It takes a lot to get me to accept a fantasy story with a demon in it. Carol Berg managed, but then, she transformed the concept of ‘demon’ so thoroughly that she managed a break with tradition; I was interested in reading about her characters in spite of the name, not because of it, and remained interested. Other demon fantasies, especially that godawful…thing…by Elizabeth Haydon, haven’t managed to impress me much.
1) Does the demon have characteristics of Christian demons? Why? A lot of fantasy worlds are based on Christian mythology. However, even more aren’t. There may be a concept of hell, but why there should be demons who can possess people, live in hell and torture the dead, and are frightened by holy symbols is not explained. They’re snatched willy-nilly from one religious tradition and deposited in the middle of another, less accepting one. The author often doesn’t provide an origin story for the demons, either, the way that she might try to for her Dark Lord. They’re just There.
Give them the right to the name, for gods’ sake, or don’t name them “demons.” That word calls up a very, very specific picture, far more specific than something like, say, “evil spirit.” It limits you in ways that creating your own name for the species won’t. And it snaps the boundaries of suspension of disbelief too much when you’re trying to convince me that your fantasy world really is separate from ours, and yet, wow, here’s a traditional concept of demon. Go away and name them something else, or be prepared to transform your world to fit them. Carol Berg takes the latter course, but her demons aren’t Christian; they happen to live in another dimension that’s simply hell to human beings, and their possession of human souls is how they feed. Nor are they entirely evil. These are demons who paint. The name is chosen mostly for the possession aspect, and she doesn’t try to invoke the other stupid regalia that surrounds it.
Like, oh, demon-summoning, for instance.
2) Why should mages summon demons at all? Mages are usually represented as reaching between dimensions, into hell, or into another world to invoke a demon. It’s hard work, it’s dangerous (though see point 3), and demon-summoning always seems to lead the mage towards evil. Yet they keep doing it.
Why? Wouldn’t magical methods develop to control creatures in the mage’s own world, first? It would seem logical. The mage wants someone killed nastily, so he develops a method to summon and control a vampire. He wants someone terrified out of their wits, so he summons a ghost (and perhaps becomes a necromancer, which, while painted as evil still, isn’t usually represented as dark as demon-summoning is). He wants to know the secrets of the ages, so he summons and binds an elf. All of the functions demons serve could be served by creatures in the mage’s own world. The creatures probably wouldn’t be happy about it, but then, demons aren’t usually happy about it, either. It might take strong magic, but demonology is strong magic. And there’s the chance that the mage wouldn’t be irredeemably corrupted by it, except in the way that slavery of others irredeemably corrupts someone. And it’s not the slavery of the demons that’s the problem, for most mages, but the contact with hell/Demon Dimension/wherever.
If the demons are the only creatures that can be summoned and bound, that might be a legitimate reason for a mage to risk this hard and taxing course of study. However, it still puzzles me when I see a demonologist in fantasy trying to force a demon to do something that he could do in another way, and which sometimes exists openly in the novel. For example, if there is easily accessible elemental magic that would let the mage rain fireballs down on his enemies, why does he need to summon a demon to do so? Is elemental magic inborn, and it just happens that the mage’s talent is focused towards binding demons instead? Well, all right, but then why does there remain that inherent element of risk? A born demonologist should be able to control his creatures at least as well as a born elemental mage does his fireballs.
This boils down to a variation of number 1, but even if you have Christian mythology in there, ask yourself: Do I really need demon-summoning?
3) Please represent demonology as actually dangerous. I’ve read several fantasy books where the chalk circles to contain the demons had to be perfect, the right number of candles had to be lighted, the demons would try to trick and bargain with the mage for their freedom, and the mage himself could fall into the trap of his greed or desire or whatever. Demonology is supposedly an intricate, dangerous art in such books, and takes so much study that it appeals primarily to mages who never do anything else. Characters always face death when they face demons.
Yet, in only one of those books has a character actually died—and he was a minor character, an apprentice who summoned the demon and then couldn’t control it because he’d smudged the circle. So obviously he didn’t matter.
Demons have fangs, say the authors. I say, let them show their fangs. But the authors, who already have a bad case of worshipping and adoring their heroes, can’t permit anything bad to actually happen to them, even something bad that’s non-fatal (like the demon tearing an arm off). So they flutter and simper and hint, and the demons might as well be declawed kitty cats.
I’m sure you know by now that I think fantasy authors who have a case of Oh My Precious Baby syndrome for their protagonists need to go write something else. Fantasy has to have an element of danger and real risk to counteract the nearly universal, and universally correct, assumption that the heroes will win out in the end. I may be 99% certain that the hero’s going to live, and even live intact in all limbs and sanity and with the woman he loves beside him, but the author has to maintain that 1% that shows there’s still a chance. Since authors are going out of their way in demon-summoning scenes to present these creatures as ooh, scary, and the art as ooh, intricate, and the circles as ooh, there better not be a line out of place, I want to have the feeling that these demons could harm the heroes.
Demons who never get out of control, and have no chance of getting out of control, are like powerful magic that never gets out of control: they make the heroes look good with no effort on their own parts. Stop it.
4) Think about things from the demon’s POV. Reason number three, after the Christian thing and the non-threatening thing, that demons irritate me is the absolute evil thing. Authors who try to give their Dark Lords abusive childhoods and show how the evil henchman will be changed by the love of the pure heroine don’t think twice about making their demons sublime assholes.
And yeah, sure, that works in Christian mythology, but that’s because it’s Christian. The Devil is usually represented as purely evil, God as purely good. Take that support away, and you don’t have a reason to make immortal, knowledgeable, powerful creatures so purely evil. (I have problems with the Christian conception of demons, too, but that’s more tied in to my problem with absolute conceptualizations in general, which I’ll leave alone for now).
Think, think, think. Usually, demons’ characteristics in other fantasy races work to those races’ advantage, not detriment. Elves are long-lived or immortal, and so usually portrayed as more understanding of the earth, because they know what changes done in haste might reverberate with awful effects in a few centuries, and they’ll be there to suffer those effects. Dragons are wise, and a lot of fantasies nowadays take the tack that any heroine who listens to them is much better off than a heroine who tries to kill them. Authors don’t disdain to write about magically powerful humans or nonhumans; sometimes it seems as if no one is worthy of being a fantasy protagonist unless he or she has The Most Powerful Magic Ever. So why do these characters function to the dark side only in demons?
“They live in an evil place,” is the usual answer. And is a place purely evil? Can it be? Knock the Christian support away, and you’re left responsible for the justification of hell all by yourself, which can be a bit tough. Of course, most fantasy authors with this problem don’t think that far ahead. Demons are the convenient evil scapegoat, so in the scrap heap they go.
This is the case with Elizabeth Haydon’s demons, the F’dor, who can possess people and represent fire in the elemental scale of magic and want to awaken a monster who will destroy the world. Why do they want to do this? Because, um. Because, uh. Because, well, Elizabeth Haydon says so, and that fact combined with Rhapsody, an Author’s Darling to beat all Author’s Darlings, has made me vow never to read an Elizabeth Haydon book ever again.
Think like a demon. Jump into its skin. Even possessing people isn’t an unmitigated evil.
5) Possessing people can move a lot of plot. This is all over the place in Berg’s Rai-kirah books. A whole culture has formed to fight the demons who possess people and drive them to acts of evil (which is what feeds the demons: intense bodily sensations). Yet Seyonne, the main character, soon enough encounters a demon who’s possessing a merchant and simply letting him fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a great painter, while feeding on the passions and emotions that that unleashes in his soul. And when Seyonne discovers the reason that the demons have to possess people in the first place… well.
If you are going to take the tack that demons are evil and possess people because of it, then use it to your advantage, not your disadvantage. I remember being awfully disappointed with the Changeling in Terry Brooks’ The Elfstones of Shannara, because (major spoiler) it basically just uses its gift, which is shapeshifting to the point of perfectly mimicking another person and then acting the way that a demon-possessed person usually acts, to cause minor trouble. An immortal creature could do something more interesting and grand, surely. If demons have been cooped up for generations, stewing about it, and then get let out, I want to see them possess kings and make them march their nations off to war. Not possess the King’s wolfhound, or change into it for that matter, and glare at people.
And what about good possession? Berg’s example is one where the demon, though he possesses the merchant for his own reasons, is benefiting and not harming him. Other demons with the ability to go into the mind, and who might be allowed to be good or evil by their authors, could have other purposes. Healing, perhaps? Working to awaken hidden memories or gentle evil dreams? Giving a wounded person strength to crawl the last few feet to reach help or shelter? It would involve an awful lot of trust, certainly, to give up control of one’s body or mind to a demon for a while, and the author probably wouldn’t call it a demon, but the possibility is there. Just reconceptualize possession in a new way.
I think the next rant will be advice on writing a fantasy short story as opposed to a novel.