comes to mind. The Morigu duology by Mark Perry, has the protagonists facing off against powerful demon lords. Of course they exist in a number of the D&D official novels and those set in the world of Warhammer as well. There is also The Elfstones of Shannara (one of Terry Brook’s better books) in which demons break through the forbidding and wreak havoc.

    I’ve got a different take on demons and their effect upon the mortal world with IN THE SHADOW OF SWORDS. Mine draws more from Arabian mythology and the motivations for acting are also ambivalent–not your classical ‘good’ vs ‘evil’ dichotomy. But certainly, these entities play a major role in the story.

  11. hi im writing a fantasy book and im struggling to find different types of demons and was aslo wondering if anyone knew the real name for a fire demon

  12. On the subject of Dragon Age, the Templar who was under the control of the Desire demon was going to die- the demon was giving him the illusion of a family in order to feast on his life force while experiencing mortality through him.. So, yes, she was doing him harm.

    Also, I believe that when Justice becomes Vengeance, that actually is Justice becoming a demon, though don’t quote me on that.

  13. Nothing for nothing but I’m glad that there are others who acknowledge that demons are in fact a “mythical” race of creatures and don’t HAVE to be shoved into the stereotypical corner that all demons are the evil minions to Satan. I love the idea of demons in fantasy and have had a love and fascination with them since middle school (I’m now in college) but everyone, that I’ve seen so far, outside of the anime/manga/gaming world sees them only as evil. Or when people think of demons in fantasy or romances they just see it as another name for a vampire. I would love to be able to change that some day. I would also like to see stories with demons out side of a Christian base, as in not seen as “fallen angles” or any creature with a connection with God or Satan. Especially since demons have been around since way before Christianity~ =)

    1. I recently finished writing a book on Hell where my take on demons are different from the fallen angels stereotype and where they play the main role in keeping balance rather that being the embodiment of evil.
      I hope i manage to get an agent & publisher soon, and that you enjoy the book when its out.

  14. Let’s not forget all the various different types of demons in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, who range from good to bad and everywhere in between.

  15. Steven Erikson in The Malazan Book of the Fallen presents demons in a very interesting way as well – for the most part, simply creatures from other realms who aren’t necessarily good or evil. They come to the normal world usually only when summoned and bound by the peoples of the Malazan world.

  16. Thinking about it, every book I’ve ever written features demons in some form alongside a pantheon of gods – admittedly spanning only two series but still, that’s eight books so I should probably hold off on the next one!

    As for others, lots in PVB and Erikson is worth reading for so many reasons, plus if you like that sort of this you might want to check out the supernatural creatures of Blackdog, Geist, Redemption Falls, Tyranny of the Night, and maybe even the Laundry novels. None of those are Bible based if memory serves, but there is a new one called Son of the Morning which is a brilliant twist on the medieval view of angels and demons.

  17. ‘Demons are such an untouched area of fantasy, an area that lends itself so well to urban fantasy that it’s a wonder we don’t see more of them around.’

    Or it could be that you need to read a wider range of UF books. Much as I love Jim Butcher, he isn’t the only UF author out there.

    Here are some off the top of my head: Diana Rowland, Jaye Wells, Linda Poitevin, Charlaine Harris, Stacia Kane, Kim Harrison, Richelle Mead, Paul Cornell.

  18. I should add that all those authors have demons as characters in their books (along with other supes), and their demons come in all shades of white, black, and grey. Some interact with other characters in a romantic way, and others don’t. (There is nothing wrong with romance, be it paranormal or not – in fact there is a lot right. It is also one of the hardest genres to write and, while it might not be everyone’s reading choice, that does not mean you should dismiss it if it’s not yours!)

    And here are a few more UF authors who write about demons in all their shades: Ann Aguirre, Jenn Bennett, Jeaniene Frost, Mike Carey, Lou Morgan, Patricia Briggs, Tanya Huff, Ben Aaronovitch, Faith Hunter, Mark Henry, Sarah Rees Brennan, Cassandra Clare, Tad Williams, Jenna Black, Karen Chance, and Thomas E. Snegoski.

    Now I can’t comment on non urban fantasy; it may be that it does have a dearth of demons as you suggest.

  19. awww, I was looking forward to the mention of demons in The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials series). I thought it was really interesting how every human had a part demon.

  20. One of my fave authors of all time writes about all sorts of goodies, including her take on vampires and demons. (She calls them daimons like the first poster mentions). Give her a try. It’s paranormal romance, but even without all the love crap in there it has a good plot. Sherrilyn Kenyon. 🙂

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