World Crafting: Demons

In addition to reviews and general essays, I intended to have a “world crafting” series of articles discussing various common concepts in science-fiction/fantasy and how they might be applied in an author’s or gamemaster’s world building endeavors.  One of my readers requested an article about demons, so here goes.


Demons play a prevalent role in a lot of fantasy and horror, and even some science-fiction.  Yet, not all demons are created equally.  Like magic, the instantiation of the “demon archetype” can take many forms in different works of fiction.  Let’s start with folklore.

For those coming from a Christian background, one might assume that the term “demon” is interchangeable with “devil” or “fallen angel”.  However, this is a peculiarly Christian concept, and while used in some fantasy does not hold universally true.

The definition states: “an evil spirit, devil, or fiend.”  The built-in dictionary widget on my MacBook Pro states: “an evil spirit, or devil.”  Wikipedia give a whole history on the word as it evolved through different cultures.  No need to repeat here what you can read by clicking on the link… but of particular note is that the word did not always have a negative connotation (Greek: “daemon”), nor was the difference between demons and gods always a clear-cut one.

What seems to be common to the overall Demon archetype is that they are “unclean spirits”.  They are malevolent, evil, or antagonistic, and not of this world.  Other common attributes make forces for destruction and corruption.

When a world crafter decides to make demons part of his mythos, he needs to define how demons act, and how they exist within the taxonomy of other spirits (if there are other spirits) in the story.  For example, if demons refer to any evil spirit, then is a ghost–the spirit of a dead person–also a demon?  If not, what is the difference?

In classical Christian mythology, the taxonomy is clear.  Demons are not human spirits, nor are they just any malevolent spirit.  They are, specifically, fallen angels.  The term demons and devils are interchangeable.  In Jewish lore, this is not necessarily the case.  Demons may or may not be fallen angels.  They may simply be malevolent personifications of unbalanced forces.  When you add in Christian and Jewish folklore, the taxonomy becomes more diluted.

What defines spirits in a story largely goes back to the question of origin.  Where do demons come from?  If they are not twisted human souls lingering in the physical world, then they are not ghosts.  If they are a fallen or corrupted good spirit, then this explains their origin, and an important question is: “what caused the fall?”  (A topic for another time, perhaps: versions of the Devil’s fall in Christian mythology).  Or were they always evil, as we find in the Diablo games?

Demons are oftentimes caught up and defined in the core cosmology of the world.  The simple choice by author between whether demons are corrupted spirits originally good, or came into being already evil, shapes the core cosmology of the world.  If they were originally good, then the natural state of the world might be good, and we introduce a concept of sin, corruption, fall from grace, and redemption.  If they are said to be evil from their origin, then we beg the question: who made the demons?  Is Evil a fundamental and elemental force in the world, co-equal with Good (an eternal Yin-Yang)?  Were they created by an evil god?  If so, was the god a fallen good god, or was that god originally evil?

Before continuing with world construction thoughts, it might be good to look at a few examples.

Lord of the Rings

The classic Balrog. (For something different, I pulled the video from the old animated series–much loathed by fans, but I liked it as a kid.  I still do.  There’s an atmosphere about it).  Tolkien’s demons were essentially fallen angels, good spirits corrupted by Melkor (Morgoth), the Black Enemy.  (Sauron in the Lord of the Rings was merely one of Morgoth’s lieutenants).  When Gandalf says the Balrog is a Demon of the Ancient World, he means it was on of the original servants of Morgoth.  It is somewhat questionable what the power level difference was between the Balrogs and Sauron.  Demons are spirits, but in Tolkien’s world when spirits take physical form, they are corrupted by the physical world (as we see with Saruman).  In concept, pretty close to classic Judeo-Christian mythology.

Classic Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D)

AD&D deviated from the norm somewhat in differentiating between demons and devils.  They were the native denizens of evil planes of existence, not coming from the angelic hosts of the good realms, although mortal souls sent there could be turned into lesser demons and devils.  They were separated by alignment, by the kind of evil they represented in the lore.  Specifically, Demons were the multitude of races that inhabited the Chaotic Evil plane called the Abyss.  They were nasty, disorganized, chaotic, destructive, and didn’t get along well with each other.  But there were lots of them.  Devils, on the other hand, were the evil races inhabiting the Lawful Evil plane of the Nine Hells.  They were organized, capable of controlling themselves, and in some ways a greater threat.  A later iteration of the mythos had Demons and Devils at war with one another just as violently as they would oppose the denizens of the good planes (such as The Seven Heavens and Elysium).  They were considered spirits in that they could not enter the physical world uninvited, but were considered “physical” and able to be killed if encountered on their own plane of existence.

Princess Mononoke

The Miyazaki film Princess Mononoke takes a completely different spin.

Princess Mononoke Demon Boar God

Miyasaki’s demons are not fallen angels or celestial beings.  In this case, a boar god is corrupted by anger and hatred, and becomes a demon.  This corruption is contagious, and it is later revealed that anyone, including people, can become demons if their hatred dominates them.


One of my favorite TV shows is the CW’s Supernatural (well, the first 5 seasons.  After that it should have ended).

This show is a fantastic blend of horror and classic Americana.  Classic Rock, American folklore (such as the Crossroads Demon where you sell your soul to play the guitar–straight out of Blues history), and they drive around a vintage Impala.  It’s an American samurai story/western–the wandering heroes moving from town to town, fighting monsters.  Anyway, the demonic twist in this one (SPOILER) is that demons, while not ghosts, do come from human souls.  They do have fallen angels in Supernatural.  Well, they only have one fallen angel: Lucifer.  There are evil angels too.  (Angels are not clear cut in this world).  Lucifer made hell, and evil souls go there when they die… and then after centuries of torture, their souls are twisted into demons.  They become something other than human at that point.

Buffy: the Vampire Slayer

In the final vignette of this article is Joss Whedon’s world in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.  Especially in Angel, we see not all demons are bad (Lorn).  Most are.  But in Joss Whedon’s world, Demons are really nothing more than any non-human denizen of another plane of existence is called a demon (except the occasional appearance of a god).  Youtube won’t let me embed this video of Lorne the musical demon and his family’s dance of joy, but it’s worth clicking off to.  As much as I love these series, I would almost go so far to say these aren’t really demons, but aliens from other dimensions.

Demonic Choices (for the World Crafter)

When writing demons, they should be powerful, seductive, and destructive.  The more physically bound you make them, the more they approach “alien” territory, becoming just yet another race.  To keep their impact, demons should be special in the world, different from the other fantasy or mortal races involved.

Demons are terrifying.  They threaten that which you hold most dear: your soul.

What makes them scary?  It’s not just that they’re powerful monsters.  So is a bugbear and an orc.  But demons should make character bat-shit scared.  They should threaten more than your life.  They should threaten all that you hold dear, not least of which is your soul.  This could be in a traditional “I get to torture you forever” kinda way… but that’s not really what losing your soul means.  Losing your soul means ceasing to be you.  You become demonic yourself.

Demons use both fear…

Are your demons destructive?  Do they wield violence, or psychological terror?  Is their mere presence enough to incapacitate someone?  Give a character a heart attack from fear alone.

…and pleasure.

Are your demons seductive?  Do they offer power, or sex?  What is the price for temptation?  These demons threaten to corrupt characters, take their souls, and make them like the demons in spirit.

AD&D MM1 Succubus Illustration

Every boy who owned the AD&D Monster Manual lingered on the monster entry for the Succubus.

Demons don’t have physical bodies, so you can’t fight them.

Is their presence physical?

One of the things that helps build suspense is to make demons both powerful and subtle at the same time.  The less you see of the demon, the better.  Appearances should be rare.  Their effects should be felt without giving characters–and the reader–a specific target to identify.  One of the most effective tools Tolkien used to build up the threat of Sauron was that he never showed him in a scene!  Demons may or may not have direct impact on physical objects.  Or, they manipulate through dreams and whispers.  They drive men crazy to do evil things.  They arrange coincidences, bad luck, and other torments, without tipping their hands directly.  Their corrupting influence affects everything around them.

Of course, demons will come to physical manifestation at times.  These moments should have dramatic impact, affect character’s lives, but are also the point when demons are most vulnerable…. cause you can hit them with a sword!

Demons posses hosts.

More often than not, the demon will possess another living body, preferably a character’s loved one.  This way, the heroes cannot directly attack the demon without harming an innocent.

So, to capture the essence of demonic traits for storywriting:

  1. Demons are violent or seductive; they are always destructive
  2. Demons threaten that which you hold most dear: your “you-ness” (soul)
  3. Demons appearing in physical form is the exception
  4. Demons corrupt people and places
  5. Demons possess hosts

The rest is window-dressing and world detail–the origin stories, how they fit into the cosmology, how they appear… to retain their demonic essence, they should adopt all or most of the above traits.

Dealing with Demons

How do heroes deal with demons?  If you’re (un)lucky enough to physically confront on in their true form, you have a chance to defeat them either by banishment (magic, usually) or destroying (which may merely equate to banishment–writer’s choice–if they’re not in their own home plane of existence).

Since demons don’t always appear, it could be a character goal to get them to appear.  Finding the right ritual, item, or location could be a quest object.  Story tropes:

  1. Bad things happen in village.  Heroes determine an old demon is present.  Heroes must discover how to bring the demon to light (bring it to physical manifestation) so they can confront it directly.  Final battle should be tough.  Maybe some characters die.
  2. Innocent possessed by demons.  Heroes must discover the right spell of old magic that banishes the demon.
  3. Demon corrupts village.  Demon can’t be killed except through liberating the hearts and minds of the villagers, one by one.  There is no magical easy cure, but each soul is a battle.  Heroes have to change the victim’s mind, help them see the lies that they’ve fallen prey to.  This is tough, because it’s not a means of just “finding a cure.”  The characters have to be clever, and risk being persuaded to the corrupted’s perspective.

But this also misses one more very common story element of demons:

Demons are Evil.  Dark is a Thing.  Evil is Real.

In some worlds, elemental good is what you need to repel or defeat a demon.  In stories with gods, this means faith.  Demons, of course, often play a role in morality plays of faith and hope vs. despair and doubt.

“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”  John 1:5

If Evil is real, and Dark, then Good is real, and Light.  Unless the world you live in was written by H.P. Lovecraft.  Then you’re just screwed.

When writing about demons, imagine that Dark, Evil, Hatred, Malice… all those things are Real.  Make those ideals characters in and of themselves.  Then, you start to craft a demon in your world that will not only strike dread in the hearts of your characters, but hopefully your readers too.

And on that note I think I’ll wrap it up for this week.

May Cthulhu Watch You All,




3 thoughts on “World Crafting: Demons

  1. I want to preface this by saying how much I love this article. You’ve really poured a lot of thought into this and it shows. The one thing I don’t *quite* agree with is your list of essential traits, not because I think that you missed something, but because I don’t really agree with the notion that these kinds of concepts have essential traits. Typical traits, to be sure, but not essential.

    In particular, I think that a good writer looks at a list like that and says to themselves, “Okay, how can I break that?”

    Think about the way that Anne Rice look at numerous vampire tropes — fear of crosses, non-reflective, hates garlic, etc. — and jettisoned nearly every single one and, in the process, managed to utterly redefine what modern vampires are like.

    I think that one of the critical elements of world building is knowing when and how to break the rules and doing so in a way that distinguishes your world from others. So, if I were making a story about demons, I may well decide to make demons non-destructive.

    I much prefer the way, in the rest of the article, that you list the considerations that a world builder has to think about when adding demons. I think that’s the correct approach to world building. When working with Entity X, instead of saying to yourself, “What’s the definition of X”, you should be saying, “Okay, here’s an X… what does it mean for something to be X in the context of my story?”

    • I agree Andrew. I probably should have said “common traits” rather than “essential traits”. Breaking rules is part of what makes stories unique and interesting.

      • I love how you used other examples to make your point. I especially loved that you used Supernatural because that was the first thing that popped into my mind when I started reading the article (I love that show)! I also find it interesting how many tv series/movies have different portraits of demons because in Charmed the demons could shimmer and they were more human form versus in Supernatural the Demons look like black smoke that poses bodies. In Season of the Witch the Demon looked more evil and scary but in Ghost Rider the demon was a evil/good bad ass. It seems that creators of these worlds have similar ideas on how demons act but differences on how they look. It’s interesting how each persons inner perception of demons is displayed and how different they look. Great Article!

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