Urban Fantasy Archetypes: Angels, Demons, and the Fairy World

This blog is the sixth installment of examining the changing meaning of story tropes in urban fantasy.

The polar relationship between good and evil exists in some embodiment in all cultures. For Western cultures, that symbology takes the form of angels and demons. It also shows up in the traditional fantasy world as the Seelie and Unseelie fae. No matter what you call them, these groups of opposites represent the light and darkness, evil or holiness, and even blessed and cursed.

Although these story tropes have extremely different backgrounds and abilities, they feature a number of similarities as well. In both ancient and modern literature, each type often has less than positive relationships with humans. Both are more powerful than humans are by using their magical (or miraculous) powers. They also have specific ranks of authority within their own hierarchy. In addition, the polarity comes out as physical attributes as well. Angels look ethereally beautiful while demons appear distorted and ugly. The similar characteristics apply to the Seelie and Unseelie members, also often referred to as Light and Dark fae. These long-living creatures are either beautiful nature-oriented creatures or animals of mud and blood.

Modern Use and Interpretation

In urban fantasy, these characters emerge from the shadows to become major factors in the plots. In some stories such as Laurell Hamilton’s Merry Gentry books or Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, the Fairy Courts exist as part of the world but maintain their separateness from humanity. Their culture differs and often works at odds with human sensibilities. In the Merry Gentry tales, the courts stay separate from urban America and feature with royalty-sanctioned duels and political intrigue. Yet the main character and her fae entourage interact with human society.

In Patricia Briggs’ world, the fae live on reservations for their own protection from a potentially hostile human world. However, the protection goes both ways since humans wandering into the reservations are often in danger from the more violent or powerful fairies as well. These are not kind pixies or gentle females wearing gossamer fabrics. Brigg’s otherworld characters often evolved from powerful and bloody pasts.

In the same literary vein, angels and demons now take a more direct hand in the affairs of man or in some stories, have declared war on them. Religion often provides the motive for strife but God no longer pays attention. TV has spawned several shows that take on this theme, including the later seasons of Supernatural and some movies such as Legion. Of course, a number of lighter movies still come out about angels helping people, including Michael. I don’t mention any books here because, although I’ve seen them on the shelf in the bookstores, I’ve not read them. If you know of some good titles, please send them my way.

In both of these story tropes, laws and a hierarchy of society rigidly define the character archetypes. Angels have layers of power while a monarchy governs the Fae. In that sense, they are extremely similar to historical societies of the Middle Ages or dynasties that man has created in the past.

Interpreting the Modern Polar Relationship

The changing nature of angels and demons/good and bad fae represents several factors. First, they morphed from structured and law-oriented to a more free society and chaotic nature. Physics tells us that the nature of everything moves from order to chaos. One could even say these character archetypes symbolize the capriciousness of nature since we are now dealing with more violent storms, emerging disease, and loss of biological diversity. The fae particularly represent nature. In those terms, man’s destruction of the environment is the evolution into chaos.

This idea is particularly true when you consider many of the angel-oriented material features storylines about the coming apocalypse or surviving after civilization ends. Normally steeped deeply in religious dogma, the angel-related symbols are changing. They no longer represent simply untouchable holiness and all things good. In addition, demons might actually provide positive acts once in a while. In many stories, these characters blur the lines of morality. Sometimes the ends justify the means or heaven’s members have lost its leader and therefore are avenging themselves on humans.

How much are we as readers going along with this change because moral standards are cloudy? How often do we cheer on the anti-hero who appears to do bad things for a greater good? Could it be that a portion of society has simply fallen away from blind faith as ascribed by older orthodox religious doctrine? For many, unquestioning belief in our grandparents’ religion is not enough to deal with all the issues of today’s world. This change in our society comes out in the television, movies, and books of the time.

Some urban fantasy writers also show the fairy courts without the extreme polarization. Evil happens for its own reasons in the Seelie court, which ultimately is not better or worse than the Unseelie, only different. This is certainly true in the Merry Gentry stories and the Dresden tales.

In addition, the fae often represent the illusion of beauty. Not just a sense of great bodies and lovely faces but that high perfection only achievable through Photoshop trickery. However, often the beauty is a lie for the unbridled power or corruption that simmers internally. In modern tales, such as Jim Butcher’s Dresden books, these creatures use the illusion in order to trap others to their will. Many of the authors also focus on how alien the fae are as compared to humans. This difference in thought and culture often leads to strife between people and other-worlders. The same kind of thinking shows up between Westerners and Eastern thought or even, for example, Christians and Muslims.

Writing about These Archetypes

In a sense, writing about these polar pairings can be either easier or harder for most authors. On one hand, fairy lore comes with a long history and set characters, making it harder to meld a story that fits that universe. Others take a character out of established lore and expand on it, adding original history and motivation factors. Thus, the archetype presents an opportunity to add to the ongoing characteristics of these beings.

Yet some writers ignore this and make their own world and rules, which is easier on the creation level. Terry Pratchett did not feature fairies in his multiple works of Disc World except in Lords and Ladies, which included powerful and (from a human perspective) evil elves. Since his unique universe was already well established, he did not worry about any past mythos for his new creatures. The example still holds since Pratchett’s world pokes a satirical finger at our own society.

The same is true terms of angels and demons. If a person searches deep enough, particularly in religious texts, they can find angelic hierarchies, history, and myths. How much the writer wants to bring these out is the question. Certainly sticking with set religious ideas works for most end-of-days scenarios.

In conclusion, the opposite aspect of theses societies is what makes them great fodder for fiction writing. As the author, you can decide how to form the rules of their existence or break them completely to create a chaotic environment. However, make sure you don’t violate the rules of your world once you’ve set them up. After all, no one really likes a deus ex machina ending.

As ever, happy writing!

Urban Fantasy Archetypes: Zombies

This blog is the fifth installment of examining the changing meaning of story tropes in urban fantasy.

Made popular in movies, the walking dead archetype is a more recent invention as compared to other popular characters. Ghost stories are ancient and vampire tales date back to the Middle Ages, if not older. However, the idea of zombies emerged in the 1800s, with the first mention of the word occurs in 1819 in a book on the history of Brazil. In addition, spooks and the fang-and-hairy groups have their roots in various legends and myths whose origins are lost over time, while zombies come from a specific origin that is based first in Africa religions and then later in Haitian voodou.

By being rooted in a specific culture, this form of undead takes on a higher sense of realness than other urban fantasy story tropes. In fact, you can find stories on the Internet of people who swear they were cursed and eventually cured of being a zombie. Although it is true you can also find stories of people who have seen ghosts, no one has yet to produce a first person account about a ghost coming back to tell of their afterlife experiences. This difference puts ghosts on the very edge of belief while Haitian zombies have more concrete overtones in today’s world.

How to Make a Zombie: Reality and Fiction

This sense of reality makes the zombie genre significantly different from the other archetypes. In Haitian lore, the undead person is under the control of a voodou “witch” referred to as boker. This evil witch uses ritual magic combined with a mixture of chemicals, including psychoactive drugs, to make the victim ill and appear dead. After a few weeks, the afflicted individual reappears among the villagers but the personality is gone. The result is a shambling, mindless body that can perform minimal tasks but lacks any violent intent.

A few stories and movies, such as The Serpent and the Rainbow, feature the culture of Haitian voodou as the focal point of their undead tale. For most, however, Haiti is a little too far away and alien to the average American audience. The fear factor is elevated if the story takes place in a comfortable environment such as the small middle-class setting in George Romero’s famous film, Night of the Living Dead. Therefore, writers came up with new ways to create these shambling monsters in a more normal setting, such as reading spells from a necromancy book, being exposed to radioactive contamination, or creating a terrible disease.

Cinema zombies also wanted to eat flesh, which is another change from the accepted “reality.” After all, a scary looking person staring at you is not as frightening as one wanting to claw you to pieces. The “real” zombie fear in terms of Haitian culture lays in being buried alive or having lost your soul or willpower. The fictional horror is in monsters eating you while you are still alive.

Modern Walkers

The classic cinema brain-muncher archetype got its famous start from Night of the Living Dead, although a few other films on the topic predate this one. Romero showed the zombies, which theoretically came to life due to radioactive contamination, as having a slow, steady shambling gait. Their sheer numbers and mindless tenacity is what made these creatures terrifying. In that regard, they were like swarming bees, easy enough to defeat individually but horrifying in large numbers.

Part of the Voodou Exhibit at the Field Museum, Chicago

Part of the Voodou Exhibit at the Field Museum, Chicago

Later zombie films, such as 28 Days Later and World War Z, had the undead develop an almost superhuman speed. Now victims could not run away since the monsters attacked in a blink of the eye. The suddenness of the attack, an effect used in so many films from the Alien franchise to the Final Destination movies, added to the shock value as the audience receives a momentary heart flutter as a visual reaction to the story.

As an example of creative storytelling, Warm Bodies showed the monsters could heal if they fell in love. This cute, original concept offered humor instead of the normal terror. Zombieland also took a comic approach in examining the psychology behind the few survivors. What became important to them in an undead-filled world was trying to find some link back to their old lives. For one character, his motivation involved finding stashes of Twinkies, while another felt she would find safety in an amusement park.

In another unusual approach, Laurell Hamilton’s zombies retained some of their mental abilities in her Anita Blake series. Her main character started as an animator, raising the dead for legal or family reasons. Although the act seems evil on the surface, Blake’s work actually had positive outcomes in Hamilton’s books.

Some of the books or films also showed the creation of the monster changing from less magical methods to more scientific accidents such as a disease. The best representation of this to date is World War Z by Max Brooks. His novel features a discussion of patient zero, the rise of the infection, its symptoms, the world’s cultural reaction, and the ultimate solution for “curing” the plague. One could easily stick “flu” or “cholera” into many of the scenes and see similar outcomes throughout history.

Modern Meanings in the Undead

The old zombie concept involves a form of necromancy, whether aided by science or not. Even the Haitian types of undead are frightening because they represent a loss of self-identity and control. The concept of being brain dead while the body lives on is horrible enough but the modern zombie adds in the sense of changing from passive victim to attacking monster.

A Lucifer Mirror. Part of the Voodou Exhibit at the Field Museum, Chicago

A Lucifer Mirror. Part of the Voodou Exhibit at the Field Museum, Chicago

Thus, World War Z is strangely realistic and successful in that it capitalizes on our fear of disease. We live in a world of AIDs and Ebola as well as almost yearly threats of the next flu pandemic. Although modern medicine, such as penicillin and anti-virals, give us a sense of power over infection, we are also aware that the “monster” is changing, evolving past our current means of stopping it. Many of the “cured” diseases of the past are returning and being harder to kill, such as MRSA or antibiotic-resistant STDs. Death may be the final result, but in the meantime, the victim suffers weakness, loss of physical control, and the ability to think clearly.

The loss of self-identity has become more of a fearsome issue. As the population gets older, more people are facing the curses of dementia and Alzheimer’s, while younger folks must work with their sick loved ones. These diseases “eat” at the brain, changing the personality and intelligence until the patient becomes an unrecognizable and unresponsive individual. These degenerative maladies are also nonspecific attackers, relentless in their approach and nearly unstoppable.

The real fear of becoming a zombie is not that you will attack your friends, at least not physically. You are afraid that your mind will no longer recognize reality anymore. Anyone who has served as a caretaker to people with dementia are quick to say “that’s not my (fill in the blank) anymore.” The personality changes from vitality to passiveness and happiness to anger. Eventually the person becomes an emotionally and mentally detached individual, sitting in a bed with or a wheelchair with vacant eyes, waiting to die. The difference is so dramatic as to make the victim seem like the walking dead.

Braaaiiinnnsss! What Does Your Undead Say to You?

So what can you do to make your zombie story different and more original? Consider changing the origin of the disease, like Brooks did, or focusing on the animator as seen in the Hamilton books. Think about the biology and physics of zombies. After all, a “dead body” feels no pain so your monster can take a lot of damage and still go on. They could strain muscles and break bones while trying to accomplish some great feat. You can have them retain some of their quirky personalities, making them less controllable. For instance, what if a zombie character wanted the Twinkies instead of the survivor?

As with any story trope, the trick to great writing is keeping enough of the current views of the walking dead to make a story the audience can believe in while adding subtle changes to make your version unique. In building this world, you must have some idea of the origin of your monster, how the contamination spreads, how the monster works, and if there is a final solution or cure. Remember that most people want to see some kind of hope for survival. I won’t tell you not to write a no-win situation, but I find those stories are much harder to get published.

Whatever shape your world takes, have fun with it and the monsters that roam around.

And as always, happy writing!