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I'm trying to create demons that aren't just raging murderers, as much as they're enslaved to their disposition they're not completely conquered by it, with a sense of humanity and reason crawling under their skin.

I also want several polar groups representing different fears like rejection, lack of control, being chased etc, but is that contradictory to depth, would they have a mixture with more dominant dispositions complimented by weaker flaws or a harmony of flaws?


  • If you have characters founded on extremely negative traits how do you humanize them?

  • Can characters have depth if their flaws revolve around a single extreme negative trait, like jealousy or greed? Or does there need to be a mixture?

  • Is it plausible for a community to be driven in unison by a singular internal negative trait?

For example, imagine if there is a village that is always angry, how do the people coexist with each other? If that's possible, could they coexist with other villages that are always envious, greedy or lustful?


My understanding from the answers given are as follows:

  • Demons take the extreme personification of a trait, naturally revolving around it. However, What is considered a positive or negative trait is down to its application, utility and perception. As long as a trait does more good than harm the community could potentially embrace it.
  • Traits can also be accepted as a natural byproduct of circumstance, their outlook on life could rationalize solutions to their tribulations.
  • Setting up empathetic connections in back story allows the reader to understand their perspective: motivations, circumstance, choice e.g. "righteous intent leading to accidental ruin", which ties into a conflict of interests or justification of actions as a lesser of two evils.
  • Despite Vulcan's polar emphasis on logic, Spock could not escape his human traits, largely considered flaws by his people. It's not always apparent, yet makes an appearance every now and then when circumstances stimulate it.
  • As Vulcan's emphasize logic to better achieve their goals, so could demons use the 7 deadly sins to their own ends, where their justifications could validate its plausibility.
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    $\begingroup$ It's not entirely clear what your question is here - there's something buried in that second paragraph but it's not clearly stated. Could you revise, and make sure you have a fairly narrow/specific question? Otherwise this will probably end up getting closed as too broad. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske May 7 '15 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ I think the edits help clarify. $\endgroup$ – James May 7 '15 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ Your description of demons reminds me of the demons from the Dragon Age games. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre May 7 '15 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ All the answers were super helpful guys, +1 for all. I was wrangling with this from the wrong perspective, time to dive back in! Thanks for sorting this out so quickly :D $\endgroup$ – Legacy May 7 '15 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ So how exactly do your demons differ from humans? $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 8 '15 at 5:59
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It's not the easiest thing to resolve...Demons most often take the form of a personification of a specific feeling or trait in a person, and therefore their entire being revolves around the feeling/trait that they represent.

A 'negative trait' is ultimately the perception of said trait...it is negative because we as a collective whole agree it is negative, not because it inherently is negative. For example, most humans will readily squish/kill/maim a cockroach without second thought...an act to us that most of us consider in no way evil, except from the cockroaches point of view in which case we're the most evil demons around. If this Demon viewed humanity in a similar method as a human views a cockroach, then from the Demon's perspective he/she/it/all really isn't "negative" or preforming negative acts...the Demon is just doing what the other demon's consider fully acceptable.

Society for us generally stresses a trait over another one and defines for us what we consider positive vs negative. If for whatever reason, anger wasn't considered negative but was considered a positive thing that drives and motivates us then you can have a trait which today's humans may consider negative be actively promoted as a good thing within this society. If you take it from that perspective...then the negative trait is simply one trait that is emphasized over the others. Borrow the Star Trek reference...Vulcans value logic over all other traits. This doesn't mean that they aren't influenced by other traits, it simply means they put an extreme emphasis on that trait over others.

It's actually impressive how well we can cherry pick these positive vs negative interpretations, taking some as is and challenging others. When it comes down to it, how big of a difference is there between a pig and a dog? Why do we allow ourselves to kill and eat one, but not the other (to the point where much of society considers harm to a dog to be on par with harm to a human, and verbalize this loudly while chewing on bacon).

Answer to the questions more directly:

If you have characters founded on extremely negative traits how do you humanize them?

The extreme negative trait is in their eyes is considered extremely natural and in no way negative...in fact it's likely viewed as a positive trait to continue to work on. Does this mean there is no other traits? Of course not, it's simply stressing this trait that humanity considers negative today as a positive trait they need to work on. Moreover, despite what society says, each individual can choose their own.

Can characters have depth if their flaws revolve around a single extreme negative trait, like jealousy or greed? Or does there need to be a mixture?

No more than Spock was capable of being a being of pure logic...despite his best efforts and outright denial, the other traits were there.

Is it plausible for a community to be driven in unison by a singular internal negative trait?

Entirely...the society simply doesn't view that trait as negative and puts a huge level of stress on it.

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    $\begingroup$ That Spock analogy totally puts this into perspective and cherry picking traits as a form of reliable stability. $\endgroup$ – Legacy May 7 '15 at 20:05
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Interesting question...so humans in my experience are complicated creatures.

To be human, and believably so, you require a certain level of complexity. A character that demonstrates only a single characteristic cannot be believably human, just think of a character on a tv show...audiences come to like a certain aspect of the character and then writers abuse that single aspect to the point the character can lose what made them relatable in the first place.

Edit #1: If you have characters founded on extremely negative traits how do you humanize them?

This is actually pretty easy. Look back at history and pick some of the worst, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot...they were certainly human. Giving characters a background, experiences and situation that explains their wicked ways humanizes them.

Edit #2: Can characters have depth if their flaws revolve around a single extreme negative trait, like jealousy or greed? Or does there need to be a mixture?

So no, a character with a single trait around which their personality revolves is not realistic, at least not when trying to humanize them.

Edit #3: Is it plausible for a community to be driven in unison by a singular internal negative trait?

Keeping my response to question #2 in mind, it follows that you also cannot have a community that is tied to a single trait

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  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre I think I have to admit you are right on number three...it could probably go both ways but...there will be more but you could certainly have a primary thing the group as a whole followed...like a cult. $\endgroup$ – James May 7 '15 at 20:13
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I'll address your edits, as they provide the clearest picture of the questions you want answered.

If you have characters founded on extremely negative traits how do you humanize them?

This probably would be a better question to ask on the Writers exchange, but James has the right of it. Give your evil character a background, show how they acquired their outlook on life and why they are evil. This blog post discusses how to humanize a villain.

Can characters have depth if their flaws revolve around a single extreme negative trait, like jealousy or greed? Or does there need to be a mixture?

I have to agree with James on this one as well. A relatable character can't have just one flaw, or one class of flaws. You need variety. Life experience introduces a great many flaws in all of us, but they don't have to be inherently bad or evil. The desire to protect can be a flaw if it leads a character to not want to put others in harm's way, even if doing so is the only way to overcome the antagonist. Protection to the extreme is actually a fairly common trope.

Is it plausible for a community to be driven in unison by a singular internal negative trait?

This is where I have to disagree with James. The individuals who comprise any given community cannot be founded on and possess only one characteristic, but the community, as a whole, can. One collection of peoples can be adamant about the utter inferiority of another collection of peoples and seek to destroy them. Here, the community is founded on rage, but that rage is directed towards an external group, which allows the community to remain stable.

Envy introduces another option for a community: resources. Suppose Group A has access to lush, fertile land that has been carefully cultivated for generations and their neighbors, Group B, has squandered the riches of their land and the community is now destitute and famished. Group B clearly wants what Group A has. The community is founded on envy, but that envy is directed, once again, towards an external group, allowing the community to remain stable.

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One of the ways to approach this may be to imagine yourself in the demon's shoes, it's very hard to give depth to someone when you always think of it as very alien.

So take humans, they often have some depth and have cultural differences and personalities, but most of them are OK with killing animals for food. Now if your demons need or really like to eat souls or some such, it puts them in conflict with humans and they would seem pretty evil from our perspective, but they can have a society and belief systems as complex and diverse as we do.

Some demons can be sadistic psychopaths that like to kill things and soul eating is just gravy, some might do it for the thrill of the hunt because their home life is bland and things are getting stressful at the office. Some might be OK with certain humans but just really like those souls. So they can be "evil" but just as complicated and deep as humans

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Expanding upon the idea of giving your villains a backstory here, since I can't comment yet and this may contribute enough to warrant being an "answer" in itself. But if you want to humanize your demons, you could create a world/universe in which demons began as humans and perhaps some even retain looks similar to or with components of their original human form. Angels, for instance, are often portrayed as "beautiful" humans with glowing wings. There's no reason a demon couldn't be human-esque as well, but with attributes that lend themselves visually toward whatever characteristic it is that motivates them. Perhaps their eyes glow in a way so palpable that it openly portrays fury, lust, or greed.

If you start them as a human, and have other characters, perhaps demons willing or bound to work alongside scholars or wizards or whatever you have who can explain their origins. Maybe a demon bound by vengeance was originally a prince or king known to rule with a kind heart. However, upon being trapped and forced to watch a slow but inevitable slaughter and ruin wash over his land as he could do nothing to stop it (a bit cliche but it gets the point across) becomes so compelled with the need to avenge the atrocity that he himself crosses the line, taking it out on anything his now perverted sense of justice defines as "the enemy". You could even have demons who work as "recruiters", intentionally creating these scenarios to raise up new hellspawn.

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The easiest way I have found for this sort of task is to treat people as a gestalt, a structured group whose whole is different from the simple sum of its parts (which is not a difficult reach). This points out that once you're inside their "mind," it isn't homogenous. You don't need to have a uniform perfusion of perversity tainting their mind; you can have regions.

From there, I find it effective to think of the mind in terms of an inside and an outside. On the outside, there is a need to respond quickly to constantly changing situations. Reflexes sit on the outside. As you move towards the center, you get a more and more complete situational image because you can take the time to process more of the information. However, you also get a more abstract image because you simply don't have the bandwidth to soak up every single sensory neuron's data and forward it (it'd drive you insane).

So we have a archetypal "mind:" a region of fast-reacting reflexes on the outside which don't have a full view of the world, but they truly understand their little corner of it. In the middle regions, you have slower-reacting thought processes which take the time to process the entire world with more and more abstraction, feeding that information to the exterior (the sense of "the hairs raising on the back of your neck" would be an example of interior abstract models telling the periphery "you better get extra sensitive, we think the world is really dangerous and we need super-jumpy reflexes").

With this model, we can describe a demon with a negative trait deep in the middle of the abstract region of the mind (which is why the negative trait is usually some abstract concept like "gluttony"). Left unchecked, this negative trait will simply spread, completely consuming them and destroying any shred of humanity. That's the boring case, so let's assume they're not unchecked. Let's let our demon literally do war with its negative trait.

This process would not be simple. If the negative trait gets too close to the "center" of the mind, it would take over the most abstract and most fundamental concepts behind the demon's self, so the demon has to keep the negative trait away from the center. However, if the negative trait manages to get close to the exterior, it gets in a position to physically command the body because it can effectively cast a shadow over those exterior sections, preventing them from benefiting from the wisdom emanating from the central regions. From there, it would be easy to manipulate those small fast-but-not-so-smart regions of the mind to do the negative trait's bidding.

Accordingly, the best the demon can do is to hold their negative trait in a sort of holding pattern between the extremes, trying not to let it control its body, but trying not to lose control of its self by letting the negative trait dive into its center. The negative trait would have to orbit in the middle, seeking ways to poke and prod either in or out.

In effect, the demon now has an internal demon for itself.

Every now and then, the demon would make a mistake, letting the negative trait dive too deep towards the self. The demon would have to rapidly pay attention to this, hardening itself and directing awareness away from the periphery. At this time, the negative trait could easily give up its quest for the center, take substantial control of the body, and wreak havoc before the demon's self can wrestle control back.

This should be enough of a model to answer your questions, so lets address them in order

I also want several polar groups representing different fears like rejection, lack of control, being chased etc, but is that contradictory to depth, would they have a mixture with more dominant dispositions complimented by weaker flaws or a harmony of flaws?

I think any individual, demon or not, facing a great flaw, would develop an inherent natural set of lesser flaws to help it out. A real life example would be the poor father with no self control developing a drinking problem to try to drown his sorrows.

Edit #1: If you have characters founded on extremely negative traits how do you humanize them?

Show the struggle. Self awareness of one's negative traits and the effort to overcome them shows humanity, even in the worst. The TV show Scandal had an excellent example of this in the form of a character that had gotten addicted to torturing people, and was basically putting himself through the worst 12 step program any human could ever deal with. In one horrible moment, where he had to return to torture, his words were something to the sense of "I don't want to torture you. I fear I would enjoy it too much, and I have spent too long try to get away from that black abyss. However, this is very important. You are going to have to learn a lesson. So, I will enjoy it, as best as I can. I am sorry"

Edit #2: Can characters have depth if their flaws revolve around a single extreme negative trait, like jealousy or greed? Or does there need to be a mixture?

As long as the negative trait is not in a boring holding pattern, there's plenty of room for depth as we watch the parries and ripostes in the demon's character as it tries to grapple with the negative trait for good. Consider that, in Chinese mythos, yin and yang are only two forces, and yet their interplay is support to bring forth all the excitement and color of the world.

Edit #3: Is it plausible for a community to be driven in unison by a singular internal negative trait?

Yes. The model given was for an individual person, but you can make almost exactly the same model for that of a group, as long as they interact enough to form reciprocity relationships. A negative trait hitting that greater group could easily place itself in a position to "settle" into the individuals all in unison.

For example, imagine if there is a village that is always angry, how do they coexist with each other? If that's possible, could they coexist with other villages that are always envious, greedy or lustful?

How to coexist is an open ended question. However, if I may point to ideas, Bruce Banner is "always angry," and that is how he makes sure he can coexist. I'd also point out that many religions provide a path to trying to overcome vices, and they usually start by ensuring members of the religion can coexist. I'd point towards Buddhism, because it seems to be the most direct approach that works this way, but I would not discount any other religion's solution, because they all provide this support to their worshipers.

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The key to humanizing villains is a justifiable motivation. Yes, they are doing lots of evil things, but they are doing them for a reason.

  1. They need to do it to survive
  2. They are doing it for the greater good

For 1): Demons could have a biological need to kill mortals. When they don't drink the blood of a mortal every few weeks, they die themselves (blood of a virgin gets them going a few months). Torturing the victims to death makes them a lot more nutritious. Some demons might have moral qualms about killing, but they realize that they must do it to survive. By killing people in very gruesome ways, they actually save lives, because it means they need to kill fewer people.

Demons with other shticks than violence might work similar. A succubus/incubus might need sex to survive. A trickster might get nutrition from people believing in lies.

For 2): Demons might have some agenda which requires them to commit acts perceived as "evil" but which are actually for the greater good.

Maybe they are darwinists who believe that by killing the weak they make the mortal civilization stronger in the long term thus serving it overall.

Or they have clairvoyant powers and know that some innocent people must die to prevent much worse developments in the future. The demons killing sprees might seem arbitrary because their victims do not appear to be particularly good or bad people and do not appear to be obviously involved in something important. But they are always planned. The people they kill need to die because it's the only way to prevent bad stuff from happening, sometimes several generations in the future. But people without the ability to see the future can not understand that.

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A good way to think about this is to consider where demons come from and I can see two ways that you can give them understandable personality traits that might help them become more interesting characters.

Demons are punished souls

People who have lived a particular way are judged either by the deities of a particular religion or attract the attention of some powerful malevolent being. They are seized ( perhaps in the afterlife, but not necessarily ) and changed, stretching and warping the characteristic that drew attention to them in the first place, their bodies are changed and their minds reshaped, but only in that single way- in all other respects they retain their humanity and may even try to mitigate the impact of their demonic impulses in other directions. This is part of their punishment - they know what they are doing is wrong, but they are unable to resist it.

Demons are possessors

In this situation a "demon" is actually a person possessed by a shard of demonic mind which attaches to them through a kind of magical parasitism and drives them towards depraved acts of whatever kind this type of demon is particularly attracted to. This actually creates some very interesting opportunities- consider the tabletop game Better Angels for some examples - because the character is entirely human and yet subject to demonic whim.

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Something that I discovered a while back was that things in this world that are good are good because there are other bad things to compare them to. For instance, there was an episode of the Twilight Zone in which a man gets to the afterlife and is told he can have anything he wants. He soon realizes that all his favorite games are no fun when he always wins, and people aren't nearly as interesting if they always agree. He complains that heaven really isn't all that enjoyable, at which point his guide informs him that he is not in heaven.

The point here is that sometimes, bad things have to happen in order for good things to happen. You have to be hungry to eat a good meal, and you have to be tired to enjoy a nap. One could take this to the extreme and say that people need to be tortured, tormented, and even killed in order for the survivors to be happy. I've been wondering if we're getting close to the point where the Holocaust was worth it, given all the times people have decided against doing things because it made them look like Hitler (not to mention all the jokes people have made, but I don't feel comfortable trading human lives for laughs).

This philosophy, that one must take the good with the bad, brings to mind the endless battle between angels and demons, the embodiments of the aforementioned good and evil. One might say that in the Garden of Eden (or whatever idyllic creation myth you prefer), humans could never be happy, because they were never sad. Furthermore, without being sad, they never had any desire to better themselves, and remained in ignorance. Thus, Satan and his demons decided to infect the earth with all the bad things they could come up with. As a result, early humans suffered, but in their suffering they began to think, and scheme, and invent, and devise new ways to alleviate their suffering. As humans developed, and evolved, and moved ever closer to the stars, the demons redoubled their efforts, and those who were able to triumph over them found even greater happiness. And with every new torment, humans became ever stronger, and more beautiful.

This is your motivation to the demons. They want humans to be happy and live up to their infinite potential, but they know the only way that's possible is to make them sad, and hurt them, and try to hold them back. They also know that the angels will only ever 'help' the humans, which leads to shallow, useless hedonism. Strangely enough, a lot of 'sinful' behavior leads to some form of shallow pleasure, so demons may actually target these 'sinners'.

While this may explain why your demons exist and why they act as they do, it leaves the door wide open for why they do it and how they feel about it. If a demon is the embodiment of anger and is always angry, they will definitely be thinking about that anger, and could have any number of secondary emotions about it (shame, fear, sadness, confusion, and more anger, to name a few). As to how other demons treat them, I'm sure they'll all have developed thick skins by living together. Thus, their interactions may seem brutal and vulgar to us, but to demons it'll just be business as usual. I imagine there will be a lot of introspection, as demons will have to face their fears and shortcomings every time they speak to one another.

This also raises the question of choice: I've always thought it interesting that God can see the future, because if that's the case then he knows what he's going to do, and thus has no free will. If demons are the same, and can't really change the way they are or the job they have to do, that could be kinda sad (and a great reason to be jealous of humans, who, by most accounts, do have free will). On the other hand, if a demon chooses their life and work, I imagine a lot of demons would struggle with it; just look at war/action movies, where a soldier knows killing the enemy can save lives, but still wishes he didn't have to do it. Some demons may even switch sides, or quit their jobs in order to protect humans they've grown fond of. Of course, there may actually be 'bad' demons, who hurt people not because it's their job, but because they like to. There's a lot of options here.

Bottom line, it's a tough job, but someone's got to do it. It may not look like it, but it's for the greater good (or is it???). That's something people can relate to, and I think it's a perfectly acceptable counter-argument to the good-evil binary.

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